Q & A with Tom Tango

Tom Tango, sabermetrician and co-author of The Book Playing the Percentages in Baseball, was kind enough to answer some of my questions regarding run expectancy, PEDs, defensive metrics, and the Hall of Fame.

Q: The Book used data from 1999-2002 to determine run expectancy. Runs per game have come down since then; does that alter your situational RE calculations?

Tango: It does affect it somewhat. The lower the run environment, the more
small-ball tactics make sense.

As an aside, you can see the run expectancy charts for different eras here:
http://tangotiger.net/re24.html

Q: What were the primary causes for the increased run scoring environment of the 1990’s and early 2000’s?

Tango: Something dramatic happened between 1992 and 1994.
From 1988-1992, there were 4.1 to 4.3 runs scored per game per team every
year. From 1994-2004, it bounced between 4.7 to 5.1 every year. These
sudden one-time events would usually lead to something about the equipment
(ball, bat).

It could also be the strike zone. It was redefined after the 2000 season
when run scoring peaked, and since then it reached a lower level. An
unofficial redefinition between 1992 and 1994 could be a culprit too.

As for the future: There’s also been a dramatic increase in strikeouts in
the past few years, and that’s probably the biggest story right now in
terms of the run environment going progressively down.

Q: What do we know about PEDs? How much do you think they actually increase performance?

Tango: The question is really how much do we know about PED with respect to their
impact by baseball players in a baseball game. And I don’t know the
answer to that question. I depend on data to give answers, and there’s
little data to go on.

Q: Do you see an ethical difference between the players of the 90’s who used steroids and the players of the 50’s who used amphetamines?

Tango: I don’t think players today or players from 50 years ago and players from
100 years ago are of any different moral character, relative to the time
period they lived in. And I don’t think that baseball players are of a
different moral character than engineers, plumbers, and accountants.

It’s more accurate to say the choices that players make are a product of
their environment than to say that the players set their environment.

It’s here that I think the MLPA failed: they should have treated this as a
workplace safety issue, to protect those members who didn’t want to do
something illicit or otherwise unhealthy or unsafe to keep up with the
risk-takers. Rick Helling was a lone voice in what should have been a
booming chorus.

Q: Hall of Fame voters have made it clear that anyone linked or suspected of using performance enhancing drugs is not getting into the Hall. Do you think they are making the correct decision?

Tango: For some reason, the moral character clause, which has never been used,
even in the face of admitted cheaters who scuff baseballs, has been
converted to mean “suspected of PED use”. And “suspected” is too nice a
word, since a lot of what we see is just baseless accusations, rumors, and
hearsay.

The writers absolve themselves by saying they don’t need enough to convict
beyond a reasonable doubt.  But they don’t even have enough to arrest for
probable cause. They don’t even have enough to bring players in for
questioning.  All they have is enough to rile up the social media. There
is an ocean between riling up readers and convicting beyond reasonable
doubt, and some of the writers have drawn that line along the riling-up
beachfront.

And as other analysts have noted, once you let one in, as you are
eventually going to bring in Bonds or Clemens, then all that conscientious
objection blustering will go away.

This has become a very political game, like you see with the NHL and like
you see with Congress. They’re all drawing lines in the sand, they are
all saying they’ll die on one side; they are all big on histrionics. But
what the rest of us want is simply a sober viewpoint.

If a BBWAA voter is going to spend 60 minutes on each player to decide his
worthiness, I’d rather he spend 59 of those minutes researching the
player’s actual accomplishments, and 1 minute researching the lack of
evidence of any cheating. Jeff Bagwell is the latest casualty of the
disproportionate emphasis of hearsay over actual achievements.

Q: How do you think the Hall of Fame itself has handled the PED issue?

Tango: Like they always do: they haven’t. It works out great for them so far,
because they have voters who are writers who talk about the Hall of Fame
all the time. You don’t get that in the NHL. You get a one or two day
news cycle there, and then it’s forgotten.

But there’s a real possibility that this year, no one gets elected, even
though it’s the deepest ballot in a long time.

Q: If you were in charge of the Hall of Fame voting process, what changes would you make (if any) to the current system?

Tango: I have a dozen suggestions. The first is follow an elect-2 or elect-3
model.  Right now, all the talk is about who will NOT get in, who is
carryover-ed from the prior years. Anyone elected this year will be
talked about for one or two days, and it’s over. More people talk about
Jack Morris than Robin Yount. Does that make sense?

The other is to have a “pyramid” like others have talked about. Rather
than this in-out system, accept that there are different levels of honor.
There’s no reason that everyone’s plaque has to be treated the same. Why
not have Willie Mays and Hank Aaron on a “Home Run” wall?  And why not
have Jim Rice and Jack Morris on a “Singles” wall? It’s not like you are
either a black belt or not in karate.

There’s different levels of achievement, so, recognize it like that.

Q: Defensive metrics are often criticized, how can they be improved upon? What’s wrong with the current metrics like UZR & DRS?

Tango: We are limited to the data. This is true of everything. To improve a
metric, you simply improve the data. So, instead of having a single
person from a single vantage point tell us where a ball was hit, you can
have several people from several vantage points. Or, you have an
automated system like FIELDf/x that will do that.

The other is knowing the starting point of the fielder, so we can split up
the valuation between positioning and range. Some people want to credit
positioning to the fielder and other to the manager. Well, split it up
and let each person decide for himself.

Q: I feel like BABIP can be a valuable statistic to look at; however I also think it’s overused and misused at times. What are your feelings on BABIP? Is there a metric that you feel isn’t being used properly?

Tango: BABIP is a valuable metric because it breaks down something into a
specific component. Anything that gives you more perspective is good.

As for metrics that are improperly used: RBIs are still being misused.
And FIP is being misused. Basically, everything is getting misused.

Q: How is FIP being misused?

Tango: FIP is like OBP, giving you a subset of a player’s performance. OBP gives
the identical value to a walk as it does to a HR.

Just because FIP doesn’t consider a player’s performance on batted balls
in play or with holding runners, etc, doesn’t mean that it thinks that all
players are equal in those respects.

FIP is one angle. It just so happens that FIP is a huge angle, with OBP
for batters is just a big angle.

Q: When asked to evaluate a hitter, what numbers do you look at first, and why?

Tango: wRC+, because it is comprehensive and adjusted for environment.

Q: When asked to evaluate a pitcher, what numbers do you look at first, and why?

Tango: FIP- because it focuses on those things most important for a pitcher, and it is
adjusted for environment.

Q: What metrics are deficient in measuring a player’s ability?

Tango: I mean, they all tell you something, which is a
combination of a player’s skill, his opportunities, and random variation.
If you understand a metric, they all have value, even RBIs.

Q: Where are sabermetrics headed? What’s the next big thing?

Tango: Interpreting data produced by Sportvision or Trackman, because they give
us data that is very granular and more tied-in to a player’s talent, and
less about random variation.

Q: How can the analytical community do a better job presenting their information?

Tango: Seems to me they do a fantastic job. For those willing to go along for
the ride, just sit back and enjoy it. For those who are disinterested,
well, that’s not an audience for us to worry about. You have to be
willing to be educated in order to receive an education.

For those who are willing, but don’t “get it”, then that’s the real
challenge. I don’t know how to present it better than what we’re seeing
and have seen, especially by the likes of Bill James who did a master job
in presentation. But, for those who are willing and don’t get it, then
keep telling us that you are a willing student, and we’ll figure it out
together.

Follow Tom on Twitter @TangoTiger and visit The Book’s companion blog here.

Follow me on Twitter @RossCarey

Originally posted 12/9/12

Trackbacks

  1. Ross Carey says:

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  2. Tangotiger says:

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  3. Glenn DuPaul says:

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  5. Reggie says:

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  11. [...] Tango answered some of my questions on run expectancy, PEDs, defensive metrics, and the Hall of [...]

  12. Ross Carey says:

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