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Mound Of Trouble Long all but unhittable, Greg Maddux of the Braves has misplaced his pinpoint control and is getting rocked. Is the redrawn strike zone to blame? Harder baseballs? Or bad eyes?

May 31, 1999
May 31, 1999

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May 31, 1999

Faces In The Crowd
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Mound Of Trouble Long all but unhittable, Greg Maddux of the Braves has misplaced his pinpoint control and is getting rocked. Is the redrawn strike zone to blame? Harder baseballs? Or bad eyes?

The master painter specialized in trompe l'oeil. You could
scarcely believe your eyes the way Greg Maddux could make an
innocent 88 mph fastball look unhittable and the way he could
make the strike zone appear as wide as Peachtree Street. He was
Roadrunner, painting tunnel entrance after tunnel entrance on
the sides of mountains, and major league hitters kept crashing
foolishly into them.

This is an article from the May 31, 1999 issue

But Maddux's latest handiwork is like nothing we have ever seen
from him. It's so odd that we must lean forward and squint to
make any sense of it, just as Maddux, without his glasses, must
squint to decipher the glowing red numbers of the clock radio
when he awakens each morning. Maddux, the Atlanta Braves' ace
and the best pitcher of the 1990s, is getting hit like never
before. Talk about your glowing red numbers: Through Sunday,
National League batters were batting .351 against him (the
highest average against any National League starter) as he
suffered through the throes of the worst nine-game start of his
13-year career.

Do you believe your eyes? Braves catcher Eddie Perez doesn't
believe his. He had been behind the plate for all but four of
Maddux's past 76 starts when, last Thursday night, he saw
something he'd never before seen among the previous 7,000 or so
Maddux pitches he'd caught. With two outs in the top of the
first inning, nobody on base and a 1-and-2 count on
righthanded-hitting Chicago Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa, Perez
shifted his body and target to his left in anticipation of an
inside fastball from Maddux. The baseball, though, didn't come
close to its intended destination. It darted low and away,
whence Sosa spanked it over the wall in rightfield for a home
run. "I was shocked," said Perez afterward, bearing the look of
a nighttime sky watcher in Roswell, N.Mex. "I can tell you that
he'd never missed by that much before. If Sosa hadn't hit the
ball, I don't think I could've caught it. That's how far it
missed. I couldn't believe it."

That pitch is a good place to start in trying to understand what
has gone wrong for the most reliable pitcher since Sandy Koufax.
A mutant strike zone and a purportedly turbocharged baseball may
be conspiring against Maddux--and every other pitiable pitcher
in what's shaping up to be a season of unprecedented offense.
But what has undermined him most has been the errant location of
his pitches. "In golf they say it's not the club, it's the
golfer swinging the club," says Maddux, a seven handicapper. "I
feel fine. I'm just getting hit. I don't have excuses. It's
execution. That's all there is to it."

The pitch to Sosa wasn't an anomaly, only the most exaggerated
of Maddux's recent misfirings. Indeed, Maddux had missed badly
on the 0-and-2 pitch before that one, and he missed with his
three ensuing pitches to Mark Grace. The last of that trio was a
fat 2-and-0 fastball that Grace walloped for another home run.
It marked only the second time in his career that Maddux had
allowed back-to-back dingers. You would expect to hear Pavarotti
miss five straight notes before you saw Maddux miss with five
straight pitches.

"I feel like I'm making 20 mistakes a game instead of 12 to 15,"
Maddux said last Friday. "My mistakes are mostly up [in the
strike zone], and I'm not getting away with them. But I still
trust myself and my pitch selection. That's why I'm not
frustrated. I'm not feeling sorry for myself. I've had four
rough games."

Actually Maddux's troubles began late last season, when he was
bothered by minor aches and pains in his right elbow, back, knee
and neck. Until last Aug. 12, Maddux had amassed an incredible
record, beginning with his final two starts of the 1991 season,
that eerily mirrored the legendary '61 to '66 performance of
Koufax. Maddux was 126-49 with a 2.05 ERA over 1,636 innings;
Koufax was 129-47 with a 2.19 ERA over 1,632 2/3 innings.
Maddux's run may be finished, seeing that over his last 18
regular-season starts through Sunday he was 7-7 with a 4.79 ERA.
"You've got to remember, he's older," Cubs infielder and former
Braves teammate Jeff Blauser says of Maddux, who turned 33 last
month. "He came in human, then he pushed the envelope to
superhuman, and maybe now he's a little more human again. I
still think when all is said and done, he'll have another great
year."

Last Thursday night Maddux (4-3) escaped a fourth straight
defeat only because Atlanta, which through Sunday led the
National League East by 1 1/2 games over the New York Mets,
rallied from a 5-0 deficit for a tie before losing in the 12th
inning, 6-5. Maddux did retire, in vintage fashion, 11 of the
last 12 batters he faced, but the five runs he allowed in seven
innings swelled his ERA to 5.02. For the first time in this
decade (other than after his first start of a season) his ERA
was more than 5.00, and it was that high after more than four
starts for the first time in any season since 1987, his first
full year in the majors, spent with the Cubs. Among the other
submissions for Ripley's were that Maddux had allowed:

--at least 10 hits in five consecutive starts. Before that ugly
stretch began, he had made 351 starts since the only time in his
career that he'd given up 10 hits in even two straight games;

--at least five runs in each of his past four starts--two more
starts than his previous worst streak;

--home runs in four consecutive starts for the first time since
1993, matching his career worst;

--nearly as many runs in nine starts (37) as he had in 28 starts
(39) in 1995, the last of his unprecedented four straight Cy
Young Award seasons.

"My take on it is that it's like the closer syndrome," says
Braves righthander John Smoltz. "If you've got a closer who's on
a roll, like [the San Diego Padres'] Trevor Hoffman was last
year, his reputation can intimidate people. But the minute he
shows a crack and starts to get hit, teams get a little more
comfortable. They think, Oh, he's human. We can get him. That's
what's happening with Greg. Now hitters tend not to miss his
mistakes. Before, because he was so good, he could get away with
mistakes."

Maddux says his health is fine, and he has found no mechanical
reason that explains why he has left so many pitches in the
hitting zone. He hasn't been wild out of the zone, as evidenced
by his having walked only four batters unintentionally all
season. He and pitching coach Leo Mazzone have watched tapes of
the good Maddux and the Bizarro Maddux on side-by-side monitors,
"and they look exactly the same," Mazzone says.

According to one Cub, who thought Maddux was throwing his
changeup harder, Maddux "looks like he's trying. Before, it
seemed effortless." Maddux threw his changeup last Thursday
between 81 and 83 mph, only about 6 or 7 mph slower than his
fastball. "I don't buy that," Maddux says about the Cub's
changeup hypothesis. "Whenever I get hit, the first thing people
say is I'm throwing my changeup harder. But that's because when
you leave a changeup up, it looks harder. My changeup always has
been just a slight variant of my fastball."

Mazzone, however, does allow that "sure, he's been pressing at
times. Hell, it happens to the best of them." He also mentions an
ever changing strike zone and a livelier ball as contributing
factors to Maddux's vulnerability. "I don't know where the strike
zone is anymore," Mazzone says. "It's a guessing game from night
to night. More and more it's a game of four balls and four
strikes."

Before this season umpires were directed by major league
baseball officials to extend the strike zone higher, to a point
slightly above a hitter's belt. There's little evidence that
this is happening. Instead, most baseball people believe the
strike zone has shrunk because many umpires no longer call
strikes on pitches a few inches off the plate--the area that
Maddux and Braves lefthander Tom Glavine had adroitly exploited
for several seasons. Their phenomenal control gained them an
expanded strike zone the way Michael Jordan's acrobatics earned
him an extra step on drives to the basket.

The seriousness of the effort to eliminate the wide strike is
never more evident than before games, when stadium grounds
crews, under orders from the umpires, outline the official
43-inch-wide catcher's box in white chalk, a practice that had
long disappeared. "Last year nobody did it," Perez says. "This
year everybody does it, and the umpires are telling me to stay
inside the box. The hitters don't even have to ask."

Perez and fellow Braves catcher Javy Lopez are as responsible
for the rule enforcement as Wilt Chamberlain was for the
widening of the basketball key. Perez and Lopez infuriated
opponents by setting up outside the strike zone, creating the
illusion of a strike when Maddux and Glavine popped their mitts
with precision deliveries.

The catcher's setting up outside "is not a big deal for called
strikes," Maddux says. "It's more for when you want to get a
swinging strike on an outside pitch. People think the strike zone
is 17 inches wide because that's what home plate is. But the ball
is three inches wide, and if any part of the ball gets the plate,
it's a strike. That means, counting both sides of the plate, you
really have 23 inches to work with.

"People want to make a big deal out of the umpiring, but that's
been overrated. Umpires are still being consistent. When I chart
pitches, I put down a dot next to pitches I think the umps
missed. If I'm putting down 10 dots a game this year, I may have
put five dots down last year. To me that's negligible."

Glavine concurs. His 4.45 ERA through Sunday was almost two runs
higher than his season-ending figure in 1998. "People wanted to
blame my bad start on the new strike zone," he says. "Believe
me, that wasn't it. I wasn't putting enough pitches off the
corner for that to be a factor. I was leaving too many balls
over the heart of the plate."

Mazzone and his pitchers agree, though, that livelier baseballs
are making pitchers' lives miserable. They insist the balls are
harder and wound tighter this year than even in the previous few
years, when talk of a livelier ball was rampant. "I know they
are," says Maddux, comparing the variable feel of this year's
baseballs to the contrasting hardness of two kinds of golf
balls. "It's like you have [the softer] balata for three or four
innings, and then all of a sudden you get Surlyn. You can tell
by squeezing them. They are harder."

Says Braves shortstop Walt Weiss, "I never believed in that. But
last month [5'10", 180-pound second baseman] Bret Boone hit a
ball halfway up the bleachers to the opposite field in Los
Angeles at night. The ball never carries at night in L.A. But
this just flew. After seeing that, I believe there is something
going on with the ball."

Welcome to big league baseball for a new millennium, where
through Sunday grand slams (48) were almost as common as
complete games (51), where each game included an average of 7.5
walks, and where Atlanta and the Houston Astros were the only
teams with an ERA lower than 4.00. If it holds up for the full
season, however, the Braves' 3.92 ERA would be their worst since
1990, when they lost 97 games.

The sorry state of pitching appears particularly fuzzy when seen
through the eyes of the nearsighted Maddux, who can't even
correct his binocular vision sufficiently to see his catcher
clearly from the mound because, he says, he's allergic to
contacts. "I'll see fine out of one eye for a while and then the
other, but never both of them," he says. He tried pitching with
glasses in spring training but could not adjust to having the
lenses and frames in his peripheral vision. Also, during spring
training he considered corrective laser surgery but decided
against it when Atlanta general manager John Schuerholz, worried
that the operation would cause Maddux to miss some starts,
advised against it. "I may do it after the season," Maddux says,
"but I've been pitching with this condition for years."

Who can believe their own eyes anymore? A quarter of the way
through the season and Maddux has an ERA that looks like a model
number for a pair of Levi's. To see Maddux get hit like this,
however fleetingly, makes one truth unmistakable: What's even
more astonishing than a slump by Maddux was the length of his run
without one.

[BOX]

On and Off

The decline in Greg Maddux's performance is evident in the
numbers below from his first nine starts of last year and this.

YEAR W-L ERA CG IP H HR SO BB P/INN* OBA[+]
1998 5-2 2.08 1 65 54 3 44 9 13.0 .229
1999 4-3 5.02 0 57.1 88 7 31 7 14.9 .351

*Pitches per inning. [+]Opponents' batting average.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY STEPHEN GREEN BROWBEATEN Cuffed around by the Cubs for 14 hits on May 15, the normally unflappable Maddux was momentarily flummoxed.COLOR PHOTO: RON VESELYCOLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS SEEING DOUBLE A dinger by Sosa--greeted by Grace, who followed suit--last Thursday got Maddux off to another rough start.
"I'm making 20 mistakes a game instead of 12 to 15," says
Maddux, "and I'm not getting away with them."
"I can tell you that he never missed [the target] by that much
before," said Perez after Sosa's home run.