The secret weapon

Can an anonymous stats guru turn the Blue Jays around?

by Colby Cosh

The secret weapon

Photograph by Fred Thornhill/ Reuters

Everybody who takes an introductory stats course at university learns about Student’s t-test, a technique useful with small-sample experiments. “Student,” in this case, has nothing to do with the classroom. It was the pen name of William Sealy Gosset (1876-1937), one of the most important figures in the development of modern statistics. Gosset had a celebrated scientific career, but his alter ego got the immortality. His discoveries arose from his work as a brewer and agriculturist for Guinness, which had a strict policy against the publication of trade secrets; hence the pseudonym.

Last week, the Toronto Blue Jays announced the hiring of baseball’s modern-day answer to “Student”—the New Jersey-based, Montreal-born author, programmer and analyst known to the world as “Tom Tango.” Tango is among the most respected figures in the field of “sabermetrics,” the application of scientific and quantitative methods to baseball, which is perhaps best known as the subject of Michael Lewis’s non-fiction bestseller Moneyball. A wide-ranging baseball philosopher whose topics of study range anywhere from millimetric variances in the strike zone to multi-million-dollar team payrolls, Tango is the lead author of 2006’s The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball, perhaps the most important sabermetric manual of the past two decades. When the Kansas City Royals’ Zack Greinke won the American League Cy Young Award last year, the right-hander said that he was especially fond of a statistic called “FIP” and pitched with it constantly in mind. FIP stands for Fielding-Independent Pitching (a method of factoring the defence out of a pitcher’s earned run average and crediting him only for events over which he has sole control). Its inventor: Tom Tango.

But while he is admired, prolific and an active correspondent with other scholars, Tango remains an enigma. He keeps his real name a closely guarded secret. Long known in the online sabermetrics world as “Tango­tiger,” he tacked on the “Tom” and dropped the “Tiger” solely to have something semi-respectable-looking to put on the cover of The Book. “There are a lot of old-timers who think that I should sign my Christian name,” he blogged in 2008. “I don’t see why it’s anyone’s business other than mine.”

While the world of sabermetrics is a small one characterized by plenty of conferences, summit meetings and socializing, Tango has spurned all such activity. He has never even met his co-authors on The Book, Mitchel Lichtman and Andy Dolphin. “I’ve actually only met one person on the sports side [of my business],” he tells Maclean’s by email. “Take all my past and current employers, colleagues, peers and readers, and I have met exactly one person.” Is he agoraphobic? Autistic? Two-headed? None of the above, he claims. “I’m a private, shy guy. Nothing more to it than that.”

Tango is willing to let a few biographical nuggets fall from a clenched fist. He claims to be a male in his early 40s. “I’ve been working in data processing for large multinational corporations non-stop since I was in college,” he writes, “and it continues to be my main source of employment.” He grew up following the Montreal Expos, and is involved in the push to get his favourite player, Tim Raines, into the Hall of Fame. Hockey may still be his first love, however, and his initial sports consulting work was with NHL teams—which, as a fanatic about non-disclosure agreements and privacy in general, he won’t name. His deal with the Jays isn’t exclusive, and he is known to have signed up with the Seattle Mariners last spring.

Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos says he sought out Tango for his blend of computer savvy and baseball knowledge (and admits that Tango’s commitment to secrecy is “part of the comfort level”). Tango says he “is always on the periphery” of baseball decision-making, and talks of his past work more like a database designer than a baseball scholar. And though Anthopoulos comes from the non-quantitative side of baseball’s great divide between numbers and scouting, he won’t rule out pulling Tango in on potential acquisitions and trades. “We’ll bounce things off him and have him do studies on particular questions or players when the situation calls for it,” says Anthopoulos, noting that the team has also retained the services of sabermetrician Mat Olkin (a protege of Bill James, the sabermetric Einstein). “[Tango] is a nice blend: he’s not a scout but he understands the scouting components of the game. Our philosophy is to get as many opinions as we can, use all the data and creative thinking that’s available.”

The secret weapon

  1. What, exactly, qualifies Tango and other "sabermetricians" the qualification of baseball scholar? Many of these failed investment bankers and IT "cable men" have little to no formal training in the Statistics discipline, and fail miserably at their attempts to explain the game through it. Perhaps when baseball clubs begin hiring individuals trained in the discipline (see: Dan Kantrovitz of the Oakland Athletics), "sabermetrics" could be respected as an application of statistical methods. There really is more to Statistics than linear regression.

    • Yes, there is more to statistics (and capital-S Statistics too) than linear regression. Unfortunately for your point, the worst abusers of linear regression (and significance levels) in sabermetrics are the heavily-credentialed academics like David Berri. I don't really think you know what you're talking about.

  2. "What, exactly, qualifies Tango and other "sabermetricians" the qualification of baseball scholar?"

    Nothing, inherently. But then neither does having an MS of PhD in statistics, at least not inherently. You have to go out and prove that you understand how what happens on the field contributes to wins and losses – filter the signal from the noise, so to speak – and develop ways of quantifying it. Tango's developed statistics that have proven to be useful, written a book, and worked with professional teams. It's not as if he's just standing up and saying "Hey, I know some things about statistics! I'm relevant and important!"

    I agree that it's more complicated than it looks and that most people who have some basic statistics training and think they're going to become gurus are deluding themselves, but I think that Tango specifically has demonstrated he knows what he's doing and has something useful to offer.

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