With Moneyball due in theaters this week, I figured it might be a good time to interview Dan Szymborski, who voted in the project here last December on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame and is something of a sabermetric writer about the Internet. Szymborski is the Editor-In-Chief of BaseballThinkFactory.org, and his writing can be found both there and on ESPN.com. In addition, he is the inventor of ZiPS (Szymborski Projection System) which predicts how teams will do each year.
I had a chance to call Szymborski at his home on the East Coast on Saturday morning, and we talked for almost an hour. Highlights of our conversation are as follows:
With everything that you do with baseball research, is it still fun? At this point, is it work? What’s your attitude towards it these days?
Szymborski: It’s still a lot of fun. As a little kid, I wanted to be a pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, like most little kids want to play for their favorite team. Once it became obvious that they don’t need 70 MPH fastball pitchers, it [became] one of my favorite hobbies. There’s always going to be an instance where sometimes it feels like work and you don’t feel like writing something right then. But you get over it because it’s a lot more fun than what you could be doing otherwise.
How long ago did you come up with ZiPS?
Szymborski: The genesis of it was there’s a [person] who contributes to Baseball Think Factory named Chris Dial, and in the late ’90s, they were talking about how someone could make a projection system that’s very basic and get most of the way there, in a way kind of a primordial version of Marcel which is a tabulator.
Before 2002, I was thinking maybe I should try my hand at a projection system. At that time, Voros McCracken’s DIPS research was fairly new, so I wanted to [align my idea.] That’s why I made it rhyme with DIPS, and the Z stands for Szymborski, the second letter of my name. I mean, it’s just a little side thing that started. Then I decided to do hitter projections, because it seemed kind of stupid to do because there were not hitter projections. And then over time, as computers got faster, I could do more things. Over time, it became a pretty complex system… I’m pretty happy with how it’s worked out.
Do you think you have another ZiPS idea in you or do you think that’s going to be your big thing?
Szymborski: I dunno. I always kind of think of myself more as a writer than a statistics developer, but I have more ideas how to use it. I continually refine my aging models and long-term projections and the different things I can do with it. I certainly hope there are other ideas in me, but I don’t have those ideas yet. Hopefully they will develop over the next few years.
Let’s talk a little Moneyball. Movie’s coming out. Are you intending to see it in the theater?
Szymborski: I’ll probably see it. I’m kind of a cheapskate and don’t usually go to the theater very often, but it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be any other sabermetric movies coming out of this kind, ever, so I’m probably going to see it. I don’t know if I’m going to go on the premier day, the first day, but I’ll probably go see it.
If you were to be mentioned in the movie, who’s the actor you think that you’d want to play you?
Szymborski: Well, of course, anyone would prefer to be played by Brad Pitt, but that would kind of be unrealistic. Jonah Hill, while not appropriate for Paul DePodesta probably is closer to how I look, so I’ll take Jonah’s fictional character and move him over to me.
It’s amazing that a sabermetric movie got made. It just kind of boggles the imagination.
Szymborski: I know. I know Keith Law wasn’t too thrilled with it, but my stance on it is: This is it. This is the sabermetric movie. There’s not going to be another one, so even if it’s not completely faithful, if there’s dramatic license and all that, this is a sabermetrics movie, so we might as well enjoy it. It’s not like they’re going to have The Bill James Story or any of these guys. I mean, they’re great guys, but none of us are going to have movies except for this. And essentially, one of the most notorious/famous users of statistics, Billy Beane, I mean he’s played by Brad Pitt, in a movie, about sabermetrics. This is it guys.
How long have you been a SABR member for? I see you’re about 33. Have you been a member for, what, maybe 10 years?
Szymborski: I’m on and off. When I’m not going to the conventions, sometimes I forget my dues (Editor’s note: Joe Posnanski mentioned this same issue when I interviewed him.) So I’ve been on and off since 2003, actually.
I was into sabermetrics for a long time. Of course, SABR and sabermetrics are two very different things, but I’ve been into sabermetrics for a long time. When I was a little kid, I kept baseball statistics. I didn’t really figure out how batting average worked until I was about six. Before that, when I was five, I thought it was the average of the averages, which doesn’t make much sense in retrospect, but of course I was five. My grandfather bought me the Bill James Abstracts that I was old enough to read– I mean I couldn’t read the ones in 1981, obviously– and the Elias Baseball Analysts. I’ve been into baseball stats for a long time.
I have great support for SABR. Of course, a lot of that is historical research, which is very different. There’s potentially kind of a bit of grumpiness on some SABR members that that name has meant statistics, and it’s a lot more than that.
I was mentioning to one of my readers that I was going to be interviewing you, and he was wondering if there’s actually a way you could eventually be able to not just come and predict how teams would do for seasons, but if you could go so far as to predict individual plays and probability of what’ll happen during games. Do you ever think about that kind of thing?
Szymborski: Well, it’d certainly help for gambling purposes, but I think that game-by-game developments are so volatile in nature that you really can’t predict them…. like, ‘I predict Jeff Francoeur to go 1-4 or 2-4 or 3-4 or 0-4, and there’d be high probabilities of all of that happening.’ Perhaps someone smarter than me could figure that out.
I dunno. I still think of myself more as a writer and a lot of the things I think about developing this for and increasing it is to further writing interesting articles about it. I do a lot of work with ESPN, and a lot of times, they’ll give me a problem, that I have something to resolve with the projection system, and then it’s fun to figure out how to do it. Like, when someone asks, ‘What are the odds of so-and-so hitting 600 home runs?’ Then, that’s the kind of thing I like to build into DIPS and refine.
Does it ever feel weird to go from being just kind of a young 20-something blogger to now, someone who’s writing for ESPN?
Szymborski: I’ve been writing for them now a year and a half, I mean I’ve written a couple hundred things for them and had two magazine previews. I just figure, ‘This is just the weirdest damn thing ever that I’m writing for ESPN,’ because it’s never something I actually envisioned in any way happening. I didn’t major in journalism, I majored in economics. But I have a great deal of fun writing, and maybe if I’d expected to become a writer, I probably would’ve studied different classes.
It’s a real thrill to be known, and there’s kind of an ego thing about writing. I don’t write for money, but there is kind of an ego trip because when you’re writing something, you kind of have a person’s complete attention. Writing’s a thrill for me, and I’m very happy with the way things work out.
Do you still have a day job or is this what you do for a living?
Szymborski: This is pretty much what I do for a living now. I’ve worked as a private investor for myself for a long time. I made money in college, I was day trading, I was 19, and I was clearing $60,000 a year at the time. That was a lot of money for a college kid, so I’ve always kept doing that. I mean, day trading’s kind of dead because the big houses have pretty much algorithmed their way into that, but I still do a lot of swing trading, which is mid-term trading, and I still do a lot of the commodities. I probably still have to, but it’s fun. In a lot of ways, it’s like baseball but with stocks, equities, and commodities.
No kidding, I wouldn’t have guessed you were a stockbroker… my only conception of day trading is that guy back, like, 10 years ago who killed his family or something. That’s pretty random. I just remember the media reports.
Szymborski: There’s plenty of baseball players who’ve killed their families.
That is true, you’ve got your Donnie Moores [who wounded his wife before committing suicide.]
Szymborski: The one I love is the Len Koenecke story of the baseball player that got drunk on a plane and tried to fight the pilot and the pilot killed him with a fire extinguisher.
Totally, I know the story you’re talking about. That’s so weird because it’s like 1935, so it was the really early days of commercial flight. You almost wonder if the same thing could happen these days.
Szymborski: They probably wouldn’t even let him on the plane at this point. The TSA would boot the crap out of him.
Yeah, he’s pretty intoxicated. I mean, and it’s funny, if you go through baseball history, you get a lot of stories like that. You get Ed Delahanty.
That’s always a fun sabermetric joke, ‘His career was fine until that. He really fell off a cliff.’