Friday, February 3, 2012

Big Train Awards

W. Ross Clites
Your City Sports-Cleveland
Saint Louis, MISSOURI--This is a bittersweet installment. 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 won it more than anyone. Trouble is, Johnson died 66 years before anyone could hand him one.

The reason that this moment is bittersweet because it feels like it could be my greatest contribution, or legacy, in the sports world. Why is that all bad? Simply put, I'm nervous that the best thing I will ever do comes at age 25. Or worse, that my best really isn't anything all that great to anyone but me.

I am unveiling a confusing usage of my time at a confusing time in my life... seems fitting. On one hand I am extremely proud. I am confident there are no holes in any of the research; I wouldn't allow it to see the light of day until it was ready. There were nights where assuming the role of personal devil's advocate pushed me to the edge of throwing it all away. I would ask myself, "who is going to care?"

That is the irony of the whole thing: I can defend any of the things on these sheets, but I cannot answer that simple question.

No sane person sets out to create a nerdy baseball statistic and take it as far as I have taken it. On the cusp of an Oscar nomination for Moneyball, it is quick to say that this is an attempt to ride the wave of Sabermetrics in pop culture. In reality, I distance myself from Sabermetrics for it "devalues the artistry and takes the fun out of baseball" (my words).

In Billy Beane's mind, his application of atypical number crunching serves a purpose. He uses unique data for player evaluation and forecasting from a management perspective. Take Sabermetrics out of that "useful" context and their importance to society get questioned. You're not a manager, why do you need to know Ultimate Zone Rating? And don't say "for your fantasy team."

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 fans, like me, want 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.

I would like you to believe that my work is not that crazy. My 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, there is a similar stat in circulation in football (thus there is 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. That is it. The best part is it never needs to come out of a spectator's mouth at a game.

The double irony is that I hate mathematics and have never been good with them.

This research was done during wars, financial meltdowns, etc. and it hardly helps solve any of the world's travesties. It is quite the contrary: backlogging the past achievements of million dollar athletes. What makes it worse is that the sport has (or had, depending on your stance) a muddled drug problem, so these contemporary stars should not warrant any comparison to the legends of the past. The last thing this world needs is another postseason award to be talked about on the 24/7 sports-focused media outlets.

[Sigh]
Oops. It is what it is.

Pitcher Rating is my baby; a 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. For two seasons I have been using it to post articles on this very site. I went through 122 MLB seasons and still haven't found an underserving leader in the PR category--the winner of a "Big Train" Award.

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. Few people would have a problem with the BCS rankings if they were used to seed an eight-team tournament. Treating technology like a juicer is a fine solution if the application is right.

It certainly won't bring about world peace or stop hunger, but it might just be the best thing I can do.


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