Thursday, December 5, 2013
They’re First Ballot Hall of Famers, End of Discussion
Well, now. A Baseball Writers Association of America member with Hall of Fame voting privileges elected to sell this year's privilege to Deadspin.com. Meaning that said writer's going to fill out his ballot based on the tally from Deadspin respondents.
The theory behind the curious move, of course, is to show up what seems an increasingly absurd vote process in which the 10-name limit hamstrings the voting writers. And, in last year's case, leaves no player elected to the Hall of Fame despite several who deserved to be.
Be afraid. Be very afraid. If the absurdities of the writers' ballot rules are bad enough, even one fan-based vote portends to be worse. SportsNation.com has taken a fan poll that provides evidence enough. According to that poll, Greg Maddux doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame on the first ballot. Nor do Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas.
Last year's voting writers ought to have been held accountable for last year's absurdity. Never mind the class of actual or alleged performance-enhancing substance users on the ballot who factored in the outcomes to one or another extent. But David Schoenfeld of SweetSpot probably isn't the only observer implying that the SportsNation.com poll voters should require psychiatric attention post haste.
Greg Maddux isn't a first-ballot Hall of Famer? Let's send those people back through time and watch them try to explain why Sandy Koufax wasn't a first ballot Hall of Famer. That comparison isn't as absurd as you might think. Schoenfeld isolates the point admirably:
"During his seven-year peak from 1992 to 1998, he went 127-53 with a 2.15 ERA, while averaging 32 starts, 239 innings, 184 strikeouts, 38 walks and just nine home runs per season. He won four straight Cy Young Awards and had back-to-back seasons in '94 and '95 with ERAs of 1.56 and 1.63, all while pitching in the heart of a high-scoring era. In '94 and '95, the average National League team scored 4.63 runs per game; compare that to 2012-2013, when the average NL team averaged 4.11 runs per game...
"Think about that. You have a guy who had the peak of a Sandy Koufax, plus 12 more seasons where he was better than league average (and sometimes much better). You could actually extend his peak from 1992 to 2002, when he went 198-88 with a 2.47 ERA. His ERA+ — ERA adjusted for the run-scoring environment pitched in — over those 11 seasons was 171, a figure Koufax topped in just two individual seasons."
Actually, Maddux averaged 154 strikeouts per 162 innings, but let's not get technical. Perhaps there lies one key to why some fans seemingly don't think of him at once as a pitcher who was that great: he wasn't a pure power pitcher. His fastball topped in the low 90s and often didn't cross the threshold of 90. He pitched with an additional organ: his brain. He was the quintessential thinking person's pitcher in the quintessential thinking person's sport. Oh, the horror.
"Maddux was always a bit coy about what made him so good," Schoenfeld writes. "It was like he had discovered this great mystery, but needed to keep it to himself. Teammates often talked about his encyclopedic knowledge of opponents or his ability to read into a batter's body language, but Maddux always played this down. I remember interviewing him once and asking something along those lines and he simply joked, 'Well, if I told you I'd have to kill you.' He then took a baseball and showed how he would change his grip or finger pressure for different pitches, but he had such a big smirk on his face that to this day I think he was simply screwing with me."
Maybe. Maybe not. All I can tell you from having watched the man pitch is that Maddux usually thought about four hitters ahead of the one he faced and tended to think about three pitches ahead of the guy at the plate in the moment while he was at it. They used to talk about pitchers who could throw lamb chops past wolves. Maddux made the wolf think the lamb chop was a chef's salad.
Perhaps the fans in the SportsNation.com absurdity simply held the Braves' lack of World Series rings against him? The Braves won one World Series for all those division titles and trips to the National League Championship Series (seven) and World Series appearances (five) they had during Maddux's (and Glavine's) tenures with the team. They also forged an image for professionalism that often crossed the line to colorlessness, or so it seemed both in the time and in hindsight.
Don't blame Maddux for their lack of Series success. Lifetime in the World Series he went only 2-3, but with an ERA of 2.09 and a WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) of 0.91. That's about as close to Koufax (0.95; 0.83) as you can get, allowing that you had to go through a couple of prior postseason sets to get there in the first place and throwing to inflated offenses while you were at it.
Want to know what Maddux's wins-above-replacement-level pitcher are? How does 104.6 strike you? He's 25th on the all-time list overall and seventh on the all-time list among pitchers. On the Bill James Hall of Fame metric, Maddux meets 70 of the Hall of Fame pitching standards where the average Hall of Fame pitcher would meet 50. On the Hall of Fame pitching monitor? The average Hall of Fame pitcher would pull up with a 100. Maddux pulls up with a 254.
And to think I managed to discuss all the foregoing before mentioning, for those who like this sort of thing, that he has 355 wins and a .610 lifetime winning percentage. Not to mention that in his time and in his prime they didn't talk about Maddux as the greatest pitcher of his time. There were plenty talking about Maddux being maybe the greatest right-handed pitcher ever. And not just based on one big season, either.
While I looked at Maddux again, I looked at his longtime running mate, too. Those who snort that Maddux had only a pair of 20+ win seasons might be impressed that Tom Glavine had five of them and won a pair of Cy Young Awards in the bargain. He might have bagged another Cy or two if he didn't have Maddux as a rotation mate all those years.
Glavine (74 lifetime WAR; 305 wins, .600 lifetime winning percentage) likewise pitched with brains over brawn. The only time Maddux's fastball ever looked Koufaxian was compared to Glavine's. But he, too, thought three pitches and about four hitters ahead of the guy at the plate; he, too, mixed speeds and changed his location more often than you changed your underwear. Glavine was a little more hittable than Maddux (batters hit .257 lifetime against Glavine and .250 against Maddux), but a lifetime 3.54 ERA in an era in which the average National League team was scoring slivers shy of 5 runs a game is nothing to dismiss.
You might have heard that Glavine was pretty damn good in the postseason, too. In a sense, he tended to warm his way up to the World Series: his lifetime division series ERA is 4.61 but his lifetime NLCS ERA is 3.22. And in the Series? 2.16 ERA and a 0.91 WHIP. Look familiar? Oh, yes. That was Maddux, damn near. No, I'm not saying Tom Glavine was Greg Maddux's equal. But I am saying that these were two pitches off whom you might get a hit or two but whom you'd still need some extremely serious calculus to beat.
Okay, then, how about looking at how Maddux pitched based on his run support? Isn't that one of the big arguments against, say, Jack Morris — you know, pitching to the score, winning by way of his run support, and all that? Well, let's have a look. Maddux won most of his games when he had between six or more runs to work with: 173. You get six runs to work with you'd better win. With between 3 and 6 runs to work with, Maddux won 145 games. With 2 or less runs to work with, he won 42 and lost 141.
But look a little closer. With six or more runs to work with, Maddux had a 1.14 WHIP and a 3.28 ERA. With between 3 and 6 runs to work with, he had a 1.16 WHIP and a 3.16 ERA. But with two or fewer runs to work with? You tell me who lost all those games for him, because it wasn't him: his WHIP with two or fewer runs to work with was 1.12 and his ERA was 3.01.
Glavine isn't that far off in those situations. With 6 or more runs to work with his ERA was 4.00 and his WHIP was 1.39. With between 3 and 6 runs to work with, they were 3.35/1.29. With 2 or fewer runs to work with, they were 3.26/1.26. Remember: they pitched in a high-scoring era, and the actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances weren't the only reason for the high scorings, either.*
One suspicion I have is that Glavine's image was compromised horribly by what happened at the end of the 2006 season, when Glavine pitched for the Mets. Thanks to their spectacular late-stretch collapse, the Mets went into the final regular season game needing to win to either snatch the NL East back or tie with the Phillies for a win-or-be-gone game. Glavine was battered for 5 runs, the fifth of which scored when he uncharacteristically plunked Florida starter Dontrelle Willis with the bases loaded; reliever Jorge Sosa surrendered two more of Glavine's baserunners.
It finished the Mets' historic collapse: no major league team had ever before blown a 7-games-plus lead with 17 left on the regular season schedule and finished out of first place. But do you really want to hold one horrible outing in the twilight of his career, in a situation not of his own making, against Glavine? That's your problem.
I concede that this year's election is going to be tough no matter how the shenanigans factor plays in. Last year, Craig Biggio was denied his plaque and he should have been a no-questions-asked first-ballot Hall of Famer. So should have been Curt Schilling, the very essence of a big-game pitcher. Jeff Bagwell was denied his on his third try, and he should have been a first-ballot Hall of Famer. (Those about to hoist the PED suspicion argument, kindly sit down and shut up. Innuendo isn't evidence. Never was, never will be. Which is why it was also a crime that Mike Piazza didn't get in on his first try last year.) Well, Cy Young, Joe DiMaggio, Lefty Grove, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Juan Marichal, and Gary Carter didn't make it on their first ballots, either.
And that should be irrelevant to this discussion. Of all the dubious precedents on which people lean to make Hall of Fame cases for or against someone, the one that says look at how many of the absolute greats didn't make it first try is perhaps the most fatuous of all. Past wrongs don't make a current right.
Greg Maddux is a no-questions-asked Hall of Famer and he should go in on his first ballot. So should Tom Glavine, when all is said and done. The very concept that pitchers who didn't throw baseballs past hitters, catchers, and umpires through the backstops shouldn't be first-ballot Hall of Famers is ridiculous.
So they weren't the most colorful pitchers who ever stepped on a mound. They didn't pitch for the most colorful teams who ever hit the field. All they did was get the job done and then some. It wasn't their fault their teams didn't have more than one World Series ring to show for all those postseason trips.
Schoenfeld thinks the BBWAA will elect Maddux with well over 90 percent of the vote. "Unfortunately," he adds, "I'm guessing a few curmudgeons will refuse to vote for him out of some strange first-ballot principle or something and thus prevent him from becoming the first unanimous choice." I'm guessing Glavine's outcome will feature the same curmudgeon factor, as well. Those curmudgeons should be made to answer for those denials.
If Maddux and Glavine don't become first-ballot Hall of Famers (and you can throw Frank Thomas into this mix, too), forget who's going to have some splainin' to do — there ought to be an investigation. Maybe a complete revamp of who should be eligible to vote for the Hall of Fame, too.
Just don't include the fans. Do you really want to trust Hall of Fame voting to people who've been known to stuff all-star ballot boxes or turn All-Star voting into lifetime achievement awards?
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*Would you like to know Jack Morris's run support results? With six or more runs to work with, his ERA was 4.24 and his WHIP was 1.31. With between 3 and 6 runs to work with, they were 3.54/1.26. That's pretty even with Glavine but not quite close to Maddux. But with 2 or less runs to work with? 3.98/1.33. That's way off both Glavine and Maddux.
Morris also won 40 more games with 6 or more runs to work with than with between 3 and 6. The differential for Maddux between the two supports: +28. And Morris pitched in a slightly lower-scoring era than Maddux and Glavine pitched. Will Morris make it this time, on his final writers' ballot appearance? Who knows. But he won't be the worst pitcher ever elected if he does make it at last.