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interview-with-tom-tango-aka-tangotiger-prominent-sabermetrician-inventor-of-fip-woba-and-more-and-seattle-mariners-consultant | December | 2009 Articles

2009 Archives

Interview With Tom Tango, aka Tangotiger, Prominent Sabermetrician (Inventor of FIP, wOBA, and more) and Seattle Mariners Consultant

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I asked Tom Tango, better known on the web as Tangotiger. You probably know who he is: earlier this year, when he was hired by the Seattle Mariners, Dave Cameron of U.S.S. Mariner and Fangraphs called him "The leading analyst of the day in public advancement of statistical analysis." He's prolific, smart, and has done as much as anyone to help push the envelope of sabermetrics. You can read his work on Insidethebook.com. He was kind enough to answer a few questions. It's an honor to have him on the blog.

It's been a busy offseason! We've seen two blockbuster three-team trades, one involving the Seattle Mariners -- your current employer. Without getting too deep into the weeds of your day job, can you talk about what may have prompted these two huge deals, two of the highest-profile deals in recent memory, to happen within weeks of each other? Are the economics of baseball changing with regard to teams acquiring players through trades rather than free agency?

I can't discuss any particulars of any transaction or potential transaction, due to the NDA.

As for the economics of baseball generally speaking, I'm speculating that the economic downturn, along with a better appreciation of player valuation has created the perfect storm where teams are finally figuring out how to value players, in wins and dollars terms.

The test however will be when teams have too much money than they know what to do with it, once we are out of this recession. It's a classic "use it or lose it" budget scenario. If you give a GM an extra 10 million dollars to spend on players, and he doesn't spend it, then, he hurts the win aspect of the team for the upcoming season. And, the outlet to acquire players is so limited with free agents, that that's where the money is siphoned.

The MLBPA will be in quite the bind if the savvy of the GMs continues. The MLBPA's entire strategy was to presume that GMs will act as if they had a gun pointed at their heads. So, they loved the free agency setup that drove prices up, which in turn acted as a driver to arbitration deals. Now, things have changed. When quality guys who are arb-eligible are getting released, then you know that there's an overpricing going on. The compensation system for "free" agents (the Orlandos last year) moves the value from the player to the team losing the player. I would not be surprised if the MLBPA will insist on revenue sharing like the NHL, and to get rid of the compensation system. It'll be a fascinating story to follow when the CBA expires following the 2011 season.

Re-reading your question, I guess I did not give you a relevant answer, but hopefully, it's an answer that has something worthwhile.

Recently, I asked Keith Law: "Are there any player-analysis myths, either in the baseball mainstream or in the blogger community, that you'd like to puncture if you could?" His two answers were "the tall-pitcher meme" and "the rule 5 draft is wildly overrated." What widespread myths rankle you the most?

Myths? I suppose we can interpret that to mean where can you find undervalued players, with respect to "standard" stats? I don't think fielding is appreciated enough. It's often "yeah, he's got a good glove, but...". Why not "yeah, he's got a good bat, but..." for the poor-fielders? GMs look to finally be on board here, with their deals for Dunn and Burrell among others. I don't know if the mainstream is yet. But, I suppose that the mainstream will always be a step or two behind on any topic anyway, otherwise they would not be in the mainstream to begin with, by definition.

On a related note, I've been writing on Yahoo Sports about stats you've devised, such as FIP and wOBA. Since you wrote The Book, and with the increasing popularity of stat-oriented sites like Fangraphs and Hardball Times, many of your stats have come to much greater prominence. Are there any misunderstandings that you'd like to correct?

First off, your series has been fantastic, perhaps the best series on the topic to date. Better than what I myself have written about my own stats, better than what you will find in a wiki.

As for misunderstandings, I'd say that those who follow what I do understand what I do. And, if there are any misunderstandings, I am always available to clear those up. So, I don't think there's anything out there that lingers, or worse, propogates to something worse.

Now, to get down to Braves business. Following their bullpen transactions earlier this offseason, the Braves have been trying to move some of their starting pitching depth -- especially Derek Lowe -- for salary relief, and they've also been trying to land at least one hitter to fill their holes in the corner outfield and at 1B. GM Frank Wren drew some criticism for his arbitration choices, offering arbitration to Rafael Soriano and then being surprised when he accepted, but refusing to offer arb to Adam LaRoche despite having few other good options at first. Three questions:

  • a) What was your take on Wren's decisions on arbitration offers?
  • b) Is it feasible to shop Derek Lowe, or do the 3 years and $45 million on his contract make it impossible to move him and receive talent in return?
  • c) How should the Braves handle the potential near-readiness of Jason Heyward, Freddie Freeman, and Jordan Schafer, all of whom play positions that are currently thin on the 25-man roster?

a. Arbitration offers are fairly low-risk, as long as there's at least one other team that values a player on the free market more than an arbitrator values a player in the arbitration market, I'd offer arbitration to anyone (since you can always trade that player to that team). The places where an arbitrator might value a player more is players coming off the DL so those are the ones that you really have to think about. It's like a "pre-existing condition" that an insurance company can properly value (in this case, the GMs), while an arbitrator does not have as much freedom to value that because of the process (comparables-driven).

b. At this point, Derek Lowe is, what, a .525 pitcher? And you expect, say 180 innings. For a one year deal, that can get you say 10-12MM$? Then you have to pay for next year say 9-11MM? And then the third year as well? Say 7-9MM? So, for 3 years, you might pay him say 26-32MM$, kinda like what Tim Hudson got? (I'm just thinking out loud here, not really putting much effort.) But, you are on the hook for 45MM$!

So, imagine you own real estate that is worth 260K to 320K, but the mortgage on that property is 450K. What do you do if someone comes along and asks for it? You give it to him, and be thankful he doesn't ask for the difference! Are Braves fans actually thinking they could trade Lowe (AND his contract) and get something back for him? Think of players like assets, because that's how the players themselves and teams think of them.

A month ago, in an interview on our blog, JC Bradbury criticized what he saw as a "groupthink attitude" among some internet devotees of Sabermetrics, and specifically referred to a BaseballThinkFactory comment which quoted one of your blog posts about a baseball study by two economists. This prompted a spirited debate, and you responded to Bradbury's specific comment about the study. What do you think of his larger point about groupthink? Does the internet saber community have too many sacred cows?

As I often say on my blog, opinion without evidence is bullshit. Sometimes it's fun to bullshit around, like if you are at a bar with friends and are just looking to have some fun. But if you are going to have a serious opinion on the matter, the last thing you can accuse devotees of saberists is that they engage in groupthink.

The entire point of sabermetrics is to NOT have an opinion until you have evidence for it. You need to ask the question, find the evidence, and then come to a conclusion, with a fair amount of uncertainty around that conclusion. The devotees of saberists are going to be more demanding, not less demanding, of the saberists. They want to understand the logic, the rationale, behind everything saberists do.

My blog is a good example of a place where readers are not in lock-step agreement with everything I say or do, and they ask challenging questions, and many times offer insightful points.

Groupthink? I don't know why anyone would want to use such a pejorative term against a group of thoughtful people.

For my last question, I'm firmly in agreement with you about Tim Raines's worthiness for the Hall of Fame, so I'd just like to give you a moment to talk about the Rock. What are your favorite arguments in favor of his candidacy?

In one line, there's not a sliver of a difference between Tony Gwynn and Tim Raines.

I can understand if Gwynn was a borderline case, and so, maybe Raines might be ever so slightly below that. But Gwynn was a shoe-in for induction his first year.

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