This past week, we discovered that two essential parts of the long time Braves’ stellar pitching triumphant were elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame. Greg Maddux, aka Doggie, was without question one of the best pitchers ever to tie up a pair of baseball cleats. Those of us who were blessed with the opportunity to see Maddux pitch both in person or via the once venerable super station TBS remember so many of the gems hurled in under two hours. In an age where the average American League game often extended into four hours, when Greg was scheduled to pitch, you could still watch the game and bet on it being over early enough for you to watch your favorite prime time TV show.
I doubt Greg Maddux was the inventor of the strategy of pitching to contact, but he certainly was the master of its implementation. Often asked if he thought he would ever pitch a no hitter, he would reply that he doubted it. It just was not part of his game. Never blessed with the power to blow away hitters, he did possess the mind of a genius when it came to setting up hitters and keeping the ball off the sweet spot of the bat. Barry Bonds referred to him as old dipsy doddle because he never threw anything straight. Watching the game on TV allowed for us was to see the incredible movement on the ball no matter what he pitched. Ball control was his game. Anytime he issued a walk, it was of the intentional verity. The same is said of whenever he hit a batter. While he would profess innocence, everyone in the park knew his control was so fine, it was unfathomable that he could let one slip. He once pitched 51 consecutive innings without issuing a walk. Seldom did he throw more than three pitches to a batter. Of course in his typical self depreciating style, when ask to what he attributed his success, he cited having Rafael Furcal and Andrew Jones behind him certainly helped because he knew when the ball was struck, one of them would catch it.
The other first ballot Hall of Farmer elected who was a huge part of the Braves’ success was Tom Glavine. Another cerebral kind of guy, his game was also to make you hit his pitch. Often that pitch was a devastating change up. He lived on the outside for so long, the strike zone would became where ever he decided it should be on a particular start. When he found that batters started crowding the plate in anticipation of his extended strike zone, he learned that pitching inside was a winning strategy too.
Glavine likely would have won his 300th game as a Brave were it not for folks pushing the limits of a relationship and Tom calling the Braves’ bluff on an inside straight. I remember Glavine starting one All Star game and giving up six consecutive singles in the first inning, all ground balls. Needless to say, the National League lost that game but it was not until years later we discovered that Glavine was pitching with two cracked ribs in that game. Not that he didn’t execute his game plan, it was just the AL was hitting them where they won’t. That was the thing about Tom Terrific, he showed other pitchers on the team you did not have to be 100% to take your turn on the mound and still be successful. It also proves one can do what he is supposed to do but it still takes 8 other guys on a team to win. Glavine possessed a certain amount of grit, likely accrued from his youth hockey days. He showed others how to play through the pain. A lot of Braves fans never forgave Tom for signing with the Mets in 2003 nor his role as the President of the Baseball Player’s Association when the player’s strike of 1994 derailed the season. Say what you will, I believe it only demonstrated further his abilities as a leader both on and off the field.
Having a Hall of Fame manager to guide them did not hurt the pair either. Bobby Cox, who will also sit on the podium along with Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa and Frank Thomas, managed his teams to success, no matter their make up. Often the Braves were accused of always waiting for the three run homer to win games, seldom stealing bases or other wise employing the running game but Bobby was simply playing with the cards he was dealt. The speedy Furcal would often turn a game into a one nothing affair after legging out a single, stealing second, moving to third on a ground ball hit to second and scoring on a sac fly. Dion Sanders was another speedster employed by Cox but the two things a Bobby Cox team was known for were pitching and solid defense. Having players in the outfield who could “go get it”. Something that often contributed to the Braves pitching staff having the league leading ERA at the end of each season.
Hopefully, in 2015 we will be able to applaud the selection of John Smoltz, the third leg of the trinity of Braves pitching. John was the antithesis of Glavine and Maddux, relying upon power and an overwhelming split-finger pitch as opposed to finesse but that is a topic for discussion on another day.