If I could have hit against Greg Maddux every game, I'd be in
the Hall of Fame," says Jeff Wetherby, nearly nine years after
his long-forgotten encounter with Maddux on Sept. 2, 1989.
Wetherby stepped into the batter's box on that warm Atlanta
evening as a Braves pinch hitter against Maddux, then a member
of the Chicago Cubs, with one out in the sixth inning. On a
2-and-1 count, Maddux threw a letter-high fastball and Wetherby
swung through it, flailing so wildly that he tore his batting
glove. At that moment Wetherby remembered how he had been ribbed
unmercifully about his slow bat speed by Cubs catcher Rick
Wrona, who had been one of his teammates in winter ball the
previous off-season and was now behind the plate catching
Maddux. So Wetherby choked up an inch or two and anticipated
another heater. That's when Maddux committed a rare mistake. He
threw a belt-high inside fastball that Wetherby launched 409
feet over the centerfield wall. The fact that Maddux and Chicago
led 10-1 at the time is a trivial footnote...at least to Wetherby.
Wetherby had just 48 major league at bats, all of them in '89.
He got only 10 hits and finished his brief big league career
with a .208 average. But Wetherby owns a unique distinction. He
batted just once against the best pitcher of his generation, and
he hit a home run. "If you're only going to have one homer, it
might as well be against Cy Young," says Wetherby, who returned
to the minors in '90 and retired two years later. "There's no
doubt in my mind that I own Greg Maddux. He's never, ever gotten
me out, and he never will."
Wetherby is a member of an endangered species, a hitter who is
proud of his record against Maddux in a world full of men who
have failed to hit their weight against him. Like a broken
record, Maddux just keeps repeating himself. At the rate he's
going, he will win an unprecedented fifth Cy Young Award this
year. (Steve Carlton and Roger Clemens are the only other
pitchers to have won four.) He was 11-2 with a 1.64 ERA at
week's end and could easily have been 13-2 if not for some shaky
bullpen work. In his last 12 starts he had been especially
impressive, with a 9-0 record and a 1.27 ERA. He had not allowed
more than three runs in any of those outings and had handed the
Baltimore Orioles their first shutout in 129 games. For the
season, opponents were hitting just .213 against him.
Well, enough is enough. As a public service to all major league
hitters--especially the truly hapless like Los Angeles Dodgers
first baseman Eric Karros (2 for 27 lifetime against Maddux),
Dodgers shortstop Jose Vizcaino (3 for 27) and St. Louis
Cardinals outfielder Ron Gant (8 for 50 with 13 strikeouts)--SI
recently launched a nationwide investigation into the secret of
hitting Maddux. Our sources? The select few players who maintain
bragging rights against Maddux in their careers.
July 5, 1998
So how exactly do you hit a guy who pitches each game as if he
were filming an instructional video? To start with, remember
that patience is not a virtue. This season Maddux has thrown a
first-pitch strike 67.1% of the time. That means the first pitch
is one of the best hitter's pitches the batter will see (chart,
page 46). "He's always going to be around the plate, so I try to
be really aggressive against him," says Pittsburgh Pirates
outfielder Al Martin, who has hit .361 in 36 career at bats
against Maddux. "Once he gets you deep in the count, he can
carve you up, and when he gets two strikes on you, you're done."
Indeed, why wait? Through Sunday, Maddux had walked only 16
hitters this season; in one April stretch he faced 94 straight
batters without issuing a free pass. He rarely even falls behind
in the count. In a complete-game, four-hit, 6-2 victory over the
Florida Marlins on June 17, Maddux threw three balls to a batter
just once. For the season, he has thrown only 44 pitches on a
3-and-2 count and in those situations, batters have gotten just
While it is easy to understand why Clemens or Kerry Wood can
dominate a game with overpowering fastballs, Maddux's foes point
out that he doesn't have an intimidating fastball, curveball or
slider. Instead they must combat his ball movement, change of
speeds and location, location, location. "He throws a ball that
looks like it's a foot and a half outside, and it breaks [back]
over the outside corner with pinpoint accuracy," says Kansas
City Royals outfielder Jeff Conine, a righthanded hitter who
played the last five seasons in the National League and has hit
.357 in 28 at bats against Maddux. "You've got to be able to
control that outside corner by scooting up on the plate a little
bit and looking to rightfield."
Naturally, as soon as you devise a strategy that seems to
succeed against Maddux, he'll change the game. Braves manager
Bobby Cox calls him the smartest player he's ever known, and
others have called him the shrewdest scout in the sport.
Nicknamed the Professor, Maddux admits that he looks for subtle
signs in a hitter's behavior, such as the way a batter's back
foot opens up slightly when he's trying to hit to the opposite
field. "Maddux constantly changes his approach," says Colorado
Rockies catcher Jeff Reed, a lefthanded hitter who has hit .317
in 60 at bats against Maddux. "So one at bat I might say I'm
going to wait on the ball a long time and take him the other
way, but if he's busting me inside, I'm going to change. It's a
guessing game, and he probably knows me better than I know me."
Maddux seems to have a photographic memory, so five years later
he still remembers the time he made a batter look bad on a
certain pitch, and he'll fool him with it again. Many hitters
also swear he's clairvoyant. "Sometimes I would see the sign and
think, Why's he throwing that pitch?" says former Braves second
baseman Mark Lemke, who's now with the Boston Red Sox. "Then the
batter will pop it up. He'll work to a hitter's strength, only
not when he's expecting it. It's like he knows what the hitter
is looking for, so he throws the opposite."
Says Maddux, "In order to be a good pitcher, you've got to think
like a hitter. Why do you think I sit beside our hitting coach
every game when I'm not pitching? It ain't because I like him so
Another former Atlanta teammate, centerfielder Marquis Grissom,
recalls a game against Florida in '96 when Maddux was struggling
with his fastball. Unable to spot it with his usual precision,
Maddux had to alter his preferred pattern against Gary
Sheffield, then the Marlins' most dangerous hitter. "He told me,
'I'm going to throw him a slider and make him just miss it, so
he hits it to the warning track,'" recalls Grissom, who is now
with the Milwaukee Brewers. "Sheffield came up and, sure thing,
he hit the ball to the track. That's just sickening, and he does
that to a lot of hitters."
Grissom, who has hit .386 in 44 at bats against Maddux, believes
that a batter can't go to the plate with any preconceived
notion, because Maddux will outsmart him. A hitter has to hope
Maddux will leave a pitch over the plate that he can handle. If
that pitch arrives, Grissom says, the batter shouldn't
overswing. At week's end Maddux had allowed only five home runs
in '98. He rarely allows even a fly ball. About 72% of the balls
put in play against him are hit on the ground. "That's why I
never try to go deep," Reed says. "He pitches the corners, and
he keeps the ball down. If you try to hit that pitch too hard,
you lose your bat control and it's a ground ball to second base
instead of a line drive."
It's hardly surprising to learn that the top active hitter in
the National League with at least 20 at bats against Maddux is
the equally cerebral Tony Gwynn, who has hit .459 and never
struck out in 86 plate appearances. "I just hit what he throws
and don't try to create something that's not there," Gwynn says.
"I get my hits off him, but I probably haven't hit a ball hard
off him in two years."
Apparently the only guy who doesn't secretly dread facing Maddux
is, well, Maddux. "I wouldn't mind hitting off me because I know
I'd see strikes and I wouldn't be overpowered and embarrassed,"
he says. "I might get tricked, but I wouldn't strike me out four
times in a game."
When Maddux is asked whom he least likes to face, he first
points to the opposing pitcher, because there's no satisfaction
in pitching to a guy who's expected to make an out. (Of course,
few hurlers are as tough to pitch to as Maddux, who was batting
.302 at week's end.) The hitters Maddux hates to face come from
the two extremes: the thinkers (such as Gwynn) and the hackers
(such as the Cubs' Sammy Sosa and the Rockies' Vinny Castilla).
But his most dread adversary is a little bit of both, Barry
Bonds, who has hit .305 against him in 95 at bats, with eight
homers and a .611 slugging percentage. "Bonds is one of the few
players in baseball who walks up to the plate already in scoring
position," Maddux says. "He is so dangerous because he can hit
for average, he'll take his walk, and he has the ability to
knock any pitch out of the ballpark."
On his list of antagonists Maddux neglects to name Franklin
Stubbs, who has been out of the major leagues since 1995.
However, Stubbs, a .232 career hitter in parts of 10 big league
seasons, batted .500 against Maddux, the highest average for
anyone with at least 20 at bats against him. Stubbs, a
lefthanded hitter who acknowledges that he did his damage early
in Maddux's career, before the Cy Youngs began piling up,
studied countless videotapes of Maddux and made a specific
adjustment. "I noticed that he'd strike guys out with that nasty
fastball that starts inside and tails back over the plate, so
I'd move back from the plate two or three inches to get the head
of the bat on the ball," says Stubbs, now a rookie league
manager in the Braves system. "I don't think it's a miracle
cure, but it allowed me to get a few lucky hits off him. Even
blind squirrels find nuts once in a while."
Which brings us back to Wetherby. While Maddux has gone on to
get 153 victories (against only 74 losses) since allowing that
unlikely homer, Wetherby had only 12 more at bats in his career
and never got another hit. Wetherby still has the bat and ball
that he used to hit the homer; they're mounted on a plaque in
his office in Tampa, where he works as a scout for the Detroit
Tigers. Nearly a decade later, Wetherby says he is still
occasionally asked if he has any secrets to hitting Maddux. "I
tell guys that he'll work away most of the time but keep you
honest inside, so protect the plate and pray a lot," Wetherby
says. "Believe me, if I had the real answer, I'd be sitting on a
yacht, sipping beers and giving out advice on my cell phone to
the entire National League."
If the right answer exists, Maddux isn't telling. As a recent
conversation with him concluded, he was asked if he was at all
dismayed about his archenemies' conspiring against him in this
forum. "No, because I know most hitters are smart enough to
lie," said Maddux with a devilish twinkle in his eye. "Just like
I've been doing for the last 20 minutes."
The consensus among those who have batted well against Greg
Maddux in their careers is that you had better hit him early in
the count because he'll eat you alive if he gets you in a hole.
Through Sunday, Maddux had pitched to 523 batters this season,
and a look at what they had done on every count confirms the
basic wisdom of going after the first pitch. Hitters had batted
.264 on the first pitch and a surprising .306 on an 0-and-1
count. But as the numbers show, let Maddux get two strikes on
you, and you don't stand a chance. Here's the complete breakdown:
COUNT PITCHES AB HITS HR AVG.
0-0 523 87 23 1 .264
0-1 260 49 15 0 .306
0-2 130 55 5 0 .091
1-0 171 39 11 1 .282
1-1 190 53 18 2 .340
1-2 160 67 7 0 .104
2-0 46 11 4 0 .364
2-1 81 29 7 0 .241
2-2 121 71 11 1 .155
3-0 11 0 0 0 --
3-1 20 7 3 0 .429
3-2 44 30 2 0 .067
Total 1757 498 106 5 .213
Source: Stats, Inc.