Baseball postsWednesday January 08, 2014
My Greg Maddux Story
My sister’s wedding took place in Atlanta in May 1999, and for the bachelor party, an inclusive affair involving both men and women, my brother-in-law Eric rented a luxury suite at Turner Field for an afternoon game between the Braves and the Pirates. Even better? Greg Maddux was starting for the Braves.
By this point in his career Maddux was generally regarded as the best pitcher of his generation. Well, you had Clemens, and then Randy, and Pedro was coming up fast, but throughout the 1990s, almost by himself, stood Maddux: bespectacled, quiet, vaguely quizzical. He looked like a professor out there. He looked like one of us. He just didn’t pitch that way.
How good was he? He led the league in innings pitched five years in a row (1991-1995) and in WHIP and ERA three years in a row (1993-1995). He also won the Cy Young award four years in a row (1992-1995).
His 1995 season was amazing—19-2, 1.65 ERA, 181 strikeouts to 23 walks—but was ’94 better? His strikeout-to-walk ratio wasn’t as good (156-31), neither his won-loss record (16-6), but his ERA was only 1.56.
How good was that? There have been 246 instances of a pitcher with a sub-2.00 ERA season in baseball history but 205 of those came from the deadball era, leaving just 41 such seasons since 1921. The pitching-friendly 1960s alone had 14. Hell, in 1968, seven pitchers had sub-2.00 ERAs, including Bob Gibson at 1.12. The next year, no surprise, the pitching mound was lowered again to give the hitters a chance.
Since then, there have been 19 seasons when a pitcher had a sub-2.00 ERA. And since 1990? Only eight such seasons, with Clemens, Pedro and Maddux with two each.
But none of them was lower than Maddux’s.
That 1.56 ERA? Since the deadball era, only two pitchers have done better: Gibson in ’68 and Dwight Gooden in ’85. But compare their numbers with the league averages:
In 1968, the second-best ERA in the Majors belonged to Luis Tiant at 1.60, nearly a half-run behind Gibson. The year Gooden did what he did, John Tudor had a 1.93 ERA, or 4/10 of a run behind Gooden. And in 1994, the second-best ERA in the Majors belonged to Steve Ontiveros of the A’s, at 2.65: more than a run per game behind Maddux.
How can someone be that much better than everyone else?
I was aware of some of this history, not all of it, that day in late April 1999 when we went to Turner Field. The suite was near home plate, and with several rows into the stadium where you could sit with everyone else and watch the game. You weren’t stuck behind a glass partition. That’s where I was sitting when Greg Maddux came in from the bullpen after his pregame workout. So I did what we always did at the Kingdome when Randy appeared after his pregame workout: I stood and applauded.
I was the only one.
I looked around. The stands were sparse but not that sparse. No one was looking at me, standing up and applauding by my lonesome, but they definitely didn’t join in, either. But I kept doing it. Why not? That’s what you do. I applauded him and his catcher all the way into the dugout.
The Braves won that game, 8-1. It was the only time I ever saw him pitch live.
Today, Maddux was elected to Baseball’s Hall of Fame with 97% of the vote (eighth-best ever), along with his teammate Tom Glavine (91.9%), and the Big Hurt, Frank Thomas (83.7%). All good choices.
Craig Biggio fell just two votes short (74.8%), but he’ll get in next year. Jack Morris, in his 15th and final year, finished with just 61% of the vote. I tend to agree with that one. My man Edgar fell off to only 25% of the vote. I’ll write about that another time.
In the meantime, a final round of applause for one of the great pitchers of the era.
When Hot Dogs > Steroids
“Babe Ruth's home run record stood until 1961, when Roger Maris, also of the Yankees, hit 61, though Maris had the advantage of a longer season, which gave him 10 more games and 50 more at-bats than Ruth in 1927. In the 1990s, many baseball players suddenly became immensely strong—some evolved whole new body shapes—and began to smack home runs in quantities that made a mockery of Ruth's and Maris' numbers. It turned out that a great many of this new generation of ballplayers—soemthing in the region of 5 to 7 percent, according to random drug tests introduced, very belatedly, in 2003—were taking anabolic steroids.
”The use of drugs as an aid to hitting is far beyond the scope of this book, so let us just note in passing that even with the benefit of steroids most modern players still couldn't hit as many home runs as Babe Ruth hit on hot dogs.“
-- Bill Bryson, ”One Summer: America, 1927,“ which focuses not only on the achievements of Babe Ruth but Charles Lindbergh, as well as the executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, the introduction of talking motion pictures, the rise of Al Capone and the fall of Jack Dempsey as well as the height of something called ”negative eugenics." It's much, much recommended.
Quote of the Day
“Congratulations. I'm glad a real hitter broke it. Keep going.”
-- The 10-word telegram George Sisler sent to Joe DiMaggio on June 29, 1941, the day DiMaggio, in a double-header against the Washington Senators at Griffith Stadium, passed Sisler's modern-day record of hitting in 41 consecutive games. As recounted on pg. 223 of Kostya Kennedy's book, “56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports.” DiMaggio infamously had his bat stolen between games.
Modern Ballplayer Reactions to Joe DiMaggio's 56-Game Hitting Streak
A few thoughts from modern ballplayers on Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in 1941, culled from Kostya Kennedy's book, “56: Joe DiMaggio and the Last Magic Number in Sports,” pp. 187-88, which I've been enjoying during lunch:
“How big of a deal is DiMaggio's streak? Ryan Zimmerman got halfway there and it was on the front page of every sports section and led every sports highlight show. He was halfway. Halfway! Think about that.”
-- David Wright
“Get a hit for two straight months? It's hard to get a hit for two straight days.”
-- Derek Jeter
“That's one of those Bugs Bunny numbers. People do that in cartoons, not in real life.”
-- Ken Griffey, Jr.
“I'm not someone who follows that. Now someone who follows that, they would know [what the hitting streak record is]. But anyway, what is the hitting streak record? [Long pause after being told.] Man, that is a frickin' long hitting streak.”
-- Gary Sheffield
Who is the Team of the Century?
I was thinking about this during the postseason, which didn't include the New York Yankees, and which included a World Series between two teams with two titles so far this century: the Boston Red Sox and the St. Louis Cardinals. I thought whoever won this year would be our team of the century. So far.
Then I thought I'd crunch the numbers first.
This is what you get in terms of post-season appearances, LCSes, pennants, and World Series titles. It's organized by post-season appearances. Caveat: I didn't include the loser of the new one-game wild card playoffs, which, technically, is the post-season, but doesn't fit readily into this format. I also included the year 2000. Arguments on that issue can take place elsewhere, please:
|New York Yankees||12||7||4||2|
|St. Louis Cardinals||10||8||4||2|
|Boston Red Sox||7||5||3||3|
|Los Angeles Angels||6||3||1||1|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||5||3|
|San Francisco Giants||5||3||3||2|
|Tampa Bay Rays||4||1||1|
|Chicago White Sox||3||1||1||1|
|New York Mets||2||2||1|
|San Diego Padres||2|
|Kansas City Royals|
|Toronto Blue Jays|
The Yankees have appeared in the most post-seasons, 12 of the 14, and are tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the most pennants: four.
The Cardinals, though, have been in the most LCSes: 8. That was a surprise for me. I forgot how many times they kept showing up.
But if it's all about rings—and what Yankees fan worth his salt wouldn't say it's all about rings?—then the century thus far belongs to the Boston Red Sox, who began the century as famous, operatic losers until their glorious comeback in the 2004 ALCS jumpstarted a new tradition.
A follow-up: So who is the biggest loser of the 21st century? Both Toronto and KC haven't even been to the postseason—Toronto tough division, KC idiot management—while a few others have made it only once. One of those, the then-Florida Marlins, actually went all the way in 2003, but they're an outlier.
The team with the most post-season appearances and no LCS? Tied between the Reds and the Padres with two each.
How about the team with the most LCS appearances but no pennant? That would be the Dodgers with 3. The Mariners are second with 2.
But look at the Braves up there: Eight postseasons, just one LCS and no pennant. They have the most post-season appearances without a pennant. Yet this organization is now planning on moving its home ballpark from downtown Atlanta (55% white) to Cobb County (66% white) for the start of the 2017 season. “We’ve played in our current facility for quite some time," said John Schuerholz, the Braves’ president. By which he means since 1997. So 20 years is apparently the shelf-life of baseball stadiums today. I'm sure the Mariners organization is taking note.
So are the Braves the biggest losers of the 21st century? Certainly in the post-season. Plus now they're being dicks. But at least it's a smart organization. If I added regular-season futitlity to this chart, I'm sure the prize of worst team of the century would go to Kansas City. But watch out, Royals! The Mariners are right on your back.
For Yankees fans, the 21st century has been about the Curse of Big Papi.