Unifying theory of quants and quaints

It’s been decades since I last played poker regularly and forever since since I won a fantasy experts league—I have yet to compete in one—so I wade in gingerly into the seeming debate between those who form their auction strategy around projections and those who use their gut instinct, so-called quants and quaints.

I say “seeming” debate deliberately. For it seems to me in the universe of fantasy baseball, those who speak for quants and quaints, at least in the CardRunners league, share something fundamental in common that separates them from most fantasy baseball players.

For most, fantasy baseball is all about the focus inwards—how do I place a value on a player? Some do so flying by the seat of their pants while a growing number make use of projections by major sites such as ESPN and Yahoo that have become some rampant, but however they do it—whatever their means—the goal is to come up with a valuing or ranking method that will be their rudder through an auction or draft.

What most don’t do is consider the marketplace and gamesmanship in their own league. For them, competing in an auction or draft is more akin to blackjack than to poker: Create some rules about when to hit and when to hold and try to follow them. When these players deviate from their rules, it’s not because of what other players are doing but because of a sense of panic or euphoria about their own methods—they’ve lost hitting on 13 three hands in a row, so on the fourth hand at 13 they hold.

It is in that context that I read (OK, skim, not much time this week) the debate in the CardRunners League between quants like our own Derek Carty and quaints such as Christopher Liss. Consider, then, what each said about what I think is core to their approach to a fantasy baseball auctions:

Derek Carty: “I’ve been playing fantasy baseball at the higher levels for just two years, giving the other fantasy guys in this league exponentially more experience than me. I don’t view this as a disadvantage, though.  I view it as an opportunity to distance myself from some of the preconceived notions my fellow fantasy analysts may have, from the groupthink they may unwittingly be involved in, and from the habits they may have slowly and unknowingly developed over the years.”

Christopher Liss: “But I’m largely a ‘genius’ drafter. I make my money on targeting or avoiding players who the market (the consensus expert site projections) has gotten wrong. My method is to pay the vig and beat the house anyway.”

What strikes me about their approach is the similarity—they both focus outward on the other players in their league and seek to take advantage of the others’ tendencies. It is not enough to come up with a ranking or value in a cave with nothing to guide them but their intuition or mass-produced projections. Both Derek and Christopher understand that to gain the upper hand on opponents, one must also spend much time evaluating the methods used by others.

Think of a poker table. It is useful to know the odds that your flush will take the pot. But your decision is lacking if you don’t know the tendencies of the other players.

The best fantasy players know the rivals in their own league and use that information in preparing for their auction or draft (and continue to use it the balance of the season in trades and other roster moves). That is what both Derek and Christopher are pursuing—and it means their approaches share something critical that sets them apart from most.

I have tried, though not yet with great success, to use this approach in an Italian card game called Scopa—I was introduced to the game by my father-in-law. He’s played the game since childhood and has a great memory—he’s essentially a card counter. I hate rote memorization, so my skills as a card counter are minimal. So to gain an edge, or at least to try to gain an edge, I study his tendencies. That leaves him shaking his head sometimes because it means I play cards that are at odds with conventional strategy.

But in card play or fantasy baseball, it’s all about gaining a edge. That’s what Derek did when he joined expert leagues filled with rivals who had played many years. That’s what Christopher did when he joined a fantasy league half-filled with stat and projection experts. To gain an edge, you must know your rivals. And whether you attack this challenge as a quaint or a quant, chances are you will be taking more than your fair share of the pot at season’s end.

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