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JAWS and the 2015 Hall of Fame ballot: Burning questions

On Monday morning, the Baseball Writers Association of America announced its 2015 Hall of Fame ballot, a slate that adds 17 newcomers to a group of 17 holdover candidates. After electing three first-time candidates (Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux and Frank Thomas) in 2014 for the first time since 1999, the writers' ballot is again jam-packed with high-profile stars making their debuts, including former Cy Young winners Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz as well as batting title winners Nomar Garciaparra and Gary Sheffield.

The full ballot, with the 17 newcomers in bold: Rich Aurilia, Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio, Barry Bonds, Aaron Boone, Tony Clark, Roger Clemens, Carlos Delgado, Jermaine Dye, Darin Erstad, Cliff Floyd, Garciaparra, Brian Giles, Tom Gordon, Eddie Guardado, Johnson, Jeff Kent, Edgar Martinez, Pedro Martinez, Don Mattingly, Fred McGriff, Mark McGwire, Mike Mussina, Troy Percival, Mike Piazza, Tim Raines, Curt Schilling, Jason Schmidt, Sheffield, Lee Smith, Smoltz, Sammy Sosa, Alan Trammell, Larry Walker.

By Dec. 27, more than 575 members of the BBWAA will winnowed their lists down to a maximum of 10 candidates and sent in their ballots. The results will announced on Jan. 6, 2015, and the induction ceremony will take place in Cooperstown on July 26, 2015.

I won't have my own Hall of Fame vote until the 2021 ballot, but over the next six weeks, I'll tackle the cases of every candidate with my 12th annual JAWS ballot breakdown series. 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 self-referential acronym didn't come until a year later. JAWS is a tool for measuring a candidate’s Hall of Fame worthiness by comparing him to the players at his position who are already enshrined. It uses the version of WAR to estimate a player's total hitting, pitching and defensive value to account for the wide variations in scoring 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. JAWS has gained a nice bit of exposure in recent years, cited by actual Hall of Fame voters, included within MLB Network's television coverage. I'm also working on a forthcoming book about it.

I’ll explain the system at greater length in a separate column. For now, let's focus on the top questions as Hall season begins:

Will Craig Biggio join the aforementioned trio of pitchers to make this the first quartet elected by the writers since 1955, or will his continued presence cost one of those pitchers his spot?

After a 2013 ballot that saw the voters pitch their first shutout since 1996, last year marked the first time since 1999 (George Brett, Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount) that voters elected three players. They nearly elected a fourth; in his second year on the ballot, Biggio missed by two measly, stinkin' votes, tying the record for the closest margin in voting history. Had he made it, it would have marked the first time since 1955, when Joe DiMaggio, Gabby Hartnett, Ted Lyons, and Dazzy Vance gained entry, that four players were elected in the same year.

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Assuming that Biggio — a longtime Astro who is just the second modern player with 3,000 hits not to gain first-ballot entry — tops 75 percent this time, it’s entirely possible that he siphons off enough votes to delay somebody else’s election. Smoltz, whose hybrid starter/reliever career defies easy categorization, may be the most likely newcomer to wait a year.

Will the elections of Martinez and Smoltz lead voters to reopen the doors to pitchers with significantly fewer than 300 wins?

With 303 wins and five Cy Young awards, Johnson is a first-ballot lock, but both Martinez (216) and Smoltz (213) won far fewer games, even while having rich, Cooperstown-worthy resumés. Dating back to the 1992 ballot, seven of the past eight starters voted to the Hall have had at least 300 wins. Bert Blyleven (287 wins, elected in 2011) is the lone exception, and his election came only after an epic grassroots campaign that owed a great debt to the entry of sabermetrics into the debate.

Voters have still been slow to embrace the evolution of the starting pitcher's role and statistical footprint, leaving other worthy sub-300-win candidates such as Mike Mussina (270 wins but just 20.3 percent of the vote in his debut last year) and Curt Schilling (216 wins but probably the greatest postseason resume of his generation, and 29.2 percent of the vote in 2014, his second year) buried on the ballot.

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• What about Sheffied?

A nine-time All-Star, Sheffield bashed 509 home runs and collected 2,689 hits during a 22-year career marked with controversy after controversy, none of which could outshine his sheer talent or the ferocity of his swing. Under normal circumstances, he'd be a strong candidate for election, but his connection to the Bay Area Laboratory Company (BALCO) scandal -- in 2004 Sheffield admitted using the Cream, though he denied knowing it contained steroids -- will likely dent his level of support.

Will Piazza and Bagwell — the two other holdovers who received more than 50 percent of the vote in 2014 — position themselves for a 2016 election?

Amid last year's traffic jam, Piazza was the only candidate besides Biggio whose share of the vote rose from the previous year; he climbed from 57.8 percent in 2013 (his ballot debut) to 62.2 percent. Bagwell, in his fourth year on the ballot, dropped from 59.6 percent to 54.3 percent, but he's been above 50 in each of the past three years, suggesting that he too is Cooperstown bound. With Ken Griffey Jr. the only marquee candidate hitting the ballot next year, there's a clear opening for a holdover or two to finally reach 75 percent next year.

What impact will the new rule truncating candidates' eligibility from 15 years to 10 have on the candidates linked to performance-enhancing drugs?

Bonds (34.7 percent in 2014), Clemens (35.4 percent), Mark McGwire (11.0 percent) and Sammy Sosa (7.2) percent are nowhere near gaining entry. Even if you think all four are worthy of election despite their alleged transgressions, the latter pair are lost causes as far as the BBWAA ballot is concerned and are likely to fall off soon, perhaps even this year.

As for Bonds and Clemens, it remains to be seen whether voters who have kicked the can down the road in confronting the candidacies of the all-time home run leader and a seven-time Cy Young winner will reassess their positions now that they have fewer chances remaining (eight, as opposed to 13) to do so. Whether their support rises after taking a dip in 2014 will offer a strong hint at their chances for future election.

How will that rule change affect non-PED-linked candidates such as Tim Raines and Edgar Martinez?

After debuting with less than one-third of the support he would need for election in 2008 and slipping even further the following year, Raines picked up votes in four straight years, reaching 52.2 percent on the 2013 ballot, only to fall back to 46.1 percent in 2014. With five years of his eligibility suddenly snatched away without warning — he's got three years remaining on the ballot instead of eight — he needs to regain his momentum. Likewise for Martinez, who peaked at a solid 36.5 percent in 2012, his third year on the ballot, but fell to 25.2 percent last year. Both could benefit from voters writing off PED-tinged candidates, but they also risk becoming increasingly overlooked as their careers fade further into the distance.

• How are voters going to fit maybe 14 or 15 qualified honorees onto a 10-slot ballot?

This is the most important question, and while JAWS is a helpful tool for ballot triage, the combination of the ballot’s backlog and the Hall’s refusal thus far to expand the number of voting slots beyond 10 means that most voters need to snub somebody they believe is worthy. I didn’t even like doing it for my virtual ballot last year.

All of these questions are certain to resurface over the course of my annual series. As ever, I’m excited to tackle this ballot. I’ll have the JAWS nuts and bolts post, a schedule and the first write-ups over the next couple of days.