In nearly every sense of the word, Greg Maddux is a pitcher, but you don’t me to tell you that. Over Mad Dog’s 23 year career, he collected four Cy Young awards, eight All-Star appearances, and eighteen Gold Gloves. His number is retired in both Chicago and Atlanta, and his plaque hangs among the immortals in Cooperstown.
Though dazzling statistics propelled him into baseball’s elite class, Maddux never fit the mold of a Major League ace. While pitchers like Nolan Ryan and Roger Clemens anchored their games on debilitating fastballs, he anchored his on precision, making a living off the corners of strike zones. Precision, though, just might not be enough anymore.
In the modern MLB, velocity is king. Chicks dig the long ball, but scouts love the heater. Look around, Aroldis Chapman is shattering strikeout records with his unprecedented velocity, and Noah Syndergaard dials it up to 100 every start. These are the future stars of baseball; there is no Greg Maddux. Teams want velocity, and if they have to make sacrifices to obtain that, they will.
Take, for example, Daniel Bard. As the 28th overall pick in the 2006 draft, Bard had high expectations. Some prudent scouts were worried by his lack of control, but most were quickly swayed by his effortless delivery and raw velocity. Unfortunately, those initial concerns proved to be well-warranted. Over a five year major league career, Bard could never quite fulfill expectations. His downfall is well exemplified by one statline: ⅔ Innings Pitched, 13 Runs Allowed, 0 Hits Allowed. Over the course of four appearances, while Bard was pitching for the Texas Rangers’ Single-A affiliate, he surrendered nine walks and drilled seven batters. This onslaught tallied a total of 13 runs, but zero hits. Good thing that fastball was untouchable.
Daniel Bard may be an extreme case, but this story isn’t rare. Across every Major League team, scouts, managers, and owners are constantly seduced by the allure of a triple digit fastball, only to realize later that it can come with its own share of problems. Though control proved to be Bard’s Achilles heel, it’s not the only one that plagues hard-throwing pitchers. For another example, examine Joel Zumaya.
Saying this Detroit Tigers reliever just threw hard is like saying Mark McGwire just might have been taking something artificial. In 2006, Zumaya was putting the league on notice with his mitt-eviscerating velocity. His 104.8 MPH fastball was breaking records, and holding opposition to a .187 batting average. After this breakout season, though, Zumaya encountered a setback. He was sidelined with a sore wrist, some freak injury sustained while playing the popular video game, Guitar Hero. The next year, Zumaya ruptured his tendon. Then, Zumaya injured his shoulder. Then, Zumaya hurt his elbow. The pattern continued, and then, Zumaya retired. At the age of 28, the flame-throwing sensation was officially out of baseball.
Of course, injuries can happen to anyone, but they seem to find hard-throwing pitchers at an alarming frequency. In a recent study by HardballTimes.com, it was found that players who throw harder than 96 MPH, on average, have a 27.7% chance of sustaining an injury the following year. In contrast, those who throw between 90 and 93 MPH have only a 15.2% chance of heading to the disabled list. In short, harder-throwing pitchers are more susceptible to future medical problems.
Now, let’s say a hard-throwing pitcher is able to avoid injury, and gain the necessary control to become a competent MLB pitcher with above-average velocity. In most cases, this player will thrive. He’ll collect All-Star appearances, and probably a few accolades. That is, until the fastball velocity starts to decline.
A few years ago, Tim Lincecum was astounding the MLB. He earned back-to-back Cy Young awards, and led San Francisco to a World Series victory. As the years have marched on, Lincecum has had issues. In 2012, his ERA ballooned from 2.74 all the way to 5.18. Something was clearly wrong. An examination of Lincecum’s season shows the potential issue: a drop in velocity. In 2011, “The Freak” was throwing, on average, a 92.2 MPH fastball. The next year, it dipped down to 90.2 MPH. In fairness, velocity isn’t the only thing to blame for Lincecum’s collapse. He also stopped locating his pitches, but, without an overpowering fastball, these misplaced pitches had a habit of landing 400 feet behind him in the bleachers.
Now, it’s pretty easy to point to Greg Maddux and say, “Why not draft more pitchers like him?” The problem, obviously, is that Greg Maddux is an anomaly. His control was incredible. His movement was outstanding. His intelligence for the game was unparalleled. The reality is, though, Greg Maddux isn’t the only pitcher to find success without velocity.
Mike Mussina never had an incredible fastball, but was still able to notch a praiseworthy 18 year career. In place of the intimidating four-seamer, Mussina used an arsenal of off-speed pitches and constantly kept hitters off balance. In turn, he was also able to stay consistently healthy, and never suffered the noticeable decline that some fireballers are inclined to face. In fact, Mussina actually finished his career, at age 39, with a remarkable season. Despite averaging only 87.4 MPH on his fastball, Moose nabbed 20 wins, and notched a 3.32 FIP. Pitchers like this exist. Hiroki Kuroda has had a very successful pro career while only averaging a top velocity of 92.1 MPH since 2008. In the latter half of his career, Curt Schilling continued to win despite having a fastball which dipped between 93 and 89 MPH. The list goes on: Mark Buehrle, Andy Pettite, Adam Wainwright, Tim Hudson, Cole Hamels, Johan Santana, etc.
Velocity will always be a good thing. A faster pitch is harder to hit; that’s understandable. People have to realize, though, that some pitchers can get by without it — and when they do— it usually turns out well. Right now, scouts travel around the world looking for the kid with the golden arm. There’s literally a movie about it. Craig Gillespie’s “Million Dollar Arm” recaps the story of two Indian men who were signed to MLB deals after throwing the fastest pitches at a public contest. Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh received offers from the Pittsburgh Pirates after they both threw fastballs in the mid 90’s. In 2012, Singh finished with a decent 3.00 ERA in Single-A, and has now missed the past two seasons with arm injuries. Patel finished with an 8.59 ERA in 2010, and was then released in December of that same year. Shockingly, the Pirates found velocity, but they didn’t find success.
Scouts know a pitcher needs more than a fastball in the MLB, yet they still seem to flock to the guy who’s breaking radar guns, not the one who’s painting corners. Greg Maddux is a Hall of Famer. He’ll forever be named as one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Finding another Maddux won’t be easy, and it might even be impossible, but it certainly won’t happen while no one is looking for him.