Greg Maddux has a full plate. Boy, does he.
No major league pitcher has a plate that full. Maybe no pitcher ever.
"This is the way I see it," San Diego Padre hitting instructor Merv Rettenmund was saying about the Atlanta Braves' ace.
"We talk about successful pitchers using the inside inch of the plate and the outside inch and forgetting about the middle 15," Rettenmund said.
"Maddux refines that. He uses a half inch inside and a half inch outside and forgets the middle 16.
"You may find guys with a better fastball or breaking ball, but when it comes to location, movement and pitch selection, he's the best I've seen.
"I mean, he gets guys out like Jim Palmer did--without sweating."
"Hitting against Greg Maddux reminds me of a Nintendo game that you can never finish before it crashes down on you," Colorado right fielder Larry Walker said. "He leaves you looking and feeling stupid.
"People like to say he's not that intimidating, that he doesn't have a fastball like Randy Johnson or his curve doesn't break like someone else's, but he's intimidating and dominating in the same sense because he has such control and movement, and he changes speeds so well.
"You can't outguess him. It's as if the mound is his castle and we're strictly visitors in his world."
In a time of expansion-diluted pitching and inflated earned-run averages, Maddux is in a world of his own.
He approaches the playoffs with a 19-2 record and 21 consecutive scoreless innings, but that's only the start.
His statistics are straight out of the dead ball era, but he is throwing what many believe to be a juiced ball off a mound five inches lower than that of the 1960s and earlier.
Said Dodger pitching coach Dave Wallace: "Sandy Koufax was the best pitcher I ever saw, but I have to believe that Maddux ranks with any of the great pitchers you can name."
Comparisons aren't what Maddux is about, but this is how good he is, how good he has been.
"There were very few nights when I had trouble putting pitches where I wanted them this year," Maddux said the other day. "Of course, when you have the caliber of players behind you that we do, it makes it look easy."
Said Brave pitching coach Leo Mazzone: "What we've seen in a period of about 900 innings over the last four years is some of the greatest pitching ever."
Who can argue?
--Already the winner of an unprecedented three consecutive Cy Young awards and about to make it four, Maddux is the first pitcher since Walter Johnson in 1918-19 to have earned-run averages of less than 1.80 in consecutive seasons.
--It was 1.63 this year and 1.56 last year, when the National League average was 4.21, the differential between his ERA and that average being the largest in modern history. The 1995 average going into the final day of the season was 4.17, meaning Maddux almost broke his own record.
--He has led the league in ERA for three consecutive years, his 1.56 of 1994 being the third-best since 1919. The last pitcher to lead his league in ERAs for three consecutive years was Roger Clemens, starting in 1990. The last to do it in the National League was Koufax, who began a five-year run in 1962.
In addition, the 29-year-old right-hander has not forgotten how to win. He is 150-93 in his career and 75-29 over the last four years, a span in which he has pitched home games in the hitter havens of Wrigley Field and Fulton County Stadium.
His .905 winning percentage this year is the highest ever for a pitcher with 20 or more decisions, and he has won 18 consecutive road decisions, a major league record, dating from July 2, 1994. His ERA in that 20-game span in which he is 18-0: an almost incomprehensible 0.99.
This year, he led the league in victories, ERA, complete games (10, for the second year in a row), percentage and fewest walks per nine innings: one. He also pitched 200 or more innings for the eighth consecutive year and was third in strikeouts while restricting opposing hitters to a .197 average, second to Hideo Nomo's .182.
His best year?
"I'd be lying if I told you I wasn't happy with it," Maddux said.
Better than the strike-abbreviated 1994?
"I'm not sure," Maddux said. "Last year never ended for me. It just stopped. But this year's record is pretty good in anybody's book.
"I'm very happy with the complete games. It shows more than anything I was consistent."
Said Manager Bobby Cox: "I'm out of adjectives when it comes to Mr. Maddux. We're all spoiled. He's been so good for so long that we think he should never lose a game. It's human nature."
How does he do it? How does a guy barely 6 feet and 175 pounds, who wears glasses off the field and seldom registers more than 85 m.p.h. with his fastball and who was mistaken for the batboy by then-Manager Gene Michael when he first joined the Cubs, dominate hitters so easily?
"I could probably throw harder," Maddux said, "but what's the point? It's all about timing. It's all about outguessing the hitter and messing up his timing. You need to change speeds and locate the fastball."
It's said in baseball that good pitchers are able to reach back and put something extra on the ball. Maddux simply locates better. Surgically moves his spots an inch or two.
"I once asked him what his secret was," San Francisco Giant Manager Dusty Baker said. "He said it was the ability to throw the near strike. If you take it and the umpire gives it to him, you're behind. If you swing at it, it's a low-percentage pitch to hit.
"He has an arsenal of pitches--fastball, sinker, slider, outstanding change-up--and he can change speeds with all of them, expanding the arsenal. He's one of the few right-handers who can run his fastball in on a left-hander, then bring it back over the corner. Plus, he never appears bothered by a tough situation and it's very difficult to hit the ball out against him or bunt against him because of the movement and because he fields his position so well [Maddux has won five consecutive Gold Gloves]. He's in the same mold as Koufax."
He is also a student of hitting. Maddux doesn't watch videotapes of himself pitching, but spends hours dissecting hitters on tape, looking for subtle changes in hand movement, foot positioning, weaknesses he can exploit. Said Mazzone: "The best way to put it is that he studies during the four days in between starts, then teaches on the fifth."
Atlanta teammates insist that Maddux can sit in the dugout and predict that the hitter is going to foul the next pitch their way, which the hitter invariably does. Maddux filters information, stores it in some secret corner of his brain and calls on it the next time he faces that hitter or draws a card at the blackjack or poker tables near his Las Vegas home.
"You remember when a guy looks bad on a certain pitch," he said. "You save it for when you need it again. Maybe it's late in the game with runners on base. Maybe it's the next time you face the team. Maybe it's two years down the line. I go into every game with a plan. If I execute it and it works, I tend to feel I've won, no matter what the score is."
Most of what Maddux is came naturally. Playing catch with his dad every afternoon in the back yard. Inheriting subtleties, perhaps, from his brother Mike, who is five years older and also a major league pitcher. The only real change came when a retired major league scout named Rusty Medar recommended that Maddux, then 16, alter his delivery from straight overhand to three-quarters and change his fastball grip to create more movement and velocity.
The key, Maddux now says, is mechanics, which he equates to his passion for golf. Pitch selection and delivery. Club selection and swing.
"You may make the wrong pitch selection or club selection at times, but if your mechanics are good, you can still be successful," he said.
Maddux claims a seven handicap in golf, but teammates smirk at that and say he is closer to scratch. There is this about him: His competitiveness, agent Scott Boras said, is almost "animalistic," whether it's pitching, golf, cards, Nintendo or matching wits watching "Jeopardy" or playing trivia games.
He is said to prefer quiet nights watching rented videos with his wife, Kathy, and playing with their daughter, Amanda.
"As well as I think I know Greg, there's a part of him I don't, and I think he prefers it that way," teammate John Smoltz said. "He has an innate way of deflecting attention and pressure. I think he figures that if you don't know where he's coming from, he's got you."
The portrait is definitely low profile. Maddux doesn't come with the baggage of a big ego. He felt the Cubs had dallied in making a contract offer in 1992 and chose the Braves over the New York Yankees because he didn't want the media microscope of New York, didn't want to have to learn a whole league of new hitters and because the Braves didn't put restrictions on golf or junk food in the clubhouse.
He also knew the Braves were on the verge of a breakthrough and wanted to be part of it. He's more than that, of course, but doesn't understand the big deal.
"It's kind of strange," Maddux said. "When you're pitching well, everybody suddenly portrays you as a better card player, better golfer and someone who is now nicer to kids. I'd like to think I'm the same person I've always been."
He seems to be that, but who can tell? Who can remember when he hasn't pitched well?
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Winding Up With the Best
How Atlanta pitcher Greg Maddux's past four seasons compare with the best four consecutive seasons of all-time great pitchers:
Pitcher (Year) W-L IP BB* SO* ERA Walter Johnson (1912-15) 124-50 1423 1/3 1.5 6.2 1.45 Grover Alexander (1914-17) 121-50 1508 1/3 1.5 4.9 1.74 Sandy Koufax (1963-66) 97-27 1192 2/3 2.0 9.3 1.86 Greg Maddux (1992-95) 75-29 946 2/3 1.6 7.0 1.98 Christy Mathewson (1903-06) 116-46 1339 1/3 2.1 5.5 2.14 Jack Chesbro (1901-04) 111-43 1353 1/3 1.8 4.3 2.29 Juan Marichal (1963-66) 93-35 1193 1.5 6.9 2.31 Bob Gibson (1968-71) 81-42 1158 2.5 7.7 2.37 Carl Hubbell (1933-36) 93-42 1228 1.4 4.0 2.39 Tom Seaver (1969-72) 84-41 1112 2.5 8.3 2.43
*--per nine innings
Researched by HOUSTON MITCHELL / Los Angeles Times
The Greg Maddux Award?
A look at Greg Maddux's 1995 season:
W-L ERA IP H R ER BB SO HR 19-2 1.63 209 2/3 147 39 38 23 181 8
Before All-Star game:
W-L ERA IP H R ER BB SO HR 8-1 1.64 104 1/3 73 20 19 8 86 4
After All-Star game:
W-L ERA IP H R ER BB SO HR 11-1 1.62 105 1/3 74 19 19 15 95 4
* Maddux has pitched 182 scoreless innings this season, and given up only one earned run in 21 others.
* If Maddux had to make one more start, he could give up 21 earned runs without retiring a batter and still win the ERA title.
* Batters hit .157 with runners in scoring position against Maddux this season (20 for 127).
--Researched by HOUSTON MITCHELL / Los Angeles Times