Now it can be told. Newly minted Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, a born card counter and the sharpest brain on a baseball field in the modern era, would call pitches based on the way he caught the return throw from his catcher. Here's how it worked:
Maddux would form sequences of pitches in his head the day before a start. As soon as he threw one pitch, he knew which pitch he wanted to throw for the next. He always wanted to work quickly, using pace of the game to disadvantage hitters. So rather than waiting as did every other pitcher for the catcher to throw the ball back, get back on the mound, look for a sign and possibly have to wade through a series of signs before the catcher put down what he wanted, Maddux would call his next pitch by the manner in which he caught the return throw from the catcher.
If, for instance, Maddux caught the throw with his glove to the left side of his body, he wanted a fastball away. (This sometimes required Maddux to take a slight hop to his right to catch the ball at his left side.) If he caught the ball in front of his body, he wanted an inside fastball. And if he caught the ball at his chin, he wanted a changeup.
It was brilliant, as was most everything Maddux did.
"He was the smartest player I ever played with," said John Smoltz, his teammate in Atlanta, and an MLB Network analyst. "We used to call him Hoover, because he would suck you into an argument and he would always win. He would always win because he had a reason for everything. Sometimes I thought it was just Greg being Greg and making some stuff up. But he had a reason for everything."
Today is a day for celebrating why we love baseball. On a day that has become the annual hand-wringing day about the Steroid Era, two pitchers who looked like they should be shelving books at a library instead of playing in the most anabolically-enhanced era in baseball history rose above the Sturm und Drang. Maddux and Tom Glavine, fellow teammates, fellow 300-game winners, fellow golf partners and fellow summa cum laude graduates of the game, are going in to the Hall of Fame just as they navigated the teeth of the Steroid Era: together.
Maddux, who received 97.2 percent of the vote, and Glavine (91.9%) are joined by the great slugger Frank Thomas (83.7), who becomes the first player primarily associated with the White Sox to be elected by the writers since Luis Aparicio in 1984.
Bobby Cox, the manager in Atlanta for Maddux and Glavine, will also be inducted into the Hall of Fame on July 27. Cox was elected by the 16-person Veterans Committee last month, along with fellow former managers Tony La Russa and Joe Torre. Twelve months after the Baseball Writers Association of America pitched a shutout, Cooperstown will be jammed with one of the most decorated induction classes in the history of the Hall of Fame.
Maddux and Glavine are the headliners. They are the greatest tandem of starting pitchers in the live ball era, the likes of which -- given their durability and wins -- we may never see again. Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale had six prolific years together with the Dodgers, as did Juan Marichal and Gaylord Perry with the Giants. Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling spent only four years together with Arizona. Maddux and Glavine spent an entire decade together (1993-2002) in which neither ever had a losing record or lost a start to an injury.
In their 10 seasons as teammates Maddux and Glavine combined for a 347-160 record (.684 winning percentage for a team that otherwise played .579 baseball), a 2.87 ERA and half of the NL Cy Young Awards in that decade. They averaged 35 wins, 66 starts and 454 innings combined for the decade. Atlanta was 19 games better than .500 every year on those two pitchers alone.
Through 1992, the Braves franchise had not played .625 baseball in any season since 1898, when they were known as the Boston Beaneaters. When Maddux -- one the best free agent signings in history -- joined Glavine and Smoltz in time for the 1993 season, the Braves then played .625 ball or better five times in the next 10 years. In those years, Maddux and Glavine accounted for 43 percent of the Braves' starts, 35 percent of the team's wins and 32 percent of the team's innings.
Smoltz, who should join them in Cooperstown next year when he hits the ballot, rode shoulder-to-shoulder with Maddux and Glavine for the first seven of those years, before an elbow injury cost him the 2000 season and forced him into the bullpen upon his return. Maddux, Glavine and Smoltz combined for 20 individual winning seasons out of 21 from 1993-99.
What made Maddux and Glavine all the more fascinating was that they controlled hitters without pure power stuff through the greatest era of slugging and size the game ever has seen. Maddux doesn't get enough credit for the quality of his pitches, especially when he was in his 20s, when he could throw 93 mph with ridiculous movement.
Primarily, though, Maddux and Glavine endured because they were smarter than everybody else. Maddux changed modern pitching. His comeback two-seam fastball -- the one that started at a lefthanded hitter's hip and jumped back over the inside corner -- combined with the ability to cut his fastball in the opposite direction, became the template for what is Pitching 101 today.
Maddux was a savant, whose intuition and knowledge produced legendary stories. There was the time pitching coach Leo Mazzone visited the mound when Maddux was in trouble and Maddux told him, "Don't worry. If I make my next pitch I'll get this guy to hit a foul pop-up to third and we'll be out of it." Maddux retired the hitter on a pop-up to third, though it was fair -- by one foot.
Another time he told his outfielders he was going to get nemesis Gary Sheffield to just miss a pitch and fly out to the warning track -- which is exactly what Sheffield did in the next at-bat.
There was the time he grooved a pitch to Jeff Bagwell, which resulted in a home run, just because he wanted to set him up for pitch months later in the postseason.
Another time he waited seven years to exact payback on Dave Martinez. Maddux, pitching with the bases loaded and two outs, intentionally threw a ball out of the strike zone just to get to a full count -- when he could then fool Martinez with a changeup for his redemptive strikeout.
There also was the time he sat on the bench in a game against the Dodgers and warned teammates with Jose Hernandez at bat, "Watch this. The first base coach may be going to the hospital." On the next pitch Hernandez drilled a line drive off the chest of the first-base coach. He was only wrong about the hospital part.
Maddux was baseball's beautiful mind. He saw things nobody else saw. He broke down hitters by the way they swung the bat in the on-deck circle. He saw if they moved their feet in the batter's box. He sniffed out tells like nobody else.
He manipulated the movement of the baseball with subtle shifts in finger pressure and by changing the spot where his front foot landed by centimeters. He once told me he would slightly alter his follow through based on whether he expected a groundball to be hit to his left or his right. He was the greatest fielding pitcher of all time, winning more Gold Gloves (18) than any player at any position.
His mind always was at work. Former Braves shortstop Jeff Blauser once told me a story about a bunch of players walking into a bar together and coming upon one of those video gaming machines. Blauser said after studying the game for a moment or two Maddux told his teammates, "Don't bother. The odds of that game are ridiculous. It's set up too hard to win." Blauser had to laugh. The players had come only for some mindless down time and entertainment, and here was Maddux breaking down the machine's odds.
I never stopped learning from (and being schooled by) Maddux, a.k.a Hoover. I loved this answer he gave when, as he approached his 300th win, I asked him what gave him the most joy in baseball:
"Some guys just show up on Tuesday. The best part is knowing you're going to do something on Monday and actually doing it on Tuesday. And executing it. You know what? It might be a strike. It might be a foul ball. You might think, If I throw this guy this pitch, he's going to hit it foul right over there, and then to go out there and do it, that's pretty cool. To me. That's fun.
"You're only talking about 10 pitches a game. The other 80 or 90 you're trusting what you see and what you feel. It's still fun playing the game. And strike three is still one of the funnest pitches in baseball."
He was a joy to watch, but Maddux had more joy figuring out this crazy game. He loved every detail about it. He once told me, "I'd rather pitch bad than not pitch." That's how much he loved it.
Glavine was cerebral, too, but he was more serious and business-like in his approach. He was courageous, a guy who never had much velocity but had no trouble executing pitches with runners on base, thanks to one of the best changeups ever seen. No one else built such a prolific career without getting hitters to swing and miss. Glavine is one of 10 pitchers to win 300 games since World War II, and his rate of strikeouts per nine innings (5.32) is the worst of the 10.
Together, and with intellect and pristine mechanics more than pure stuff, Maddux and Glavine thrived in one of the great all-time hitters' environments. The best 1-2 pitching combination in the modern game, at least when you find a rare run extended for 10 years, will be together again in Cooperstown in July.
With five first-time candidates on my ballot, I had to drop one player from the six I voted for last year, and Jeff Bagwell didn't make the cut. I wanted to make sure I kept Fred McGriff because no player is more under-supported on the ballot than he is. It's worth repeating: McGriff, who got 11.7 percent of the vote this year, became only the 10th player to retire with an OPS of .886 or greater after 10,000 plate appearances. That's not some quirky stat to be easily dismissed. To be that good for that long put McGriff in the company of the truly elite; eight of them were first-ballot Hall of Famers (Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Tris Speaker, Stan Musial, Frank Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Mike Schmidt) and the other should have been (Mel Ott).
When compared to Bagwell, McGriff has more runs, hits, home runs, total bases, RBIs and All-Star appearances, more top five seasons in home runs, OPS and Runs Created, and is the far superior postseason player (.917 OPS in 50 games) than Bagwell (.685 OPS in 33 games).
• Craig Biggio and Mike Piazza should be encouraged about their eventual election. They were the only holdover candidates on a strong ballot to pick up ground. Biggio fell two votes short of induction -- tying Nellie Fox (1985) and Pie Traynor (1947) for the closest call. Fox missed in his last year on the ballot and was elected by the Veterans Committee 12 years later. Traynor gained election by the writers one year after his near-miss.
The rest of the holdover candidates? They were hurt by the strength of the ballot -- and will probably have to wait until a weaker ballot in 2016 to make up serious ground.
• Goodbye to Jack Morris, who leaves the BBWAA portion of the Hall voting after his 15-year run expired. He likely passes to the Hall's 16-person Expansion Era Committee in December 2016. Morris (a high of 68% in 2013 but down to 61.5% this year) and Gil Hodges (63%) are the only players ever to get 50% of the vote in any one of 15 tries and still not be enshrined by the writers or a Hall of Fame committee.
• I understand Morris is a classic borderline candidate but I don't understand the revisionist vitriol against him. I'll say it again: Morris pitched eight or more innings more times than any AL pitcher in the history of the league with the DH, and he won more games in the AL's DH era than anybody except Roger Clemens and Mike Mussina. Over a 14-year period, when the manager gave him the ball Morris was more likely to pitch into the ninth inning (52%) than not (48%). Executives and former players and managers, who typically make up 12 of the 16 committee members, are likely to value Morris' durability as an ace more than the writers.
• Lee Smith looks like he will be joining Morris and Hodges. Smith, who gained 51% of the vote in 2012, plunged to 29.9% this year. He has only three years remaining on the ballot. Smith made a strong debut in 2003 with 42.3%, which puts him in line for a dubious honor of his own: He would replace Steve Garvey (41.6%) as the player with the best first-year percentage without ever getting elected.
• I've written in great detail about why I will not vote for players who used PEDs, and the majority of writers agree. Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, Roger Clemens, Rafael Palmeiro and Barry Bonds have been on the ballot a combined 18 times without any one of them ever getting 40 percent of the vote. Palmeiro will now fall off the ballot after failing to obtain to minimum 5% this year.
• We have pulled out of a long trough in which writers were more frugal with their votes than ever before under current voting rules. The average votes per ballot sunk below 7.00 in 1987 and stayed below that mark for 27 straight years, falling to a record low of 5.10 in 2012.
It climbed to 6.6 last year and to 8.4 this year. Is that unusual? What we're seeing is a return to voting patterns from the 1970s and 1980s, when the average from 1972-83 ranged from 7.57 to 8.36. Keep this in mind, though: the outcome doesn't change much. The number of players elected by the writers has remained very consistent:
If anything, despite the "sky-is-falling" overreaction after the 2013 shutout, writers may be starting an unprecedented era of liberal voting. A prediction for 2015: first-ballot candidates Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz will be elected, as should Biggio. That would mark the first time ever under current voting rules that the writers have elected three or more players in back-to-back years.