January 30, 2011

DIPS INROAD:

Sabermetrician In Exile (Jeff Passan, 1/25/11, Yahoo!: The Post Game)

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.



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Posted by Orrin Judd at January 30, 2011 5:55 AM
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