Szymulating the 2014 Cincinnati Reds

"I still think that Mat Latos possibly has a huge breakout in him." - Dan Szymborski - Justin K. Aller

Reality is wrong. Dreams are for real. - Tupac Shakur

We're not even once sentence into this, and I've already quoted Tupac and successfully spelled Szymborski.  For the Cincinnati Reds to have success on the baseball diamond in 2014, they're probably going to have to jump similar hurdles...and now I'm making Pittsburgh Pirates jokes.

Look.  The Reds have a core of players as solid as any in baseball, and because they've been willing to open their checkbooks to keep them together for awhile, the dollars left to fund the peripheral players has seemingly disappeared as if they were controlled by 21 year old jch24 on a typical Friday night.  The solution for that, whether we like it or not, is to hand those jobs over to young players, and every time that happens, we cringe a bit - and rightfully so.

Rookies, or even any pre-arb players with limited playing time, are as hard to depend upon as they are to project.  There are career graveyards littered with the headstones of AAAA flameouts like Brandon Wood, Brandon Larson, and two or eleven other players named Brandon.  There are players of whom not much was expected who have materialized into solid regulars, like Todd Frazier.  And every now and then, there's a guy rated behind over 40 other similar prospects who is considered a poor defender and an overdraft who turns out to be the best left-handed hitter in baseball (and a plus defender!).  With the pending full-time arrival of Billy Hamilton and the expected playing time bump for Devin Mesoraco, there will be two very important new additions to the Reds' core this season, and knowing what to hope for from them has most of us befuddled.

There's variability.  There's volatility.  There's stuff we can predict and yell about.  There's also a lot we just can't comprehend, and when that happens, we seek answers from the experts (so we can intelligently yell about it).  Last week,  Twitter All Star, friend of Red Reporter, Ohio resident, and general good dude Dan Szymborski and his supercomputer hammered out the 2014 ZiPS projections for the Reds, and FanGraphs' Carson Cistulli then broke things down in a post filled with words and punctuation in a language most of us can read.

Fortunately for us, Dan was kind enough to answer some questions we had about those projections.


Kevin Mitchell is Batman: I'd love to hear your thoughts on Devin Mesoraco.  The Reds have now traded away both Yasmani Grandal and Ryan Hanigan to give him the keys, and at 26 he seems to be as ready for carrying the bulk of the duties as possible.  At .251/.313/.421, ZiPS sees a solid improvement over his prior years, but not quite a stud yet...how much more upside do you project for him?

Dan Szymborski: I think Mesoraco's ceiling is more limited than it was a few years ago.  The reasons we like prospects isn't just their abilities at the time, but the fact that they have time to improve.  Being a prospect is a little like that old game show Supermarket Sweep - you have a limited amount of time to really add a number of skills to your "cart" and it's hard to get that time back.  I think Mesoraco will be a solid contributor, but I don't think he'll ever be a cornerstone player.

KMiB: Speaking of the catchers in the Reds' system, ZiPS seem to really like Tucker Barnhart's skill set despite him not passing AA yet.  We've got some Hanigan-sequence hopes for him, but so you think he's already ready to contribute at the big-league level?

DS: He's quite close - the nice thing about Barnhart is that his defense is polished.  I think you really want him playing full-time at AAA rather than sitting on the bench.  If he plays well in AAA and the Reds appear to have an extra competent catcher, well, that's a problem that nobody has ever worried about ever.

KMiB: ZiPS seems higher on Johnny Cueto than other projections, like Steamer.  Is there something specific ZiPS uses that is the onus for this?  Can ZiPS account for things like a windup alteration?

DS: That's kind of hard to tell because while I know what's in ZiPS, I can't tell you *exactly* how Steamer treats various things or what solutions they've used for the various problems that pop up when developing a projection system.  Given that he's over 4,000 batters faced, ZiPS is now believing a lot of his ERA over FIP is a repeatable.  Something like windup alteration is something ZiPS can't really take into consideration, by design - ZiPS is designed to use only objective information.  From a philosophical standpoint, I'm against using my own feelings to try and "improve" the projections, even if it made the projections more accurate, simply because it's much harder for reader to evaluate the context of a projection that has my subjective feelings being an influence, simply because there would be no way to know what part of a projection is stats and what part of a projection is Dan's Opinion.  So when there are solutions that need some kind of subjective data, I try to find an objective proxy as best I can.  For example, for minor leaguers, I went through a couple decades of scouting reports and evaluated which x keywords were most likely to result to Y result in the minors. Why?  Because minor league defensive data stinks.

KMiB: Any thoughts on Yorman Rodriguez?  He's toolsy as can be, but are any of those ready to translate yet?

DS: Don't think he's quite ready yet.  You can brute force your way to solid performances in the minors with raw talent, but to succeed in the majors, his skills need to further develop.  Now, Bo Jackson is probably the very best of the athletic type, not really being a skilled baseball player but essentially becoming a really solid player for a while simply on the magnitude of his raw athleticism.  Most toolsy guys aren't Bo.

KMiB: Which projected 25 man roster member do you think has the best chance to exceed projections?  Votto by, like, 9 WAR perhaps?

DS: I still think that Mat Latos possibly has a huge breakout in him.  I'm curious to see what his Cy Young odds are in Vegas in March, if there's some kind of value there (as there was with Scherzer, on whom I placed $200 at 20-1 to win the Cy last year).

KMiB: ZiPS seems eminently more bullish on Hamilton's offensive projections, most notably in his BABIP and ability to get on base.  Is there something specific you see that supports that notion that Steamer and Oliver may (hopefully) be egregiously overlooking?

DS: Again, hard to tell without dissecting the other two systems and while I'm acquainted with Brian Cartwright and Jared Cross, we don't share this kind of stuff with each other for obvious reasons.  I *suspect* that the fact that I do have play-by-play data from the  minors and construct xBABIP as part of the translation process is part of why ZiPS has Hamilton with a higher BABIP, but it's also very possible that they do this too and there's another reasons ZiPS likes Running Billy more than the other systems.

KMiB: If you could project/predict something other than baseball, what would it be?

DS: Football probably.  I sometimes get asked if I'm jealous that Nate Silver got the brilliant idea to move over to politics, but the political world is one to which I'd have to be dragged kicking and screaming.  I've been doing some projection work with NFL statistics, but it's still very much a work in progress.  Might be awhile (or possibly never) for NFL ZiPS to see the light of day, simply because I don't like releasing half-baked things and baseball keeps me pretty busy.

Many thanks to Dan for taking the time to answer these.  You can catch up with him over at FanGraphs, where he has a weekly chat on Mondays, and you can read his articles all over the place (including at ESPN.com and Baseball Think Factory).  Or, you can just follow him on Twitter at @DSzymborski to learn via complex anagrams exactly how good - or bad - each baseball move is.

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