Dan Szymborski self-describes as “Senior Writer for FanGraphs, ESPN contributor, data provider for teams/agents, ZiPSetician, gamer, exasperating, possibly the worst. BBWAA, Digital Dandy.”
Dan and I have been friends for about 27 years, discussing and arguing baseball on USENET discussion boards. He developed ZiPS, the premier projection system for 20+ years, and I developed RED, one of the metrics the SABR Defensive Inex (SDI) uses to vote for the Gold Gloves. Dan parlayed his into membership into the BBWAA and a career as a baseball writer, while I had to relegate myself to pharmaceutical drug development.
He agreed to answer some questions for us:
M360: What is your favorite team and why do you hate mine?
DS: My favorite team is the Orioles and I hate the Mets because Chris Dial loves them.
How do you respond to people who believe that human comps are worthless in projecting performance?
DS: I’d ask what the alternative is. Everything we know about baseball is derived from baseball history. There’s no experimental data, we can only know about baseball based on how baseball has worked.
How often do you make tweaks to your projection system? What’s your review process like?
DS: It’s a constant process, nowhere near as organized and systematic as it should be. Generally, I run a lot of RMSEs at the end of the year and double-check that changes to the game aren’t making errors correlated with some particular characteristic. There’s always versions of ZiPS that aren’t ready for “prime time” and it’s a modular approach in which I tackle one problem or challenge based on what’s interesting to me and potentially useful at any time.
WAR is posted at both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. Do you think it helps or hurts to have two companies use the same acronym in WAR? What would you say is the strength of each site’s WAR metric?
DS: I should note here that my projections haven’t been at B-R! I don’t think it’s a problem that both sites use WAR, WAR is a framework more than one specific statistic, though people have to remember — including me — to always denote which one you’re working with. Hard to say which one I prefer, it tends to be task specific really. I do *tend* to like fWAR better for pitchers in the short term and bWAR better for pitchers in the long term.
Many were surprised at how similar most of the projections posted at FanGraphs this past year were with Kodai Senga. Do you feel like the various systems have their Japan-to-U.S. translations worked out well or was Senga just a fluke? Do you think that we’ll see a similar thing this year with Yoshinobu Yamamoto?
DS: I think we were all just lucky with Senga this year. While we have quite a lot of data of Japan to US translation (minors to Japan and Japan to minors is helpful too) we could still use a lot more data. Like we have very little movement of very ordinary players moving straight to MLB, and I think having more of that would help us get a better handle on translations. More Tsuyoshi Shinjos! seems like a strange battle cry.
DS: I think Alonso’s fine, though I think a team signing him to a mega-contract will regret it. He’s never been a high BABIP guy, but there’s a real risk that his BA gets too low quickly and keeps dragging down his OBP/SLG. Schwarber’s a tough cause philosophically because one of the reasons it’s so low the last year-plus is that he’s been forced to play in the field a lot more than the Phillies ever expected because of Harper and other injuries. So, it feels unfair on some level for him to get penalized for that. On the other hand, his craptacular defense is a thing that absolutely happened and cost the Phillies real runs on the scoreboard.
DS: Alvarez is the prize of the four, but then he was always meant to be. Baty and Vientos should be OK in the long run and they certainly underperformed, but I wonder if the explosion of offense in the high minors the last few years isn’t making a lot of people instinctively expect too much of them. I think in the case of Vientos, the Mets may want to consider getting him off 3B permanently and give him one less developmental challenge to worry about. I’m still a believer in Mauricio too.
Some feel Luisangel Acuna is an overrated prospect. What do you see when you examine his production to date?
DS: Acuna’s certainly at least interesting given the ages at which he hit the higher levels of the minors, and he was one of the bigger movers in ZiPS this year. He’s got lots of interesting physical tools, a bit of a poor man’s Elly De La Cruz (which I mean as a compliment) and he hits for a lot more power than you’d expect for his size, but I’m not sure his defense will really bloom and I just don’t think his bat, even with his speed, would support a move out of the middle infield.
Minor League BABIPs are not the same as ones in the majors. How do you handle those in projections? Is there a scale built in by park or level or age or something else entirely different?
DS: BABIP is always a nightmare in any projection! Luckily, the minor league data available gets a little bit better every year and hopefully this will continue to improve BABIP projections. You basically have AAA StatCast now and I do a lot of mining to get swing data and the like for other players. It’s always going to be extremely volatile.
What were your thoughts on the rule changes MLB instituted in 2023? Do you think they should continue to tinker with the rules, either ones just introduced or ones that you think should be getting introduced sooner rather than later?
DS: Except for keeping the zombie runner, I tend to like them. I used to be grumpier at this sort of thing, but baseball’s offenses largely have the Anna Karenina problem: all great offenses look alike and all terrible ones are awful in their own, unique way. I think the SB changes actually incentivized aggression on the bases, giving a little more spice into the mix and I’d like to see continued tinkering that incentivizes putting balls into play. People always seem to think this stuff is cyclical and offenses are the way they are because of personal preference or aesthetics, but teams really like winning, so to actually change what offenses look like, rules have to incentivize that. I like games going faster, but that’s possibly Baseball Writer Privilege at work there. I like fitting more baseball into my schedule, I’m less concerned with getting bang for my ticket price than a fan chilling with a beer at a game may be.
We think an automated strike zone should be adopted ASAP. Is there a concern MLB will try to rig the system to call strikes the way that human umps do, rather than by what’s outlined in the official rule book? Every pitch in the zone should be called the same, regardless of who’s pitching, who’s batting and what the count is. What are your thoughts about an automated system?
DS: I’ve been ready for automated strike zones for a long time! Rules for a game should be certain and consistent. That’s how rules work, after all! Everything else is Calvinball. Naturally, I expect MLB to implement automatics balls/strikes in the most ham-handed, ineffective way possible, because that’s how MLB rolls.
Can you ever imagine MLB having fewer playoff teams?
DS: I’d like it, but the tide is firmly against that. Owners have a vested interest in making individual players have as little value as possible, after all, so they’ll continue to push aggressively for more teams in the playoffs. And while the MLBPA is aware of this motivation, I’m not sure the players are as motivated to reverse it as the owners are to continue it.
Do you feel like the Supreme Court will end up hearing the former MiLB owners’ case on the anti-trust exemption?
DS: I’m not a lawyer, but I do know that SCOTUS hears a lot fewer cases than they used to, and without a circuit split on a broad constitutional issue, I’m not sure there will be a ton of motivation to hear such a case. MLB/SCOTUS precedents are one of the dumbest longstanding court things.
Editor’s Note – This case was settled before the Supreme Court decided whether or not to hear it.