Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Must Click Link: Voros McCracken.

I read a lot of baseball articles, but very rarely do I read one that blows my mind.  Today, I was lucky enough to come across such an article. 

Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports wrote an outstanding piece on legendary baseball statistician Voros McCracken.  For those of you who are stat geeks like me, you already who McCracken is.  For those of don't know, McCracken is the man who created the theory behind Defense Independent Pitching (or DIPS)*, which changed the way we (as fans, analysts, scouts, etc.) view pitching and defense.  The DIPS theory stated that pitchers have control over three outcomes:  strikeouts, walks, and home runs allowed.  Everything else was largely reliant on the quality of the defense behind him and blind luck. 

* His efforts gave rise to the development of multiple important statistics that we regularly use in our baseball discussions, analysis, and search.  BABIP, FIP, HR/FB ratio, and many others all came about because of his research.   

He came up with his theory when he noticed that while an individual pitcher's batted ball rates remained static from year-to-year, the batting average he allowed on balls in play (BABIP) was highly variable.  In certain circumstances, it could swing as many as 70-80 points in a single year.  Additionally, he found that higher quality pitchers didn't tend to produce better BABIPs as a result.  At the time he proposed his theory (in an obscure online newsgroup), most people scoffed at the idea.  They thought it was absolutely crazy.  Over the next couple of years, numerous well respected baseball statisticians including Bill James and the folks at Baseball Prospectus tried to disprove his theory.  While a few of them were able to poke a couple very small holes into his theory, McCracken's work remained largely intact. 

For example, in 1999 Pedro Martinez produced one of the highest BABIPs in baseball at .323.  The very next season, his BABIP was .236.

While Passan's article takes a large look at the impact of McCracken's theoretical work, he spends much time discussing the man's life both before and after his groundbreaking theory changed baseball forever.  McCracken has lived a particularly sad and fascinating life.  He's suffered from depression, lived paycheck to paycheck, and has struggled to find a job within the game of baseball since he left his job with the Boston Red Sox.  Craig Calcaterra said it best in his post earlier today, "just because you're a genius (it) doesn't mean that everything works out well for you."  I strongly urge you read the whole piece even if you're oriented more towards the anti-stat or casual fan sides. 

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