I read two articles the other day that helped clarify my thinking. For at least a year, I’ve been bothered by fantasy baseball’s obsession with rankings – especially preseason rankings. Imagine: here’s a list of the top 25 first baseman ranked in order of value. Except there isn’t much difference between the fourth best and the eighth best. After the 11th best it gets really ugly. Perhaps we should introduce some tiers, we’ll call them Great, Good, Average, Bad. But now there are tiers within my tiers and hidden tiers than span between my arbitrary tiers, etc. etc.
It’s annoying. It annoys me.
Fantasy Pros asked me to submit expert rankings a couple years back, which I dutifully provided in exchange for maybe a couple Twitter followers (ahem, @BaseballATeam). If memory serves I used something like 14 tiers to rank 25-30 second basemen. My next task was to take my position rankings and turn them into one big Top 300 list. I found myself wanting to change my tiers and trying to justify all the logical inconsistencies that arose from that process. That was the problem: process. Or more specifically, ranking players is a bad process.
I mentioned that I read two articles. Good for me. The first was here at FanGraphs in which Jeff Sullivan waxed poetic about the most important thing he’s learned from WAR. Basically, that teams are teams. The Red Sox didn’t win the World Series last year because David Ortiz mashed. There are 25 players on the roster, more are used throughout the year, and each part is only a small portion of the whole. If we replace any one player with another, the team is still pretty much the same. Maybe that’s less true if I replace Mike Trout with Scott Podsednik, but rules of thumb do tend to break down at the extremes.
The second article came my way via the post I wrote on the endowment effect. I’ve always been fascinated by Behavioral Economics and how it applies to everything I do, which includes a lot of fantasy sports. Apparently, reader/writer/commenter Jeff Quinton is also a fan of behavioral strategy. He presents an eloquent equation, which I’ve doctored ever so slightly for simplicity.
Fantasy Results = Analysis + Process
Most fantasy writing is geared towards analysis. As Jeff presents, via some very smart people (just read his article, it’s short and the quotes are golden), in typical business settings, Process is six times more important than Analysis. This was an A-Ha! moment for me. It clicked that rankings weren’t just an arbitrary waste of time, when used by themselves, they’re actually a bad process.
There are bad processes and there are bad processes. In the barely distant past, doctors, nobles, and city dwellers in general used to believe in a concept called miasma. Basically, the vapours and other foul stenches of a city caused disease. If you don’t breathe the vapors, you won’t get sick. And if you do get sick anyway, well you must have breathed the vapors.
Public health students will confirm that John Snow is credited with debunking the theory of miasma. This was all before he joined the Night’s Watch. That advance led to germ theory and other modern medical breakthroughs. Belief in miasma is kind of like using fantasy rankings. If you follow the theory behind miasma, you’ll leave yourself prone to illness from bad drinking water, food, and diseases passed by touch, cough, blood, etc. But you’ll also follow your doctor’s advice when he says it’s time to go breathe the health air of the countryside. Believing in miasma is better than believing that disease is entirely random or caused by a divine curse. Miasma can improve health outcomes even if germ theory is far superior.
So without further ado, I present the unified theorem of Perfect Fantasy Process (PFP, also known as Pitcher’s Fielding Practice).
Unfortunately, such a thing doesn’t exist, at least not in the sense that it can be easily grasped or understood. There are different processes to use for the draft, managing your team, making trades, using the waiver wire, and more. There are competing strategies, all with merits. If when playing chess you always use the Sicilian Defense, you will be countered with the Smith-Morra Gambit (this is just gibberish that I Googled). The same goes for fantasy baseball, if you use a certain strategy and your opponent recognizes it, they will counter.
I’m most known for my frequent waiver wire streaming. Sometimes, a rival will attempt to replicate my strategy. That’s bad for me because a league’s waiver wire can usually only support one to three streaming owners. More than that and the streamers will generally do more harm than good. So rather than wake up at 4:00 AM so that I can make my moves first (people do this and it’s unholy), I just switch to a strategy where I hold my assets. That usually requires a subtle restructuring of my roster, but I can do that over time as opportunity allows. One thing about streaming owners is that they dump decent players in their quest for another mediocre pitching match-up or four more plate appearances. They’ll hand you useful role players for nothing, you just have to wait until they give up the right one for your roster.
That flexibility is the skill that we need to be practicing and improving. We need to learn the alternatives available to us when our rivals present a certain strategy. We commonly extol the virtues of zigging when others zag, but it requires a depth of knowledge to recognize when others are zagging and to know how to zig. When drafting, we shouldn’t just draft the best player available, we also need to pick players who improve our team’s depth and aid our ability to compete in every category. I know a lot of my rivals are just bidding for the player. They want Sonny Gray because they read that he’s a sleeper, so they’re willing to bid up to $12 for him. Maybe they aren’t paying attention to the giant hole at second base that gets worse and worse with every guy off the board. Gray may be a fantastic sleeper, but those $12 might be more usefully invested on a non-sleeping second baseman.
Rankings do have their uses. Owners need some way to organize a large quantity of data. I build league specific price sheets so that I know roughly what a player is worth. But I’ll adjust those prices during the draft to account for inflation and the categories that I need most. If my team is short on steals and I have one outfield slot left, I’ll pony up extra for Michael Bourn. The point is, do your analysis, build your rankings, and then put better processes in place. Don’t stop at rankings.
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