Follow-the-leader strategies for the Fantasy GM

In the America’s Cup in 1983, Dennis Conner, captain of the U.S. entry Liberty, committed a fatal blunder, based on his failure to use a “follow-the-leader” strategy, leading to the first loss by America in that event. No, his blunder wasn’t supporting Walter Mondale or betting the Mets to win it all. A key strategy in sailboat racing when you are the leader is to follow whatever the trailing boat does. In this way the trailing boat can never gain on you; if he has the wind you will also have it; if he doesn’t, well neither will you, but he still cannot gain.

This is a dominant strategy in game theory parlance; it is, in its simplest expression, a strategy that no matter what your opponent does, you always do at least as well, and sometimes better. So, when you have a dominant strategy it should be followed. In the America’s Cup, Conner had a 3-1 lead and, in what should have been the final race, he kept his boat to the right of the course. The opposing captain, hoping to get lucky by gambling on a wind shift, sailed to the left. The rest is history, at least in yachting circles.

I always thought this was a fascinating story and a good lesson to any strategist. If you have a dominant strategy, you lose by failing to use it if you are in the lead; gambling against a dominant strategy can usually only make your situation worse. This is almost always true when you are against one main adversary.

What does this mean to the Fantasy GM? In my high stakes league, I have a relatively large lead. The only close competitor at the time I wrote this made a huge trade proposal: He would trade Chase Utley, Jon Broxton, Jacques Jones, Brandon Inge and Evan Longoria and would get Michael Cuddyer, Kevin Youkilis, Trot Nixon, Eric Byrnes, Marcus Giles and Brad Hennessey. Sadly, it wasn’t to me but to another owner.

I had two options. Option A was to sit tight, make a smaller deal for an NL closer (I just lost Salomon Torres and needed the saves) and hope for the best. My point total was 285 and his was 240. This is a fairly large lead; the usual winning margin in this type of league is 10-20 points. So there was the possibility, a la Dennis Conner, that I could not respond, sit back and hope that a small move would let me hold on to the lead.

Option B is to try to knock this deal aggressively off the clock. We have a posting rule that obligates owners to consummate a trade once it is posted; if I can post an acceptable counter-offer, then the original deal can not be accepted over mine. Given the circumstances, the opportunity existed not only to make a deal that improved my position, but to also achieve the double whammy of preventing my competitor from making a deal that would give him at least a fighting chance to catch up, which he may have anyway if my team falls back to the pack.

This is a dominant strategy; as long as I get fair value, I can’t do worse (since we can assume that fair value means an relatively even points difference). But often I will do better since I may gain extra points in two ways: by knocking my opponent’s deal off the clock, and by winning the deal itself. I “gain” simply because my opponent cannot. If the net points to me are neutral I still “gain” because of my opponent’s failure to gain. Note that merely making my own deal in response is NOT a dominant strategy since he will do better by making his deal regardless of what I do. In that circumstance it is then a crapshoot as to whether I win this series of transactions or not.

Looking at it in terms of points, it also appeared clear to me that option B was my preferred strategy. His deal, in my estimation, would put him in at least the 260 point range. I will spare you the details of my calculations. While I had 285 points at the time, many factors militated in favor of an aggressive move: the loss of Torres, a failure to bounce back by my young hitters (see below in my column on the Arizona players) and a possible regression in my AL offense (which I addressed in an earlier column).

It was clear that option A, though it would preserve future value since I had to trade some very keepable players, could well be costly, since my opponent might gain 20-30 points. If I ended up losing the league to my only close competitor, so be it, but it would not be because of a Dennis Conner type error!

So I ended up trading BJ Upton, at a very keepable $10 salary. In this league, you can contract a player for long term deals after two years by increasing his salary by $5 for each year. So, most likely, I am giving up three years more of profit on Upton; next year at 10, 2009 at 15 and possibly 2010 at 20. The entire deal:

BJ Upton, Nick Punto, Zack Greinke (at a $1 salary) and Taylor Tankersley at $5; for
Brad Lidge, Brad Hennessey, Craig Hansen (at $2) and Michael Cuddyer.

Why this deal? I am selling high on Upton; if he falls off as his BABIP indicates he should, and Cuddyer continues his current performance, then aside from steals (of which I have a lot anyway) I might even gain offensive points. At a minimum I hope not to lose too badly. With Brad Lidge and Hennessey, I felt that if I were going to make a “make or break” trade, then I had to get two iffy closers if I could not get one excellent one. This would minimize the risk, and would minimize chances of a net points loss to my team. If Torres comes back and gets his job back, I can deal him.

I think the deal is fair on its face; both teams benefit. From my perspective, this was a clear attempt to minimize the risk; both Lidge and Hennessey have the skills to keep a closer’s job, and if they both pan out I can keep Hennessey next year (Lidge is not keepable), thereby at least lessening the future damage. At a minimum I expect (or maybe hope is a better word) at least one of them to hold the job for the rest of the year. Sadly, my best laid plans were thwarted when Lidge not only blew his first save, but then went on the DL.

Nevertheless, this is something the Fantasy GM always should recognize: If you are the leader, you want to follow what your competitor does and thwart him if you can. If you are behind, try to anticipate what the leader will do and gamble by doing the opposite. You never know when your opponent may be a dud like Dennis Conner. Or Walter Mondale, for that matter.

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