We all know how it turned out: Greg Maddux (along with longtime teammate Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas) swept into the Hall of Fame, his name appearing on over 97% of ballots. Amidst a week of debate, controversy, anger, and scandal, the Professor’s election was entirely justified and surprised exactly no one.
Maddux’s resume has something for everyone. Fans of advanced metrics point to his 107 career Wins Above Replacement, or the fact that he led the league in adjusted ERA+ each year of his historic run of four consecutive Cy Young Awards (1992-95). For the counters, his 355 wins trail only Warren Spahn among pitchers who were born after 1900. He threw over 5,000 innings, and started at least 25 games twenty-two years in a row. He handled a bat with skill, fielded his position as well as any pitcher in history, and dominated hitters during an era of video-game offensive output with middling velocity and a slight, 170-pound frame. Greg Maddux is a living legend, one of the greatest baseball players of anyone’s lifetime, and any person harboring even a shred of doubt about his Hall of Fame candidacy needs to have their head checked.
Maddux was so good, and remains so universally loved by fans and writers, that a popular (if overshadowed) story in this year’s Hall narrative was the question of whether he would eclipse Tom Seaver as the consensus first-ballot candidate. Some even wondered aloud if Maddux would be elected unanimously. Alas, in the end 16 voters left Maddux off of their ballots, and he had to make do with a pedestrian 8th in the ongoing “race” to achieve the highest vote percentage of all time.
The ballots released without Maddux on them seem to be a mix of high-concept performance art (columnist Larry Rocca, whose four-name submission included Hideo Nomo and none of the 2014 inductees) and Jack Morris trolling (Dodgers beat writer Ken Gurnick). It would be unfair to make assumptions about the other fourteen ne’er-do-wells who deemed Maddux unworthy, but the lack of released ballots or defensive newspaper columns makes me question their reasoning. After all, the best quasi-argument from an actual voter for keeping Maddux out was Rocca’s vague indictment of the pitcher’s presumed failure to be more proactive in discouraging other people from using performance-enhancing substances.
There was, however, a perfectly valid reason not to vote Greg Maddux into the Hall of Fame this year. Writing for The Daily Beast, Ben Jacobs noted that this year’s ballot was “crowded by the confusion of the steroid era.” Along with Matt Snyder at CBS Sports, Jacobs argued that a strategic vote in favor of Hall-worthy players less likely to gain induction (such as Tim Raines, Alan Trammell, even Craig Biggio) could exclude Maddux because of the near-certainty he’d reach the 75% vote threshold anyway. While I agree that the ridiculously overstuffed ballot necessarily leads to the omission of some worthy candidates, I take issue with strictly strategic non-votes. What if, for example, a fourth of voters made the same assumption as Snyder and Jacobs, and so consciously avoided voting for the “sure thing” candidate to increase the chances of election for a down-ballot candidate? While unlikely, a candidate like Maddux – or Frank Thomas, who some likely thought of as a more certain inductee than his 83.7% ballot percentage revealed – could be left out.
In hindsight, Snyder and Jacobs had a point. In 2014, only three candidates missed Hall election by less than 20%: Craig Biggio (74.8%), Mike Piazza (62.2%), and Jack Morris (61.5%). A concerted effort to include candidates on the fringe of being elected likely wouldn’t have affected results for Piazza or Morris, but poor Craig Biggio’s margin of non-election was so small that even two additional votes would have made him a member of the Hall’s class of 2014. The logic remains questionable – we don’t know which of the few voters who met the necessary criteria (a full, 10-name ballot, Maddux on, Biggio off) would have agreed to such a gambit to include a player for whom they weren’t planning on voting.
*Note: by my count, 19 of the BBWAA writers who disclosed their ballots on the Association’s website; a concerted effort to elect Biggio likely would have worked given his vote total.
I see a backlog-related reason to leave someone like Maddux off of the ballot that is more compelling than the strategy-based omission – the simple concept of seniority. Like many, I find the phrase “first-ballot Hall of Famer” ridiculous. For me, a Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer. If he has the numbers and the legacy, or whatever criteria you want to use, he should be in, and it makes no rational sense to withhold a vote because “not yet.” And, in 2014, there were just too many potential Hall of Famers on the ballot. Depending upon how you view the effect of performance-enhancing drug use on one’s candidacy, there were possibly ten or more Hall-worthy candidates on this year’s ballot who were not first-timers. If a voter were to take the position that a Hall of Famer is a Hall of Famer, and decide that “years on the ballot” rather than “strength of candidacy” would guide their vote, then a perfectly reasonable ballot could exclude Maddux. For example:
1) Bagwell 2)Biggio 3)Bonds 4)Clemens 5)Martinez 6)McGwire 7)Piazza 8)Raines 9)Schilling 10)Trammell
All of the above have legitimate Hall of Fame cases, and all have been on the ballot longer than Maddux. If a voter’s submission were to look like this, would there really be good reason to complain (discounting for a moment that several other potential Hall inductees with more years on the ballot than Bonds, Clemens, et al. were left off)? If all Hall of Famers deserve election, and a ballot contains the names of ten legitimate Hall of Famers, I find it hard to take issue.
Of course, if I had the privilege of voting for a Hall of Fame class, I’d find it extraordinarily difficult to leave out a player as great (and important to the game’s history) as Greg Maddux. It would be very, very unlikely that I’d give “his” vote to someone like Edgar Martinez because Edgar had been waiting longer. Seniority, however, would at least be a consideration – especially for candidates (like Biggio) toward the back end of my hypothetical ballot.
The logjam of worthy candidates won’t be going away in 1, 2 or 5 years, and I won’t wade into the assorted problems contributing to it (unqualified voters, hypocritical, cherry-picking PED sanctimony, the rule that voters select a maximum of ten candidates, etc). It’s a mess. I’m also very happy with this year’s Hall of Fame class. Though in a just world there would be about fifteen more people inducted this summer, the class is the biggest in years and the three players honored are all worthy. I do feel terrible for Craig Biggio.
* End note: my hypothetical ballot probably would have been Bagwell, Bonds, Clemens, Glavine, Maddux, Mussina, Piazza, Raines, Schilling, Thomas. I’m part of the problem.