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The Strike Zone

JAWS and the 2013 Hall of Fame ballot Part I: Introduction

Fred McGriff, who hit 493 career home runs, is part of an extremely deep class of Hall of Fame candidates. (Tom DiPace) Fred McGriff, who hit 493 career home runs, is part of an extremely deep class of Hall of Fame candidates. (Tom DiPace)

The Baseball Writers of America 2013 Hall of Fame ballot was unveiled two weeks ago, adding 24 newcomers to a list of 13 holdover candidates for a slate that's not only the deepest in recent memory but also the most controversial. With just under a month until the voting results are announced on Jan. 9, and less than three weeks until the Dec. 31 voting deadline, it's high time to kick off my 10th annual JAWS-based ballot breakdown.

For the uninitiated, JAWS is short for Jaffe Wins Above Replacement Score, a system I developed at Baseball Prospectus in time for the 2004 ballot, though the catchy name didn't come until a year later. JAWS is a tool to measure a candidate’s Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined. It uses sabermetrics to account for the wide variations in offensive levels that have occurred throughout the game's history and from ballpark to ballpark. The system's stated goal is to improve the institution's standards, or at least to maintain them by admitting players at least as good as the average Hall of Famer at the position.

Even so, it's worth noting that a considerable gap exists between those voted in by the BBWAA and the ones via various Veterans Committees, though not all of the latter group can simply be dismissed to create a BBWAA-only standard that's fair across positions. More than anything, the idea is to bring a measure of intellectual consistency to an often disorganized debate. Because of that, JAWS has gained a nice bit of exposure in recent years, cited by actual Hall of Fame voters and included within the coverage at MLB Network's Clubhouse Confidential show.

A player's JAWS is his career Wins Above Replacement total averaged with his 7-year peak WAR. WAR measures each player’s hitting, pitching and fielding contributions relative to those of a freely available reserve or minor league call-up, with built-in adjustments for park and league scoring levels so that we can more fairly compare players across eras. The current Hall of Famers are then grouped by position and a positional average JAWS is computed. For the purposes of comparison, players are classified at the position where they accrued the most value, which may be different from where they played the most games, particularly as players tend to shift to positions of less defensive responsibility — and thus overall value — as they age. A small handful of enshrined players, including pioneers and Negro Leaguers with less than 10 years of major league service, are excluded from the calculations; Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin, for example, didn't have long enough major league careers to provide yardsticks for non-Negro League players.

For all that is included, JAWS can't incorporate everything that goes into a player’s Hall of Fame case; it makes no attempt to account for postseason play, awards won, leading the league in important categories, career milestones and historical importance, much of which is better handled via the Bill James Hall of Fame Standards and Hall of Fame Monitor metrics. All of that information is germane to the Hall of Fame discussion, and can shade an argument for or against a player whose credentials are otherwise borderline.

My system owes a great deal of inspiration to James' Historical Abstracts, both the 1985 original, which planted the career/peak distinction in my mind, and the 2001 version, which weighted a player's best seasons (using Win Shares) to produce a somewhat more transparent means of combining career and peak into a single ranking. In JAWS, a player's best seasons are double-counted, an appropriate strategy given research into pennants added and the premium value of star talent, in that individual greatness can have a non-linear effect on a team's results both in the standings and on the bottom line. Instead of Win Shares, which used what was widely considered to be an inadequate baseline for its replacement level, I originally based my metric on BP's version of Wins Above Replacement Player, which has evolved several times over the years, raising its own very low threshold (the 1899 Cleveland Spiders were once the baseline) and incorporating more modern play-by-play based metrics along the way. The first two years, I defined peak as a player's best five consecutive years, making exceptions for military service and major injuries; I revised that to seven not-necessarily-consecutive years after settling on it as a sweet spot via further study.

The 2013 ballot marks the first time I have used Baseball-Reference.com's version of WAR instead of WARP, less because I greatly favor one valuation metric over the other than because B-R has set the gold standard for statistical sites. Owner Sean Forman has created some elegant and useful tools, including sortable positional leaderboards and JAWS scores on every player page, that save me a ton of manual labor and make the system more accessible than it has ever been. B-R also has other great tools that are of use in any Hall of Fame discussion, including past voting results and projected future ballots.

Here's what the positional standards currently look like, with the caveat that recent honoree Deacon White's numbers haven't been factored in yet. They may bump the numbers to the right of the decimals slightly once they are, because I use a generic hitter profile to adjust for the scarcity of players at some positions:

PositionNumberCareerPeakJAWS
SP5866.746.756.7
RP538.627.132.8
C1349.632.341.0
1B1862.340.751.5
2B1966.042.854.4
3B1264.941.853.4
SS2163.141.152.1
LF1961.739.750.7
CF1867.142.554.8
RF2469.541.355.4
CI (1B+3B)3063.141.252.2
MI (2B+SS)4064.542.053.3
OF (LF,CF,RF)6166.341.253.7
Co (1B,3B,LF,CF)7364.640.852.7
Md (C,2B,SS,CF)7162.340.451.4
All Hitters14464.741.353.0

This year also marks the first time I will be presenting the JAWS series exclusively at SI.com, though it saw its first mainstream exposure here back in 2007, and has become part of my regular Hit and Run fare. In this venue, I'm going to present things in a different format than in the past. Rather than go position-by-position around the diamond mixing lesser candidates in with greater ones, the plan is to devote full Hit and Run entries to each of the top 22 candidates — some of which will be longer than others — preceded by a roundup of the 15 lesser candidates, all of whom are at least 20 points lower than the JAWS standard and have no shot at election. While it's true that I could just as easily skip the Jeff Cirillos and Rondell Whites, I've always felt that a player's appearance on the ballot itself is worth at least a brief valedictory, and I'm loathe to break my Cal Ripken-like streak of covering every candidate .

With the help of editor Ted Keith, here's the tentative schedule we have set out, subject to change, and listed in no special order within a given day:

Tuesday, Dec. 11: Lesser candidates

Wednesday, Dec. 12: Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell

Thursday, Dec. 13: Mike Piazza and Edgar Martinez

Friday, Dec. 14: Dale Murphy and Larry Walker

Saturday, Dec. 15: Bernie Williams, Kenny Lofton and Steve Finley

Sunday, Dec. 16: David Wells and Lee Smith

Monday, Dec. 17: Alan Trammell and Tim Raines

Tuesday, Dec. 18: Rafael Palmeiro, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa

Wednesday, Dec. 19: Don Mattingly and Fred McGriff

Thursday, Dec. 20: Curt Schilling and Jack Morris

Friday, Dec. 21: Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens

You'll note that I've grouped the candidates most heavily linked to performance-enhancing drugs into a couple of days so as to avoid spending too much of the next three weeks mired in that particular discussion. For those interested, I've written about PEDs and the Hall of Fame extensively in the Baseball Prospectus group book Extra Innings, which was published earlier this year. I'll cite a bit of that research here where appropriate.

With that lengthy preamble out of the way — I'll link back to it in each post so as to avoid reintroducing the system ad nauseam — I'm very excited to start tackling this year's ballot.

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