An Etherview with Sean “CHONE” Smith

If you read FanGraphs, you’re probably familiar with Sean Smith’s work. Mr. Smith is the progenitor of the CHONE projection system, hosted annually here at FanGraphs and also at his own website, Baseball Projection, through which website you can also access the Projection Blog, where Smith makes periodical notes about or observations on the CHONE projections.

Mr. Smith is also the brain behind the TotalZone defensive ratings available at Baseball Projection and also, for minor leaguers, at Jeff Sackmann’s Minor League Splits.

Finally, it needs to be said, Sean Smith appears to be a genuinely kind person, with whom I am happy to have participated in the following.

Smith consented to be interviewed Sunday by means of EtherPad, a program that allows multiple users to create and edit a document. Hence, the “etherview” — the phenomenon that no one anywhere describes as “the single most important contribution to news media this year.”


Carson: Okay, so first things first: You live in Maryland and are one of baseball nerdom’s most well-known projectionists. That same description — Maryland, projectionist — also applies to Dan Szymborski. My first question is — and it’s super hard-hitting, so watch out — is: Are you and Dan Szymborski the same person?

Sean: You figured us out. Now we’ll have to dispose of you. Just kidding. Dan and I have met before — there was a Baseball Primer (now BTF) meetup for the 2003 world series. There are several witnesses to attest we are different people, not to mention we don’t even remotely look alike. Have not seen Dan since, just emailed a few times. There was a meetup in Baltimore, a group of us saw Manny Ramirez’s 500th homer, but Dan couldn’t make it.

Carson: Mystery semi-solved. But it is true: You live in Maryland. Baltimore or elsewhere?

Sean: About halfway between Baltimore and DC, in the suburbs. Don’t want to be too specific though. You never know about stalkers.

Carson: Were I more successful, that might begin to be a problem. As it is, I do know about stalkers, and I’m confident that I have none.

But here’s why I asked that: because you’re an Angels fan. I mean, even alot of people in Los Angeles aren’t Angels fans. What gives, man?

Sean: I started rooting for the team in1982. I was living in Kentucky at the time. My dad was a big Yankee fan. Grew up watching Mantle. Once I started to collect baseball cards I asked him about Reggie Jackson, the most famous player on the team. He told me Reggie was now an Angel, and I started watching the team. Just sort of clicked, and I’ve been loyal to the team since. By the end of the year, nothing against Reggie, but Brian Downing was my favorite player. 1982 was the first year I followed the playoffs all the way through, had a good sense of what was going on. I remember crying when they lost the final game in Milwaukee.

Carson: Reggie Jackson, Brian Downing: If I’m not mistaken, that Angel team you’re describing is almost exactly the one that appears in RBI Baseball for the original NES, no?

Sean: I think the RBI baseball game had the 1986 roster, but Reggie and Brian were still on that team too. I played that game all the time.

Carson: With the Angels?

Sean: I played the Angels on that game, and probably went 2000-0 or something against the Red Sox. But played a lot of teams. The Twins were fun, Kirby Puckett looked like an RBI baseball character in real life. And the Astros, with Mike Scott’s splitter, were fun too.

Carson: If pressed, how would you do on the RBI Roster Sporcle, do you think?

Sean: Never heard of that. Pretty cool, but I’ll have to check it out later. I could probably name 75% of the guys.

Carson: Don’t worry: I won’t tell anyone you’ve never Sporcle-d before. I don’t wanna ruin your nerd cred.

Okay. You mentioned some early affiliations to players — Jackson, Downing — but the player you’re most commonly associated with, for obvious reasons, is Chone Figgins. Three things:

1. How did that love affair begin?
2. Why is he the one whose name you chose for your system? and
3. What’re ya gonna do now that he not only doesn’t play for the Angels but, in fact, plays for a rapidly improving division rival?

Take your time with that.

Sean: [Three answers:]
1. [and 2.] Figgins was a fun player to watch. At first, he wasn’t a really high rated, can’t miss prospect, but I guy I rooted for and wanted to do well. He had a 6 rbi game against Baltimore in early 2004, and I was in attendance. At the time, seemed like everybody was naming projections systems after multi-position players. Pecota, Cairo came later. At some point I think a guy came up with a Biancalana projection system but haven’t heard of that in a long time. No idea what he made the acronym stand for.

3. He may play for another team now but there is no plan to change the name of the system. Figgins will still be one of my favorites. But the guy replacing him, Brandon Wood, is good, and given the salary and draft pick considerations, the Angels have made the obvious choice.

Carson: CHONE doesn’t actually really like Chone too much this year: .272/.370/.358 — a decline from 2009’s .298/.395/.393 That seems meaningful in some way; I just can’t put my finger on it. Like, Chone hates himself. It’s terrible. I think I’m stating the obvious when I say that Freud would have a field day with that.

Sean: He’s playing in a park where runs are hard to come by, will be 32, and played better than he has in the past last year. Of course a projection will show a decline. But .370 is still a great OBP, and he’s projected to be 6 runs above average (adjusted for context) and another 7 runs better on defense. In addition, his baserunning has been worth at least 5 runs a year every year he’s been a regular. Add it all up and he projects to be 3.5 wins above replacement. That’s a wonderful player.

Carson: This is a good time to ask if you might refresh my/our memory about exactly what elements go into the CHONE projections. Weighted years? Batted ball data? Minor league equivalencies? I remember, I think, that you don’t run comps…

Sean: I use 4 years of data for hitters and 3 years for pitchers. Batted ball data is in there, at least the stuff you can get from Retrosheet, such as GB/FB/LD/Pop. The years are weighted, minor league stats are included, as is player weight (for hitters). I do not look at player comps.

Carson: So a question that always interests me: What projections have surprised you this year? in the past?

In other words: Brian Myrow much?*

*Myrow is projected to hit .280/.381/.443

Sean: Myrow doesn’t surprise me. He’s been one of the best minor league hitters for about a decade. I’m surprised he’s never gotten a chance, but I think Dan Fox knows he can play, and maybe he can convince his bosses to give him a chance. Shelley Duncan surprised me a bit, projecting to be in the same range of value as some of the more famous DHs like Vladimir and Godzilla. Last year I projected Javier Vazquez to be an elite pitcher. I knew the reasons behind it, he was moving to an easier league and leaving a tough homerun park behind, but I still had my doubts. He did a pretty good job in proving me right last year.

I was surprised by an initial, very conservative projection on Justin Upton. I’ve since recalculated some of the aging factors I use on young players, and he’s looking much more dominant now.

I don’t have many real surprises though, because all I’m doing is looking at a player’s multi-year track record, adjusting for league/park/age, and assuming he’ll proceed to age like the majority of players in history have done. Some players will put up seasons in 2010 that will be much better than they’ve ever done before, and do so past the age of 30. I can pretty much guarantee that CHONE will not tell you who those players are. Projection may not even be the best word for what I’m doing. I’m estimating a player’s current talent level.

Carson: You’re right: Myrow’s an interesting case. I live in Portland, Ore., and he was playing for the (San Diego Triple-A affiliate) Beavers when I first got here two, three years ago. He hit .354/.440/.579 in 2007. I guess I figured the Padres, Kevin Tower, whoever knew what they were doing. Maybe they didn’t.

But in re your MLEs, how do you compute those? Like, I know you’ve done work with Jeff Sackmann over at Minor League Splits. Are your numbers his numbers?

Sean: It may not be a question of knowing what they’re doing. The Padres have a pretty good first baseman in Adrian Gonzalez. I think Myrow just plays first now, though he used to play other positions. It’s tough to find an opportunity when you’re limited in position.

MLEs are calculated by looking at how players have done when moving from one level to the next. I’ve got a big sample of minor league data, so I’m looking at the average of how hundreds of players have done when moving from AAA to the majors, or AA to AAA, etc.

Carson: Okay, a philosophical turn. And this is cheating a little bit, because I asked Szymborski the same question, but there are only so many people whose opinions I care about on the subject, and you happen to be one of those people.

Here’s the question, verbatim: What do you think it is about baseball proections that people find so alluring? Is it the idea of being able peek into the future? Is it something more banal — like just assembling a killer fantasy team?

Sean: For me I just wanted to know. I wanted a better idea of how a player might do when they got chances in the majors. MLEs have been around for awhile, but that only tells you what a player’s value probably would have been last year. Projections are the next step. Fantasy baseball is a big part of it, and my site got more traffic last March (fantasy draft season) than the whole rest of the year. But for fantasy, you really can get away with ignoring the minor leagues. There are few rookies who make an impact every year.

Carson: So your primary reason for getting involved was curiosity, then? I mean, did you plan on sharing the results with people? And actually, when was it that you began CHONE in the first place?

Sean: Curiosity was the primary reason. I did this for myself, and only later thought others might be interested in what I had. The first projections that I remember were in the 2005-06 offseason, but I don’t think I published them. I remember making a case to just hand the 1B job in Anaheim to Casey Kotchman, and not spend all the money on Paul Konerko. Believe it or not, I think I might have been wrong on that one, but it’s not a great regret.

Here’s how it goes: Konerko would have been valuable in 2006, as Kotchman barely played and the Angels got nothing out of first base. He cost 13 million per year, and I don’t think he has been worth the contract, though hardly a disaster. If the Angels had signed him though, maybe they would have decided not to dip into the free agent CF market a year later, getting Matthews. But who knows. Maybe they would have said OK to Matthews but we can’t afford Hunter in 2008. That would have been a double disaster. In the end, I’m quite happy with the 1B the Angels eventually settled on.

Carson: You say it’s not a “great regret.” It seems like it’s exactly the opposite, really. I mean, sure, maybe you weren’t right aboit Konerko in the short term, but if that’s what led you to ask the question in the first place, to try and answer it, to invent CHONE in the meantime, it seems like the best case scenario. I mean, I don’t know how big a part of your life CHONE is, but it’s a great benefit to the community.

Now allow me to stop complimenting you. And move on…

So you started out of curiosity. One might suppose that that’s part of the reason why you continued. That, and some success with it. Now you’re Sean Smith, Inventor of CHONE. From my perspecitve, at least — and, granted, it’s not a great perspective — but from my perspective, you have a pretty high-profile within the sabermetric community. Is that something you’d like to parlay into a Baseball Career (capital-B, capital-C)? Have you already? Or are you cool with just Sean Smith, resident of a suburb between Baltimore and D.C.?

Sean: I would not be opposed to a money-making baseball career, but that is not an easy thing to come by. The money I’ve made from the site pays the site expenses and a little extra, but if I added up the time I’ve put into it I’m sure I’d be in violation of minimum wage laws. Most baseball jobs are not especially well paying, and there is tremendous competition among very highly qualified people to get a foot in the door. To really try to make a baseball career, I’d need to put more time into it and quit my day job. That won’t happen because they pay me too well, and first priority is taking care of the family. So yes, I’m cool just being Sean Smith. What fame I have I find amusing more than anything. It’s not something I sought out.

Carson: Well, regardless of whether you begin making the big bucks in a front office, allow me to say this, sir: You’ve been an excellent sport, participating in this absurd exercise. Furthermore, I wish you the best of luck with CHONE, etc.

Sean: Thanks, it’s been a pleasure.

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Great interview! Addressing the stalking comment, my projection system predicts that you are 110 times more likely to be adversely effected by someone who knows you than a stalking stranger. Don’t believe those old school stranger-stalking stereotypes.