By Colby Cosh - Thursday, April 8, 2010 - 4 Comments
Can an anonymous stats guru turn the Blue Jays around?
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.”