Thursday, August 6, 2015

An Interview with Red Sox Senior Baseball Analyst Tom Tippett 8/6/15

Hey baseball fans!

I have a very interesting interview for you today. It is with none other than the Senior Baseball Analyst for the Boston Red Sox, Tom Tipppett. As Senior Baseball Analyst, Tom is responsible for the BoSox's in-house baseball information system and for the creation and application of all their advanced baseball analytics to assist in player acquisitions and on-field performance. Tom has been with the Red Sox since September 2003 (hint: a year before they broke the Curse of the Bambino). He studied math, computer science and accounting at the University of Waterloo and got an MBA in business from Harvard. And now without further delay, let's get on with the interview:

Matt: What makes statistics so enjoyable for you?
Tom: It's mostly about coming up with answers to interesting questions. If I'm curious about how or why something works the way it does, my first instinct is to try to find some data that might explain things. That's true in my baseball work and also in many other aspects of my life. Generally speaking, I'm a skeptic. I want to decide for myself whether something is true rather than simply accept what others are saying, especially when my intuition tells me that the common answer just doesn't feel right.

Matt: Did you always love working with math and numbers?
Tom:  Yes. I caught the numbers bug at a very young age. From age 4 to age 9, we lived in a house that was a little beyond the outer limits of the Toronto suburbs. It wasn't totally rural, but there were only a couple of houses within walking distance, so I didn't usually have other kids my age to play with. That meant that I had to find ways to entertain myself. Sometimes I would spend a Saturday simulating NHL seasons by coming up with a league schedule of 70 or 80 games per team -- thankfully, there were only 6 teams then -- and "playing" the games by using a source of somewhat random numbers (like the phone book or the invoice register for my Dad's business) to determine how many goals each team scored in a game. I also invented little games using an ordinary deck of playing cards. As a result these games and the NHL simulations, I started developing a feel for probability and statistics, though I didn't realize that until I was studying those subjects in college. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I told my mother I wanted to be the chief statistician of the NHL when I grew up. A few years later, I discovered that baseball had a lot more numbers than hockey, and I was hooked.

Matt: In your opinion, which individual stat tells the most of a player’s skill?
Tom: I'd have to say Wins Above Replacement (WAR) because it encompasses all of the ways in which a player contributes to winning and losing games. But I also have to say that I usually learn more from looking at the individual components of a player's game. For position players, I like to look at several different metrics for hitting, bunting, stealing bases, taking extra bases on batted balls, and playing defense. I get a better feel for how a player can help a team win from ten well-chosen stats. But there are times when I just need to know a player's overall value, regardless of where that value comes from, and WAR is the best option for that.

Matt: What do you think about the Moneyball philosophy?
Tom: It's a shame that it is so often referred to as the "Moneyball" approach. I definitely get why people refer to it that way. After all, millions of people were exposed to these ideas through the book and the movie. I enjoyed the book and the movie, too, and am an avid reader of Michael Lewis's books, so I don't say this because I have something against the "Moneyball" story. In fact, many friends and family members didn't really understand what I do for a living until they saw the movie. But the real story is simply that it's a good idea to use analysis and critical thinking to discover what really works and to improve your ability to accomplish goals. And lots of people were doing that long before "Moneyball" was published. If anyone is interested in learning more about some of these lesser known innovators, I'd recommend "The Numbers Game" by Alan Schwarz and "In Pursuit of Pennants" by Mark Armour and Daniel Levitt.

Matt: What do you do for the Red Sox as their senior baseball analyst?
Tom:  I started working with the Red Sox as a part-time consultant in September, 2003. That relationship grew into a larger consulting role before I joined the team full-time in 2008. During those 12 years, I've split my time between two areas. In one role, I've overseen the development of the baseball information system that is used to collect and deliver all sorts of data (including stats, scouting reports, video, contracts, and transactions) to the General Manager and other decision makers. In that role, I've been a software and database developer. In the other role, I've done many statistical studies that fall into two broad categories. A lot of the work we do is to try to find better ways to project future performance so we can identify players we would like to bring into the organization. The other broad category of studies is focused on trying to win more games by studying upcoming opponents and learning about the best tactics to use in different game situations. At any given time, I'll be doing more of one and less of the other, depending on the needs of the organization.

Matt: What statistic should be more emphasized to MLB teams?
Tom: Sorry, I can't answer that question. I wouldn't be doing my job if I shared my ideas with the teams we're competing against.

Well, that's the interview. Thanks again to Tom for his great answers and for the intro to Tom by Jacob Sturm! And tune in again soon for more of "all the buzz on what wuzz."

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