How’d he do that? Magician Maddux fooled hitters all the way to Hall

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Greg Maddux is my favorite pitcher. A few years ago I wrote why. For that one, I wrote about my favorite Maddux game, an 84-pitch masterpiece he threw against the New York Yankees in July 1997. Today I’m going to write about the best game I ever watched Maddux pitch live. That was Game 2 of the 1996 World Series. They’re really just about the same game.

Most of the time, when people try to explain the wonder of Maddux, they tend to fall back on how ordinary his stuff was. I’ve fallen into that trap myself. He wasn’t 6-foot-10 like Randy Johnson, and he didn’t throw 103 mph like Nolan Ryan, and he didn’t break off flubbery curveballs like Bert Blyleven or throw heart-stopping change-ups like Pedro Martinez, or pitch with unchained fury like Bob Gibson.

Everything about Maddux seemed so ordinary — he wasn’t big and wasn’t imposing. He could, when he felt like it, throw a 91- or 92-mph fastball, but he never felt like it. He wore glasses much of the time.

[MORE: Maddux also Hall of Fame character  |  Former teammates remember Maddux]

The thing is: It was all an illusion. That was why Maddux so thoroughly intrigued me. It was a magic show, a Ricky Jay virtuoso performance where the magician feigns ignorance until the trick is done. His stuff was actually amazing … depending on what you mean by “stuff.” Every pitch of his moved and fluttered and dived and lifted at his command. He struck out more than 3,300 hitters in his career, and while the time was obviously very different, his strikeouts per nine innings (6.06) was almost exactly the same as Bob Feller (6.07). He understood that an 89-mph fastball, when the hitter is looking for something 10 mph slower, has roughly the same effect on hitters as a 99-mph fastball compared to regular fastballs.

“Hitting is timing,” Warren Spahn said. “Pitching is upsetting timing.” Nobody understood that better than Maddux.

He was also a brilliant fielder. Nobody talks about that as being part of a pitcher’s stuff but in many ways it is. If a pitcher can take away a dozen hits year on balls hit up the middle or good bunts, that’s worth a few mph on the fastball, isn’t it? Maddux at his best took away the middle of the field.

And Maddux also understood that people’s common perception about his stuff being average worked to his benefit. The simplest card trick in the world is “Pick a card, any card.” But magicians understand the countless nuances — how to force a card on someone, how to control the card, how to reveal the card. The easier it looks, the more remarkable the illusion. Maddux made it look like he was all but defenseless out there. In reality, though, he held all the cards all the time.

In Game 2 of the 1996 World Series, he walked to the mound in the first inning at Yankee Stadium with a 1-0 lead, and he promptly put sleeper hold on the Yankees and the city of New York. The Yankees hit the ball — they would hit the ball all night — but the hits would not amount to anything. Wade Boggs singled in the first and stayed there after a lineout and groundout. Paul O’Neill doubled in the second and was stranded by two benign grounders. Maddux hit Derek Jeter in the third, but a force play and a caught stealing ended any scoring notions.

[MORE: Let’s watch Maddux pitch, ask ourselves ethical questions]

The game moved fast, too fast. This was another Maddux trick. He had this unique ability to speed things up so that hitters felt like they were sprinting downhill. He threw strike after strike after strike. In tennis, and in hockey and soccer too, coaches talk about how you want to “take time away” from an opponent. That’s not really a baseball concept, but that precisely what Maddux would do — hitters just felt like they were running out of time. Maddux threw just six pitches in the fourth inning — Bernie Williams hit the ball hard but right at Fred McGriff, Tino Martinez bounced the ball back to Maddux, Cecil Fielder bounced an easy one to shortstop. It was all getting away from them.

You could just feel the helplessness cascading through Yankee Stadium. When a pitcher is just blowing away hitters with blazing fastballs and numerous strikeouts, a crackling energy buzzes through baseball stadiums. Every fan is on the edge of the seat, and they think “Try harder!” or “Swing faster!” But Maddux blunted all those emotions. He sucked energy out of stadiums. The harder you tried, the worse things got. The faster you swung, the more harmless the ground balls. There were three more of those harmless ground balls in the fifth inning. It seemed a moral victory when Joe Girardi at least forced a full count before succumbing.

Good time here to jot down a few of my favorite Maddux stats. He gave up four home runs in 25 starts during the strike-shortened 1994 season. That year, he gave up 28 extra-base hits and prompted 21 double-play balls. He unintentionally walked 14 batters and did not throw a single wild pitch in 1997. Lefties hit .195 and slugged .234 against him in 1995.

[MORE: Maddux will enter Hall of Fame with blank cap]

It’s fun to compare Maddux with Roger Clemens because they were contemporaries and they finished one victory apart and with about the same number of innings. But they were so different. Clemens’ velocity and the violence of his pitches overwhelmed. He pitched with a snarl. Clemens certainly has a strong case as the more dominant of the two — Bill James has broken this down and believes that Clemens was the better pitcher (and, in fact, perhaps the best pitcher of all time). But it is worth mentioning that Maddux, against odds, had a better strikeout-to-walk ratio and a lower WHIP. It is worth mentioning because watching the two pitch you would never believe it.

Maddux gave up back-to-back singles to Jeter and Tim Raines in the sixth inning of that World Series Game, and for the first time — for the only time — the fans stood and cheered and believed. Wade Boggs stepped to the plate. He watched the first pitch go by for a strike because he always did. Then he grounded to second base for an easy double play. Bernie Williams followed with his own ground ball to second. The threat was over. The fans sat down.

The rest was easy. Two strikeouts — the only two strikeouts of the game — and a grounder surrounded a pointless single in the seventh. Three groundouts and a single made up the eighth. And, with that, Maddux took his leave. Mark Wohlers finished it off in the ninth by striking out the side; I’m sure after flailing at Maddux’s mesmerizing pitches for eight innings, Wohlers seemed to be throwing about 212 mph.

When it was all done, Maddux had thrown 84 pitches and had recorded 19 of his 24 outs as ground balls. Add in the two strikeouts, one caught stealing, one liner to first, and one fly ball to left, you had a ballgame. But my favorite part of all was in the Yankees’ clubhouse after the game, where players sheepishly talked about how they were conned.

“He was throwing nothing special,” Bernie Williams said.

“It looks so easy,” Paul O’Neill said.

“You feel comfortable against him,” Joe Girardi said.

“The ball was right there, we just didn’t swing,” Williams said.

And so on. It was as if they were simply coming out of a state of hypnosis. That was what Maddux could do. In Game 6 of the World Series, the Yankees did get to Maddux. Well, they scored three runs on him, all in one frenetic inning. The magic didn’t always work. But it worked most of the time.

Future sports lawyers battle in baseball arbitration competition

Craig Calcaterra
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How much money should Jake Lamb make in 2018? Is Michael Wacha fully recovered from that shoulder stuff he’s been dealing with for years, or has it forever changed him as a pitcher, his good FIP notwithstanding? Should Ken Giles be paid more because he helped get his team to the World Series or should he be paid less because he, you know, kinda stunk up the joint in the World Series?

These are all questions that fans who skew a bit more intense than others may have asked themselves from time to time, but I doubt they’ve put hours into answering them. That’s the province of those players’ agents and the front offices for the Diamondbacks, Cardinals and Astros.

It was also, however, the province of several dozen law students who did battle in New Orleans as part of Tulane University Law School’s 11th annual International Baseball Arbitration Competition, which I attended last week. It was one of the most entertaining and enlightening baseball and legal experiences I’ve had in some time.

The setup: students from law schools around the country compete in 2-3 person teams, taking on the role of either the player’s attorneys or a baseball’s team’s attorneys in mock arbitration hearings. Each team competed multiple times, representing Lamb, Wacha, Giles or the clubs for which they play. Preliminary rounds were held on Thursday, quarterfinals, semifinals and finals were on Friday. As in a real arbitration, the sorts of which will be held next month, they argue why the player should or should not be paid the salary proposed by the player’s agent or proposed by the club, marshaling the player’s statistics and the general arc of their career, as well as arbitration awards or arbitration settlements achieved by comparable players in recent years as evidence.

I was lucky enough to be one of the 14 guest arbitrators judging the cases. I was selected because I’m a lawyer who knows a bit about baseball, but I was easily the least qualified of the judges there. These law students had to face a murderer’s row of experts in the baseball arbitration process, including attorneys, agents and team, league and union employees who spend all or most of their time working on actual arbitration cases. The panel:

  • Dave Prouty, Counsel, and former General Counsel, for the MLBPA, who has forgotten more about arbitration than any of us will ever know;
  • Greg Dreyfuss, Staff Counsel for the union, who (a) won this competition when he was a student a few years ago; and (b) works on basically every arbitration case there is;
  • Vanish Grover, MLB counsel;
  • Alex Winsberg and Jen Tedmori, Director of Legal Affairs and attorney, respectively, for the Los Angeles Angels;
  • Mike Parnell, Assistant, Pro Scouting, for the Texas Rangers; and
  • Player agents and/or arbitration experts and/or attorneys Scott Barber, Jon Fetterolf, Rex Gary, Marc Kligman, Scott Pearson, and Jay Reisinger.

Almost all of these people can tell you every little detail of scores of arbitration cases they’ve been a part of for longer than some of you have been alive. The ones who haven’t argued arbitration cases know more about the players than anyone who either (a) doesn’t directly employ them; or (b) isn’t a blood relative. To say that I was happy to be on the judges’ side of the table rather than the competitors’ side is an understatement.

Indeed, because of the expertise of the panel, this was probably tougher for these students than real arbitrations are for actual lawyers. In real arbitrations, most of the arbitrators are not baseball experts. They’re arbitration experts who, yes, have probably handled baseball cases before, but nowhere near to the extent the competition judges have. This is why — much to the chagrin of many people in and around Major League Baseball — real arbitrations tend to focus on “back of the baseball card” stats like home runs, pitcher wins, saves and the like, even if those are not the best metrics to judge a player. WAR is used in almost all arbitrations now, but maybe not FIP or wRC+ or leverage index. In the Tulane competition, however, things got deep. Yes, blown saves were addressed, but the competitors got into advanced stats as well, deftly weaving the explanation of complex baseball metrics in to their overall argument. Or at least trying to. No matter how successful they were, it was not an easy task.

Another thing making this harder for the competitors: unlike in real arbitrations, where advocates generally make their arguments uninterrupted, we judges had fun interrupting them and asking questions. When WAR was mentioned, some of us would ask whether it was bWAR or fWAR, to see if they knew which of those slightly different stats they were citing and to see if they were trying to stack the deck by using one over the other. When someone made an offhand comment about Citizens Bank Park being a “bandbox,” inflating Giles’ Phillies numbers, I asked “do you have evidence for that, or are you just saying that because people have long said it?” Once, when someone was trying to explain away Giles’ postseason struggles by saying that Clayton Kershaw and Randy Johnson once struggled in the postseason before getting better, a judge asked — seemingly innocently, as if they’d never heard of those men — “Is Clayton Kershaw a closer? Was Randy Johnson? Are you telling me, counselor, that Ken Giles is better than them?” Sometimes these questions tripped up the competitors. Sometimes they were handled with aplomb.

All of that may seem overly harsh, but it’s good training for these future lawyers, most of whom won’t be arguing baseball arbitrations for a living. Rather, they’ll be in trials over contract disputes or commercial arbitrations or arguing appeals in civil rights cases or something. In all of those situations, they’ll be peppered with questions by skeptical judges.

Advocacy is advocacy, though, be it about ballplayers or business clients, and the same skills come to bear. Can you make a compelling case? Can you cite evidence supporting it? Can you persuade that skeptical judge? Can do you it while appearing calm, cool and collected? The baseball stuff made this WAY more fun than all of that, but at bottom, 60% of the teams’ score was based on how well they advocated and only 40% of it was based on their actual baseball case.

The baseball stuff was what made it fun, though. And while sitting through seven arguments, I learned, or was reminded about, a lot of neat and weird aspects of the baseball arbitration process fans don’t often consider. Some highlights:

  • An arbitrator cannot split the difference. He or she must award either the number asked for by the player or the number asked for by the team. The critical inquiry involves the midpoint between those numbers. Under the rules, if the arbitrator believes the player is worth $1 less than the midpoint between the figures, the team wins. If he believes the player is worth $1 more, the player wins. As such, so much of where an arbitration comes out depends on the numbers each side asks for beforehand. Remember this when real arbitrations get going in February and you wonder why someone asked for $4.925 million instead of a round $5 million. It’s part science — lawyers have all the data on all of this stuff going back years — and part psychology. Think of it like pricing something at $9.99. Or, like Wal-Mart, pricing something at $9.47. The appearance of cheapness or precision makes a difference.
  • You may or may not know that comps are the name of the game in an arbitration. Which players who have previously had this service time and production are most similar. The player side argues high, arguing the ones who made more money before them are more comparable, the team argues that the ones who made less money were. The thing is, judges are not supposed to consider what the comp did AFTER their arbitration award. That makes it super weird when the comp cited has had a post-arbitration spike in performance or if they suddenly cratered. Some of the competitors used Chris Carter as a Jake Lamb comp, for example. As a judge, you have to try to forget that Carter, you know, stinks now. That’s no easy trick.
  • Sometimes comps can create something of a landmine. Competitors representing teams wanted to bring up Josh Donaldson as a comp for Lamb, because Donaldson lost his first arbitration case. In one hearing, the players’ side argued that, while Donaldson may have lost, it was because “his arbitration demand was SUPER aggressive and unreasonable.” No one told them that one of the judges — Washington D.C. attorney Jon Fetterolf — was the guy who represented Donaldson in that arbitration in real life. Awwwwk-waaard.
  • Sometimes — and this definitely applies in general legal cases — the data is less important than the story being told. One can make a case, based on the numbers, that Ken Giles is one of the games’ elite closers. Once can also make a case that he’s been unreliable, having lost his closer job at various times to guys like Luke Gregerson and Will Harris and even to starters like Lance McCullers and Charlie Morton. Both things are true, but one side may be argued more compellingly if you have the skills. Again: arbitrators are not always baseball experts. They can be convinced of things, and at various times on Thursday and Friday, I saw both sides argued quite well.
  • As lawyers make a case in arbitration, they gotta be careful about the politics of it all. If you represent the Cardinals and talk about Michael Wacha like he’s washed up due to shoulder problems, and then you have to see Wacha in the clubhouse the next day, well, that can create some super bad feelings. Likewise, if Ken Giles’ attorneys say in arbitration that the Astros have jerked him around and used crappier pitchers than him when they shouldn’t have, that might create some anger too. Everyone in an arbitration knows what the game is, but there is a human element to it all which can impact working relationships and hurt people’s feelings. Sometimes the law students in the competition remembered that and were diplomatic. Sometimes they forgot that and we’d tell them, with appropriate chuckles, “congratulations, you just ruined the clubhouse chemistry of the reigning World Series champions.”
  • Lastly, and this applies to baseball advocacy and non-baseball advocacy, legal speaking and any other sort of public speaking: if you ever have to speak in public, get away from your notes as much as possible. Commit your prepared materials to memory as much as possible and just talk. That may seem scary, but it’s amazing how much more confident a speaker is when they’re talking rather than reading and how disengaged and sorta non-human they sound when they are reading from a page.

I could go on forever about this kind of stuff. Suffice it to say, though, that for me the competition was fun and fascinating and served to scrape the rust off of my legal advocacy gears. For the competitors, it subjected them to some real world — and tougher than real world — legal conditions which will no doubt serve them well in their careers, whether those careers involve sports law or not. They had to create a strong presentation imbued with an overarching theme, supported by data and visual aides, all of which could be delivered in a 15 minute case-in-chief and a 7.5 minute rebuttal, all while being peppered with questions, not all of which had answers. It may have been fun at times, but I imagine it was super stressful as well.

That stress was compounded by the fact that almost everyone (judges included) had to contend with flight cancellations and delays and, until late Thursday, a lack of water all over the city due to a freak cold snap. We judges moaned and whined about restaurants being closed and not having showers on Thursday morning. The competitors — and the competition’s organizers, all of whom are themselves students — took it in stride. People complain about these kids today, but based on what I’ve seen, these kids today are tougher than most of us Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers. We’re spoiled as hell. Soft too.

In keeping with that theme, allow me to note that, no, there were no mere participation trophies for the assembled law students. There was a winning team: Katherine Whisenhunt and Luke Zaro from the University of Virginia Law School:

In the final round, they argued in favor of Ken Giles, getting him his $4.9 million and defeating the club’s request for $4.15 million. I had the privilege of seeing them argue in preliminary rounds as well as the finals and can say that their victory was well-earned. Some opposing attorneys are going to have their hands full with these two one day. Full with all of the competitors, really, as I didn’t see one team that could not, but for the lack of some gray hair at the temples, pass for practicing lawyers, right now. They were all well-prepared and effective. I’ve said some bad stuff about lawyers since I became a lapsed one, but these kids give me hope for the future of the profession.

As for the Giles case: while the Houston Astros may be the best team in game and while they may employ the best analysts in the game, sometimes it helps to have a trusty lawyer by your side. If you’re struggling, guys, give Katherine and Luke a call. They can probably help you out.