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JAWS and the 2014 Hall of Fame ballot: The best classes ever

Veteran's Committee pick Orlando Cepeda (left) joined BBWAA choices Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan and George Brett in one of the greatest Hall of Fame classes ever in 1999. (AP)

Orlando Cepeda, Robin Yount, Nolan Ryan and George Brett

The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2014 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here. For the breakdowns of each candidate, see here.

For all of the concerns about the backlog of outstanding candidates on this year's Hall of Fame ballot, the early returns from voters who have published theirs are encouraging. With 101 ballots reported as of this writing via Baseball Think Factory — nearly 18 percent of the electorate based upon last year's total of 569 votes — four players have received at least 75 percent support: Greg Maddux (100 percent), Tom Glavine (97.0 percent), Frank Thomas (90.0 percent) and Craig Biggio (80.2 percent), with Mike Piazza (72.3 percent) near the 75 percent threshold as well. It's tempting to think that we may be in for a bumper crop come induction time.

That said, history shows that the rates reported at BTF will probably come down by a few points, though last year Biggio was overreported only by 1.9 percent and Piazza by 2.5 percent. That's because many of the unpublished votes tend to come from retired writers (and editors) who no longer have to fill column inches and don't need to publicly justify voting for a small slate of candidates.

Even assuming Biggio and/or Piazza falls short, the prospect of three or four inductees in a single year is encouraging for those of us who feel that voters have dragged their feet for far too long. Since the inaugural election in 1936, the writers have voted in three players in a single cycle six times, four players three times and five players once. Six of those bounties came in the first 20 years of voting, but only one happened in the next 28 years. It then happened three times in a 16-year span, most recently in 1999.

Given that, it's worth considering how the Class of 2014 would stack up relative to the other years in which the BBWAA has been particularly productive. For this exercise, I'm using the average JAWS in each class as my primary guide, while throwing some more traditional considerations into the mix. I'm not going to consider any Veteran's or Old-Timer's Committee honorees, nor am I going to consider classes of two players, even when they're as great as the 1982 slate of Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson (1,341 homers between them and an average JAWS of 90.6).

1. Class of 1936: Walter Johnson (127.5 JAWS), Babe Ruth (124.0), Ty Cobb (111.1), Honus Wagner (98.0), Christy Mathewson (84.2)

Average JAWS: 109.0

The first class is still the grandaddy of 'em all. The intention was for the Hall of Fame to physically open in 1939, 100 years after Abner Doubleday allegedly invented the game, with BBWAA voters coming up with 10 honorees from the 20th century and an Old-Timer's Committee adding another five from the 19th century. Using the same rules that are still in place regarding ballot space (10 slots) and consensus (75 percent), the BBWAA had no problem coming up with five players, but the OTC couldn't agree on anyone, in part because it wasn't clear how to handle players such as Cy Young who split their careers between the two centuries; he received 49.1 percent of the vote from the BBWAA and 41.7 from the OTC.

Even so, the BBWAA did a commendable job, particularly given that there was no Baseball Encyclopedia, to say nothing of, and no WAR or JAWS to go by. Three of the five players here still rank first at their positions by my formula, and that average score for the five is likely to remain unsurpassed. Some more notes on the first five:

Ruth, who retired in 1935, already held a home run record that would stand until 1974; he has the highest WAR in baseball history (163.2 as a hitter, another 20.3 as a pitcher) and is still perhaps the game's most famous player.

Cobb had the all-time record for hits at 4,191 (since revised to 4,189) and steals (897), not to mention the second-highest WAR to that point (151.2).

Wagner had 3,420 hits still has the highest WAR of any infielder (130.4).

Johnson had 417 wins, which still ranks second to Young's 511, and his strikeout total of 3,509 (revised upward from 3,508) stood until it was broken by Nolan Ryan in 1983; his WAR is slightly lower than that of Young (165.6 to 168.4) but his JAWS is higher (127.5 to 123.8) — the highest among pitchers, period — thanks to a peak that's 10 wins higher.

Mathewson, who had 373 wins and 2,507 strikeouts in a career that ran from 1900-1916 was not the equal of Grover Cleveland Alexander (373 wins and 2,198 strikeouts from 1911-30) when it came to WAR (101.8 to 120.1). Still,  he certainly had "Fame" on his side as part of four pennant winners and one world championship. Amazingly, Mathewson was just 5-5 in 11 World Series starts despite a 0.97 ERA and an average of 9 2/3 (!) innings pitched per start; by comparison, Alexander, who was elected in 1938, had been part of three pennant winners and had a 3.56 ERA in five starts and two relief appearances.

2. Class of 1937: Cy Young (123.8), Tris Speaker (98.1), Napoleon Lajoie (83.7)

Average JAWS: 101.9

Perhaps not surprisingly, in their second go-round, the voters turned to the top three holdovers from the previous ballot. Seventy-seven years later, it's somewhat surprising that Lajoie, who won five batting titles and collected 3,243 hits, received the most votes from among the trio in both years, as he wasn't even the game's best second baseman to that point. Rogers Hornsby had more batting titles (seven), and Eddie Collins had more hits (3,315); JAWS bears out that pecking order, with Hornsby (100.2) and Collins (94.1) accumulating more WAR and posting a higher JAWS than Lajoie's 83.7. That said, Lajoie's career (1896-1916) was the earliest of those three, and Hornsby was still a player/manager; the rules did not yet include the five-year waiting period.

Beyond that, Young was an obvious choice, particularly with the OTC not voting in any players this time around. The same was true for Speaker, whose 3,514 hits were second only to Cobb, and whose 134.0 WAR ranked third to that point behind Ruth and Cobb.

3. Class of 1991: Gaylord Perry (71.9), Ferguson Jenkins (68.4), Rod Carew (65.5)

Average JAWS: 68.6

Offhand, few people think of this class among the greatest. It's usually overshadowed by the trio that came eight years later, but this one was actually a bit better in terms of advanced metrics.

Perry not only had two Cy Youngs and 314 wins but also 3,534 strikeouts, which ranked third in history when he retired in 1983 and sixth by the time he was elected in 1991. He actually took three tries to get in, climbing from 68.0 percent in 1989 to 72.1 percent in 1990 to 77.2 percent in 1991; his JAWS still ranks 20th among starters.

Jenkins — the last non-300 winning pitcher to be voted in until Bert Byleven in 2011 — had "only" 284 wins and one Cy Young, but he had five top-three finishes and 3,192 strikeouts. Even today, his JAWS ranks 24th, ahead of current candidates Curt Schilling, Mike Mussina and Tom Glavine.

As for Carew, he had 3,053 hits, 18 All-Star appearances, seven batting titles and AL MVP and Rookie of the Year awards to his credit. Today, he ranks fifth among second basemen in JAWS despite a mid-career switch to first base, where he accrued much less value.

4. Class of 1999: George Brett (70.8), Nolan Ryan (62.6), Robin Yount (62.2)

Average JAWS: 65.2

While this class doesn't rank as the best of my lifetime, it's my personal favorite because I got to enjoy the majority of all three players' careers instead of just the tail ends, and all three gained entry on their first try, something that had only previously happened with the inaugural class. With 3,154 hits, 13 All-Star appearances, three batting titles and an MVP award, Brett was the best of the bunch; his JAWS ranks fourth among third basemen. Ryan never won a Cy Young but did notch 324 wins, not to mention a still-unsurpassed 5,716 strikeouts and seven no-hitters; today he ranks 31st among starting pitchers, just above the standard (61.4). As for Yount, he had 3,142 hits and two MVP awards (one as a shortstop, the other as a centerfielder) in a major league career that began when he was 18 years old; he still ranks fifth among shortstops in JAWS.

5. Class of 1939: Eddie Collins (94.1), Lou Gehrig (90.1), George Sisler (50.6), Wee Willie Keeler (45.1)

Average JAWS: 70.0

From the standpoint of average JAWS, this actually surpasses the 1991 and '99 classes, but it deserves an asterisk for a couple of reasons. First off, Gehrig was not included when the results were announced in January of that year, as he was still an active player. He would play in just eight more games before being forced into retirement following his diagnosis with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. He was subsequently elected in a special vote taken at the winter meetings that December.

Take away the player who still ranks first in JAWS at his position and suddenly this class isn't as imposing, even with Collins having over 3,000 hits, a career .333 batting average and the number two all-time JAWS ranking at the keystone. Keeler, renowned for "hitting 'em where they ain't," was one of the 19th century's outstanding hitters and accumulated 2,932 career hits, but he didn't overwhelm the leaderboards of the day (just two batting titles) and had a fairly typical peak and decline; his JAWS ranks 25th among rightfielders, 13 points below the standard.

Sisler was a bit better, not only a two-time batting title winner but also a player who topped .400 twice and led his leagues in triples and steals several times. He even netted 2.5 WAR for 111 innings of work on the mound early in his career. He totaled 2,812 hits in a career that lasted just 15 years (his record 257 in 1920 helped) and included a lost age-30 season due to an eye injury, which prevented him from reaching 3,000 hits. He ranks 17th among first basemen in JAWS, ahead of the standard on peak (47.0, tied for eighth all-time) though 3.4 points shy of the overall standard.

All told, this was an outstanding class, just not the best.

The rest

6. Class of 1947: Lefty Grove (83.6), Carl Hubbell (57.4), Frankie Frisch (57.3), Mickey Cochrane (44.5).

Average JAWS: 60.7

7. Class of 1955: Joe DiMaggio (64.7), Ted Lyons (56.2), Dazzy Vance (54.6), Gabby Hartnett 41.8.

Average JAWS: 54.3

8. Class of 1984: Don Drysdale (56.0), Harmon Killebrew (49.2), Luis Aparicio (44.2)

Average JAWS: 49.8

9. Class of 1972: Early Wynn (50.0), Yogi Berra (48.1), Sandy Koufax (47.5)

Average JAWS: 48.5

10. Class of 1954: Bill Terry (47.8), Bill Dickey (45.0), Rabbit Maranville (36.5)

Average JAWS: 43.1

If this year's class winds up being a trio of Maddux (81.6), Glavine (62.9) and Thomas (59.5), their average JAWS would be 68.0, which objectively speaking would be fifth by the criteria above but might rank third given the presence of two 300-game winners who took home six Cy Young awards, and a 500-homer slugger with two MVP awards himself.

Maddux, Glavine and Biggio (53.3) would average 65.9, which would objectively rank fifth and could be nudged to fourth, though the latter's lower score and lack of MVP hardware knocks him a step below Thomas. Piazza (51.1) has a lower JAWS than Biggio but as a player who spent nearly all of his career as a catcher — the best-hitting one ever, at that — he has the stronger ranking at his position (fifth as compared to 14th for Biggio). Put him with Maddux and Glavine and the average would be 65.2, tied for fifth objectively but perhaps good enough for fourth on the overall merits.

Expand this year's slate to four with Maddux, Glavine, Thomas and Biggio and the average would be 64.3. You could make a case for that being at worst the third-best class. Swap out Biggio for Piazza and the average sinks to 63.8, but since the latter would leave four players who clear the JAWS bar, you could make a solid case for that being the best class since 1936. Include both Biggio and Piazza, and it's almost unquestionably number two all time. It won't happen, but it's sure fun to consider.

For Cliff Corcoran's 2009 look at the top Hall of Fame classes of all time, see here.