Approaching unconscious competence

How do you prepare for auctions/drafts? Do you refer to rankings or projections during the draft? Do you spend hours and hours copiously reviewing rankings for weeks or months in advance? Personally, I think if you prepare correctly, by learning the concepts of fantasy baseball, doing incredible amounts of legwork reaches the point of diminishing returns pretty quickly.

For the most part, I just make sure I’m briefed on players who changed teams in the offseason and those who have experienced injuries. I keep a list of rankings (from anywhere, really, it’s just to have a list of names, not for the rankings themselves), and a list of each team’s closer. For repeat roto leagues, I also take the standings from the past year and mark off what the 50th and 75th percentiles and the winning totals were for each category. I don’t really use formal projections (mainly, but not entirely, because I’m too cheap to pay for them), but do try to keep a rough running tally as I select players, using a conservative estimate of what I can expect from each, by category. I aim to be competitive in each category, measured against the benchmarks of the previous season.

But, in terms of preparation, it is much more important to learn strategies, theories, trends and concepts than to spend time tweaking rankings. Many people spend way too much time deliberating about individual decisions regarding high ranked players. Those are not the decisions that sway leagues. You don’t win or lose a league on the basis of deciding between Mark Teixeira and Ryan Howard. You lose a league because you only have one viable source of stolen bases, or maybe because your top picks were all power-hitting corners and you have no plus middle infielders.

Let’s take a step back and consider one of the most popular models to explain how people develop skills.

In psychology, the “four stages of competence” refers to a model explaining the psychological states one goes through in the process of developing a skill. The four stages are as follows.

Unconscious incompetence: You don’t know how to do something, and are unaware of your deficiencies. This attitude is expressed by many who do not play fantasy baseball and demean the whole endeavor, and people who repeatedly play poorly and dismiss the repeated success of others (and their own failures) as entirely due to luck.

Conscious incompetence: You are still inept, but you recognize that you don’t really know what you are doing. This is often the stage where players realize that fantasy baseball has its own distinct strategies and dynamics, and that the relationship between knowledge of the real, corresponding sport and the fantasy sport are not apples to apples, but more like a Venn diagram.

Conscious competence: You know what you are doing, but executing requires a great deal of concentration and premeditation. These are the guys who pour over rankings, have extremely rigid, but well-crafted draft strategies. Preparation is key in this stage. As one progresses through this stage, players begin to learn how to adapt to trends in drafts/auctions as they develop and how to exploit any inefficiency in how a league is set up.

Unconscious competence: Executing the skill at a high level is second nature to you. You can join a league of strangers a half-hour before the draft, take a quick look at the settings and draft a competitive team. You can determine pretty quickly what other players’ strategies are and make reads on which types of players are over- and under-drafted.

When I embark on learning a new skill, I try to do so in a way that promotes the development of unconscious competence. I don’t want to focus on isolated tasks; I want to understand underlying themes. I’ve helped a number of people throughout the years prepare for standardized tests, particularly the SATs, and I always told them they should spend most of their time (especially if they don’t have much) on learning things that are guaranteed to benefit them no matter what the actual questions on the test are. How is the test scored? When is it in your advantage to guess? What are the question archetypes? What can you learn by analyzing the potential answers to a question without even considering the question? How should you budget your time?

Those who spend an exorbitant amount of time going over long vocabulary lists are making highly inefficient use of their time. (At the very least, study roots, suffixes and prefixes instead.) This information is only of use if the test happens to ask about a specific word, and the whole exercise is only applicable to one portion of the test. Spending time considering Miguel Cabrera vs. Evan Longoria in next year’s draft is akin to studying vocabulary lists for the SATs. It’s very limited in scope, and chances are you won’t even be in a situation where you have to make that decision.

So what should you spend your time thinking about? Here are a couple of more broadly applicable exercises one might want to do in preparation for next year:

Monitor trends in positional scarcity. Most THT readers are pretty savvy about the importance of considering the depth of high-level options at each position when determining value. While corners are usually more plentiful than middle-infielders, the overall trends tend to ebb and flow. It seems that third base is thinner today than it was just a few years ago. Additionally, in deeper leagues that use more than three outfielders, outfield isn’t as deep a position as many people seem to think it is.

Look at past year’s draft results for patterns. Even if your league provider does not index previous year’s leagues, you should print out the draft results of each league so you can refer to them in the future. In one of my regular leagues, the group just tends to value closers very highly. What you do with this information is up to you. You may decide that you have to take closers earlier than you planned to counteract this trend, or you may decide that you want to try to take advantage of this trend by stocking up on extra bats or loading your starting rotation. Regardless, being aware of the trend will inform your decisions. Looking at past draft results is like estimating a customized version ADP.

Make a list of one-trick ponies. Though it is best to avoid having to draft a player who only contributes in one or two categories, sometimes the best laid plans don’t work out. So, make sure you have contingency plans in the case you realize you’re late in the draft and have a categorically imbalanced roster. You may need a Jack Cust, or a Luis Castillo even if that player isn’t the overall best option on the board.

Benchmark a winning season. Think about your team as a unit, not a collection of individual players. Figure out what you need to average from each of your active roster spots to finish in the 75th percentile of each category. This will help you draft players whose skill sets compliment each other.

How do you budget your time when preparing for an upcoming season? What tools do you use? What activities do you feel are indispensable and which are inefficient uses of your time and resources?

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  1. Michael said...

    I chose David Wright, Lance Berkman and Alfonso Soriano #1-3 in my NL-only keeper league. I finished 2nd simply because of this…

  2. Jules said...

    I am a repeat champion of my 10×10 league (thank you, THT) but i’m only in the conscious competence category. This is the best article i’ve seen in a while and provides lots to think about. We can all continue to improve. Thank you, Derek.

  3. Brian M said...

    I’d be willing to argue that the closer you get to UC, the more you realize you’re closer to CI in any realm of life.  It seems that the more you learn, the more you realize you don’t know anything, no?

    I try not to take any unconcious competence for granted.  Other owners tend to learn and catch up quickly if you’re in a competitive league.  Always looking for new strategies and innovation within the rules is the strategy I take.  Don’t ever let your guard down into an unconcious realm of thinking…it can only hurt you.  However, learn tricks to make evaluations quickly and efficiently.

    That’s not to say participating in mind-numbing, time wasting tasks is the thing to do either.  I agree with Derek on this one.  There’s a point at which these things don’t have much marginal benefit.  But don’t be afraid to find new bold ways around rules and strategies of others.  These DO require a relatively large amount of thinking and preparation.  Otherwise, you may end up like General Managers in the era of Billy Beane’s innovative approach.

  4. Adam W. said...

    @ Scott – The disparity is going to be relatively small between first round picks, because stability is part of the reason they’re first round picks (injuries notwithstanding). Leagues are won and lost on your value picks in the mid-rounds.

    Here is an extreme example: I had the fantasy year of my life in one league, winning the title by a huge margin. The reason why is because I drafted Javier Vazquez in rd. 7, Zach Grienke in rd. 9, Justin Upton in rd. 10, Nelson Cruz in rd. 11, and Mark Reynolds in rd. 13. My #1 pick? Jimmy Rollins.

    The disparity in talent between these picks and the rounds in which they were selected is WAY bigger than the disparity between Fielder and Holliday.

  5. Andrew said...

    The idea that we should not target specific players is simply wrong.

    While I agree with you that nobody REALLY knows whether, for instance, Teixeira or Howard will perform better next year, we’re talking about costly players. In the early rounds (or with high auction purchases), we must return fair value. In the middle rounds we must aim for most relative value. And in the late rounds, we must chase upside. I’d add that Teixeira and Howard are not identical skill sets, not in the least.

    I’m VERY surprised to read that a writer at THT doesn’t really analyze the good players. I actually try to analyze EVERY player that will be taken in my draft/auction. Spend a week on each position and come up with a list of the players that you will be targeting at each.

    I think you’re making too much of time being a factor in our preparation. I’d think most THT readers begin preparing in December or January, and this again allows one to go through all of the various skill sets in the MLB player pool – in addition to any reading up on the theories and concepts to which you refer.

  6. Brian M said...


    Are you suggesting that beginning to analyze things for fantasy baseball in December isn’t using a LOT of time?  What’s the marginal benefit of that over someone that starts in February?  I think that’s the point here, not that you shouldn’t pay attention to who’s a better player.  Once you have an idea of what players are worth, there’s more marginal benefit from doing these other strategical tasks, rather than putting together stringent lists of players.  It’s a ‘best use of your time and energy’ suggestion, not that knowing the better players isn’t useful.  Spending too much time on evaluation can make you forget about these other important things. But I guess that hypothesis can only be tested in the field of fantasy play.

    With the information available out there about projections, it seems silly to me to spend significant time on these issues.  Get a list, go by it, but focus your strategy on other things.

  7. Andrew said...

    “Are you suggesting that beginning to analyze things for fantasy baseball in December isn’t using a LOT of time?  What’s the marginal benefit of that over someone that starts in February?”

    OK, I get your point. I see that the benefit is only marginal. I guess I just feel like there’s plenty of time to analyze both the players and the theories behind the game.

    I’m sure most THT readers are fantasy junkies like myself and, as such, probably risk a fair amount of money on their various leagues, so the time devoted toward preparing for the following season isn’t a hassle but rather enjoyable and lucrative.

  8. Brian M said...

    I agree with you there.  I love getting ready for the season.  The auction preseason is my favorite part.  Once everyone starts playing, I get more frustration than enjoyment out of it, haha.  Despite that, I spend more time than I probaly should on my fantasy team.  It at least paid off this year.

  9. Andrew said...

    On that note, any way we can get a THT fantasy writer to open a post starting a league (or leagues) on here?

    When I started my keeper league, it took several months to find owners who were knowledgeable, committed, and willing to put up a decent amount of money.

    Perhaps there are other readers that would be interested in taking part in another league, and we’d all save a lot of time and hassle by letting one of the THT writers be in the league and handle the finances. (I believe is still free.) This would not only be fun but ensure the money is in good hands.

    Any THT writers willing to do this? Does this interest any readers?

  10. Scott McGovern said...

    There’s some good ideas in here, but I’m surprised by the way you ignore one of the most basic rules of fantasy baseball:

    You can’t win a league with your first two draft picks, but you sure can lose with them.

    Deciding between Evan Longoria, a young, toolsy but still untested player and Miguel Cabrera CAN have a difference on your team. After the recent revelations abotu the incident with his wife, what effect will that have on his performance next year.

    And Texeira vs. Howard? Yikes. Howard is a strikeout machine, and Tex is usually ice-cold until the middle of May, because his swing is unusual and it takes him a while to get it going properly. If you draft Tex, you need to draft another 1B at some point, to make up for the lack of production in the first 6-8 weeks. If you draft Howard, you need to focus on additional players with high average.

    The first two rounds are -critical-. The first choices, even more so. In one of my leagues, one guy had to choose between Matt Holiday and Prince Fielder for one of his picks. He chose Holiday and didn’t place. The guy who chose Fielder did. What a difference a pick makes.

  11. Andrew P said...

    I thought this was a very well-reasoned article.

    I’ve only got one small quibble with your preparations, and that was with what you wrote about one-trick ponies.  I’m generalizing my experience, but I feel if there’s a significant enough difference in player values, you should draft the better player that doesn’t fit your team needs.  I find that you’re more likely to be able to trade for needs at or closer to even value than by taking a lower-valued player in the draft.

    Other things I do include trying to identify over- and undervalued players.  Generally, most of these players will be hit upon by the various fantasy pundits, but there is still great opportunity for value.

    Also important is to monitor the statistical scarcity of the different categories.  It’s not a perfect example, but a H2H league that I play in uses triples as a category.  People don’t realize how valuable guys are that consistently hit a high number of triples.  Understanding scarcity in the categories is another area you can exploit inefficiencies.

  12. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Gonna try to get reply to a bunch of you guys in one email.

    Andrew P.,

    I actually think that one-trick ponies are easier to trade because you can match them with a team with a complimentary stas base. The marginal player whose marginal value is spread across all categories is the most difficult to trade, in my experiences.


    I will reiterate. You don’t lose a league because you picked either .279/105/45/141/8 or .292/103/39/122/2. That’s like saying a team lost a game because of one questionable strike call when there were two other strikes in the AB and 26 other outs in the game. Here’s the difference between Tex and Howard: 3 runs, 6 homers, 19 RBI, 6 SBs, and .013 points of BA. One nice pick in the middle rounds swallows that differential in a heartbeat. Now, if you took Adrian Beltre over Mark Reynolds in the 15th round, now we’re talking about a single pick that could have won your league… 

    The first two rounds are not as critical as the middle rounds (provided you don’t get a huge bust or an injury risk). Tex and Howard both did, generally, what they were supposed to do. If you picked either, you are satisfied with your pick and got appropriate value. You can tell how “critical” outperforming your draft position is by how much consensus there is about rankings at the point in the draft. If you are being drafted at spot 12, your floor is more important than your ceiling, because, by how much can you outproduce your draft spot?


    What do you mean, Tex and Howard are not identical skill sets in the least? They are premier slugging, run-producing firstbaseman. For the purposes of fantasy baseball, they are extremely similar, the key difference being that Howard’s HR and RBI ceiling is a bit higher, while Tex is a safe bet to be a neutral, if not slightly positive, BA contributor whereas Howard could be a full-on detriment.

    I am not saying that I don’t target specific players or that I don’t analyze the top ranked players. Basically, I spend more time identifying guys who I don’t want. I have no idea whether I’ll face the decision of Tex or Howard, so when I see a column entitled Ryan Howard vs. Mark Teixeira, I skip it. If I have to make that decision, I make one. The more important question is whether I want to spend my first pick on a slugging 1B, period.

    There are multiple ways to build a winning team. And, the difference between Tex and Howard is not substantive enough to alter one’s entire strategy, perhaps just to tweak it a bit as you fill in your complimentary players.


    To whammy three times in a row, in the top three rounds unfortunate. However, seeing as how you still finished in 2nd (great job, by the way), you are actually the exception that proves the rule!

  13. John K said...

    This reminds me of Rumsfeld’s “known knowns” speech that earned him so much criticism.  It seems like it was actually a pretty good place to start analyzing problems to me, and was actually more elegant than people gave it credit for.

    In any case, I do need to take a bigger picture view sometimes but dammit player evaluation is fun in February and March

  14. Andrew P said...

    Derek- but if you’re drafting the 1-trick pony to fill your needs at the expense of value, you’re probably not going to be trading him anyways. 

    further, it’s not as if your trades are limited only to the position in question.  if you have a surplus in one category, you probably have many guys on your roster that contribute to that specific category.  if you can trade one of them for near-equal value, you’ll be able to accomplish your goal of balancing out your roster, without having to sacrifice value to do so.

  15. Andrew said...

    OK, I can certainly agree with you that the question of whether you should take a 1B in the first round in the first place is more important.

    Anymore on possible THT Fantasy Readers Leagues?

  16. Paul Singman said...

    Andrew, I like the idea of a THT Fantasy Readers league and will make a BoTR post about it sometime today or tomorrow with more details.

  17. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Andrew P,

    Your points are fair. And, like anything else, this issue is sort dependent on the context. The best use of one-trick ponies, IMO, is to maniupluate the market for low-volume categories. If given the choice (coming into this past season) between a Willy Taveras or Michael Born and Garrett Anderson, knowing that neither will probably be in my starting line-up regularly, I’d probably stockpile the speed, even if I didn’t need it. The chances that somebody needs a 40 steal guy regardless of the rest of that players [lack of] skill set (or at least feels that they need such a player) is probably higher than the likelohood that somebody feels they need a Garrett Anderson. When it comes to categories very few players contribute to, you can get somebody over the barrel and force them to overpay. I don’t see how you can get somebody to give up real value for a player who is, say, 10% better than the best waiver wire option in 3 of 5 categories. If in need of “an outfielder” in general, teams often either try to hit the wire and find a gem or to trade for a fairly desirable commodity.

    Now, one can certainly say that this theory violates the code that you shouldn’t draft with the intent to trade, but I look at it a bit differently with stolen bases and saves—it’s kind of like investing in SB of SV futures. (I like attempting to make market analogies while having no concept at all of how the stock market works, it makes me feel like a member of the mainstream media, with a much larger readership).

    Here’s a similar scenario. You don’t want the bottom of the barrel closers on your roster, most astute fantasy players realize its best to stay away, but a Todd Jones-esque guy is out there in a shallow mixed league draft and he’s the last available closer. The other intruguing option is like a SP5 or 6, maybe a Joe Saunders or Kevin Millwood type. Wouldn’t you be tempted to take Jones and not even play him, just awaiting somebody else to suffer an injury to a closer or fall victim to a demotion?

    My overall point is that there are situations in which one-trick ponies see big spikes in their [trade] value, while the Garret Andersons of the world never see such spikes in their value.

  18. Scott McGovern said...

    I, also, would be interested in a THT league, but I’d recommend doing an AL-, NL- and mixed league, just because different people have different tastes.

    I would love to do a mixed league.

  19. Brian M. said...

    If there really is a plan for this readers’ fantasy league, put me down for mixed league (though, I’d hope the mixed is a large format, say 16 to 20 teams and auction, rather than snake draft)

  20. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Not sure if I’d be down for the staff and readers league. (I’ve really been trying to widdle down the number of leagues I play in, not increase them. But, it does seem to consistently go in the reverse).

    However, just to throw this out there, one league format I’ve always wanted to try was a pretty small roto league, say 8 teams, in which each owner had an NL-only team and an AL-only team and the cumulative standings (either points or summing the categry totals from both leagues, not sure which I’d prefer) determined the winner. I thought this might be a good idea because I’m attracted to the challenge of one league only leagues, but don’t like the notion of disproportionately dedicating my attention to only one of the two leagues.

  21. Paul Singman said...

    I know the promised league announcement has not come yet, but I can assure you it will soon. There are still some variables I’m deciding on and I want be sure I’m making the right decisions before announcing what type of league it will be.

    Thanks for being patient.

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