Catching Greg Maddux in '95 was catching a master in his prime. I have worked with a lot of talented cats. They all impressed me with their ability, their determination. But Greg was something different, something special. The dude was just locked in all season long. It was like he was pitching as well as anybody can pitch. Looking back, I realize what a gift it was to work with a guy who is one of the game's all-time great pitchers. Not only that, but to catch him during a season when he was at his peak. Pitching the best baseball of his life. It was a privilege, and I don't know that another pitcher will ever play as well as Greg did in '95. Ever. And, working with him that season, that's one of the coolest things I did in my career.
I became his catcher in part because he pitched on rhythm. Once he was in the flow of the game, he wanted to keep throwing, keep the game moving. He didn't want the catcher to take a lot of time in between pitches to figure out the next pitch to call. I was in the right place at the right time, because our starting catcher, Javy Lopez, was young. Still learning how to call a game. He hadn't mastered the intricacies of pitch selection and reading scouting reports, keeping straight who's hot and what the hitters' tendencies are. It's a lot of information to remember and apply during a game. I had been around the league for a while. Knew how to call a game. Knew the hitters. I wouldn't slow Greg down, so Greg was like, "Why not throw to this guy?"
Once I started catching him, I found out a few things that Greg liked. For one, he wanted you to set up early. Liked having a target to zero in on. Some pitchers want you to set up at the last second when they're making their delivery home. That reduces the chances of tipping pitches. Not Greg. He wanted his target established before he started his delivery. So, I set up low and wide to the ground, creating as large of a target as I could. Some catchers would set up higher on breaking balls, lower on fastballs. I didn't do that. Tried to offer the same low, wide target regardless of the pitch. Pitchers like this because it looks spread out and easy to hit.
Another thing he liked was the way I caught the ball. I wouldn't move. I tried to sit there and be still. Some catchers are kind of herky-jerky and stab for the ball. Lunge their bodies. All of this jostling can make the umpire think that the pitcher is off target. That the catcher is reaching for the ball outside of the strike zone. But, if the umpire doesn't perceive any movement, he may think that the pitcher hit his target. You improve your chances of him calling it a strike. So, I tried to be still. Relaxed. Know the pitch that's coming and read the ball from the pitcher's hand and anticipate where the glove should be. Move my glove slightly and do my best for it to appear that the pitcher hit his target. Growing up, I always liked how Bob Boone received the ball so quietly, and I tried to model this part of his game. In between pitches, I might move a step one way or another, but, once I set up, I sat there. Plus, by being still, you create an easier target for the pitcher. It's the same thing as when you're shooting something: it's harder to hit a moving target than it is a still one. Pitchers loved my stillness. By my moving only slightly, they felt locked in because it looked like they were hitting their target nearly every time.
Greg had the best control I ever saw. Talk about a guy hitting his spots pitch after pitch. One way I took advantage of this was how I set up behind the plate. I positioned my hand on the corner of the plate and caught the ball with the tip of the glove actually off of the plate. Doing this made pitches that were balls look like strikes. Kind of like an optical illusion. With Greg consistently hitting his target and me being perfectly still, it pressured the umpire to call strikes. Greg had a reputation for throwing strikes. He was hitting his spots. I wasn't moving at all to catch the pitches, so they must be strikes, right? The other team couldn't complain because I caught the ball so it looked like he was throwing strikes. The combination of Greg's control and the tricks I learned about framing pitches was lethal. Meant he could wear out the corner of the plate all day long. It's fun now to watch replays of some of those games and see how many of his pitches were called for strikes that were really balls.
Don't get me wrong: framing pitches or stealing strikes is neat and everything, but it works only if the pitcher can
hit the target. Greg could do it nearly every time. His control was unlike anything I've ever seen. He was a hell of a pitcher, one of the two best pitchers I ever caught, and I caught just about all of the great pitchers of the '90s with the exception of Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Mike Mussina. Greg could place a ball anywhere. With most pitchers, the ball tends to tail to the side that the pitcher's throwing from. What I mean is that, if the pitcher is right-handed, the ball will tend to move to the right side or the arm side of the plate. Greg, though, could place the ball so it moved five feet in front of home plate either to the left or the right. And, his accuracy was phenomenal. During the game, he might miss one or two pitches. I could've caught him while I sat in a rocking chair. All I had to do was hold up my glove, and he would hit it. And, he was very demanding of himself. If he missed a spot during his warm ups, he would scream. I was like, "Dude, we're just warming up here." During a game, though, he maintained his composure. If he gave up a hit, he might holler a little, but he wouldn't get flustered. Some guys, they fire their gloves. Kick shit around. Not Greg. He moved on to the next hitter.
The big question is how did he have such great control? What could other pitchers mimic and have the same results? I don't know the answer. A lot of it was that he had a unique talent. Another thing was that he understood how his mechanics worked better than most pitchers. When Greg was coming up with the Cubs, Dick Pole was his pitching coach. Dick made Greg understand why certain pitches worked. What they were supposed to do once Greg released the ball. What in his mechanics caused this. Dick's thinking was that, every time Greg got into a jam, Dick couldn't get into Greg's brain and help him figure out what wasn't working. Greg needed to do this on his own. Needed to make adjustments while he was pitching and not wait until in between innings to hash it out with his pitching coach. So, he had to explain to Dick why some pitches worked and why others didn't. Greg learned to understand what his body was doing to cause these differences. From that, he figured out what adjustments he needed to make.
While we're on mechanics, I'll add that Greg had good ones. His delivery was consistent. Dick worked with him on the positioning of his head, chin, and stride. How he removed the ball from his glove. His tempo. All the fundamentals that he used in the big leagues, Greg credited Dick Pole with most of these. He used his legs properly. Avoided placing stress on his arm and the rest of his body. Pitched with a good arm angle. His front shoulder closed when he delivered the ball to home plate. Had a smooth finish where both feet landed square to home. His finish placed him in a perfect position to field the ball. That's part of the reason why he won so many Gold Gloves. He expected the ball to be hit back to him, and he'd make five or six fielding plays a night.
With Greg, I can go on and on. Talk about pitch selection. The movement of his pitches. His changeup and how he could slow the game down and throw off hitters' timing. Talking shop with him about how we'd handle certain hitters, certain situations. About how you always had to watch out for the shit he'd pull in the clubhouse. But, the bottom line is, he's one of the best pitchers I ever caught. And, like I said, I caught a lot of them.