Pitcher Greg Maddux, fellow Atlanta rotation member Tom Glavine, and slugger Frank Thomas were voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. Maddux won 355 games over a 23 year career. How did he do that? A rocket-fueled fastball? An over-arching curve ball? Not really. Maddux tells his pitching secret to Pulitzer-prize-winning sportswriter Tom Boswell, after the jump.
Maddux was convinced no hitter could tell the speed of a pitch with any meaningful accuracy. To demonstrate, he pointed at a road a quarter-mile away and said it was impossible to tell if a car was going 55, 65 or 75 mph unless there was another car nearby to offer a point of reference.
“You just can’t do it,” he said. Sometimes hitters can pick up differences in spin. They can identify pitches if there are different releases points or if a curveball starts with an upward hump as it leaves the pitcher’s hand. But if a pitcher can change speeds, every hitter is helpless, limited by human vision.
“Except,” Maddux said, “for that [expletive] Tony Gwynn.”
Because of this inherent ineradicable flaw in hitters, Maddux’s main goal was to “make all of my pitches look like a column of milk coming toward home plate.” Every pitch should look as close to every other as possible, all part of that “column of milk.” He honed the same release point, the same look, to all his pitches, so there was less way to know its speed — like fastball 92 mph, slider 84, change-up 76.
One day I sat a dozen feet behind Maddux’s catcher as three Braves pitchers, all in a row, did their throwing sessions side-by-side. Lefty Steve Avery made his catcher’s glove explode with noise from his 95-mph fastball. His curve looked like it broke a foot-and-a-half. He was terrifying. Yet I could barely tell the difference between Greg’s pitches. Was that a slider, a changeup, a two-seam or four-seam fastball? Maddux certainly looked better than most college pitchers, but not much. Nothing was scary.Afterward, I asked him how it went, how he felt, everything except “Is your arm okay?” He picked up the tone. With a cocked grin, like a Mad Dog whose table scrap doesn’t taste quite right, he said, “That’s all I got.”
Then he explained that I couldn’t tell his pitches apart because his goal was late quick break, not big impressive break. The bigger the break, the sooner the ball must start to swerve and the more milliseconds the hitter has to react; the later the break, the less reaction time. Deny the batter as much information — speed or type of last-instant deviation — until it is almost too late.
But not entirely too late: Maddux didn’t want swings and misses for strikeouts, but preferred weak defensive contact and easy outs. He sought pitches that looked hittable and identical — getting the hitter to commit to swing — but weren’t. Any pitch that didn’t conform to this, even if it looked good, was scrapped as inefficient. . . .
One day he pitched alone on an empty field except for his catcher. I’ve never seen a pitcher use an entire empty field for practice. And I have never seen one show much emotion in a supposedly meaningless practice period.
With no one to distract him, Maddux concentrated like an actual game. He might throw a dozen pitches and show nothing. But on the next, if he missed his spot badly, he would rip the air with a curse, his head snapping with the violence of his yell. Always the same word, like a gunshot; perhaps it hurt his throat, like self-punishment. But in a second, he was calm.
The final pitching product was one of the most elegant, intelligent and fierce self-creations in American sports. Maddux left hitters with an “I-am-stupid, kick-me” sign on their backs. He pitched complete games in much less than two hours without ever throwing one eye-popping pitch. Hundreds of pitchers could do it — in theory. No one else ever has.