I heard a stat yesterday, oh boy, and my first reaction was to sneer at it like I usually do to most end-of-year pseudo records, like Fred McGriff's being the first player to hit 30 home runs for five different teams. That's a dubious distinction, not a record.
The stat to which I refer is Greg Maddux being the first person since the late, great Cy Young to win at least 15 games in 15 straight years. My first reaction was that if this is now we have got to measure the greatness of Greg Maddux, then we've got more troubles than I thought.
Of course Maddux is a great pitcher and one already well-deserving of his waiting plaque in Cooperstown. But wins alone have never been the way to evaluate him, apologies to Joe Morgan. Maddux has only won 20 games twice in his career (and 19 five times), though he was on track for 20 wins in both the strike-shortened seasons (1994-95).
Jim Caple states that Maddux's greatness is easy to overlook because he never struck out 300 in a year or 20 in a game. Maddux is all about control. He is-and I'm becoming Bob Costas as I write this-the thinking man's pitcher. Witness his domination of the Yankees in the 4-0 shutout in the 1996 World Series. He never allowed a ball out of the infield the entire game. Maddux is about placement and movement and speed changes to keep the batter off balance. In controlling these aspects of his pitching game he has induced hundreds of batters to ground out meekly 6-3, 4-3, and especially 1-3 over the course of his career.
So how could this "record" have any bearing on his greatness? Well, I tried to reconsider. Given the unpredictability of even great pitchers year to year, maybe 15 in a row was significant. What do 15 wins represent? In the last few decades, 15 wins mean a solid season for a starting pitcher. Not necessarily anything flashy but rarely do you see a so-so pitcher collect 15 wins (Aaron Sele aside). There are pitchers who have good season that don't win 15 games. I'll use my favorite example: Nolan Ryan went 8-16 in 1986 while leading the league with a 2.76 ERA (42% better than the park-adjusted average).
For Maddux, having 15 wins for 15 seasons means that he has been a consistently solid pitcher for 15 of his 16 seasons. Is that good compared to the greatest pitchers of all time? One thing that impressed me more about Maddux is that he has also has a park-adjusted ERA (Thanks Baseball-Reference.com) at least 10% better than the league average for the past 15 years as well. Is that a particularly compelling argument for his superior abilities?
Let's take a look at Hall of Fame starting pitchers to determine how unusual the feat is. I'll list each pitcher, the number of times he won 15 in a row, the number of times he won 15 in total, the number of times in a row he had an adjusted ERA at least 10% better than league average (110+ ERA+), and the total number of 110+ ERA+ seasons, his total number of seasons, and the percentage of 15-win and 110+ERA+ seasons. I have included Babe Ruth and Monte Ward as Hall of Fame pitchers. I also added a few of Maddux's contemporaries for perspective:
Well, Maddux is also the first pitcher since Grover Cleveland Alexander to have 15 seasons in a row with an adjusted ERA at least 10% better than the league. Cy Young is the only other to do it. 65% of the HoFers years had 110+ ERA+ while about 10% fewer had 15 wins. The average HoFer (or future HoFer) had an extra half-year in their longest 110+ ERA+ streak than in their longest 15 W streak. On the basis of this I would say my B.S. stat is better than their 15-win streak B.S. stat. So there.