The Marlins' 23-year-old left-hander is well aware of many of the game's all-time greats. So when his name is linked to an award named after a Hall of Famer, the D-Train knows it's a huge deal.
Willis, who paced the Major Leagues with 22 victories this season, has been named the winner of the seventh annual Warren Spahn Award, presented to the best left-handed starting pitcher in the league.
Presented since 1999 by the Oklahoma Sports Museum in Guthrie, Okla., Willis edged Houston's Andy Pettitte by one point in the formula used to determine the winner. The system used takes into account the number of wins, strikeout total and ERA posted by a pitcher.
Willis was first in wins, second in ERA (2.63) and fifth in strikeouts (170), among the left-handers who qualified. That was a total of eight points. Pettitte, meanwhile, was fourth in wins (17), first in ERA (2.39) and fourth in strikeouts (171), for nine total points.
Completing the top 10 are Johan Santana of the Twins (10 points), Randy Johnson of the Yankees (12 points), Chris Capuano of the Brewers (13), Cliff Lee of the Indians (16), Mark Buehrle of the White Sox (17), Mark Mulder of the Cardinals (20), C.C. Sabathia of the Indians (24) and David Wells of the Red Sox (29).
An All-Star for the second time in his three-year career, Willis finished 22-10 and logged 236 1/3 innings, while making 34 starts.
Willis tied St. Louis' Chris Carpenter for the most complete games in the Major Leagues (seven), while his five shutouts were the highest in the league.
"Warren Spahn was one of those players before my time, but I knew a little history about him," Willis said. "He is one of, if not, the greatest left-handed pitchers of all-time. He and Sandy Koufax. He was like the Randy Johnson of his time.
"When I got the call telling me I had won, I was definitely floored and honored."
Johnson dominated the Spahn Award when it was first introduced in 1999. He was the winner the first four years before Pettitte won it in 2003. Santana was the winner in 2004, setting the stage for Willis to become the first Marlins hurler to bring home the 2-foot, 2-inch bronze statue of Spahn in his high-kick windup.
Willis has committed himself to attend the presentation ceremony on Jan. 19, 2006, at the Masonic Temple Convention Hall in Guthrie, Okla.
A resident of Alameda, Calif., Willis has emerged as an elite pitcher and a rising role model to young people. A fierce competitor, Willis became the Marlins' first 20-game winner, and is the 13th African-American to reach that plateau.
Willis has been embraced by many former players who consider him a throwback because he helps his cause at the plate and in the field, as well as with his arm.
"The award allows the [Oklahoma Sports Museum] to remind baseball fans of Spahn's Hall of Fame accomplishments by honoring a present day ace that so closely resembles Spahn's style," said OSM president Richard Hendricks. "Willis reminds us that Spahn pitched some dominant ball in his day and certainly in his World Series wins against the Yankees."
The D-Train batted .261 with one home run, 11 RBIs, 24 hits and 14 runs scored. Late in the season, manager Jack McKeon moved Willis up in the order because of injuries to a few regulars. So rather than bat in the pitchers' typical ninth slot, Willis often batted eighth. And in one game, he hit as high as seventh, making him the first starting pitcher since 1973 to bat that high in the order.
In his Hall of Fame career, Spahn pitched from 1942-1965. With a 363-245 career record, he has the most wins by a left-handed pitcher. A 14-time All-Star, Spahn was inducted into the Braves Hall of Fame in August 1999. He passed away on Nov. 24, 2003.
Whenever the Marlins play the Braves at Turner Field, Willis can't help but see the influence Spahn had in his long tenure with the Braves. Spahn's name is painted on the outfield wall.
"His name is on the wall, that shows you what kind of player he was," Willis said.
On the Turner Field outfield wall, the Braves honor their five players who have had their numbers retired: Hank Aaron (44), Eddie Mathews (41), Dale Murphy (3), Phil Niekro (35) and Spahn (21).
"When you think of all the players in the Braves organization, when they were in Milwaukee and now Atlanta, to be one of five players to be on the wall, that's special," Willis said. "That's what you play for, to be able to be recognized for what you've done.
"I get chills when I see kids with my jersey on. I can't imagine being on a stadium wall."
Joe Frisaro is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less