I'll admit the results of this SportsNation poll shocked me: Only 70 percent of respondents -- with more than 33,000 votes cast -- believe Greg Maddux should be elected to the Hall of Fame on the first ballot.
And you thought the BBWAA had tough standards.
Yes, as much as we criticize the BBWAA -- for not electing anybody last year, for electing Jim Rice, for electing relief pitchers but not starting pitchers -- your average sports fan apparently has an even more narrow view of the Hall of Fame.
They wouldn't elect Maddux this year. Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas wouldn't come close to sniffing Cooperstown this year. Mike Mussina? Not a Hall of Famer. Jeff Kent? Forget about it. You can see why it's so hard for a candidate to get the 75 percent needed for election.
As for Maddux, it appears his legacy has perhaps waned a bit. While I'm sure the BBWAA will elect him with well over 90 percent of the vote -- unfortunately, 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 -- perhaps we need a little refresher on Maddux's dominance.
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.
If you're too young to have seen Maddux pitch, go over to YouTube and check out some highlights. Here he is pitching eight shutout innings in Game 2 of the 1996 World Series. He threw a low-90s fastball with great movement, making it cut or sink, but with impeccable command and precision. In 1997, he issued just 14 unintentional walks in 232 2/3 innings; I'm sure several of those were intentionally unintentional. He varied his speed so every pitch was a different velocity from the previous one. He mixed in a changeup to further keep hitters off-balance. My old colleague Rob Neyer tabbed him The Smartest Pitcher Who Ever Lived, an apropos moniker; he was always one step ahead of the hitters, even if he didn't have the overpowering fastball of Roger Clemens or Randy Johnson.
As you can see in this video, Maddux was always a bit coy about what made him so good. 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.
Despite the glasses he wore when not pitching and a body that rarely -- if ever -- saw a weight room, Maddux was a good natural athlete who won 18 Gold Glove Awards. He was blessed, of course, with a rubber arm, and I believe he never missed a start in his career. (He started 33-plus games every season from 1988 until his retirement in 2008, excepting the strike-shortened seasons of '94 and '95.)
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.
Maddux is 25th in career wins above replacement, making him a clear inner-circle Hall of Famer. Among pitchers, he's seventh. Among pitchers born after 1900, he's third, behind Clemens and Tom Seaver.
Maddux is an obvious first-ballot Hall of Famer. Maybe he didn't throw 95 mph.
He didn't have to.