Over the weekend, I had an opportunity to chat with Dan Szymborski, a senior writer for FanGraphs and a system developer for ZiPS, a sophisticated algorithm that considers growth and decline curves based on baseball player “types” to identify trends and project future performance. Szymborski was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, has consulted for teams and player agents, is a regular guest on several radio shows and podcasts, and a voting member of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA).
Szymborski and I discussed what it’s been like to wait for the then-not-announced start of a regular season, whether big-league competition is possible this summer while the Wuhan virus remains a factor, and how shorter schedules affect his league and player projections. The interview has been very lightly edited.
Jason Epstein: At what point did you fully tire of watching Brooks Robinson defensive highlights from the 1970 World Series and pine for live baseball?
Dan Szymborski: I think the point wasn’t so much when I was tired of highlights, but sometime in April when I had the existential angst stemming from being a baseball writer who is currently employed to cover a sport that doesn’t currently exist!
JE: Wait, are you saying there wasn’t overwhelming demand for Korea Baseball Championship player projections?
DS: Oh, lots of people were interested in KBO and I did a whole set of KBO projections. It’s a fun league. But it’s also not the league I know and have experience with. Imagine someone who covers American politics for a living suddenly having to cover parliamentary elections in Austria and all that person knew was, like, where Austria was on the map and 1,200 words are due tomorrow!
JE: How maddening has it been to witness the weeks-long sparring, so much of it acrimonious, between the owners and players over money?
DS: It’s incredibly frustrating! It feels like some of this ought to have been hammered out months ago, but owners didn’t submit a proposal to the players until the last week in May. There are serious economic issues involved, but by not having the health/safety things agreed to and having to slap them together in the 11th hour, they’ve decreased the chances that baseball will be workable through the pandemic and that everybody will lose when it comes to money. A lost season, especially if the other sports resume play, would be disastrous for everyone in baseball financially.
JE: Speaking of the Wuhan virus, baseball writers Craig Calcaterra and Joe Sheehan tweeted on Saturday their view that no baseball should be played in 2020 because of public health fears. Do you expect more baseball writers to come out against…baseball?
Baseball should not attempt to play this year. If they do play, I cannot see how it can be done responsibly.
— Craig Calcaterra (@craigcalcaterra) June 20, 2020
At this point, instead of leading by being the first U.S. league back on the field, MLB should lead by being the first U.S. to say, “As much as we want to play, to entertain the fans, we cannot responsibly do so. We will return in 2021.” Lead in safety. Lead in reality.
— Joe Sheehan (@joe_sheehan) June 20, 2020
DS: It’s a very serious virus, and Craig and Joe are expressing very serious concerns given recent outbreaks in training camps. For me, what it comes down to isn’t whether Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association can put together a plan that keeps everyone 100 percent safe, but whether they can put together a plan that keeps everyone at least as safe as they would be otherwise. I think you can achieve this through dedicated planning and a liberal “out” for players who are at risk or who could expose people they know to be at risk.
These are young, athletic men in their 20s and 30s — many very wealthy. Most of these guys aren’t going to be, without baseball, cloistered in their homes as if they’re Julian of Norwich. They’re going to go out, be social, work and train together. With the right plan, I think there’s the potential to keep MLB players safer than they would have been without baseball.
JE: What is the principal difference between baseball projections and political predictions?
DS: Projecting baseball, you have the luxury of what is a closed system, with a very specific set of outcomes in each event. Each of those outcomes has an easily observed connection to things that win baseball games (runs).
Political outcomes, on the other hand, have far more moving parts than any sport, far more players, and rules that are always changing. Politics is Calvinball.
JE: Has all of the attention paid to the Wuhan virus modeling — the good, the bad, and the ugly — affected your ability to promote ZiPS season projections? Do you still hear from fans who believe you’re merely making predictions?
DS: The biggest effect is that my accuracy will be way worse than usual! Baseball is a volatile sport and unlike a lot of other sports, you need a lot of games to separate the good teams from the lousy ones.
JE: Earlier this month, you remarked that one grand tournament might be more rewarding for fans than a 50-game regular season with an expanded postseason. Can you elaborate?
DS: Playoffs are already crapshoots in baseball. A 50-game season with 16 teams making the playoffs makes the regular season more or less the same category. If you don’t have a meaningful structure that can at least theoretically have a good chance at crowning the best team, then everything becomes low-stakes, so at that point, you might as well play around with formats and do something sufficiently different rather than “the usual baseball season, just worse.”
DS: The biggest surprise, I think, was how quickly some of the “marginal-but-not-terrible” teams become contenders in fewer games. Teams like the Rangers, Blue Jays, and Marlins have a lot better chance at playing better than a superior team over 110 or 81 or 51 games. ZiPS even gave the Orioles a chance of making the playoffs in a 50-game season!
JE: From a review of ZiPS player projections, who might you put flyers on to have unexpected MVP and Cy Young-caliber seasons?
DS: I think it gives bigger chances to the tier below the Mike Trouts, like Jose Ramirez or Trevor Bauer. It’s just easier to answer questions positive in 50 games than in 162.
JE: With a significantly shorter season that includes slightly expanded rosters and the designated hitter in the National League, what strategies do you expect smarter clubs to employ? Might we see several managers employing four-man starting rotations? With innings limits not a consideration, will starting pitchers on average throw more pitches per outing? Will a few benches include a pinch-running specialist?
DS: I actually expect, with the shorter and odd training schedule, we’ll actually see starters throw less often than even in recent years! With expanded rosters all season, teams are going to be able to carry more relievers.
JE: Who was least prepared to understand the grave danger posed by the Wuhan virus: Donald Trump, Andrew Cuomo, Bill De Blasio, or Dodgers President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman — for trading top prospects for a mere 50-60 games of 2021 free agent superstar Mookie Betts?
DS: It’s going to feel really bad if there’s no 2020 season, but it’s going to be like the extra-special fecal matter on top of the sundae if the Red Sox actually end up coming out the best from the Mookie Betts trade!
JE: With the possibility that a second wave of the Wuhan virus will put the postseason in jeopardy, should MLB prepare the public for regular-season recognition for the clubs with their respective leagues’ best records? Also, should the winner of a World Series have an asterisk next to its name? Does the expression “flags fly forever” also extend to a dramatically shortened season?
DS: I have a feeling that if we make it through the season, MLB will push the playoffs through even if they and remaining front-office staff have to play the games. Everyone’s losing money this year, but the owners stand to lose a lot more money without playoffs than with, which is a big reason you see them taking this negotiating ploy.
I think the best regular-season record might make sense in most years, but less this year than any, so it would be an odd place to start. I’m not a fan of asterisks because all stats and records have to be evaluated in the context of their times. When you start “asterisking” this and that, then you start asterisking a lot of things. The Roger Maris asterisk, for example, never existed, and I feel that’s a good thing.
JE: Projections which show the Dodgers and Yankees as having the best odds of winning the Series, and assuming a 50-60 game regular season with no expanded playoff structure, what does your gut tell you about which two teams will play in the World Series?
DS: Oh, I still think Dodgers and Yankees are the favorites, just…less so.