Senate District 11. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.
Senate District 11. Courtesy of Virginia Supreme Court.

Want more news about Virginia politics? Sign up for our weekly political newsletter, West of the Capital.

Poor Mario Mendoza. He played nine years in the Major Leagues, which is nine more than most of us ever will, but the former shortstop is remembered mostly as shorthand for futility.

Mario Mendoza in 1974. Courtesy of Pittsburgh Pirates.
Mario Mendoza in 1974. Courtesy of Pittsburgh Pirates.

In his native Mexico, Mendoza earned the nickname Manos de Seda, or “Silk Hands,” for his deft skills as a fielder. Nothing seemed to get by him. Unfortunately, at the plate, everything seemed to get by him. In five of his nine seasons, his batting average was south of .200 — which, if you don’t know anything about baseball, is pretty bad.

Teammates teased Mendoza about his inability to hit. As Mendoza later told the story, “Tom Paciorek and Bruce Bochte used it to make fun of me. Then they were giving George Brett a hard time because he had a slow start that year, so they told him, ‘Hey, man, you’re going to sink down below the Mendoza Line if you’re not careful.’ And then Brett mentioned it to Chris Berman from ESPN, and eventually it spread and became a part of the game.”

Today, “the Mendoza Line” is a term that has spread beyond baseball. Barron’s has used it to describe the yield on U.S. bank notes (“The U.S. 10-year note yield declined below 2% … before moving back above the Mendoza Line … to 2.09% by early afternoon.”). A Hollywood business website has used it to describe box office numbers (“A sub-$2,000 per theater average … is the Mendoza Line of box office numbers.”). NBC News has quoted a pollster describing a certain politician’s falling poll numbers as being “below the political Mendoza Line.”

Fun fact: Mendoza played the 1972 season for the minor league Salem Pirates, where he batted a somewhat better but still unimpressive .221.

Ultimately, though, this column isn’t about baseball. It’s about politics. The term “batting average” is so well understood, even by non-sports fans, that it’s applied to lots of other things. For the past six years, the Virginia Public Access Project has compiled an annual chart of legislators’ “batting averages,” computing which legislators are the most successful at getting their bills through.

These charts came to mind when I watched the recent debate between state Sen. Creigh Deeds and Del. Sally Hudson, both D-Charlottesville and both competing for the same state Senate nomination. That debate went about as you’d expect, given the dynamics of a younger challenger competing against a more experienced legislator. Deeds emphasized his seniority (if returned, he’d be no lower than the second most senior Democrat in the Senate); Hudson said it was time for “generational change.” Hudson portrayed herself as the more liberal candidate in the race (in a Charlottesville-based district, that’s likely considered a good thing in a Democratic primary); Deeds portrayed himself as the more practical candidate. As part of that, he called himself a “workhorse, not a showhorse” and suggested that Hudson has been ineffective because she hasn’t had many bills passed.

YouTube video
The debate was sponsored by Charlorttesville Tomorrow.

The exact exchange went like this:

Creigh Deeds

Deeds: “I’m a workhorse, I’m not a showhorse. You won’t see me stand up and give a lot of speeches because I don’t need to.”

Hudson: “I’m a member of the minority in the House. When I pass bills, I pass them with Republicans. That means you have to put your name as second fiddle on the list. Who cares who gets the credit? All I care is getting work done for this community.”

Again, pretty much what you’d expect under the circumstances, but is there a way to quantify Deeds’ charge that Hudson has been an ineffective legislator?

Possibly — those VPAP charts on legislative batting averages.

Before we look at them, we must issue more warnings than you’ll get on most medical prescriptions. A high batting average might be because a legislator is quite the legislative master, a low batting average might be because a legislator is an inept doofus. Or it could mean none of those things. There are lots of factors that influence these batting averages. One is which party a legislator is member of — not Democratic or Republican but majority or minority. Hudson is right: A legislator in the majority is more likely to get a bill passed than a legislator in the minority.

Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. Courtesy of Ksjfsy.
Del. Sally Hudson, D-Charlottesville. Courtesy of Ksjfsy.

That’s not a perfect guide, though. VPAP says the senators with the second- and third-highest “batting averages” in the Democratic-controlled Senate are members of the minority party: Todd Pillion, R-Washington County, and Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County. (Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County, claims the batting crown.) On the other hand, in the House, which is controlled by Republicans, the Democrat with the best batting average (Dawn Adams, D-Richmond) is no higher than 12th. Two of the lowest-ranking delegates, though, are Republicans.

Other factors might include the type of bills a legislator introduces. A minority member who introduces a lot of “easy” noncontroversial bills will likely have a higher batting average than a majority member who introduces more complicated or more controversial measures. A minority member who introduces those complicated or controversial measures is really out of luck. The sheer number of bills matters, too — until it doesn’t. Introducing a lot of bills isn’t a good guide to anything. VPAP shows that House Speaker Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah County, didn’t get any bills passed this year. He also didn’t introduce any. He’s the Speaker. He doesn’t need to introduce bills. Sometimes being a party leader means you carry bills to signify their importance; sometimes it means you pass those off to more junior legislators, especially ones in marginal districts, who could use a good talking point for their next campaign.

It also matters which party controls the governorship. Some legislators won’t bother to introduce a bill if they don’t think it has a chance of being signed into law; others like to introduce bills they know will be defeated, just to make a political point. That doesn’t necessarily make the former effective, just pragmatic. Some partisans may take the latter example not as a sign of ineffectiveness, but rather as one of a legislator fighting valiantly for their cause. Perhaps that same legislator would be quite effective if their party were in the majority — or perhaps not.

That’s a lot of reasons why these batting averages are potentially misleading. Still, they do show something — you just have to view them through a complicated prism to figure out what that is. Certainly some legislators are effective and others aren’t, but we shouldn’t use these batting averages as the sole criteria for determining that. With all those warnings, let’s take a look at what those VPAP averages do tell us.

2018: Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate, while a Democrat (Ralph Northam) was governor. Hudson wasn’t yet in the legislature, so we’ll just look at the Senate. That year, 44% of Republican bills passed; only 22% of Democratic bills did. Deeds saw 44% of his bills passed, so even though he was in the minority, his batting average was as good as the majority party’s average — and was twice as good as the average for his own party.

2019: Republicans still controlled both chambers, and a Democrat still sat in the governor’s chair. That year, 48% of Republican bills passed; only 32% of Democratic bills did. Deeds’ average that year fell to 20%, lower than the minority party’s average. Does that reflect a loss of legislative skill? Or does it reflect the nature of the bills Deeds introduced that year, and the politics of the moment? Most likely the latter.

2020: In the November 2019 election, Democrats won control of both chambers, and Hudson was elected to the House, so now we can get our first head-to-head comparisons, if you’re inclined to make them. With the change of party control came a change in party fortunes. In 2020, fully 50% of Democratic bills passed, while only 34% of Republican ones did. Elections really do have consequences. In Hudson’s freshman year, she got 20% of her bills passed — four out of 20. Only five other Democrats ranked lower. Even though Democrats were in charge, three of the four legislators with a 100% batting average were Republicans (Kirk Cox, Will Morefield, Margaret Ransome). They also introduced very few bills — Cox had one, Morefield and Ransome had two apiece. I suspect their averages were so high because they recognized the political environment and didn’t introduce a lot of bills they knew wouldn’t pass.

Over in the Senate, Deeds’ batting average soared to 62%, with 32 of his 52 bills passing. That’s a lot. Only two other senators got more bills passed that year. Not only did Deeds have a high success rate, he did it with a large number of bills, too. Statistically speaking, that’s impressive. Whether those 32 bills were more important than Hudson’s four bills, voters will have to decide. Quantity is obviously not the same thing as quality.

2021: Democrats remained in control of both chambers. The Democratic average for bills passed was 69%, the Republican average 36%. In her second year in Richmond, Hudson’s success rate shot up to 63%, while Deeds went up even higher, to 80%. VPAP shows that year he carried more bills than any other legislator in the General Assembly and got more passed — 16 of 20 versus five of eight for Hudson. The usual caveats still apply. All that we can say for certainty is that Northam that year used more ink signing Deeds’ bill than he did on anyone else’s bills.

2022. Uh-oh! Well, uh-oh from the Democratic perspective. Oh happy day from the Republican point of view. In November 2021, Republicans won the governorship and the House of Delegates. The state Senate wasn’t on the ballot so Democrats remained in charge on that end of the Capitol. With a divided government, both parties had difficulty passing bills. The Republican average was 48%, the Democratic average 39% — not that different from what it had been in previous years when there was divided government. In historical context, the unusual years were those Democratic trifecta years of 2020 and 2021 when Democrats could pass a lot of bills — and get them signed into law.

With Republicans back in charge of the House, Hudson’s winning percentage fell to 12%. Deeds’ percentage, though, was 57% at getting his bills through a Democratic Senate, through the same Republican House that was killing most of Hudson’s bills, and then past a Republican governor’s veto pen.

2023: Same party configuration: Republican House, Democratic Senate, Republican governor. This year VPAP makes it possible to compute the passing percentage not for the whole legislature but for each chamber. In the House, Democrats got only 27% of their bills passed, versus 48% for Republicans. In the Senate, both Democrats and Republicans had the same percentage — 48% of their bills passed. That likely reflects a political reality: The House tends to be more partisan than the Senate, no matter which party is in charge.

In the House, Hudson’s batting average was, umm, 0%. She introduced 16 bills, none passed. She was one of 11 legislators who had no bills passed (one of those was Gilbert, who, as noted, didn’t introduce any).

In the Senate, Deeds saw 68% of his bills pass. Only five other senators had a better percentage. Once again, Deeds introduced more bills than any other legislator (38) and had more passed than any other legislator (26).  

So what’s all this mean? Ultimately it can mean whatever you want it to mean. Objectively speaking, Deeds is a workhorse. Whether that work is what voters want done is up to them. Whether Hudson is a showhorse depends on how you feel about a legislator introducing bills to make a point even when it’s clear they won’t pass. Some partisans may like that sort of thing.

Here’s the observation I will offer — once more, couched in many caveats. Hudson had a high batting average when her party controlled state government, a low one when her party didn’t. Deeds has generally posted a high average no matter which party was in power — higher when Democrats ruled, but still pretty high when they didn’t. If you care about these batting averages — and you may not — the question is who do you think will control the House and the Senate after this year’s elections, and the governorship after the 2025 election? Do you care about a legislator whose success rate depends on which party is in power?

Indeed, will voters care about any of this? Should they? Opinions no doubt vary.

I will just point out that batting under the Mendoza Line hasn’t always been a career-killer, in politics or in baseball. Mendoza may be the butt of jokes here, but in Mexico, he’s a member of that country’s Professional Baseball Hall of Fame.

Tomorrow I’ll look at other legislators who have a 0% success rate in getting bills passed.

Yancey is editor of Cardinal News. His opinions are his own. You can reach him at