Maddux's Success "Blowin' in the Wind"

The great tragic figure of sport is always the great athlete in the twilight of his career, struggling to compete at a fraction of his former brilliance. The idea of the once proud man brought low has been one of the great conceits of the human mind since the days of Sophocles.

The images of Michael Jordan limping around the court in Washington, Mickey Mantle floundering in center field with a devastated knee and destroyed liver, and Willie Mays hitting .211 for the Mets in 1973 are constantly invoked when media folk urge a diminished star to finally retire.

What is usually forgotten during those sessions of wailing and teeth gnashing is the offending star is often still quite productive. The "low quality" of the star's play is rarely that, often a mere case of the player's past brilliance outshining his current usefulness.

Mays hit .250/.400/.402 in his second to last season; his 131 OPS+ that year is better than any single season total posted by Andruw Jones, for example. Mantle remained a fairly potent offensive threat until the day he hung up his spikes, too. The last season of his career saw The Mick post a 141 OPS+.

All of this is a very long way of urging the reader not to underestimate the value of Greg Maddux's contribution to the 2005 Chicago Cubs. If nothing else, Maddux will have a crucial role to play as an anchor and stabilizing presence in a Cub rotation in desperate need of brick and mortar. Already two important aspects of the team's dreams of contention, Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, have suffered worrisome injuries to their gifted right arms.

Despite ruling the pair out of action for their opening series against Arizona, the Cubs contend the injuries aren't serious. That would be somewhat re-assuring if the team had not amply demonstrated that relying on them for truthful injury information was slightly more foolish than depending on Fox News for fair and balanced reporting.

The situation is especially dangerous for Wood, whose delivery has always had all the mechanical soundness of a Soviet-made automobile. Meanwhile, Prior has suffered some form of injury in each of his first three seasons in the majors.

With physical concerns surrounding Prior and Wood, workload issues and occasional mental breakdowns plaguing Carlos Zambrano, and questions of effectiveness centered around Glendon Rusch, the soon to be 39-year-old Maddux looks to be a crucial component of the Cubs' postseason hopes.

It's easy to overstate the extent of Maddux's decline simply because his peak was so laughably brilliant. Atlanta Braves' fans grew to loathe Maddux after a perfectly respectable 2003 campaign that saw him throw 218 1/3 innings, put up a 105 ERA+, and toss a solid postseason start against Prior and the Cubs. His ERA last year was slightly higher, but the more difficult offensive environment in which he pitched in masked a superior strikeout rate and identical walk totals.

In fact, those two numbers (walks and strikeouts) augur optimistically for Maddux's 2005 campaign. A strikeout rate that had been plummeting for years saw a dramatic up-tick, rising to 6.40 per nine innings last year. And it goes without saying that his walk rate was obscenely good.

What killed Maddux in 2004 were spiking home run totals. The dingers should not be explained away easily. Maddux, while still brilliant at preventing walks, has lost a certain amount of control from his peak days. Combined with a small dip in velocity, that loss of control can be expected to produce home run balls.

That said, home runs for a pitcher are flukier than strikeouts and walks, and in Wrigley Field, a pitcher's success at keeping a ball in the park is at the mercy of the vicissitudes of the infamous Wrigley weather.

Even if Maddux never regains the most glorious of his glory days, it's good to know there is still cause for optimism. The answer for Maddux is blowin' in the wind, as it is for so many Chicago pitchers.

E-mail Andrew Bare at andrewbare29@hotmail.com.


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