30 years ago, Maddux got his 1st 'Maddux'

April 29th, 2020

On this day 30 years ago, first pulled off the feat that would come to bear his name. Of course, nobody knew that at the time.

Much later, writer Jason Lukehart came up with the idea for the “Maddux” as a stat and an homage to his favorite player. It was a simple but elegant creation. A Maddux is a shutout thrown with fewer than 100 pitches. Naturally, Maddux himself was and remains the career leader, with 13, six more than anyone else.

It’s not an all-time statistic, though. Far from it. Consistent pitch data only goes back to 1988, which means that we’ll never know for sure if the stat’s true leader is Walter Johnson or Warren Spahn or Tom Seaver.

But Maddux is the perfect face for it anyways, and not only because he debuted shortly before that 1988 landmark. It also says something about what made him great. It’s not just that Maddux is one of the greatest pitchers ever -- it’s that he had a way of cutting through a lineup with a certain artistic efficiency. Opponents weren’t necessarily overpowered in the same way they were by Rogers Clemens or Randy Johnson, but they were at his mercy nonetheless.

On April 29, 1990, Maddux produced his first “Maddux” on record. The significance wasn’t apparent at the time, but now it is. So let’s look back at the emergence of a great pitcher, one who would inspire the emergence of a new metric two decades later.

A setback and a breakout

It’s not as if Maddux came out of obscurity. His older brother, Mike, was a fifth-round pick by the Phillies in 1982 (and later a longtime MLB pitcher and pitching coach). Greg himself was selected by the Cubs in the second round of the ‘84 Draft out of a Las Vegas high school.

By September 1986, a shaggy-looking 20-year-old Maddux was in the Majors. In his first career start, on Sept. 7 at Cincinnati, he gave up three runs but hung around for a complete-game victory and described himself afterward as “awe-struck.”

But Maddux was young, inexperienced and unfinished. Through 1987, he was 8-18 with a 5.59 ERA over 36 career games (32 starts), having been sent back to Triple-A late in that first full season.

Even then, there were flashes. It’s possible that he threw his actual first Maddux on July 1, 1987, when he tossed a four-hit shutout at Montreal while facing only 28 batters (one over the minimum). But his pitch count for the game is unknown.

It wasn’t until 1988 that Maddux really began to figure things out, following a winter ball season spent working with pitching coach Dick Pole in Venezuela. Maddux adjusted, and things clicked. An All-Star in ‘88, he went 18-8 with a 3.18 ERA in 249 innings, logging nine complete games and three shutouts. In one, June 18 at Montreal, he was two pitches away from throwing an official Maddux.

He was making an impression. Shortly after that game, in a glowing feature in the Los Angeles Times, veteran teammate Rick Sutcliffe described Maddux as, “a shy kid,” but praised his guts on the mound. Cubs manager Don Zimmer compared Maddux’s demeanor during a start to his former teammate, Hall of Famer Don Drysdale. The Mets’ Wally Backman, whose team had just scored one run off Maddux in a complete game, observed that he had, “As much movement as I’ve ever seen on a fastball.”

Maddux was stellar again in 1989, finishing third in the National League Cy Young Award race, and tossing another 101-pitch shutout, this time to outduel reigning Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser of the Dodgers.

But the best was yet to come.

Maddux's first “Maddux”

It actually was Clemens who threw the first Maddux of the pitch-count era, on April 24, 1988. And by the time April 29, 1990, rolled around, the feat had been accomplished 41 times.

Although Maddux wasn’t breaking new ground, his performance that night at Dodger Stadium was a gorgeous example of the form. After having to work a bit in the first two innings (33 pitches), Maddux cruised through the final seven frames on only 63 more pitches, with just one three-ball count. He walked none, got eight first-pitch outs and erased three of the Dodgers’ six hits with double-play grounders, preventing any opponent from reaching second base. After 96 pitches, the whole thing was over in a brisk two hours and 13 minutes.

As Bill Plaschke observed in the Los Angeles Times, “The Dodgers were so completely fooled by Maddux, they kept hitting little grounders to the right side of the infield, enabling Maddux to set a Major League record for pitchers with seven putouts.”

The defensive work helped Maddux to his first official sub-100 pitch shutout, and that fall, it would help him snag the first of his 18 Gold Glove Awards, the most by any player at any position.

Becoming a master craftsman

That first Maddux game was only an appetizer. A few months later, he threw a mere 86 pitches over nine scoreless innings at Montreal, only to have extra innings spoil his bid for a complete game. But he remarked afterward that, “Almost every pitch seemed to go where I tried to throw it.”

That soon would become a theme. There was another Maddux late in 1991, then another in ‘92, the year he ascended from very good to spectacular. The right-hander, in the final year of his first stint with the Cubs before leaving for Atlanta in free agency, won the first of four consecutive NL Cy Young Awards.

From 1992-98, Maddux went 127-53 with a 2.15 ERA and absurd 190 ERA+, while throwing nine Madduxes (three times as many as any other pitcher in that span). His ultimate Maddux performance came on July 2, 1997, a Wednesday afternoon at Yankee Stadium, and featured just 84 pitches. It prompted fellow future Hall of Famer Wade Boggs -- a .328 career hitter but 1-for-13 against Maddux -- to sum up the agony of so many of the pitcher’s victims over the years. Sure, Maddux had some terrific stuff, but there was more to it.

''It seems like he's inside your mind with you,'' Boggs told The New York Times. ''When he knows you're not going to swing, he throws a straight one. He's clairvoyant. It's like he's got a crystal ball hidden inside his glove.''

The final two Madduxes for the man himself came back-to-back in September 2000, but he remained an above-average pitcher for several more years, still capable of spinning that sort of gem. As a 40-year-old Dodger on Aug. 13, 2006, he blanked the Giants on just 68 pitches over eight innings but was lifted for a pinch-hitter in a 0-0 game. As a 41-year-old Padre on May 14, 2007, he tossed a 96-pitch complete game against the Reds but lost the shutout with two outs in the ninth.

Maddux pitched his final game at age 42 in 2008, finishing with 355 wins (eighth all-time) and 3,371 strikeouts (10th) in just over 5,000 innings (13th). He cruised into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2014, with 97.2% of the vote.

The future

Barring some huge, difficult-to-imagine change in how baseball is played, 13 Madduxes looks to be an unbreakable record.

Nobody who pitched in the Majors in 2019 has more than three in their careers. Nobody has more than one over the past four seasons combined, with any sort of individual shutout becoming a rarity.

But that doesn’t mean the Maddux, as a feat, is completely dead. Last season, 24% of nine-inning shutouts (six of 25) across MLB were Madduxes, the highest rate in the pitch-count era.

Thirty years after Greg Maddux first put together the sort of performance that would become so closely connected with his name, that brand of supreme efficiency is more important than ever for a pitcher who wants to finish what he starts.