The Hot Button: Glavine, Maddux or Smoltz – who was best?

Tom Glavine was the one who got it all going and who was MVP of the only World Series the Atlanta Braves won, and John Smoltz was the one who saw the run of excellence through until its ridiculously delayed end. They were great pitchers, first-ballot Hall of Famers. Greg Maddux was more than just a great pitcher. He was the greatest of his era — yes, this includes Roger Clemens — and among the five greatest ever.

Glavine had more 20-win seasons (five to Maddux’s two, and one of the two was as a Cub). Smoltz was more utilitarian (a 24-win season and a 55-save season). But Maddux stands above his longtime companions — first among equals, if you will — because of his matchless consistency.

The Braves will induct Mad Dog — or “Doggie,” or, as Bobby Cox sometimes had it, just “Mad” — into their Hall of Fame tomorrow, and such a designation for this particular pitcher seems slightly off. Maddux was never really “famous” in the way Clemens was famous. (Then again, Clemens is now infamous.) Maddux was just without peer at what he did, and what he did, in his unassuming words, was to “try and make pitches and get guys out.” (See YouTube video below, courtesy of Fox Sports.)

For 17 consecutive seasons, Maddux won at least 15 games. (Yes, that’s a record.) Yes, the first five and the final one came as a Cub, but think of it this way: In the winter of 1992 the Braves signed a free agent who would, without fail, give them at least 15 victories in every season for more than a decade. Not for nothing did Stan Kasten call Maddux “the greatest free-agent signing ever,” and the only one that rivals him is the guy who signed with San Francisco a few days earlier at those same winter meetings at the Galt House in Louisville, Ky. — Barry Bonds.

From 1992 through 1995, Maddux was almost as dominant as Sandy Koufax was from 1963 through 1966, which figures to stand forever as the finest string of pitching the game has ever known. (Koufax had an ERA under 2.00 in three of those four years; Maddux had an ERA under 2.00 in two of his four.) But here’s the difference: After 1966, Koufax never threw another pitch. After 1995, Maddux won 205 more games.

My neighbor Dan Reagan, who used to direct Braves telecasts for TBS and who now does games for ESPN, used to get irritated because the national media never affixed an aura to Maddux. He was never a Clemens, a Pedro, a Big Unit. He was just … Greg Maddux. Which was fine with Greg Maddux.

Indeed, I once asked Maddux about Randy Johnson, and Maddux shrugged — Maddux was big on shrugging — and said, “He throws his slider harder than I throw my fastball.” He also said, of Johnson’s famous sobriquet, “Only good players get cool nicknames.”

Who was the best of the three?

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But here’s the thing: With his underwhelming fastball and his modest nickname, Maddux outpitched the Big Unit, outpitched Pedro, outpitched even Clemens. Yes, Clemens had more Cy Youngs — seven to Maddux’s four — but Clemens also had four seasons in the ’90s where he totaled 40 victories. And nobody ever suggested Maddux would test positive for anything other than trans fats. (Don Sutton: “Greg Maddux’s idea of training is to run, not walk, to Burger King.”)

In the 10 seasons of the exalted partnership, we Atlantans were spoiled beyond measure. We saw three bound-for-Cooperstown pitchers take regular turns, feeding off one another as they went. We saw Glavine with the changeup and Smoltz with the slider, and somehow the guy we noticed least was the best of the three.

Greg Maddux didn’t really do anything special. He just made pitches and got guys out. Except that he made most all the pitches and got nearly every guy out every fifth day of his baseball life.

207 comments Add your comment


July 16th, 2009
11:01 am

Smoltz, because of his performance in the clutch, ability to come back from injury, leadership and determination. Then Maddux, then Glavine.


July 16th, 2009
11:07 am

I believe that Maddux was the best. He was the most consistent and he was durable. However, I think we are splitting hairs here, they were all pretty darn special.

NC Braves Fan

July 16th, 2009
11:08 am

Maddux for the marathon, Smoltz for the postseason sprint.


July 16th, 2009
11:09 am

I will go with NC Braves Fan on this one

Reid Adair

July 16th, 2009
11:11 am

Greg Maddux never worried about what other people felt, especially the fact that, as Mark mentioned, so many people spent more time talking about who he WASN’T rather than who he WAS.

He went out and did his thing. He threw strikes and got batters out. The Cy Youngs and the numbers speak for themselves.

Like “Mac,” I think John Smoltz was a better leader, but neither Smoltz nor Tom Glavine touched the numbers and the accomplishments that Maddux did.

roger smith

July 16th, 2009
11:19 am

my sons and i watched maddux decimate the cardinals one fine day in St. Louis. it was an amazing thing to have seen, game over when one would normally be doing the 7th inning stretch.


July 16th, 2009
11:20 am

Years from now people will say that Maddux was one of the best pitchers to ever play the game. I don’t think Smoltz and Glavine will get that kind of praise. People will say they were good, bu no Maddux.


July 16th, 2009
11:21 am

Maddux for his consistency. Nothing is more valuable in a starting pitcher than good consistency. When you know what you’re getting every day he goes out there, you know what you can count on and what you’ll need to do in those games.

Mark Bradley

July 16th, 2009
11:25 am

If we were rating pitchers solely on postseason performance, Curt Schilling would be Cy Young.

Herschel Talker

July 16th, 2009
11:27 am

NC Braves fan nailed it: Maddux for the marathon, Smoltz for the postseason sprint.

July 16th, 2009
11:29 am

Greg Maddux, and I’m not sure it’s even close. Glavine and Smoltz were great. Special. Fun to watch. Still, they were not Greg Maddux. Ask Smoltz and Glavine who the best of the three was. They will tell you.

Ken Stallings

July 16th, 2009
11:30 am

This one’s a no-brainer, Mark, and I’m glad to see you validated the obvious conclusion. Greg Maddux was, as you wrote, one of the five best pitchers in the history of baseball. There is only one pitcher in the history of the Braves who arguably was better, and that was Warren Spahn.

In the full afterglow of history, one wonders if Roger Clemmons did not “‘roid up” in his later post-season appearances. I still believe Clemmons was heavily juiced up in the Yankees series against the Mets. The then shocking instance where Clemmons threw a broken bat head back at Mets catcher Mike Piazza was inexplicable, until that is, steroids abuse became a known reality with Clemmons. Now, it makes all sense!

Juiced up like that, beyond rational thought process, perhaps it helps explain dominance in the World Series. Take steroids out of the game, and the post-season accomplishments of Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz likely increases beyond their already HOF worthy accomplishments.

This is the lasting tragedy of the steroids era. All players got tarnished by the 10-20% of players who used them. They suffer a stigma attached directly to them and their accomplishments done genuinely are diminished in comparision to the inflated numbers that steroids provided.

It would have been nice, ideal perhaps, to have Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz all three at the HoF podium on their first year of eligibility. This won’t happen. Maddux is retired and Smoltz and Glavine are still active. Maddux will go in the hall at least one year prior. But what a marvelous message to send to have all three at the podium in sequence — three masterful pitchers who had no taint of steroid or HGH abuse in their careers.

Well, there would be one thing sweeter … to have Dale Murphy stand at the podium to give his own speech!

Mark Bradley

July 16th, 2009
11:32 am

You know me, Ken. I got no brain.

NC Braves Fan

July 16th, 2009
11:38 am

Ken Stallings – not to get the conversation off-topic, but I think a lot more than 10-20% of the players juiced in the 90’s and early part of this decade. It’s like a sportswriter I read on the West Coast said a few months back – if the stars were using it to gain an edge, what do you think the fringe guys were doing?

NC Braves Fan

July 16th, 2009
11:39 am

And Mark – you nailed it about Maddux – he was a pure joy to watch. The young’uns will be talking about him 50 years from now.

Mike Jay

July 16th, 2009
11:41 am

You left out one of my favorit Maddux stats:
From 1994 – 1997 he averaged 25.5 walks per season while averagin 222 innings pitched and 171.5 strike outs. That is redicolous!


July 16th, 2009
11:42 am

Each one of them was special in their own way. Smoltz, because every time they said he was finished, he came back. Glavine, because he won 305 games without much “stuff”. Maddux, because he could probably dot an “i” from 60 ft 6 inches away. All that being said, Smoltz was my favorite but Maddux was probably the best.


July 16th, 2009
11:43 am

I agree that Maddox was the best of the three. One reason that mad dog did not have more hype is that he somewhat underperformed in high profile playoff games where everyone was watching.

Sting 'em Buzz

July 16th, 2009
11:47 am

I’d rank then Doggie, Smoltzie and Glavine

Sting 'em Buzz

July 16th, 2009
11:47 am

them rather than then

Jo Bling

July 16th, 2009
11:51 am

Comparing Maddux to Glavine and Smoltz isn’t really a serious question. The real question is where does Maddux fit into the list of all-time greatest pitchers EVER. I think he rates pretty high. Greatest pitcher of my generation, hands down. A true master of the craft – an artist at work.


July 16th, 2009
11:55 am

I find it laughable how so many velocity snobs still have trouble giving Maddux his due. As if we should qualify his body of work because he didn’t have overpowing ’stuff.’

The job of a pitcher is to get as many outs as possible while giving up as few runs as possible. No one in recent memory has done it better over a career.

And Maddux was pretty good in the postseason as well. He just had trouble too often with lack of run support, better known these days as Jurrjens/Vazquez Syndrome.


July 16th, 2009
11:56 am

Maddux of course, because he is one of the immortals. End of discussion.

That being said, I still think Tom Glavine was the most valuable of the 3 as a brave, he of the World Series MVP. He averaged 15.4 wins a season as a brave, including a ridiculous 5 -20 win seasons, and if memory serves me correctly, he never missed a start and in fact led the league 5 times in games started.

While he was certainly not the pitcher Maddux was, his value as a Brave cannot be over-stated.

Mark Bradley

July 16th, 2009
11:56 am

After further review, this Hot Button mightn’t have been so hot. I note 59 people have voted in the poll — 56 of them for Maddux.

Next week’s topic: Best catcher in history — Johnny Bench or Paul Bako?


July 16th, 2009
12:00 pm

No question whatsoever. Maddux. The only one who accepted that the Braves were going in another direction and accepted it with class.


July 16th, 2009
12:12 pm

Maddux is one of the greates pitchers of all time. Glavine and Smoltz, though both great, are not in his class. I think Smoltzy would have been close if not for all the injuries.


July 16th, 2009
12:12 pm

Mr. Bradley is exactly right, we were spoiled beyond measure. For the record,Maddux, Smoltz and Glavine in that order.

Got 12 but nothing in quite a while....

July 16th, 2009
12:13 pm

Maddux…Smoltz….Glavine…..then Bedrock

Uncle Rico

July 16th, 2009
12:15 pm

not to sound like an annoying GT guy, but it depends on how you choose to define “best”.
Most consistent? Most dominant? Most reliable? Best numbers over a career? Best numbers over a 3-5 season stretch (a la Koufax)? Postseason stats? Intangibles like mojo, leadership, etc?

the answer to most of the above would be either GM or JS, IMO.
TG is a distant 3rd in everything except total #’s (five 20-win seasons is damn good), & reliability.

Between Smoltz & Maddux, I would give a very slight edge to Maddux. His stuff was better than people think but still nowhere as good as Smoltzy’s, so GM got more done w/less talent than JS had.
GM lead by ex. & was always willing to help mentor younger guys. Plus, he was a complete fool & loved to pull pranks, which is immensely important over the grind of 162 games.
Glavine is a dead fish that had/has the personality of a Puritan preacher…no leadership skills at all.

they all deserve a Coop’town plaque, but 30 yrs from now, my grandkids will be amazed when I tell them I saw Maddux & Smoltz pitch for 15+ yrs – both in the reg season & in the WS.


July 16th, 2009
12:19 pm

Maddux was the best I’ve ever seen. Glavine was wiley-with the help of getting a foot off the plate for his entire career. Smoltz was great in the postseason and apart for 1996 was not as consistent as the others.

Pretend Hero

July 16th, 2009
12:21 pm

I will always be greatful for the memories of all three, but its hard to say anyone other than Greg Maddux. For anyone who was watching while he was here, the dominance was so subtle as to be blinding.

So many things stand out about Maddux. The streak of consecutive innings without a walk. The gold gloves. The 76 pitch sub three hour complete game. The personal catcher. The stories about him in the dugout predicting where the ball would be hit.

There is so much to cherish in the memories of how great Maddux was. The fact that most people on the national level never recognized how incredibly dominant he was from 92 until 97 makes it that much sweeter to those of us who had the good fortune to watch him night in and night out.

All that said, I think there is no question that Glavine and Smoltz are first ballot hall of fame pitchers. Its just that I think Maddux is one of the two or three greatest ever to play the game, and that is rare company.


July 16th, 2009
12:23 pm

Maddux was the best pitcher and certainly has much more class.


July 16th, 2009
12:31 pm

I can’t see how anyone could even put Smoltz close to Maddux. JS was good, but his best ERA for a season as a starter was 2.85 in 1992. Maddux had EIGHT years better than that, including six with an ERA 2.36 or better. An out is an out, whether by strike out or not. (BTW, Maddux has him beat there too, 3371-3028)

And during the time both were in the rotation together (93-99), Maddux outdid the ‘greatest postseason pitcher ever’ in the playoffs.

Maddux: 10-9 2.39 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 99 K, 34 BB

Smoltz: 7-4 3.12 ERA, 1.14 WHIP, 106 K, 41 BB


July 16th, 2009
12:32 pm

I gotta go with Smoltz because of the postseason. Always bugged me that Maddux lost game 5 in 95 after going 19-2. He also could have righted the ship in the 96 WS but failed in game 6. I believe he also was the losing pitcher in game 6 of the inexcusable Phillie series in 93. (Heard a McGriff interview a couple years ago. When he talked about the 93 Philly series, he had me convinced that was a worse meltdown than San Diego in 98). Bottom line was he was the losing pitcher in the last game of two of the worst fiascos in the Braves checkered post season history.

Najeh Davenpoop

July 16th, 2009
12:33 pm

Towards the end of their careers I might guve the edge to Smoltz, just because of the unique way he reinvented himself as a dominant closer after being a dominant starter for so long, and because Maddux fell off a little after leaving Atlanta. But there’s no question that Maddux was by far the best at his peak. For about three seasons he was practically unhittable.


July 16th, 2009
12:44 pm

Glavine was good. Smoltz was great. Maddux was the best.


July 16th, 2009
12:50 pm

Greg couldn’t have put his contacts in for that photo, which I’ve seen hundreds of times? That to me was typical of Maddux – never too worried about what people thought and a heart rate that never went over 60. Yet as intense as anyone on the mound.

jeffrey d

July 16th, 2009
12:52 pm

Not to be closed minded, but I don’t see how you can say anybody but Maddux was the best. Smoltz and Glavine were great to be sure. But Maddux was ridiculous. I’m sad that I was too young to appreciate a lot of his work at the time (I was about 10 when he posted back-to-back seasons with ERAs in the one’s)

First ballot Hall of Famers, but Maddux should be unanimous (but he probably won’t be). He’s by far the greatest pitcher of my generation. Better than Clemens, better than Pedro, better than Johnson.


July 16th, 2009
12:52 pm

Maddux easy.

Bobby Cox

July 16th, 2009
12:54 pm

all were great, but give the nod to Maddux. Better pitcher and character. Never whined about the club after he left unlike the other two.


July 16th, 2009
12:55 pm

Hoosier Aaron

July 16th, 2009
12:57 pm

I had the opportunity to see Tom Seaver pitch a few times in Cincinnati.
Each time I came away even more impressed than the time before.

The first time I saw Maddux in person was in Cincinnati.
After the game I said, “Television does not do this guy justice”.

I saw Glavine and Smoltz in person as well….neither (in my opinion) are nearly as good as Seaver or Maddux.

A few years ago – I saw Clemems pitch at Wrigley Field and came away with the same feeling I had after watching Seaver and Maddux…that feeling has cooled in the last year or so.


July 16th, 2009
12:58 pm

This was easy and it seems everyone agrees that Maddox was in a class by himself. Smoltz is second, but is not even close to Maddox.

Glavine can go visit them both since he is not, nor was he ever, in their class either as a pitcher or as a person (”I’ll take the millions and dump on the Braves by playing for the Mets, and then when I get released there I will go back to Atlanta and cry foul when they release me because I am old and broken down”).


July 16th, 2009
1:00 pm


Probably the best you’ve written, well done.


July 16th, 2009
1:00 pm

Remind us of Smoltz’s post season.The part I remember was he had all those appearances with the Braves. But what did he really do when it REALLY mattered? Lets see….Glavine had the 1-0 win in 95 vs. Injuns. He did his job when he only got 1 run to play with. He shut them down to zero. Smolz in 91 went the distance but gave up a run (Jack Morris of the Twins did his job and held the Braves to zero).Smoltz had a high tendency to be totally dominant and then for some reason lose his focus and give up what would be pivital runs. I say Maddux, and then Glavine, and then I say Smoltz will NOT be a first ballot HOF’er.


July 16th, 2009
1:01 pm

In my opinion Maddux was the best overall, but each of the others had some characteristic that made him the best in that category. When it came to mental toughness it was Glavine, when it came to getting up for the post season it was Smoltz and then Glavine, although Glavine was always tough in the post season earlier in his career. It was always a Joy for me to go to the Ted whenever Maddux was pitching, such artistry we may never see again.

lakerat - 00Ps - Maddux

July 16th, 2009
1:02 pm


July 16th, 2009
1:05 pm

This is not even a question. All you have to do is see who was the ace at the time. One pitcher had to pitch with the second string catcher to give the better hitting catcher a day b/c we needed less offense that day. Many people thought it was b/c he wanted a personal catcher but Cox cleared that one up. One was in the rotation the day after the #5 guy went. One guy has more wins and is the person people put in the hat as the greatest pitcher of his era and that is Maddux. Now I think the real arguement is Glaving and Smoltz. Most will say Smoltz but that is b/c they are thinking too much about recent history and not about what each accomplished earlier in thier career. That is a tough one for sure.

The Truth

July 16th, 2009
1:07 pm

Hey Mark, I knew this blog would eventually come up sometime. I can give you a more specific perspective in that I played baseball through college and was a catcher. Yes, I have the bad fingers and toes to prove it. But to the point, when my friends would ask me who I thought was best or who I would like to catch I went past the results (which are important) and went with sheer pitching ability and ’stuff’. I would have to go with Smoltz because he….

a. had the filthiest stuff (what a slider, just wicked)
b. clutch pitcher
c. the old question, if you had one game to win at all costs, who are you going to choose?

Glavine, a great intelligent pitcher who was always cool under pressure, Maddux, the ultimate professional who game planned from spring training on and never threw the same bad pitch twice. But on sheer pitching ability, Smoltz truly stood out to me. The sad part was I thought that Steve Avery was going to be the best of the lot….I wonder what really, truly happened to him??


July 16th, 2009
1:10 pm