A can-do attitude

Today I have a “can do” energy. Earlier in the off-season, I ranted about how often fantasy gurus use “if” and “but” to give a politician’s non-answer answer to a difficult question. These answers appear to be informative, but upon closer inspection end up meaningless. In this article, I’m going to rant about the opposite: how often gurus vastly overstate the likelihood of many events.

As we get closer and closer to fantasy draft season, the popular type of discussion will be “is Player X a first-round draft pick?” Obviously, to be first-round-worthy, a player must be one of the very best baseball players in the world. So, superlatives come naturally when describing these men.

When making our case for, say, Jose Reyes to be a first-round pick, it seems important to not only discuss what is likely to happen according to some projection or forecast that we have, but also to talk about what MAY happen. “He’s projected to steal 40 bases, but we know he could easily steal 70 or 80 this season (especially if he is healthy).”

I heard one expert on a podcast say that he felt Justin Upton was a first-rounder, adding that he probably had a 20 percent chance of being the NL MVP next year. 20 percent! There is only one player in baseball that warrants that kind of percentage, and he plays first base for the Cardinals. If every first-rounder had an equal chance at the MVP and no other players had a shot, that still means that each first-rounder has less than a 20 percent chance (12 players, two awards). Never mind that as often as not the MVP is won by the lowly Joe Mauers of the world. (By the way, I often pick on folks from this podcast, not because I dislike it. On the contrary, it is one of the few that I enjoy listening to.)

Don’t get me wrong—what a player CAN do is important. What a player is EXPECTED to do—which is a function not only of what he can do, but how LIKELY he is to do it—is the most important. But, since in fantasy a player’s upside is also important (but, particularly in the case of potential first-rounders, not nearly as important as his expected or projected forecasts), we care also about what he can do.

The problem and the danger is CAN can mean anything. If you’ve ever had the pleasure of chatting with someone who just had his/her first quantum physics class, he/she will often tell you that “there’s a chance that we are both really in Siberia right now.” This is technically somewhat true, only extremely unlikely—like one in a chugillion (made up number that is impossibly large). The same on a slightly less cosmic scale holds for fantasy advice. “He could steal 70 bases” can mean one in 20 or one in five.

There are lots of theories about why people tend to think rare events are far more likely to occur than they actual are—Prospect theory, Robust Control, etc. In the case of the fantasy gurus and even our general selves, I have a simple theory:

When we think to ourselves or attempt to justify our valuations to others, we naturally talk about what a player can do—as we should. But it seems small to say that the reason why we think Upton is worth the seventh pick overall is because he has a 4 or 5 percent chance to put in an MVP-type season. No one thinks they should get out of bed for that. So instead we start throwing around big numbers like 20 percent.

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