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Introducing The World To The Big Train Award


Saint Louis, MISSOURI -- Four years of painstaking solo research, trial and error, gathering data, punching numbers, and formatting graphics has finally come to an end. The bow has been tied on the package, known only to me as the Walter Johnson Awards. The "Big Train" should have his name on the trophy; he was the league's best pitcher in more seasons than anyone. Trouble is, Johnson died 66 years before anyone could hand him that distinction.

If you haven't been following along with my blog, Pitcher Rating is my baby. It is an oft-tinkered with, secret Excel formula that will stay with me to my grave (or until someone wants to pay me millions to see it). It has ten variables that were repeatedly checked and double checked against a sample size that filled my notebooks. Needless to say, baseball-reference.com became my homepage quickly. The project all started with a simple question: How many Cy Youngs would Cy Young have won?

I soon realized that by any measure, he would not be the all-time leader in annual best-pitcher honorees. The unrivaled champion in that category is Johnson, with seven wins. This doesn't make him the greatest pitcher in history, nor the one with the most wins or strikeouts. But, in the context of individual seasons, no one had more of them -- relative to the field -- than Johnson. The proof is exhibited in his membership to the National Baseball Hall of Fame's inaugural class. And the ironic comedy of the plaque in Cooperstown that bears his name: It should read "7x Cy Yound Award Winner - A.L. 1913, '14, '15, '16, '18, '24, '25". The other pitcher in that HOF class, Christy Mathewson, would have finished his illustrious career with six such years -- same as Young.

Now, if you've ever questioned how good Christy Mathewson and Walter Johnson were, read deeper into the subtext surrounding that Hall of Fame vote in 1936. At that time, professional baseball was already 60 years old. The game had seen more than 10,000 pitchers grace the mound. Yet, the Hall decided only two pitchers were special enough to be inducted.

Today, the Cooperstown museum includes over 90 players whose careers had ended prior to 1936. Thus, people clearly thought a sizable quantity of early ballplayers was good enough to be inducted. But, by recognizing only five players, the Hall of Fame truly made a statement that some individuals were better than not only the common man, but even better than future Hall of Famers from the same era.

According to the 1936 vote, Johnson and Mathewson were even better than Cy Young and Grover "Pete" Cleveland Alexander. Young and Alexander combined for 884 career wins. Each had retired by 1930, so it is not like the committee was awaiting a close to their record books. Their body of work was clearly Hall-of-Fame caliber. In spite of all that, both legends had to wait for another Cooperstown summer. It just shows how great Johnson and Mathewson were.

Even Charles "Old Hoss" Radbourn, who notoriously won 59 games in 1884, had his entry into the Hall of Fame delayed for four more years.

These days, a Hall of Famer represents greatness during a small window of time, as short as a decade. That first Hall of Fame class was reserved for the best players in all of baseball for over a half century. Those circumstances will never be replicated, and so no Hall of Fame class will ever be any better than the original. It stood as a time capsule, containing the five players everyone in future generations should know about. Now, we certainly do.

All of the aforementioned legends find their names on the Walter Johnson Award on more than one occasion. Gun to my head: the list of 21 pitchers that have won three or more of these fictitious awards would be my vote for greatest arms to ever play the game. The fact that my formula recognized these few as such only validated that my recipe was doing something right.

For the better part of two seasons, I have been using it to post articles on various different blogs. I labored through 122 MLB seasons and still haven't found an undeserving league leader in the PR category -- the yearly winner of a "Big Train" Award. Check out the bulleted links [above] for all the details. Because we can go back in time (of sorts) and make contemporary calculations, the award posthumously rewards greats of yesteryear. In that, it carries a tongue-in-cheek established date of 1890.

For those of you who have never spent a Friday night crunching the Run Support Average of a 1920s pitcher, you do not know what you're missing. Maybe I am crazy because I felt it needed to be done. A common complaint among historians is that there are too many different eras of baseball that prevent players today from being measured against the past. Under the same parameters? Absolutely. But that is a weak obstacle that no one truly challenged with anything more than an asterisk.

Pitcher Rating's main goal was to take a pitcher, regardless of role or time period, and grade their season-long contribution against any other. I feel this is achieved with the fluctuating "Points Possible" that reflect changes made to the game. Showing that the Cy Young Award voting has consistently been a joke was simply a joyful byproduct.

It is my humble opinion that the creation of an objective, strictly mathematics-based, postseason award would solve some sports fans' issues. Computers are extremely useful at taking dozens of opinions and statistics and translating them into one value.

Statistics created by Bill James and Rob Neyer carry ridiculous-sounding acronyms, and the common fan has no clue what a good score is. Go to a baseball game and you may hear the person next to you saying, "His xFIP is one of the best DIPS in the league, but his BABIP is still over .300." Even the biggest baseball fan wants to punch this person in the face.

I have written articles on this site that have challenged ESPN for giving Mr. Neyer a Cy Young Predictor. Everyone is entitled to their opinion and my formula is no better or worse than his, it is just different. In principle I like that team James/Neyer set out to create a vacuum, where arguments sparked by comparing players like Barry Bonds to Babe Ruth could be "settled." Somewhere along the way Sabermetrics fell into the hands of too many people that still live with their parents.

And as for its predictive value: ESPN's Cy Young Predictor (created in 2002) has been less accurate than Pitcher Rating in selecting the league's voted-on best pitcher. A common glitch in their algorithm centers on the closer. They routinely overvalue their worth: an incorrect Keith Foulke in 2003, Eric Gagne in 2004, and Billy Wagner in 2006. While their predictor faltered, my "Big Train" research hit the nail on the head. This porridge is just right.

Disclaimer: Mariano Rivera was drastically better than Bartolo Colon in 2005. Period. That was a big miss we both got "wrong." I will happily mail Rivera a Walter Johnson Award as consolation.

I would like you to believe that my work is not that crazy. The formula is more-or-less straightforward; it does not forecast anything, only summarizes what was done in the past. Its acronym is only two letters and there is a similar stat in circulation in football (thus precedent for widespread acceptance among casual fans), and works just like an academic test score (thus approachable because everyone understands the need for a curve). It takes an apples-to-oranges argument and makes it apples-to-apples.

The best part is it never needs to come out of a spectator's mouth at a game; it's an end-of-year tabulation and not something pretentious the guy sitting behind you in Section 247 says to his girlfriend so all can hear how smart his is. Pitcher Rating certainly won't bring about world peace or stop hunger, but stopping that might just be the best thing on this earth I can do.

Then again, it's also good for All-Star selection shows, too...

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