Late last month, July 27th to be exact, the 2014 inductees officially entered the MLB Hall of Fame. The class consisted of three managers — Bobby Cox, Joe Torre and Tony La Russa — and three players — pitchers Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, and first baseman Frank Thomas. It was no doubt a great moment for Braves fans, and baseball fans in general, to see two Atlanta hurlers and their manager be inducted together. It doesn’t happen all that often, so it is exciting when it does.
With all Hall of Fame votes comes debate over who is and isn’t deserving. This year was no exception, largely due to the eligibility of a couple known and/or suspected steroid users, and the always fickle, and dare I say illogical, nature of the voters. There were more than a few additional eligible players that I, and many others, felt were probably also worthy of votes, but ended up coming up short.
But one player who’s worthiness was not all that debatable is Greg Maddux, receiving 97.2% of the vote for the Hall, which is about as good as it gets nowadays, again because of the aforementioned inconsistency of the voters.
So while most of us can agree that Maddux was more than deserving of the honor, we can have a discussion about where he ranks on the all-time list. That means the following, while based on the numbers, is purely my own opinion and interpretation of said numbers, and is certainly debatable.
To start, he are Maddux’s career numbers, courtesy of Fangraphs:
Those numbers are elite across the board, aside from the strikeouts, which aren’t totally necessary to be successful. And even so, he offset that some by his elite control, as seen in the 1.80 career walk rate.
But let’s add some context. His ERA ranks 16th in the live ball era (1920 to now) among pitchers with at least 2500 innings. The 3.26 FIP ranks 22nd over the same time period, and his ERA+ (adjusted) stands at 29th all-time among pitchers with at least 1000 innings. While those may not be completely awe-inspiring, consider also that he is one of just seven live ball pitchers with 5000 or more innings, which means he was an elite pitcher for a longer period of time. That shows that he not only had the ability to dominate for an extended period, but he also racked up more value, in terms of WAR.
His fWAR (based on FIP) is second best of the live ball era behind Roger Clemens, and his rWAR (based on runs allowed) is 8th all time, between Tom Seaver and Randy Johnson.
Ranking him as an overall pitcher all-time is where it gets difficult. It comes down to what you value, and how you adjust for different eras and run environments. I personally feel you have to separate live ball from dead ball to arrive at the most accurate comparison. The game was just far too different in the early 1900s for us to compare someone like Maddux to those who came before the 20s.
Speaking purely in the live-ball era, I would firmly place Maddux in the Top-2 with Roger Clemens. Though Clemens was a PED user, I personally feel he would still have been one of the best, so I cannot confidently place Maddux ahead of him, and feel much safer just making them the Top-2.
If we do expand to an all-time list, I personally don’t feel he loses much ground. You can make a case for Walter Johnson sliding in ahead of Maddux and Clemens, with his career 2.17 ERA, which ranks 6th all-time among pitchers with more than 2500 innings, 2nd among those with greater than 4000 innings, and 1st over 5000 innings. That puts him 2nd all-time in rWAR, just three wins behind Cy Young.
Speaking of Cy Young, a case could be made for him to also rank above Maddux, but again, we don’t know enough about how the game would translate from then to now, or vice-versa. That limits the specificity with which we can make our list. But I do think it is safe to say that Maddux would sit somewhere in the Top-5 all-time, or close to it. Again, it comes down to what you value from a pitcher, and how you adjust between the eras.
What is most interesting about Maddux, to me, is the way he went about dominating. Of the 17 live-ball pitchers with at least 80 career WAR, he has the 5th lowest strikeout rate at 6.06. As I mentioned, strikeouts aren’t necessary for dominance, but more often than not, they do come with it.
Conversely, he has the best walk rate among that same group at 1.80, with only three others (Fergie Jenkins, Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina) having career walk rates under 2.00 per-nine. Maddux dominated with command, movement, not falling behind or walking batters, and inducing weak contact, and it worked extremely well.
Due to the subjectivity and open-endedness of these rankings, I am very interested to hear where you would rank the new Hall of Famer all-time. Please feel free to leave your rank (and rationale if you feel obliged) in the comments so we can get a discussion going.