Dissecting a Master at Work
It is Tuesday, just before dusk at Dodger Stadium.
In the left-field bullpen, Derek Lowe, Giovanni Carrara and rookie Jonathan Broxton have set folding chairs against the far wall, where they sit with their elbows on their knees.
Rick Honeycutt, the pitching coach, stands in the right corner, a pitch counter in his hand. Dan Warthen, the bullpen coach, is at Honeycutt’s left. Bullpen catcher Rob Flippo crosses behind Russell Martin, the night’s starting catcher.
Before them all, 328-game winner Greg Maddux kicks at the dirt in front of the rubber, creating a toehold just to the left of center, nearest what would be the third base side.
He begins from the stretch, working the outside corner against an imaginary right-handed hitter. Gradually working into a full windup, Maddux throws 46 pitches, some he likes, some he doesn’t, but all thrown with purpose.
Admittedly tense for his first L.A. start in a white uniform, Maddux had asked Broxton to please run back to the clubhouse to fetch his game glove, a task Broxton dutifully executed, only to have Maddux discover he’d already been wearing it.
“I can’t believe I did that,” Maddux says later, amused. “Nerves, I guess.”
He is baseball royalty, yet comfortingly casual with teammates, and, like them, vulnerable in places. He feels for pitches as they do, only perhaps finding them more often. His pregame bullpen work is a fluid exercise.
“It’s like going to the [driving] range,” he says. “Sometimes you hit 15, sometimes you hit 50.”
Told his Tuesday night count, he says, “Wow. Forty-six.”
Asked whether that’s a lot, he says, “No. I’m just surprised somebody counted them.”
Maddux’s audience, by the way, is not all that unusual. Earlier in the season, most of the starters watched the day’s pitcher prepare.
“Then we all started struggling,” Lowe says, “so we stopped doing it.”
On his way out of the bullpen, Maddux turns and gives them a thumbs up.
* The opponent: Todd Helton knows Maddux is out there, just beyond batting practice, and doesn’t even glance at the television screen, some three feet wide, running a loop of Maddux throwing strike after strike against the Cincinnati Reds.
Watch video? Browse scouting reports? Check in with the hitting coach?
“Nope,” he says. “What am I going to do, try to outthink the guy?”
In three at-bats against Maddux that night, he’ll wait around for all of seven pitches. Only one is out of the strike zone, that being the single pitch that isn’t on the outside inches of the plate to the left-handed-hitting Helton, and he takes it out of sheer surprise.
Helton came in a .310 hitter against Maddux, and had another hit in three at-bats Tuesday. Stack up enough of those, a guy goes to the Hall of Fame.
“All those hits have probably been dunkers and flares,” he says.
Maybe. Helton has never homered against him.
“He probably knows more about my swing than I do,” he says. “I should ask him for tips.”
He actually likes this, gearing up for a guy such as Maddux.
“It’s good stuff,” he says. “He doesn’t pitch by anybody’s book but his own.”
He recalls a game in Atlanta when then-teammate Vinny Castilla fell into an 0-and-2 death knell to Maddux, only to homer on the next pitch.
“So, I’m amazed,” he says. “I go, ‘Vinny, what are you looking for right there? Oh-and-2 against Greg Maddux?’ He says, ‘A mistake. That’s the only way I’m going to get a hit, off a mistake.’ So, there you go.”
* The reputation: Maddux gives up two runs in six innings to the Colorado Rockies. His fastball arrives anywhere from 80 to 84 mph, and he throws a lot of them. So many, in fact, that when Brett Tomko’s first pitch of the seventh inning registers at 81 mph, the scoreboard announces it as a fastball, maybe out of habit. Tomko could throw 81 left-handed.
But, for Maddux, it’s about location, and movement, and finding the thin parts of bats.
Ask some guys, and it’s also about the ball.
Over two decades, more than one hitter has wondered how a pitcher with such small hands can move a baseball across a strike zone that way.
As one veteran baseball man observed last week, the general belief is that Maddux does no doctoring but knows how to work a ball that comes to him scuffed or nicked.
So it was noted by a Rockies coach that Martin bounced his throws to second base after Maddux’s final warmup pitches before each inning.
He assumed, with a grin, the young catcher hadn’t suddenly lost his arm strength.
* The professor: In his first go-round in Chicago, Maddux was a Cub from the second round of the 1984 draft through the first of his four consecutive Cy Young awards, in 1992.
Ned Colletti worked in the Cubs’ front office during those years. As part of his duties, he would distribute scouting reports to the players, including detailed printouts for each pitcher, chronicling years of results against opposing hitters.
The report Colletti handed to Maddux was for the New York Mets. After a few minutes, Maddux called Colletti over.
He pointed to a 3-and-2 fastball with which he was supposed to have struck out Howard Johnson, a year and a half before.
“Could you look this up on video?” Maddux asked. “I don’t remember throwing that pitch to him.”
Some 15 years later, Colletti sat in the Dodgers’ dugout, having acquired Maddux eight days earlier, and recalled returning to Maddux’s locker with video evidence.
“It was a changeup,” Colletti told him.
* The catcher: In the fifth inning Tuesday, which lasts three Rockies hitters and eight pitches, Martin sets up on the outer half for each of them. Maddux throws six of them on the inner half.
The reasons would be left with the pitcher.
“Really?” he says. “I don’t remember.”
After a pause and a wry grin, he adds, “I can’t tell you that.”
Martin is just following along, trying to keep up.
“He’s done it a lot of times,” he says. “I’ll set up away and he’ll run a fastball up into the hitter’s hands. I’m not sure if he does it purposely or not. I’m sure he does.”