In the middle of the night, when his mind was racing again, Voros McCracken decided to share his discovery with the world. Before the celebrity and the job and the diagnosis and the drugs and the wristwatch, he had the idea. Had he realized it would forever change the way people look at baseball, perhaps McCracken would've chosen a better time to post it than when most people were asleep and a better place than an obscure online newsgroup.
For three months toward the end of 1999, McCracken spent his nights huddled up to a computer, married to spreadsheets and formulas, determined to prove to himself he wasn't crazy. He'd spend days bleary-eyed because the data he crunched into the wee hours was going to be his savior. Nobody would believe him otherwise. McCracken was working on a premise so radical that even he sometimes laughed at it.
Pitchers have very little control over what happens on balls hit into the field of play.
Baseball theory was fairly well-honed from more than 100 years of observation and analysis, and a college dropout paralegal wanted to drop a nuclear bomb on it. Never mind that a pitcher can dictate every plate appearance. He chooses what to throw, where it goes, the speed, the break. McCracken was saying that when bat met ball and sent it toward dirt or grass, the advantage almost entirely disappeared. It defied logic.
McCracken checked and re-checked the numbers until they winnowed away the thought that there had to be a mistake. His hypothesis was correct. Pitchers control three things: strikeouts, walks and home runs -- defense-independent pitching statistics, he called them, shortened to DIPS, which isn't exactly the sort of acronym on which careers are made. Everything else -- including hits allowed -- involves a pitcher's eight teammates and thus is prone to wild fluctuations. Some years, more balls fall for hits. In others, they don't. In 1999, Pedro Martinez gave up the third-highest batting average on balls in play. The next year, he allowed the lowest.
The difficulty for baseball Luddites to accept the concepts of randomness and chance and luck hasn't impeded the sport's transformation over the past decade. Before "Moneyball" glorified the numbers-loving Oakland Athletics and lionized their general manager, Billy Beane -- to be played by Brad Pitt in the movie version of the book, at your multiplex this September -- stat geeks did most of their nerding privately. While the revolution "Moneyball" predicted has been more like an evolution to a mix between statistics and scouting, all 30 teams have at least one employee who does quantitative analysis. Boston, Tampa Bay and others employ armies of the mathematically inclined in hopes of landing a proprietary claim on an idea like DIPS.
A decade after Baseball Prospectus let McCracken spread the gospel in a story that popularized DIPS across the sport, it remains among the most seminal theories developed by sabermetrics, the nickname given to quantitative baseball study. It's almost certainly the most revolutionary. Nothing before or since has so upended an entire line of thought and forced teams to assess a wide breadth of players in a different fashion.
Of course, one great idea guarantees nothing.
Not prominence. McCracken spends his days and nights analyzing European soccer. He won't say for what or whom or where. The client appreciates anonymity.
Wealth is absent, too. McCracken lives paycheck to paycheck. He couldn't make rent on his apartment last year.
"If I give DIPS away for free once, that's fine," he says. "I came up with an idea that was monetized to the hundreds of millions of dollars, and I'm broke. I'm glad I did it. Can't do it anymore. I've done enough to prove I can at least do something. Boy, that's a revolutionary idea that changed baseball. Can you do it again? No. I can't do it again unless you pay me.”
And there's the deepest, most hurtful part of all: Voros McCracken hasn't worked in baseball since the game chewed him up and spit him out five years ago. In an industry where progress moves by the inch, the man who sent it forward a mile can't get a job. And he's not quite sure why.
Among the 7,013 messages McCracken wrote on Usenet newsgroups between 1999 and 2001 were more than 3,800 to the rec.sport.baseball board, a tiny corner of the Internet where influential sabermetricians rendez-voused during Web 1.0. Since he was young, McCracken would close the door to his room and enter his own world, and in this one he was simply Voros, which means red in Hungarian, an homage to his hair color and
The rest of the world knew him by his given name, Robert McCracken, usually shortened to Bob, and by the shock of auburn hair, the easy grin, the obesity about which he joked. To everyone outside of the sabermetric inner sanctum, Bob was, at times, a paralegal, bike messenger and college radio DJ. And he always was a genius. In second grade, McCracken's teacher in a City of Chicago public school told his parents she worried he was "slow." He took an IQ test and scored a 155. The school immediately skipped him to fourth grade, where he was beaten up enough times that his father, a Chicago police officer, yanked him out and placed him in a gifted program.
Sgt. Bob McCracken was the practical sort, and it's from him that Voros inherited the sort of thinking that inspired DIPS. He served 37 years, investigating homicides and robberies, until a second heart attack prompted his retirement. During the first, he was dead for 30 seconds, brought back by a defibrillator. The incident left him disappointed. "I didn't see the light," he says.
McCracken's dad pushed him to be an actuary, someone able to accurately assess financial risk and uncertainty, especially after the perfect ACT math score and the academic scholarship to Butler. "Not me," McCracken says. "I should've been in a lunatic asylum. What I thought at 1 o'clock and what I thought at 1:10 were often not two different things, but opposite things."
He dropped out after two years. He preferred going to see Pegboy and The Blue Meanies at the Metro and Fireside Bowl, and he spent his days bouncing from job to job, none with much stability and each with even less of a future. He had the mind of a Wall Street analyst and the drive of a nihilist.
"Things in my mind happen fast," he says. "I want to do them as fast as they're happening in my mind. You can try. And it leads you to punk rock and mosh pits."
McCracken turned 28, and his girlfriend urged him to ditch that lifestyle, as well as his by-the-hour law clerking job, and get steadier work as a paralegal. He joined Katz, Randall and Weinberg, a law firm in Chicago, and spent five miserable months under piles of paperwork. To take his mind off the job, he joined a simulation fantasy baseball league, Diamond Mind, which reignited a curiosity from when he was 14.
In 1985, McCracken's mother, Elayne, bought him the Bill James Baseball Abstract annual. It enraptured him. Here was someone who thought like he thought, who analyzed the tangible and sought answers above assumptions. James fused McCracken's love of logic with his love of baseball, and the Diamond Mind team prompted him to try something else: not just admire James but be like him.
When a Baseball Prospectus book suggested pitching and defense were too intertwined to be separated, the defeatism bothered McCracken. At the gifted school, he had taken a critical-thinking class. One lesson he gleaned: divide and conquer. By isolating the elements into independent and dependent groups, McCracken was able to prove the most accurate assessment of a pitcher comes not from the hits he allows but his strikeout, walk and home run tallies.
The year-to-year instability of batting average on balls in play (BABIP) remains the most difficult concept to fathom. Groundball-to-flyball ratio correlates for pitchers over their careers. BABIP correlates with groundball-to-flyball ratio. Thus, the averages on balls in play should be consistent. Only they're not. Not close. It wasn't just Martinez. Greg Maddux's ebbed and flowed. So did Curt Schilling's. And just about every other pitcher.
The incongruity kept others from discovering DIPS before McCracken. James had come close, as had a rec.sports.baseball poster named Dale Stephenson. Another poster, Keith Woolner, broke down the question similarly to McCracken, only to answer it incorrectly. Woolner, now an analyst with the Cleveland Indians, described a scenario in which "there's no difference, on average, between a ball hit off of Tim Belcher and one hit off Roger Clemens, assuming that it lands in play." His response to it: "To my mind, that isn't a reasonable assumption."
McCracken's findings proved otherwise, and they took one of the most important statistics for a pitcher – hits allowed – and essentially absolved pitchers.
"I knew right away that the article was groundbreaking, that it was going to change the way we looked at baseball permanently," says Rany Jazayerli, one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus. "Like, I imagine, everyone else, I was skeptical about his conclusion when I first read it, but it only took a few minutes of looking up the stats for various great pitchers -- and the stats for mediocre pitchers who had lucked into a great season -- to realize Voros was onto something."
The response from the rest of rec.sport.baseball, and later Baseball Prospectus readers, mimicked Jazayerli's: disbelief, followed by a eureka moment. The acceptance of DIPS took longer for some than others, and McCracken fought every question, every cry of fraud and hack and con man, to explain that however someone felt about him, the data didn't lie, and his spreadsheets told him this was the truth.
"He was in hand-to-hand combat to convince people," says Dan Szymborski, a sabermetrician and friend of McCracken's. "People think sabermetricians are this community where everyone agrees and it's this monolithic view of statistics, and statheads can't leave an argument. Trust me. They argued with Voros."
There were small flaws to McCracken's research, most of which came from lack of data. Knuckleball pitchers, follow-up studies showed, give up fewer hits on balls in play, and there is a difference between groundball and flyball pitchers. Perhaps McCracken's quick-and-dirty take from the beginning of pitchers having no influence was premature. The essence of the theory remains: it is minimal, far less, certainly, than baseball presumed before McCracken's research.
"Voros' realization," James says, "has become one of the pivotal points in the history of sabermetrics."
The knowledge proliferated quickly. Savvy front offices pounced on DIPS-friendly pitchers, especially those with high BABIPs the previous season, as they were expected to regress to the mean, around .300. An even greater appreciation came for strikeout pitchers: the more strikeouts, the fewer times the ball is in play and a threat to land.
And suddenly, McCracken was the hot mind in the baseball world. Lauded by James, glorified in "Moneyball," he was like a prospect for the pocket-protected. His girlfriend broke up with him, but that was OK. He had an entire community of admirers now, and no longer was he Bob McCracken.
"When I came up with DIPS, I couldn't ever change back," he says. "I was Voros forever."
The Voros McCracken legend grew one gasp at a time, and it may have reached its peak upon the publication of "Moneyball." Author Michael Lewis told the nuts and bolts of his tale -- disgruntled brainiac births sport-changing theory -- and sent McCracken off from the story with a quote attributed to Paul DePodesta, the A's assistant GM: "If you want to talk about a guy who might be the next Bill James, Voros McCracken could be it."
Even if DePodesta didn't utter the sentence -- both he and Keith Law, a former Baseball Prospectus writer then working with the Toronto Blue Jays and now with ESPN, say the words were Law's -- the implication was enough: Not only was baseball thankful for McCracken cracking the DIPS case, it expected more from him.
The advances in modern sabermetrics almost always move in increments. Projections are 1 percent more accurate. Tweaks to previous findings give another ray of insight into an intimidating world populated by alphabet-soup metrics and complicated regression analysis. Sabermetrics is for thinkers, which is why so many players are loath to accept its findings.
Defense-independent pitching statistics were different, borne of logic and deductive reasoning with a conclusion reinforced by mathematics, the sort of thing men of industry would appreciate more than baseball lifers. It never occurred to McCracken how much his idea permeated baseball's power structure until 2002, when he received an e-mail from Boston owner John Henry, who put him in touch with Red Sox GM Theo Epstein.
Boston wanted to hire McCracken as a consultant. He spent a week trying to convince himself not to take the job. He wanted his ideas to be baseball's, not the intellectual property of a team. These were the Red Sox. He couldn't say no. Less than a two years after the Baseball Prospectus story, while he was at Northeastern Illinois trying to finish his degree, McCracken was working for one of baseball's storied franchises.
"I have a lot of respect for someone that comes up with something original," says San Diego GM Jed Hoyer, at the time a Red Sox baseball operations assistant and McCracken's boss. "I feel like anyone can refine something, figure out an accurate way to portray ERA. To think that far outside the box takes a special mind."
Repeating greatness is almost unprecedented in sabermetrics. James is a master theorist who deserves credit for helping popularize the value of a walk with his early Abstracts, the bearing of minor league statistics on major league performance in the '85 version and dozens more vital findings over three decades. There were other individual tours de force. In "Diamond Appraised," Craig Wright's studies on pitch counts prompted follow-up work that changed how teams treat starting pitchers; Pete Palmer and John Thorn's "Hidden Game of Baseball" introduced numbers-based tactics and strategies that saber-savvy teams still employ. Even Earnshaw Cook's "Percentage Baseball," though published 49 years ago and rife with incorrect information, remains influential because of the industry it wrought.
With the Red Sox, McCracken never did find another DIPS. The team let him go following the 2005 draft. Already in debt following his second go-around at college, McCracken drowned with the meager salary – starting analysts around baseball are lucky to make $30,000 – from Boston.
Burned out, disappointed and poor, McCracken fell into a deep depression. The thoughts that used to pollute his mind before baseball occupied his time returned. He would fixate and obsess. His best friend growing up died of a heroin overdose a couple years earlier. McCracken hadn't seen him for ages, since the friend's first stint in jail. No matter how irrational it was, McCracken kept asking himself whether he was to blame for something he might've done when they were kids.
He visited a doctor, was diagnosed with a mild case of bipolar disorder and received a prescription for Seroquel, a popular antipsychotic drug that would help him sleep and prevent the ruminations.
"At some point, if you're not mentally well, nothing else matters," McCracken says. "Nothing good happens. You're forced to make decisions. And because you're forced, there's no guarantee they're the right ones. But they're decisions you've got to make. I can either spend the rest of my life in an institution, or I can change the way I think about what I'm doing with the rest of my life. I can continue to ratchet up the stress levels and be the supergenius who makes millions of dollars, or I can calm down and be satisfied with my lot."
Satisfaction is an ongoing battle. McCracken gave up baseball for a few years before he starting blogging about it again. The frequency of the posts petered out as his attention moved to soccer, and the demand for employment there exceeded any bites he got in baseball.
McCracken tried. He spoke with Cleveland and San Diego. Nothing materialized. Last year, he was hoping to get a job with the Diamondbacks, whose stadium is less than 30 miles from his home in Surprise, Ariz. Then GM Josh Byrnes was fired, and McCracken never heard from the organization again. He tries to understand why, whether his time with Boston hurt him or his mental illness scares teams off or his appearance -- McCracken is significantly overweight – hinders his reputation.
All cop-outs, McCracken says. Baseball is about ideas and the opportunity to pursue them, and he sees plenty of good ones waiting to be plumbed. Most sabermetricians expect the next big leap to come from Major League Baseball's f/x systems, with which cameras trace a pitch's velocity and break from release to catcher's mitt. The wealth of data from Pitch f/x should soon get a complement from Hit f/x and Field f/x systems that
will follow balls wherever they go on the field and provide a detailed matrix for every play.
"The pinnacle of sabermetrics is when scouting observation and performance analysis converge," says Tom Tango, the nom de plume for a longtime statistical analyst who wrote the influential "The Book" and has worked for a number of MLB teams, "and the f/x systems is what is going to lead us there."
McCracken wonders about what he could've done with DIPS and Pitch f/x and the other mountains of data available publicly on Baseball Reference and FanGraphs. Individual studies on hits per ball in play based on velocity, pitch type, break and other factors would've given DIPS even greater depth and perhaps more insight into the strength – or potential weaknesses – of the theory.
He knows there's another million-dollar idea in his head.
"But I can't," McCracken says. "You make a decision and you have to stick with it, and I can't work for free. Not even for something you enjoy more than anything in the world. Rent isn't free. You can love baseball. You can love it as much as anything in your life. And you can't do it for free."
So he watches soccer and tries to solve unique problems for ... "I'm sorry," he says. "I just can't tell you." The excitement of the gig doesn't exactly match the mystery. McCracken is working on tweaking a faulty prediction system. It's edifying enough. The market for sabermetrics in soccer is ripe -- Beane does consulting work with clubs -- so it should pay the rent for a while. McCracken is going to Europe this week to meet his boss. He's never been before. And maybe, just maybe, there's a DIPS waiting to be found across the pond.
It's not baseball, though, not the sort of satisfying end McCracken desires. He masks the regret with humor, calling DIPS "the one-hit wonder." Granted, it's one with resonance far greater than most. Tango turned the DIPS principles into fielding independent pitching (FIP), the statistic most sabermetricians consider paramount to analyzing pitchers. It's not just the geeks, either. “That’s pretty much how I pitch, to try to keep my FIP as low as possible,” Zack Greinke said on Nov. 17, 2009.
It was the day Greinke won the American League Cy Young Award, despite having fewer victories than any previous AL winner – the truest sign yet that traditional-media voters were not only paying attention to McCracken's work but heeding its ideology. It was also a day before the 10-year anniversary of the first Usenet post outlining DIPS.
"A few years ago, I said to him, ‘Someday you're going to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame for DIPS,’" says McCracken's mother, Elayne. "He just laughed at me. He just laughed."
At least he got a watch from the whole thing. It's all that's left, really, all that's concrete from his time with the Red Sox. Yeah, there are the boxes of college statistics in the storage locker he shares with his dad. There are seven of them, stuffed with data. McCracken built a database to analyze college players with those numbers for the 2005 draft, and all five of the Red Sox's first-round picks from that year – Jacoby Ellsbury, Craig Hansen, Clay Buchholz, Jed Lowrie and Michael Bowden – have made the major leagues. He's proud of that.
The watch, too, though it's not much to look at these days. He got it in 2004 when the Red Sox won the World Series. McCracken thought he was getting a ring. He wishes he had one. It was worth a whole lot more than a leather-banded watch, for one, and rings don't stop working.
"It needs a battery," McCracken says. "Not needing a battery isn't broken. It just doesn't tell time."
He wants to find time to fix it but never does. McCracken will turn 40 this year, and he's single. But he’s in a good enough place that things like rings that never were and faulty watch batteries don't faze him as much. Neither can baseball, no matter how much he misses it, because he understands the perils of obsession and disillusionment.
McCracken prefers to soak in his baseball live anyway. He can drink some cold beer and avoid the inanity of TV announcers and laugh at blunders with amnesty. In fact, one of his favorite baseball moments came during his interview with the Red Sox. The team flew him into Boston and plunked him in a seat behind home plate at Fenway. In the eighth inning, Manny Ramirez lifted a 1-1 pitch from CC Sabathia far over the Green Monster, 430 feet into the Boston night, and the sizzle off the bat sent McCracken's mind racing.
"I've never seen a baseball hit that hard," he says. "I've never heard a baseball make that sound. I didn't have very long to look at it. It wasn't up there for very long. It was kind of like watching somebody break the sound barrier.
"It was there, and it was gone."