SURPRISE, Ariz. — It was just past 7 a.m. on a recent Saturday, and the day ahead was tightly scheduled. But before they got to meetings, bullpens, pitchers fielding practice, a Cactus League game against Kansas City and the day’s assorted jokes that keep things crisp, the Maddux brothers sat together in a room at the Texas Rangers’ complex here, momentarily pausing to consider the jargon of their craft.
Mike Maddux, 61, is back for his second stint as pitching coach with the Rangers after having served in that capacity from 2009 to 2015. His brother, Greg Maddux, 56, has joined him as a special instructor for three weeks, providing a depth of knowledge that can come only from a Hall of Famer who owns four Cy Young awards and 18 Gold Gloves.
Greg, who retired in 2008, is considered among the most cerebral players in baseball history — whether he thinks so or not — but he had some catching up to do on modern terminology.
“Pistol. I had to learn what a pistol is,” Greg said with his trademark smile that curls into a half-grin, half-smirk.
What it is, he’s discovered, is what he knew in his day as “high cheese.”
“I said, ‘Oh, that’s a high fastball now?’” he said, nodding thoughtfully. “Pistol.”
A franchise that during Mike’s first turn as pitching coach reached the World Series in back-to-back seasons is pushing hard to recapture what once was. The Rangers have not had a winning record since 2016, but they spent $581 million for free agents, including Corey Seager and Marcus Semien, before the 2022 season, then another $244 million last winter for three starting pitchers: Jacob deGrom, Nathan Eovaldi and Andrew Heaney.
They installed the former pitcher Chris Young to run their baseball operations department, hired the three-time World Series-winning manager Bruce Bochy and brought back Mike Maddux.
Shortly after taking the job, Mike invited his brother to help with spring training. Then Greg played in a celebrity golf tournament in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, in December with Bochy and others, and the new manager joined in on the recruiting. By the time the idea went up the chain to Young, who pitched in the same Padres rotation as Greg in 2007 and 2008 and calls him one of his all-time favorite teammates, it was a full-court press.
“Greg, in a lot of ways, was my best pitching coach, and he was a teammate,” Young said. “He’s someone I’ve always respected. I think he’s a genius in the way he’s able to explain pitching and simplify the game. And to have somebody like him around was a no-brainer.”
Together, the Madduxes are in sync from their pitching philosophies all the way to their bawdy humor.
“They’re twisted,” Bochy said, chuckling. “I thought Greg was more twisted, but Mike is right there. They’ve got some great one-liners. There are a lot of laughs.”
Walk by a pitchers meeting before workouts, and you might think a standup comedian is serving as a guest instructor. Between the seams, they make sure each session ends with a joke — volunteers welcome.
“Everybody thinks we’re just yukking it up because everybody is laughing,” Mike said. “But we’re learning while we’re laughing.”
“You try to make stuff fun,” Greg said. “Taking ground balls can be fun. You can laugh and have a good time while you’re doing it. At the same time, work to get better. Practice is fun. So you try and make it fun, right?”
It goes a long way toward keeping the pitchers engaged. Not only did the Rangers staff rank in the bottom third in many key categories in 2022, but their fielding was sloppy, too. Greg, who won more Gold Gloves than any player at any position, can be found each day splitting his time on the half-field, working with pitchers on their fielding, and in the bullpen as they throw.
“Two things,” Mike said. “We’re very like-minded, and —”
“We have the same fundamentals, pretty much,” Greg interrupted.
“Second thing,” Mike continued. “We all want to hear what Greg has to say.”
Ian Kennedy, a 16-year veteran, has worn No. 31 most of his career as a tribute to Greg. Jon Gray, projected as the Rangers’ No. 3 starter, said just noticing Greg watching as he threw in the bullpen was a thrill.
“His insights,” Gray said. “He believes in fielding your position. Controlling the running game. Knowing where you’re at on the field — there always is a place to be. Taking a lot of pride in outs. He definitely knows how to expose weaknesses. Every swing has a weakness.”
Through stops in Milwaukee, Texas, St. Louis and Washington before the Rangers again, Mike has always preached a mantra of commanding the fastball and changing speeds. The brothers are in lock step as they spread that gospel.
“One hundred percent,” Greg said. “You have to do two things to pitch. Command your fastball and change speeds. Whatever pitcher does it the best that day is going to win.
“It’s not a speed contest. It’s a pitching contest.”
Despite his reputation, Greg remains uncomfortable with the word “cerebral.” Others were smarter, he protested, he just worked harder at fundamentals. Coaching for only half the spring is tricky, “but hopefully you say the right things and help guys with their strengths, and hopefully they understand their strengths and pitch accordingly,” he said.
While some players who retired 15 years ago may not resonate today, Mike figures Greg does because his 23 years in the majors crossed multiple generations. From his own experience, Greg figures what he has to say will find at least a few willing ears.
“I always liked when Phil Niekro and Warren Spahn and Johnny Sain would show up, you know?” Greg said. “When I was a young player, I always enjoyed hearing what they had to say.”
The brothers differ in how warm they are to those around them — in his time coaching the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Greg eschewed his brother’s fatherly habit of putting a hand on a pitcher’s shoulder while talking with him — but they find common ground when talking pitch shape and pitch design. They study the latest data and metrics while tailoring their work to individuals. “But we dumb it down as best we can,” Mike said.
“The ultimate question is, where is that pitch going?” he continued. “That is where we come in and say, well, yeah, I’d take less shape in a good spot than all this big shape and ball one. I’ve got to command the baseball. Location is always going to win.”
Terminology changes. The basics do not.
“I’m all for learning how to throw pitches better,” Greg said. “I’m all in on that. I think that’s a great thing. And if you can use the lab to make your curveball curve more or your slider break later or whatever you can do to help you throw better pitches, I’m all in on it.
“But once you step on that mound, it’s all about pitching.”
High cheese or pistol, it doesn’t matter what the pitch is called as long as it reaches its intended location.
“I want to hear some string cheese being thrown around during games, too,” Greg said, grinning, of a well-located, low fastball.
The brothers move along to two-pitch sequencing with the verve of schoolmates, eagerly comparing developments in terms. A “fishhook” is a slider followed by a curve.
“What’s a fastball-changup?” Greg asked.
“Speed dial,” Mike replied.
“I would like to see the double-tap break out a little more,” Greg offered, and Mike agreed that would be a good thing.
“Back-to-back down-and-away, usually strike one, strike two,” Mike said. “If it worked for strike one, it’ll work for strike two. Take it once; take it again.”
Silly stuff. Fun stuff. Important stuff.
And as the Rangers prepare for the grind up ahead, this extra family time is a bonus.
“Talk ball,” Greg said. “Play golf.”
“Act like kids,” Mike agreed. “Ain’t no different than when we were 15 and 10.”
“Yeah, there’s no rules,” Greg said. “You don’t have to grow up.”