King Kaufman's Sports Daily

Greg Maddux's change of uniform and return to brilliance is the latest insult to Cubs fans. How rare is the aging great's midseason turnaround?


Salon Staff
August 14, 2006 8:00PM (UTC)

I think I speak for everyone, and by everyone I mean Cubs fans, when I say: What's the freakin' deal with Greg Maddux?

I'm actually speaking as a Giants fan, in the wake of Maddux throwing eight donuts Sunday night, in front of Joe Morgan and everything, as the Dodgers completed a three-game sweep of San Francisco.

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Maddux was traded from the Cubs to the Dodgers at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, and all he's done is make three starts and give up two runs in 20 innings. That's an earned-run average of 0.90. He's allowed 13 base runners. Opponents are hitting .141 against him.

What is this? Beginner's luck? Maddux went to Los Angeles toting a 9-11 record and a 4.69 ERA. And that was after a brilliant April, when he'd gone 5-0 with a 1.35 in five starts. In May, June and July, he'd gone 4-11 with a 5.75 ERA. And that wasn't some statistical anomaly caused by a couple of bad outings. He only had five quality starts out of his last 17 as a Cub. He gave up five or more runs eight times.

In mid-April, Maddux had turned 40. Was this the end? Was that hot April a last hurrah? That seemed like a logical conclusion, and it explains why the Dodgers were able to get him for the debatable talents of Cesar Izturis, who wouldn't be worth a Mike Maddux in his prime, never mind Greg.

Or maybe the big April was beginner's luck too, or something like it. Maybe Maddux is at a point in his life when he can only dial it up if the adrenaline's rushing. Start of the season, new team, maybe the playoffs. But he can't keep his interest up to slog it out over time.

That sounds like nonsense to me. Maddux looked as intense as ever over his last few months as a Cub, and anyway -- it's hard to remember this now, but -- Chicago was playing well when Maddux's season went sour. When he took the hill for his first start in May, in which he gave up five runs in five innings at Arizona, the start of a four-game personal losing streak, the Cubs were 14-11. They looked fine.

Maybe there's just something magical about an all-time great going to a team in a pennant race during the twilight of his career. I thought I'd look at Maddux's contemporaries, 250-game winners in the age of free agency and the five-man starting rotation, to see if I could find any parallels. Does this sort of thing happen a lot?

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I looked at 250-game winners, by the way, because I think that's the modern version of the traditional 300-win threshold for greatness. You win 250 games taking the ball 32 or 33 games a year, that's roughly equivalent to winning 300 while starting 40 or 41 games a year, as they used to do when men were men and the flag meant something.

The first guy who came to mind was Randy Johnson, who was traded from the Mariners to the Astros at the deadline in 1998 and, after having gone 9-10 with a 4.33 ERA in Seattle, went ape-crazy bananas in Houston, 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA in 11 starts.

The Astrodome was a pitcher's park, but that was bananas.

But it's not a very good parallel. Johnson was only 34 and had won only 150 games at the time of the trade, and while he was having a down year by his standards, he was still a good pitcher, striking out 12 batters every nine innings. Most teams, if not all, would have been thrilled to have him.

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The closest parallel I could find among recent pitchers with 250 or more career wins was Tom Seaver.

In 1985, at the age of 40, Seaver had outpitched White Sox teammate Britt Burns, who got a few Cy Young votes. In '86, he looked like he was fading, going 2-6, though with a roughly league-average 4.38 ERA. He wasn't bad. He just wasn't Tom Seaver.

The White Sox shipped him to the Red Sox in late June for future Fox TV analyst Steve Lyons, and Tom was Terrific.

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His first game for the Red Sox, who had a comfortable lead over the Indians and Yankees, was only so-so, four runs in seven choppy innings against the Blue Jays. But then he held the Mariners -- who were lousy -- to an unearned run in seven innings.

In his first 10 starts for Boston, Seaver went a tough 5-4 with a 2.80 ERA. He only completed one game but he averaged better than seven innings per start. His ERA in the four losses was only 4.28.

In those 10 games, he never failed to complete the sixth inning and never gave up more than four runs. He faded down the stretch, going 0-3 with a 5.88 in his last six starts, but for two months there, he found the old Seaver stuff.

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Seaver never pitched again. He wasn't on the Red Sox's postseason roster, which was probably a wise move given his fade in late August and September. Then again, who knows what might have happened if he'd been available to come out of the bullpen one last time, Pete Alexander-style, against his old team, the Mets, in that fateful Game 6.

And that's about it. I couldn't find any other good parallels among 250-game winners of the free agency era who seemed to be fading and near the ends of their careers when they were traded during a season. The magic Maddux seems to have found with the Dodgers, even three games' worth, is pretty precious stuff.

Steve Carlton was in a similar situation as Maddux three times, twice in 1986 and again in '87.

At the age of 41, he was 4-8 with a 6.18 ERA when he was released by the Phillies on June 24, 1986. He signed a few days later with the Giants, who were leading the N.L. West by a half game. His first start was a home game against the Cardinals, his original team, and he didn't make it out of the fourth inning.

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He failed to get out of the fifth in his second start, a loss to the Pirates. He was OK his next time out, in St. Louis, giving up four runs, three earned, in six innings and taking the loss.

Then he put together two good starts on the road, in Pittsburgh and Atlanta, before getting KO'd in the fourth inning at home by the Reds on Aug. 5. The Giants, now five games back of the streaking Astros, released him. He'd gone 1-3 in six starts with a 5.10 ERA.

No magic there. He was signed by the White Sox, though it's only a partial parallel to Maddux because the Sox were out of it in the A.L. West. He gave up six runs in three innings in his debut at Detroit, but turned in solid results the rest of the way. He ended up 4-3 with a 3.69 ERA in 10 starts with Chicago, almost two-thirds of a run better than league average.

In 1987, Carlton signed with the Indians and pitched much like Maddux had with the Cubs this year, 5-9 with a 5.37 ERA in 23 games, 14 starts. He was sent to the Twins in a July 31 deal, and made his debut in Anaheim against another future Hall of Famer winding down his career, Don Sutton. He gave up nine runs in four and two-thirds innings. But the next time out he shut down the powerful A's, pitching into the ninth and winning.

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He would turn in one more good start out of five, plus a couple of good relief appearances. He ended up going 1-5 with a 6.70 ERA and was left off the postseason roster.

Knuckleballer Phil Niekro was 48 when the Indians traded him to the Blue Jays in early August 1987. He'd gone 7-11 with a 5.89 ERA in 22 starts for Cleveland.

In each of his first two starts for the Blue Jays, who were trailing the Yankees by half a game in the A.L. East when they made the deal, Niekro gave up three runs in five and two-thirds innings, against the White Sox and Angels. In his third, he gave up five runs and only got two outs against the A's. He was released at the end of the month, with the Jays now trailing the eventual division-champ Tigers by a game.

So no magic there either. A few weeks later Niekro signed with his old team, the Braves, and pitched a valedictory game.

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A few other recent 250-game winners were traded during the season late in their careers, but their situations don't match up all that well with Maddux's.

Don Sutton was traded twice in pennant races late in his career, from the Astros to the Brewers in 1982, when he was 37, and from the A's to the Angels three years later. But in both of those years, Sutton was pitching well before the trade. He pitched well after both also, helping the Brewers to the '82 World Series.

Gaylord Perry was 41 in 1980 when the Rangers traded him to the Eastern Division-leading Yankees. He shut down the second-place Orioles in his first start, pitched well for a while and then faded down the stretch. But he'd been pitching well for Texas.

Tommy John was traded by the Yankees to the Angels in 1982 when he was 39, but like Perry he was pitching well before the trade and continued to do so after it.

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Bert Blyleven was traded from the Indians to the Twins in August 1985, but Blyleven was only 34 and pitching well.

So, at least in recent times, Maddux is already in rarefied air having turned in those three good starts for the Dodgers. That's not a surprise, of course. Maddux has spent most of his career in rarefied air.

According to the Bill James similarity score at Baseball-Reference.com, the most similar pitcher in modern history -- 20th century and after -- to Greg Maddux was Tom Seaver.

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