February 29, 2008 4 Comments
Finesse, intelligence, and technical expertise are areas in all walks of life that have always struck my fancy; using words and intellect to navigate oneself towards a positive outcome rather than strength or brute force. Give me Bret “The Hitman” Hart over Steve Austin, George Clooney over Arnold Schwarzenager (except in Junior), and Fox Mulder over Detective Vic Mackey. It should then come as no surprise that my favorite pitcher, the one I have idolized since becoming a fan in 1993 (at the age of eight), is Greg Maddux.
He has been the only individual player I have exclusively followed and would often stay home on a Friday or Saturday night if it meant being able to watch him go to work. Boy was that fun – growing up a Phillies fan with my idol playing for a direct rival.
In a recent interview Greg expressed a sense of certainty, albeit small, that 2008 would mark his final season as a professional baseball player. Upon reading the interview I went into a short-lived state of shock; it was one of those situations where the end was known to be coming soon but it still hits you like a ton of bricks.
Maddux has not been the same insanely dominant pitcher he was in the early-mid nineties, but knowing that he is still in the game, mentoring youngsters with his own brand of theory and strategy, brings with it a sense of comfort; a sense of normalcy; one of the final ties to an era those my age grew up with. The idea that, this time next year, he might not be gearing up to report for spring training is a tough one to swallow.
With the potential for this season being his last I decided to write a four-part series of articles revolving around one of the greatest careers ever had and, with no disrespect meant towards Pedro Martinez, the single greatest pitcher I have ever had the privilege of watching. Part One will focus on his oft-misunderstood usage of personal catchers.
Greg and Javy
Poll numerous fans on the relationship between Greg Maddux and Javy Lopez and the most common response will involve some variation of how the former “didn’t like” the latter. After all, Lopez and Maddux were teammates from 1994-2003 and yet Javy was the starting catcher for just 50 of Greg’s 327 starts in that span. It has been well-documented that Greg preferred not to pitch to Javy but the idea of the two disliking each other really sprouted out of some media speculation and the ever-fun jumping to conclusions (..it’s a mat… and you jump to different conclusions!).
Hal Bodley wrote a great USA Today article on September 19th, 2003, about this very subject. Around that time, Lopez had just served as the starting catcher during a Maddux start for the first time since September 8th, 1998 – a little over five years. Though I will be cherry-picking tidbits from the article, to read it in its entirety, click here.
When asked about not pitching to Lopez, Maddux replied – “It’s nothing personal. I won a Cy Young with Javy. I like throwing to him.”
Wow. What an arrogant snob. He clearly had a distaste for Lopez. I bet all of the skeptics will assert that Greg’s pants caught fire after that statement. He extended his reasoning on not throwing to Javy -
“If a catcher catches 120 games in a season, that’s a lot. So subtract my 35 starts from 162 games. Pitchers don’t like to change catchers during the season, and by Javy not catching my games, Bobby only has to find another ten or twelve games to rest Javy.”
Theoretical personal differences aside, Maddux apparently did this in order to ensure he reached a comfort level with a certain catcher for a large majority of a season and to help Bobby Cox have specific times in which he knew his star catcher could rest. On situations prior to 2003, the breakout year (cough, contract year, cough) of Javy Lopez, Bodley writes -
“In the past, Cox could justify not matching Lopez with Maddux. There wasn’t that much of an offensive drop-off. This year , though, the Braves’ attack is dramatically weakened without Lopez in the lineup.”
Tim McCarver also added that the “controversy” arose because Greg’s personal catchers did not enhance the offense as he did while serving as Steve Carlton’s personal catcher.
The Personal Catchers
Intrigued by McCarver and Bodley’s statements I decided to scan the gamelogs at Baseball Reference in order to compile the offensive statistics of those who served as the starting catcher during games in which Maddux pitched. First, a breakdown of catchers games started during his starts, 1994-2003:
|Charlie O’ Brien||94-95||25|
In case you are noticing how Lopez is said to have caught Maddux for 72 games on the BR-Splits, I am looking at games in which the catchers started. According to the gamelogs Lopez was the starting catcher for Maddux only 50 times. Here are some offensive statistics of these catchers, during games in which they were the starting catcher for Maddux, ranked by OPS:
|Charlie O’ Brien||16-83||3-7||.581|
While Lopez’ numbers outshone the rest, they were still fairly terrible. These same numbers were expected from the others but probably not from him. He retrospectively did not perform that much better than the others during Maddux’ starts. No conclusion can be drawn from this, due to the small sample sizes, but it can be said that Lopez ranked higher than the rest.
Personal Catchers = Better Defense = Better Results?
The common belief is that Maddux figured he would perform better with stronger defensive catchers. Lopez was known more for his stick than his glove and strategy while the others were more along the lines of defensive specialists. Everyone steals bases on Maddux due to his everlasting creed of focusing attention on the batter and not letting the runner serve as a distraction. Due to this he would probably be best-served by someone capable of throwing out a high percentage of baserunners:
|Charlie O’ Brien||6||33||18.2|
As the heading of this segment indicates, the theory is that a defensive-minded catcher will aid a pitcher in making better decisions, therefore producing better results. Here are the OPPONENTS statistics from 1994-2003, by catcher:
|Charlie O’ Brien||.203||.230||.262||53|
Keep in mind that O’ Brien caught Maddux in 1994-95 when even Pizza Cutter could have caught him and produced tremendous results. If the minimum is set to 35 games, the equivalent of one full Maddux season, the results that rank the highest (or lowest, in this case) belong to the battery of Greg and Javy.
Maddux is not an idiot. In fact, he’s probably the smartest (or one of the smartest) players to ever step foot on a professional field. To think he does not know information related to the statistics and tables in this article would be an insult to his intelligence. He had to know that teaming with Javy previously produced great results. According to his quote he felt it would be best for the team if the backup catcher caught all of his games, not because of a distaste for Lopez, but rather for the betterment of his own mindset. Who knows when Lopez may have needed days off? By planning when Javy would receive his rest Maddux was able to know that he needn’t worry who the second half of his battery would be in a given game.
If he says the reason for not using Lopez was entirely born out of strategy, and a way for him to reach a comfort level with a catcher for an entire season, then why doubt him? A man with the nickname “The Professor” clearly knows what he is doing.
Next week, in Part Two, I am going to take a look at his strike-shortened 1994 and 1995 seasons. These had the potential to be two of the greatest seasons ever recorded by a pitcher. Even with the strike they still rank highly but people always love knowing “what if’s” so we will explore those possibilities. Isn’t it funny how the 1994 strike derailed Tony Gwynn’s quest for .400, Matt Williams’ quest for 61+ HR, the Expos quest for first place, and Maddux’s quest for one of the top seasons ever?