One-on-one with Dan Szymborski of ESPN


What exactly spurred you to create ZiPS initially?

In the late 90s, a chemist friend of mine named Chris Dial and I used to talk about making a simple projection system that would get us “most of the way” to a good projection and making it free for the public to see.  Nothing much came of that, but after Voros McCracken developed ZiPS, I thought about going back to the idea and making a projection system with free results – before ZiPS, projections were generally something either team-proprietary or something you had to pay for.  ZiPS turned out to be a lot more complex than the initial vision (which was closer to Marcel) and as technology improved, I could put it to more robust uses.  It turned out that having a solid projection system is something useful for a baseball writer to have access to, so I kept improving it.


Being in the business of baseball sabermetrics, you obviously place a high emphasis on their meaning in the game.  What do you have to say for fans that are yet to jump on the bandwagon?

Some fans will obviously never buy into sabermetrics.  To the fans that might, I try to emphasize that the things sabermetrics like were developed from the evidence of baseball history, not simple personal preference.  It’s not that we decided that OBP and SLG were important, it’s just that it turned out that a team’s OBP and SLG are the primary determinants of how many runs a team in baseball history scores (more than 95%).


What has been your most surprising find thus far when doing the 2014 ZiPS projections?  (of any Major Leaguer)

It becomes harder and harder for ZiPS to surprise me, not because I’m some super mega-genius or anything, but simply I’ve run a lot of projections through ZiPS.  One of the greatest surprises is how well ZiPS expects Jacoby Ellsbury to age – has him staying a really solid player for so long that if he can just play a few more games than his recent history (with some rather unlucky injuries), the Yankees have a good shot at breaking even on the signing.


Since there has been great scrutiny over this most recent Hall of Fame induction, what would you propose (briefly, I suppose) in order to fix the clearly broken system?

Well, there’s practical and impractical.  My favorite solution is for me to simply be the evil dictator of the Hall of Fame.  Since I likely have too short an attention span and not enough organizational skills that the long-term planning of a coup d’état requires, probably won’t happen.  More practical would be to limit the voting to people actively covering the sport and are willing to publicly justify their ballots and open up the BBWAA to more internet-based writers (or at least, a tier of membership that allows them to vote for Hall of Famers) and remove the 10-year limit.  It’s silly that Rob Neyer, by simple virtue of writing for SBN, loses his BBWAA card while some hockey writer that covered baseball in the 70s keeps his vote forever.  And if not reform the vote, I’d have a 90/00s committee made up of baseball historians and executives empowered to induct the players that fall through the BBWAA cracks.

Is there any Reds player in particular you expect to have a breakout season above the rest?

The thing about the Reds is they don’t really have a huge upside guy on the roster – they’re pretty limited ceiling-wise as a group.  Billy Hamilton of course is the most interesting, if he can hit like the 2012 rather than the 2013 version and I really like the odds of Robert Stephenson being this year’s Michael Wacha.  Otherwise, not a lot of big breakout candidates, though Jay Bruce probably has a season in him that’s better than the nearly identical Jay Bruce Seasons he has every year.

To make a lot of Reds fans happy, do you like their chances of coming out of the National League this season and competing for a World Championship?

I’d probably put, just guesstimating it, the Cardinals/Pirates/Reds NL Central percentages at 50/30/20 or thereabouts.  Add in wild card chances and I imagine the Reds as somewhere in the 20-to-30-to-1 range, somewhere in the 3-5% range, above-average but not one of the frontrunners.  The team has too many OBP-related questions and their depth on offense if something goes wrong are major concerns.