Q&A with SaberWizard Tom Tango

Tom Tango, aka Tangotiger, is without question one of the most influential sabermetricians (though he might say saberist) alive. Not only did he, along with Mitchel Lichtman and Andrew Dolphin, pen The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, Tango continues to guide the eye-popping explosion of saber-acceptance through one of the best (and the most sober) saber site of all, The Book Blog.

...and that will be the pinnacle of sabermetrics."

Tom was kind enough to agree to a question and answer session conducted via email. Here's what we have -- hope you enjoy:

[BTB] How did you get into baseball and when did you start seeing the potential for analysis that you've done with The Book?


[TT] I definitely remember the Bucky Dent game, with Yaz popping out to Nettles to end the game.  But I've also got baseball cards from 1976 and 1977, though I don't remember any games from back then.  So, I got into it when I was in elementary school.  Probably no different than most kids from my generation.

Potential for analysis, just for myself?  I remember reading a Baseball Digest article that used Linear Weights from Pete Palmer.  That was in the early 80s.  I have the Baseball Abstracts 1985-1988.  Inside Sports (or Sport) carried the annual Tom Boswell Total Average.  So, it was cemented at the start of all that.

Potential for analysis for publication?  Around the first or second year that I started posting at (the now defunct) BaseballBoards.com.  That's where I (virtually) met MGL (who would be one of my eventual co-authors), Voros, Patriot, David Smyth, and other guys I could relate to.  And that's right around when I dived into Retrosheet data.  Without Retrosheet data, The Book couldn't exist.

How did you translate your work into actually consulting for a Major League Club? What realities does one face when working with a club that one doesn't face when working with a spreadsheet?


I was publishing a lot of research pieces, just because I love to do the research, and eventually it was getting the attention of teams, which surprised me.  My first contact was when a writer named Michael Lewis called, and said the A's were reading my blog.  After that, a few other teams contacted me, though not all wanted to pay for my work.  Then The Book came out, and it's taken a life on its own.  It's even led to consulting for NHL teams.

I haven't had any issues in translating my work for front-office consumption. I do the exact same thing as I normally would, in exactly the same way.

Your question I think is misleading, as it seems to be about a "data dump", combining data to get a list.  The front-office is not just interested in data, which is a good thing to have.  They want answers, or at least evidence that will lead them to a reasonable opinion.  I'm just one of many guys who provides answers when asked.  I just happen to approach things from a different angle.

How has Sabermetrics changed the way you view the world, or is it more that your worldview shaped the way you view baseball?


Good question.  I don't know if I have a good answer.  I've always been about logic, reason, and critical thinking, so that helps in analyzing baseball data.  But the limitations of baseball data, its limited sample size, its sampling bias, probably affects me in a non-baseball world to apply a certain level of uncertainty in whatever it is that I learn. This is a Bayes world, and we just live in it.

If there was just one thing every mainstream baseball fan should understand about the game and the league, what would it be and why is it important?


One thing?  Every team is always looking to make itself better, and they are all trying to manage these various moving parts, some of which have more value today and others have more value tomorrow.  So, try to understand why a team is doing what it's doing: use their perspective, rather than use your own perspective as to why something is good or bad.

I liken this to when I was playing the stock market a long time ago. You'd see these seemingly crazy valuations, but in some cases they made sense, and in others they didn't.  They made sense because the valuation would imply a certain amount of growth rate, and given where the company was, that growth rate was reasonable.  In other cases, and I remember this one specifically (eToys), it didn't, because no level of growth could sustain its valuation.

I don't know how things work with most of the teams, but you have to presume that a healthy majority of them have alot of smart people working on the valuations, and they are reasonable from their point-of-view. Occasionally, you'll get a high-profile blunder, or perhaps a team or two simply shoots from the hip.  But, those are in the minority.


On the other hand, if there is one misconception that the average saberguy doesn't quite understand, what would it be?


That there's uncertainty in whatever we do, so only defend what you do as far as the numbers allow.


Other than the coming Field F/x, what territory is most ripe for analytical improvement?


Any of the SportVision or Trackman data, really, as its the one place where you will get convergence on performance analysis and scouting observations.  And that will be the pinnacle of sabermetrics.


Last, I'm pretty sure I've read you saying that it doesn't matter if Sabermetrics goes mainstream. Considering we're seeing the adoption of WAR on mainstream ESPN broadcasts now, is there any danger if it does?


Danger?  I suppose the mainstream didn't appreciate the biases in RBIs, and I suppose they won't appreciate the biases in OPS either.  The danger will always be present, no matter what gets adopted.

 

 

Thanks so much to Tom for agreeing to the the Q&A. Make sure and check out his blog at http://www.insidethebook.com/ee/ . Look forward to more of these with other titans in our field!

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