By Rob Rains
Driving the 166 miles from Houston to Round Rock, Texas gave Mike Maddux some time to think; about what he was leaving behind and where he was going.
It had been less than a week since Maddux was on the mound, making his final major league appearance for the Astros. He had stretched out his career as long as possible, 15 years, and at the age of 38 he was comfortable with the decision that it was time to go.
It was the trip to the unknown destination in the distance that weighed more on Maddux’s mind. When he arrived in Round Rock, he would be entering a new world and he wasn’t certain what it would be like.
A confluence of the end of Maddux’s pitching career and an opening for a pitching coach in the Astros’ farm system at the Double A level had put Maddux into this position in July of 2000.
He accepted the job, but really says his immediate goal back then was a simple one: He had to find out if he liked it.
What he quickly learned, and what others around him saw as well, was that Maddux didn’t like it. He loved it. And he was good at it.
“It happened fast,” Maddux recalled this spring. “I went down there to see if it was something I wanted to do. I thought I would, but until you do it you never know. I went down there and absolutely enjoyed it.”
Jackie Moore, then in the 43rd year of what would eventually be 57 years in professional baseball, was the Round Rock manager that season. He had met Maddux before, when he was running a camp for major-league free agents in spring training in 1995 during the strike, but had not had much contact with him since.
As Maddux arrived in town, Moore was relying on what he had been told by his bosses with the Astros about what to expect from his new coach.
“Mike was highly recommended by Tim Purpura, our farm director at the time, and I thought it was a great idea,” Moore said. “It was obviously his first job but it didn’t take long to realize that he wasn’t going to be in Double A for too long: He was going to be a really good major league pitching coach.
“He wasn’t blessed with outstanding stuff and wasn’t a guy who could throw a 100 mile per hour fastball or whatever. He had to learn how to pitch and that helped make him a great teacher. He could communicate with everybody. He gained a lot of respect very quickly.
“He took the ball and ran with it.”
What Moore saw and observed nearly 18 years ago was on display again this spring in Jupiter, Fla., as Maddux joined the Cardinals as their new pitching coach, the first time in more than 20 years the organization had gone outside its own ranks to fill that position after letting Derek Lilliquist go after last season.
The hiring of Maddux, now armed with the knowledge and experience of 15 years of coaching pitchers at the major-league level, could perhaps be the most important free agent acquisition by the Cardinals in many years.
“He knows what he’s talking about and is very straightforward with it,” said Moore, who was reunited with Maddux a few years later on the staff of the Texas Rangers. “There’s no BS. His major concern is that he wants to make each individual pitcher better. He can relate to them whether they are the number one guy or the 10th or 11th man on the staff. They are just as important to him.
“Whatever he can do to make you better and more comfortable, he has that talent about him. All he wants to do is make someone better.”
The older brother of Greg
Someone who has known Maddux even longer than Moore is his younger brother Greg, the Hall of Fame pitcher who saw his brother’s ability when they growing up in Las Vegas.
“We actually learned from the same coach growing up,” Greg Maddux said in a telephone interview. “We shared a lot of information about hitters over the years. We both had our own careers and then when our careers were over we kind of hooked up again together with Texas. It was amazing how much we learned back in high school that we were still teaching today. We were very fortunate to have a really good coach back in the 80s.”
The first season that Maddux became a coach, Greg Maddux said he got an early indication about what his brother might accomplish.
“I remember a couple of the players got called up by the Astros from Double A that September and they went out of their way to come up to me and tell me how much my brother had helped them,” Greg Maddux said. “That was his first year doing it, and I kind of thought back then maybe there’s something special about him.”
Greg Maddux has come to appreciate his brother’s coaching ability even more the last couple of years as he has gotten involved in his son’s career, now as a pitcher for Nevada-Las Vegas.
“The good coaches probably just enjoy the game a little bit more,” Greg Maddux said. “That’s really the only difference. To coach for as long as he has, after playing as long as he did, you have to appreciate the game and like being around it. I think that shows with him.
“He played parts of 15 seasons. He was a starter, he relieved, he was a fighter. He never gave up. He’s been released, he’s had success. Everything that any player he’s coaching, the points he’s trying to get across to them, he’s already been there and done that on the field. I think that adds a lot of street cred for him.
“It’s pretty easy to coach the X’s and O’s and do the game plans and all that, but being a leader and understanding the different personalities on your staff … I think that’s where the better coaches will excel.”
What does Greg Maddux think his brother will bring to the Cardinals?
“He’s going to bring probably a different mental approach, he’s going to give 100 percent in putting together game plans,” he said. “He’s committed to doing his job right. Over time I think the players will see that. It’s kind of hard to see that in the first month of spring training. Once they are about a month into the season I think the pitchers will start to see how much he cares about them and what they do as individuals.”
The right place at the right time
Maddux, now 56, is joining the Cardinals at a time when the organization is rich in young pitching talent. Luke Weaver broke onto the scene last year. Alex Reyes will be back in a couple months after Tommy John surgery. Jack Flaherty is on the doorstep in Memphis. More talented pitchers are stacked up behind him at the Triple A and Double A levels.
As they work to perfect their craft, Maddux will be there to teach them, benefitting from the 18 pitching coaches he worked with during his own big-league career, and from all of the pitchers he has coached with the Brewers, Rangers and Nationals.
“The individual challenge is getting to learn the guys,” Maddux said. “Building trust. Seeing who needs what, how we can help this guy … Everybody has been very receptive, hungry for ideas. I like what I see. Some of the stuff I liked before I ever talked to these guys.”
After Maddux was hired, he watched video of his new pitchers and jotted down some notes, but tried to not jump to any conclusions before he began working personally with his new students.
“The eye test is what I really rely on,” Maddux said. “It’s a blend of the eyes and the data.”
Buried in that simple sentence is perhaps the biggest reason behind Maddux’s success as a pitching coach: He is a combination of an old-school coach, with traditional philosophies and opinions about pitching, but also someone who is able to comprehend and take advantage of the new information which is available in the game today, thanks to all of the analytical data.
“My basic philosophy is the same,” Maddux said. “I think with time we all get better with experience. The philosophy is to command the fastball and change speeds, attempt to overachieve. That’s the basic foundation of what pitching is. Hitting is timing; pitching is messing with the timing.
“There’s a lot more data out there now. We can see what’s relevant and how we can use it. The analytics can lead us. A guy’s spin rate is this. If he’s got a low spin rate, why is he throwing so many four-seamers? If that’s the spin rate, let’s grab that thing with two seamers.
“It’s the same on the other end. If he has a high spin rate, why don’t we use the top of the zone? We can use the information. Let’s try it instead of waiting half the season and saying, ‘Hey why don’t we do this?’ Now we can go in any say this might be an advantage. Let’s see if it works.
“The spin rates (and other data) kind of give us the why. We always knew a guy had a good high fastball but now we know why he’s got less drop than everybody else: He’s got a higher spin rate. We always knew a guy had a good sinker; now we know why – he doesn’t have a lot of spin on it and gravity pulls it down.”
Maddux, in the opinion of those who know him the best, has the ability to take that scientific knowledge, break it down and communicate it to his pitchers – usually with the intended results. The numbers can lead the way, but the teacher still has to get the student to execute and perform.
“The best compliment I can give Mike Maddux is that baseball is a people business,” Moore said. “You can have all the computers you want, but Mike is going to communicate really well with people. He knows how to handle all the personalities and that’s a real plus for him.
“Mike is going to be the first guy at the ballpark every day and the last guy to leave. His magic formula is that he will let the individual tell him first what they need, what needs to be worked on. He’s a very capable individual. He can give you the confidence that makes your job easier.”
A receptive audience
Every morning during spring training, there was time set aside on the schedule for what Maddux called “game notes” with the Cardinals’ pitchers.
“What did we learn yesterday that is going to make me better today?” Maddux asked. “There are topics that we discuss. Through the years when you see players repeat what we talked about, that’s the pat on the back.
“A lot of things we talk about are life experiences. You take the me out of it and talk about situations; things we learned along the way and when they happen to you, you learn it a little quicker. A lot of things we pass on are self-lived.
“Every day we learn. It’s up to the mentors to pass on what we’ve learned. We call that teaching. You never stop teaching. If you ever stop teaching in this game you should probably get out. It’s what we do.”
One lecture the pitchers probably heard more than once were a couple of Maddux’s biggest pet peeves and neither really had anything to do with pitching.
“I hate 80 foot base hits because we didn’t communicate,” Maddux said. “We have to take charge as a fielder. We also have to handle the bat. It takes God-given talent to hit a ball 400 feet; it takes a lot of ability to hit .300. It takes desire to bunt. We should be able to bunt; by doing that you keep yourself in the game.”
Maddux’s classroom this spring included students with only a couple of years of professional experience to veterans such as Adam Wainwright. All quickly gravitated to their new coach.
“There’s been a lot of great information being shared about the mental side of the game,” Weaver said. “What were you thinking? He doesn’t get so much into the mechanics unless he needs to. He’s got old school values, but they are updated and that makes it a good twist. You get both sides of the spectrum.”
Wainwright knows he can learn from Maddux as well, only the third pitching coach he has had in his 12 years with the Cardinals, following Dave Duncan and Lilliquist.
“I think when he speaks people listen,” Wainwright said. “He’s got a giant pool of knowledge and a pretty good family lineage. I like having an outside voice that didn’t grow up in the Cardinals’ organization to bounce things off of. The things that I’ve learned over the years I’m probably going to stay true to, but it’s nice to have a different perspective.
“Anytime you can add a guy like that to your organization it’s a positive move.”
Manager Mike Matheny fully endorsed the hiring of Maddux and saw the benefit of the move very quickly this spring – almost repeating what Moore saw in Round Rock 18 years ago when Maddux arrived.
“I really enjoy watching how he works with our pitchers,” Matheny said. “He loves communicating. He’s a teacher, an instructor. You can tell guys understand that he knows what he’s doing.
“He’s always thinking about the game. His talks with the pitchers have a point and a purpose. I like the way he is going about it. If you have your eyes open you’re going to learn something from every person that walks through the door.”
That’s exactly what Moore saw when Maddux walked into the Round Rock clubhouse for the first time, and what he also saw with the Rangers. Moore also has seen it away from the ballpark. He and Maddux formed a friendship that is still very close, sharing dinners, hunting trips and fishing trips often during the off-season.
What Moore has known for years, and the Cardinals pitchers are learning now, is that as serious as Maddux is about his job and trying to get the best out of his pitchers, he also has a good time while he is doing it.
Every morning this spring, as the pitchers gathered to begin the day’s workout, Maddux called the group together as “flamethrowers.”
“That’s what we do,” Maddux said. “I can call them professional pitch makers. Sometimes I don’t know what I’m going to say. Sometimes people don’t like what I say.
“We played the game when we were kids and we played it because it was fun. It’s a reminder that you have to love what you do. We have fun, and I think having fun reinforced is big. There’s enough stress in this game. You should laugh every day. That’s good medicine. That’s all part of it.”
Greg Maddux has shared a lot of those happy times with his brother.
“Here we are both in our 50s and we get in the clubhouse and act like we’re 21 again,” Greg Maddux said. “That’s just kind of the love of the game and one of the beauties of baseball. As long as you’re in the game you never have to grow up. It’s pretty special.
“He’s doing it because he wants to, not because he has to, and I think that shows. Growing up we always pulled for one another and today’s no different.”
Maddux was surprised by at least one aspect of his new situation, one he could not see from the outside as he observed the Cardinals from the dugout on the other side of the field.
“The gentlemanly culture that they’ve developed here,” Maddux said. “It’s a very ‘good citizen’ type of atmosphere. It’s pretty neat. From the outside you don’t see how tightly bonded these guys are. The player development has just been outstanding in that regard, turning these guys into men and responsible men at a young age by the time they show up in this clubhouse. It’s pretty neat.”
As Maddux joins that group, he knows what Is expected of him and the contributions he can make to take those young pitchers to the next level of their ability.
“Those pitchers are quickly going to realize, ‘This guy can help me,’” Moore said. “I’ve watched his career and the Cardinals made the right decision getting Mike over there. He’s going to make them better.”
Follow Rob Rains on Twitter @RobRains