Greg Maddux was an absolute joy to watch. On the mound, he was a master with the ability to throw strikes wherever he wanted and whenever he wanted. His best years, spent with the Braves after he joined the team in 1993, were some of the most outstanding seasons by one player in major league history.
But…the meme to the right is less about Maddux’s dominance and more of an inability to properly read split stats. So, let’s dive into what is true and what is false about this often-shared image. Spoiler alert – the biggest statement in the image isn’t true.
Did Greg Maddux face 20,421 batter during his career? Yes. The meme nails this statement perfectly. By the way, he’s one of just 17 pitchers in history to reach the 20,000 mark and ranks 15th all-time. If you’re curious, Bartolo Colon is the current leader with just over 14,000 batters faced.
Did Greg Maddux issue 177 total intentional walks? Also, yes. This might be a little interesting – only one other pitcher issued more. Kent Tekulve was credited with 179 intentional passes, which remains the record.
These numbers are very easy to look up and understand. You can just go to Maddux’s baseball-reference page, linked at the very beginning of this column, and find it. But the middle statement is the difficult one because it requires us to look at career splits stats and that’s where the person who originally wrote this meme gets it wrong – so very wrong.
Split stats have questionable value because it’s rarely a good idea to decrease the available sample size to make observations. Many times, split stats don’t have any kind of repeatable tendency. In one year, a hitter may hit poorly with runners in scoring position and the next, the opposite is true. Fortunately, what this meme doesn’t try to do is make any kind of observation like Maddux shows better-than-average control with a 3-0 count or something like that. Typically, that’s why people who overuse splits data get in trouble. No, this meme just goes the other way – fail to understand what the data is telling him/her.
Oddly, the author actually misleads what the 3-0 stat. The number he was looking for was 312, not 310. Before we get any further, the implication that 177 of those 3-0 counts were intentional walks is also wrong. It’s true that most intentional walks are called before the first pitch of a plate appearance. Occasionally, though, situations during the plate appearance will lead to an intentional walk. Sometimes, the count is 3-1 and a decision is made to just give up on the current hitter rather than throw a potentially juicy strike. Or maybe a stolen base frees up first for the current hitter to occupy. Whatever the case, what we do know is that on 153 Three-oh counts, the next pitch was a ball four and classified as intentional.
The bigger problem with this meme is the idea that Maddux only went to a 3-0 count 310 times (actually 312). This is a misunderstanding of what the stat is trying to tell you. A 3-0 count stat only tells you that the plate appearance ended on the next pitch. To put it another way, 312 times that the count was 3-0, the next pitch ended the plate appearance. In most cases, the next pitch was a ball. That happened 293 times, to be exact. The other 19 times, the hitter had the green light and not only swung the bat, but something – a hit or an out – happened. In those situations, hitters were 7-for-19 with one home run on 3-0 counts.
Twice as many times, the plate appearance continued. The meme doesn’t tell you that, though. What the author should have been looking at was the “After 3-0” split stat. This variation not only includes what, if anything, happened on 3-0 counts, but also what happened if the at-bat continued. For instance, 36 times in his career, Maddux started a plate appearance with a 3-0 count, but struck out the batter. An additional 108 times, Maddux extended the plate appearance with a strike only for the batter to later walk.
Maddux was one of the greatest pitchers to ever play. That’s unquestionably true. However, this meme needs some corrections. It doesn’t make what he did any less impressive, but it will make the meme quite a bit more accurate. In an era of “fake news,” getting things right should be a goal we all strive for. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to fix this.
“Greg Maddux faced 20,421 batters during his career and only issued 293 four-pitch walks. 153 were intentional.”
Still impressive and closer to completely factual, though some might argue that not every four-pitch intentional walk starts that way when the first pitch is thrown. I wouldn’t know what stickler for details like that look like, though.