After reading an extremely interesting piece by Jeff Passan on the legendary sabermetrics whiz Voros McCracken I have to admit it had me a bit down in the dumps, and depressed. How could the man who basically redefined the sabermetric movement not be involved in baseball in some form or fashion? It doesn’t seem right, or fair, that the man who basically founded and created ‘defence independent pitching’ (or DIPS) statistics wasn’t good enough for the game anymore.
Maybe it affected me more on a personal level and it was gut check time, if ‘Voros’ wasn’t accepted and embraced by the baseball world, what chance in hell did I ever have? Now is the time for you to snicker, or snidely remark ‘fat chance in the first place’ and, to be honest, I would be saying the exact same things. But I have a confession, and on some level every fellow ‘baseball nerd’ who writes about the game we love was affected in the same manner – we lost a bit of hope.
When the dream of actually playing in the big leagues comes to an eventual and crashing halt the next dream becomes almost as intriguing and alluring, to some day work in baseball. We read the success stories of the boy who interned, mopped the floors, cleaned the toilets and made his way to the top of a ball team and we think ‘that could be me.’
I know, I know the odds were stacked against any of us ever ‘getting a shot’ and the more I had time to think about it the more I started to realize I probably didn’t have much appeal for a prospective baseball front office. Besides my undying passion for the game, work ethic and a healthy knowledge of baseball, what exactly do I possess that no one else does to break into one of the toughest rackets.
I didn’t graduate from Harvard Law, I have no connection to the game and while I feel I can write some entertaining and useful baseball pieces I certainly didn’t invent anything near as revolutionary as DIPS. I can tell you how much a win is worth on the free agent market and I came up with a pretty cool Excel spreadsheet formula that has effectively calculated which “Hall of Fame” player would perform the best in DMB baseball for our current era –- does that count?
Maybe it was always just plain fantasy, delusion or straight denial but deep down all of us on some level held out just a tiny bit of hope that one day we would get our chance ,and I know for a fact that reading about the current plight of Voros McCracken was a good old-fashioned dose of reality for the broader baseball-writing community.
Once you heard he was broke, out of baseball completely and, worse, actually working on soccer you can’t tell me it didn’t sting. I thought ‘if you build it, they will come’ was in the baseball code. At least Ray Kinsella got to watch some of the best baseball players of all-time on his newly minted field. What did Voros get but a one-way ticket out of baseball?
I attempted to contact Voros McCracken with the hope of having a few questions answered and half expected him to be angry, grumpy or upset like Terence Mann (James Earl Jones) in the movie Field of Dreams. ‘Leave me alone kid, I have more important things to worry about!’ was the anticipated response followed by a proverbial door being slammed in my face or in today’s day in age, at least an all-caps angry email response.
Not a chance, “I’d be happy to, give me a day or two.” was his quick reply. I was pretty excited as to me he is a legend in the sabermetrics world, although he wouldn’t necessarily agree with that.
“Legend, I dunno about that.” McCracken said. “Cautionary tale maybe or greatest fraud in sabermetrics to some, but ‘legend’ seems a bit much. I’m a guy who noticed something somebody else would have noticed eventually.”
That seemed a bit modest considering the impact he has had on a great number of devoted statistical analysts.
“What people think of me is largely beyond my control, and my tendency to let the many kind things folks have said flow by and let the negative things folks have said get to me has not helped me. So I’m now striving to try the healthier alternative and let it all flow by me.”
Once the remaining one percent of me came to grips with the fact I wasn’t destined for the General Manager’s job of the Toronto Blue Jays I asked myself a question, why isn’t Voros McCracken still in baseball?
Before I continue I thought I would clarify that the actual fact is most of us write about baseball simply because we love to do it, nothing more and nothing less.
Saying that, Voros McCracken is not ‘most of us’ and the DIPS movement has not only revolutionized the sabermetric community but it made each and every front office in baseball more efficient. Someone might have stumbled upon this eventually but it was ‘Voros’ who helped create a new generation of pitching statistics such as the amazing FIP and xFIP.
I couldn’t imagine the type of pressure that one would feel to continue churning out useful and innovative statistical analysis on a daily basis. Does he still feel the pressure today?
“Used to,” he said. “Particularly when (he was) working for the Red Sox. But then when I was working for the Red Sox, it was my job.”
Given everything he has been through in baseball would he say he was ultimately given a fair shake?
“Yep. It’s not a charity.” McCracken said. “When the Red Sox hired me DIPS was already out there. They didn’t have to hire me at all to still benefit from it. They hired me to do work. I did the work and got paid what we agreed on. Expecting anything more than that is unreasonable.”
“Could they have done things differently? Of course, but then I could have too. I got close to three years with an MLB team, that’s close to three years chance more than I ever thought I’d get. I feel quite fortunate in that regard.”
Twenty years ago Gavin Floyd would’ve been demoted to the minors or potentially traded for nothing after the start he endured in 2010 as his BABIP, HR/FB and strand rates were at ridiculously high (and unsustainable) levels. Ricky Nolasco would be pitching on an ongoing one-year contract with his ‘ERA’ and seemingly ‘pedestrian’ mainstream numbers.
Those are just a couple examples of how ‘Voros’ impacted the game of baseball and how he made us conscience of the fact that once the ball leaves the pitchers hand, he has played his part, the rest is up to geometry, science and the pitcher’s defence. What more does a guy have to do to show his worth that completely change the way he value and look at pitching?
“It’s not about being rewarded.” he explained. “It’s about producing value for a club. DIPS certainly has the ability to provide that kind of value to a club, but it was already out there. Paying me for something I already gave you for free is bad business. MLB teams have apparently determined I wouldn’t add much of any additional value to the club. They might be wrong, or they might be right, but in either case it’s the evaluation they’ve made.”
Is it still the old guard battling the new guard, democrat versus republican, child versus parent? Are they making an example of him to show they still maintain the dominance of the baseball world? Is there still the much talked about ‘divide’ between the stats based community and the old school baseball world?
“Looking at the entire front office structure, I’m virtually certain there still is.” McCracken continued. “In terms of baseball operations I couldn’t tell you the current state of affairs. My guess is that with the exception of a few organizations, the divide is probably pretty small nowadays.”
But he doesn’t feel there is a correlation between him being a member of the sabermetric community and why he no longer works with an MLB team.
“Often sometimes people perceive their treatment is due to being a member of a particular group, when in actuality it’s due to something specific about them. It’s probably wise for me not to extrapolate things that happen to me out to a general comment on sabermetrics. Many things that have happened to me over the years probably have more specifically to do with me than my membership in any kind of group.”
In his piece on Voros Jeff Passan wrote:
“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.”
Unless there is something I am completely unaware of (maybe it was him who left Fenway Park in the guerrilla suit?) it feels like ‘Voros’ was used and abused. Just don’t try and tell him that, he isn’t buying the notion he was some sort of sacrificial lamb or worthy of a sob story.
“Go see ‘Sophie’s Choice’ or ‘Snoopy Come Home’, those are depressing stories.” he joked. “Ultimately I did make it. Got to work in MLB, win a World Series and a sizable chunk of my fellow baseball fans know who I am. I didn’t get rich, but then I wasn’t doing this to get rich. At some point you have to count your blessings. My weakness has always been my obsession with counting my curses.”
Voros also explains that not all of the trials and tribulations he has been through can be blamed on baseball, not that he would blame anybody but himself anyway.
“The other problems that I’ve gone through were there before DIPS, during DIPS and after DIPS and for the most part have not a lot to do with baseball. They are also much lessened as I sit here today than they were pretty much at any other point in my entire life.”
Still, of all the names in baseball today you are telling me there isn’t room for one more? One who has already shown the ability to see something where nobody else can, or cared to? It feels like the one-hit wonder in the music world who never quite found the magic formula again, of course that one-hit wonder likely didn’t even write his own ‘one-hit’ nor changed an industry the way Voros McCracken did.
Make no mistake, he did change the game.
“(That’s) not necessarily a good thing.” he said. “Maybe we should go back to pitching underhanded from 50 feet and stop using gloves. The Cubs have taken me up on that last one.”
Maybe I am being too sentimental and perhaps there is a good reason (or two) that he hasn’t caught on with another team in the dog-eat-dog world of baseball. Or maybe it is just a part of me that wants to believe that all of us still have a chance to live out a dream we have had since we traded our first baseball card or played in our first DMB baseball simulation league.
What would Voros say to anybody who still dreams of one day working in baseball?
“If you get the chance, try and enjoy every second of it. Just don’t expect it to last forever or to make a life’s work out of it. You may actually be able to do those things, but have it be a pleasant surprise if you do.”