19to21: November 6, 2007
Greg Maddux and the Quest for 400
19 to 21
News Item: November 6, 1887 – Walter Johnson is born in Humboldt, Kansas.
News item: November 18, 1962 – Jamie Moyer is born in the Pennsylvania Dutch country.
Nobody talks about it. Maybe it’s a secret. Or maybe no one realizes it. Or maybe no one thinks it’s possible. What? The fact, the absolute fact, that Greg Maddux has a chance at winning 400 games. Wait… I know what you’re thinking. “Impossible… absurd… no way this headhunter can reach that level.” After all, it’s a place where, in a much different game, only Walter Johnson and Cy Young have gone, for goodness sakes. And since The Big Train retired after the 1927 season, only Grover Cleveland Alexander has even gone above 370. Move up to the post-1961 Expansion Era, and only Warren Spahn and now Roger Clemens have made it past 350. Greg Maddux at 400? Before we pass judgment in light of Maddux’ signing a one-year, $10 million contract with the Padres, let’s look at the record. Here are the top 10 career winners, who also comprise the only 340+ game winners in OB (Organized Baseball) history.
1. Cy Young 511
2. Walter Johnson 417
3. Pete Alexander 373
5. Pud Galvin 364
6. Warren Spahn 363
7. Kid Nichols 361
8. Roger Clemens 354
9. Greg Maddux 347
10. Tim Keefe 342
All real oldtimers – Johnson, Alex and Matty had their heydays roughly around the time of the First World War and Young, Galvin, Nichols and Keefe were either entirely or partially 19th Century pitchers – except for Clemens and Spahn. Right? Wait a minute, who’s that in ninth place? No one seems to be saying anything about this, but Greg Maddux is now just seven wins behind Clemens and, more importantly, he looks like he has a lot more left than the suddenly fizzling Rocket. Here are their stats from the 2007 season.
W L G GS IP H W SO ERA ERA+
6 6 18 17 99 99 31 68 4.18 107
W L G GS IP H W SO ERA ERA+
14 11 34 34 198 221 25 104 4.14 98
While it certainly can be argued that Clemens on the whole pitched more effectively than Maddux in 2007, it is also a fact that Maddux pitched a lot more. Now, maybe you think Clemens has been playing cutesy (or being manipulative and/or greedy) over the past two years by not signing a contract until mid-season, but it seems more likely, especially in light of his struggles this year, that he just can’t pitch that much anymore – just 212 major league innings in the past two years combined. Equally unarguable is what’s printed on their birth certificates. Which list Maddux’ birth date as April 1966 and Clemens’ as August 1962.
Clemens’ durability and ability to pitch in 2008 isn’t the issue here. The question is, how far can Greg Maddux go? Without even beginning to judge him by really comparable pitchers (clearly, few would say that Maddux and Clemens have a lot in common as pitchers, except for 340+ wins), it should be obvious that Maddux still has a lot going for him… several factors that blow the doors off Bill James’ Favorite Toy formula, which is really a great tool, but only when discussing mortal beings who are subject to the normal aging process. (The Favorite Toy assumes, and has to assume, that any player reaching age 40 has a very limited, like a year-and-a-half, time left in the majors. Hence, applying the Favorite Toy to Maddux will give an expected career wins figure for Maddux of 368, and a 0 percent chance of reaching 400 wins.)
First – The man NEVER gets hurt. His innings pitched totals for the five years are 218, 213, 225, 210 and 198. That’s an average of 213 IP per year from age 37 to age 41.
Second – Maddux is essentially a control pitcher who doesn’t have to live and die by overpowering hitters. And he’s still doing it… check out his K/W ratio for 2007… 104/25, that was third in the National League.
Third – He’s still good enough that there is serious demand for his services – you think the Padres were going to let him go to free agency?
Fourth – He’s willing to sign reasonably-priced, one-year contracts, which make him more marketable.
Fifth – Because of factors three and four, and the fact that pitching is in such short supply, he can practically name his own team. If the Padres fall flat on their faces in 2008 (a possibility if their pitching falters), he can basically write his own ticket to a better team, a team that is more likely to help him rack up the Ws.
As for Maddux’ peers on the 340+ wins list, Alexander and Spahn both come to mind. Alex was a master control pitcher who worked in the majors until he was 43 years old, and who was still effective (9-8, 120 ERA+) when he was 42. What happened was that he fell off the wagon with a resounding thud, and no one wanted to give a 43 year-old alcoholic another chance after the Phillies let him go with 373 wins in May 1930. However, it is assumable that, if he had been able to dry out, and was given another chance after the Cards sent him home during the 1929 season, he might have reached 400. He had, after all, won 21 and 16 games in the 1927 and 1928 seasons. The Favorite Toy, used after the 1929 season, gives Alex a 24 percent chance of reaching 400 and a projected career total of 393.
Spahnie, another master of control with a large arsenal of pitches, made the bad career move (in the days before free agency) of pitching for the Mets in 1965, and getting hit pretty hard (4-12, 4.36). However, in his brief time with the Giants after his stint with the Mets, he’d gone 3-4 with a 3.39 ERA. Still, the Giants released him, and no one wanted to pick up a 44 year-old has-been, despite the fact that, like Robin Roberts a year later, he then went back to the minors and pitched effectively. If you take Spahn after his 23-win (at age 42) 1963 season, and apply The Favorite Toy, his chance at 400 wins is 29 percent, with a projected total of 392 wins. Clearly, if the game had broken a little differently for either Alex or Spahn, 400 was possible.
As noted, for purposes of this discussion, a freak of nature like Clemens (or Walter Johnson, for that matter) is not really a good comparison to Maddux, although he is fifth on Maddux’ list of Similarity Scores. A far better comparison is Jamie Moyer, who pitches in a very similar style (except he’s left-handed), that is to say, as much with his head and control as with his arm, to Maddux, and who is about to turn 45 in a couple of weeks. (Happy birthday, you old Dutchman!) Moyer is currently 62nd on the career wins list with 230, but that’s only because he really didn’t get a chance to show what he could do until 1997, when he was 34 years old. Note their records from age 34 on…
Age Moyer Maddux
34 17-5 189IP 116ERA+ 19-9 249IP 153ERA+
35 15-9 234 130 17-11 233 146
36 14-8 228 130 16-6 199 159
37 13-10 154 83 16-11 218 108
38 20-6 210 121 16-11 213 109
39 13-8 231 128 13-15 225 104
40 21-7 215 132 15-14 210 109
41 7-13 202 87 14-11 198 98
42 13-7 200 98
43 11-14 211 104
44 14-12 199 92
This chart shows us that… although Moyer has had a few more ups-and-downs since turning 34, both pitchers have generally been no worse than league average in what would normally be their athletic dotage (at least to the Favorite Toy.) Maddux is a better pitcher, although he has clearly evolved back to being a just-above-average pitcher since his 37th birthday, but Moyer has still won 151 games since turning 34, an average of 13.7 per year. Maddux has won 126 games in those eight years, an average of 15.8. One interesting, though not especially relevant to the discussion, point not shown above is that both pitchers have two, 20-win seasons, and Moyer’s high of 21 is actually better than Maddux’ high of 20… also not shown is Maddux’ post season ERA of 3.34, nor Moyer’s post season ERA of 2.43. Thus it is of note to speculate what kind of Hall of Fame career Jamie Moyer might have had if he’d been able to accumulate more than 80 wins before he turned 34. Nonetheless, few would argue that Greg Maddux hasn't been, in reality, a better pitcher than Jamie Moyer.
So what? Well, Jamie Moyer is signed through the 2008 season by the Phillies, who fully expect him to keep baffling batters with his 83 MPH fastball, deceptive slider, and 75 MPH change for another year. (I saw him pitch a game against the Braves in September 2007, and that’s exactly what he did, without topping 83 MPH on the radar screen. Although an untimely walk, a bad-swing double and three bad fielding plays cost him the game, Moyer was masterful, including twice striking out Chipper Jones looking on change-ups that made the Braves’ best player look really bad.) Maybe his pennant-clinching victory over the Nationals had something to do with it, or maybe it was his artistic start in the NLDS in Colorado, but he’s on track to at least make it to 240 wins next year. And, if that’s the case, is it so outrageous to presume, given the typical good health he has enjoyed for his entire career, that Greg Maddux, a better pitcher than Moyer throughout most of his career, cannot close out that career in this fashion?
Year Age Record
2008 42 14-7
2009 43 12-14
2010 44 15-12
2011 45 12-8
That’s giving Maddux credit for exactly one more win per year than Moyer has had from ages 42 to 44, plus a 12-win season at age 45… something Moyer certainly seems capable of, given the Phillies’ offense behind him. (Who knows, maybe they’ll eventually end up pitching together for the Phillies.) Add it up to his present 347 victories… that equals exactly 400 wins. It is indeed possible, and don’t believe for a minute that Greg Maddux hasn’t thought along these lines already.