Getting outside the matrix

I believe I may have confessed previously in this column that my true favorite fantasy sport to play is NBA basketball. I’m also probably more successful at it than at fantasy baseball, either because I’m actually better or my competition is weaker. In any case, I participated in three NBA fantasy drafts over this past week— two snake drafts and one auction. I did something I’ve pretty much never done before, and while I’m not sure it’s at all advisable, it was certainly an enriching experience, as it led me to contemplate the value of getting outside the fantasy sports matrix.

Going into these drafts, I basically did no fantasy-related research. I follow the NBA pretty closely, so I was aware of player movement and my knowledge of the league and of individual players led me to feel pretty confident in understanding how these moves will impact rotations and playing time, which players fit in what style of offense, and so forth. So, while I did do plenty of “research” on the NBA just through the act of consuming league news, I didn’t consume any content dedicated to ranking players.

As draft day approached, I did review things like how specific players who spent most of the season as bench players produced when thrust into starting roles, but the fantasy-related opinions that I reached were as exclusively my own as they could conceivably be. When I entered my league’s live draft, it was the first time I saw this season’s pre-rankings. That was an interesting experience.

Because I didn’t include pre-rankings in my research, I conducted my drafts with almost no credence at all to them. I freely selected players several rounds “too early,” going strictly on my feel for what they are going to do. Early on, I tried to game the system, and got bitten. I passed on a player I wanted because his pre-rank dictated he should probably come back to me on my next pick; he was snatched from me a few picks later. That instance simply emboldened me in my embodiment of liberation, empowerment, and, some may even say, my recklessness. I acted as if I was way smarter than the system and time will tell if I’m correct. By the way, that is not to say I didn’t make my fair share of picks in line with conventional wisdom.

Humans are notorious for overestimating the amount of intellectual autonomy they have in their own decisions. We constantly claim that we know why we make the choices we make and that all kinds of marketing and environmental interventions don’t have profound impact on those choices. Both of those assertions are annihilated nearly every time they are studied. There are literally dozens of coined forms of cognitive dissonance that relate specifically to various behavioral patterns under this umbrella. This exercise was ostensibly another one of those experiments. The pre-rank board looked very strange to me without having been conditioned by reading the opinions of those thought-leaders who likely have a direct or indirect hand in shaping the board.

My point here is not that people shouldn’t read the opinions of experts—I’m not trying to put myself out of business. Rather, my point is that people should expend some extra energy to critically evaluate their own agency in their decision-making processes. It’s fine to defer your agency, or some portion thereof, to others whose opinions you respect. But, it is also okay to make bold decisions that aren’t backed by the majority.

It strikes me that the way most of us weight our own opinions, especially when they are outlying, is akin to the regression to the mean model. We take our own thoughts on a player, which may be substantially different from the industry or market sentiment and throw that in the mix along with a healthy proportion of market sentiment and wind up with a slightly different projection, our own opinion significantly diluted by a large dose of mainstream opinion. This is not necessarily a bad methodology—in fact it’s probably quite wise, but it does subvert our own insights, sometimes for the better, but sometimes for the worse.

Independence and auction/nomination strategy

Strategically, one of the difficulties of having an outlying opinion, assuming it’s correct, is how to maximize your profit from that opinion. I’m sure we’ve all been burned by this at some point. Many can relate to this situation:

I like really player A, actually even more so than player B, though I like player B too. Player B is nominated first. I bid on player B because I think I can get him at a fair price and figure that few are up on player A, so I don’t need to reserve much budget for him. I win player B, then the bidding on player A actually goes higher than expected and I’m not in the position to compete at the final price point. In the end, I bought player B for about the same price for which player A sold, ostensibly receiving no financial discount to “settle” for my second choice.

This happened in my NBA auction as I thought Serge Ibaka would be worth a ton in one of my leagues, but underestimated how high everybody else was on him, and therefore he wound up out of my budget, though he was still a steal at the price the winner paid.

I made another mistake in that draft. Ibaka was nominated much later than his pre-rank positioned him. I avoided nominating him, as my strategy in auctions is usually to nominate players I’m not all-in on in order to provoke others to spend. In this case, though, by the time this player was nominated, he was probably the best or among the best players left, by a considerable margin. Therefore, just about all the teams who had more money than I did were in.

That’s the flip side of a nominating strategy in which you nominate other players around your desired player’s skill level in the hopes of getting others to spend. If you allow an auction to reach a point where a player you are targeting is perhaps the best player still available, you run the risk of inflating his price for that reason alone.

To wrap the autonomy principle more tightly around this example, in retrospect I should have just completely trusted my opinion of the player and had faith in the fact that I would make a wise buy regardless of when he was nominated. As I said, at the end of the day, I still feel like the player in question was a bargain—a bargain I couldn’t afford.

Take the money and run?

It can be dangerous to play games either in auctions or drafts trying to maximize your profits to the very last penny. Sometimes, if you have a strong, independent opinion on a player, you might be better off letting the situation play out more traditionally and simply trusting your ability to make a modest profit.

When fantasy sports experts talk about signature moments of their drafts, it can often be the inverse of the way poker pros speak. In poker, all you hear are stories about a player’s bad beats, and rarely does he or she recount the tales in which luck shone his or her way. In fantasy sports, we like to brag about the great picks we made late in drafts or clown on our less enlightened leaguemates for letting player X fall all the way to us in round Y. However, infrequently do we hear about the countless times we play chicken with a player we like and get run off the road, the times we were right on a player but allow somebody else to reap the benefits because we thought we could squeeze out even more ROI.

This often happens when people rely on pre-ranks to dictate an objective reality. You know what really hurts? It hurts when you take a player in round six who you are lukewarm on because you think he has higher perceived value, and bet that the guy you love will be there in round seven, but come to find that he is not.

Having an independent opinion and reaching for a player on that basis may not always work out, and it may not always maximize the return on your insight, but one thing that can be said for such a commitment is that it doesn’t leave you psychologically tortured with a candle burning from both ends.

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  1. Dave Shovein said...

    I completely agree with that assessment. For all of my drafts now, I use solely my own personal rankings and projections rather than any other rankings. I do still utilize the most up to date ADP information, and use it more of a guideline to make sure I get the targets I really want

  2. Brad Johnson said...

    Having moved almost exclusively to auctions, I have no use for ADP information. That’s one of the things I love about auctions, the only mind-game is not accidentally blocking yourself from acquiring a player you love (see Ibaka anecdote above).

    My one snake draft is in a linear weights based points league, so the Yahoo! ADPs are just noise. I think an owner or two might anchor to them, but any time I’ve tried to wait a round on a guy who I thought would go several rounds after where I valued him, someone else would snatch him immediately.

  3. Steve I said...

    The human mind is malleable, but not self-malleable (a fact used to sinister advantage by politicians and PR men).

    —New Age philosopher Tom Robbins

  4. Travis said...

    Love this piece. I can’t tell you how many times I got a guy for a bargain only to run out of money and miss out on larger bargains.

    The opposite can happen too, where I wait too long and then my guys are the only talent left and come at an inflated price.

    I wish there were more articles like this on the internet about draft dynamics and fantasy basketball strategy.

  5. OaktownSteve said...

    The contrast between the poker player and the fantasy player is pretty interesting.  The poker player is losing money (tangible, specific) and experiences loss aversion. Neuroscience tells us we experience more pain from a loss that we receive pleasure from a win.  The fantasy player is obviously not experiencing wins and losses but is rather experiencing being right versus being wrong.  As such, a whole different part of the brain is involved and I think this explains the difffernence.  In this case the fantasy player actually experiences something that is almost the opposite of loss aversion:  selection bias.  Each fantasy player, particularly someone with the social status claim to expertise, believes that he has a special ability to recognize talent and potential value.  The selection bias occurs by fogetting those situations that invalidate that hypothesis (being wrong about a player) and placing emphasis on the choices that validate the hypothesis (being right about a player).  For years, I have been mentally labeling competetors in fantasy with the phrase “would rather be right than win”.  I love playing against these players because they are constantly making decisions for the wrong reasons.

    I also wanted to comment on the idea of value.  I really think it should be purged from the fantasy lexicon.  You cannot escape the fact that value can only be benchmarked against our predictions, which are totally fallable.  Yes we must have some guidelines around how we value a player, but we must always remember that our predictions have a very high plus/minus uncertainty factor.  If we have a player valued at $10 and we see him going for $8, we want to quantify that as hard dollars rather than against a probability range and say hey there’s $2 worth of value there.  But in reality, our value of that player at $8 is actually more of a probability range.  Really he’s got probability curve that goes from $0 on the low end to $50 (the high end for a fantasy player) and we assign percentages of probability to the player along that potential value spectrum based on our evaluation of that player.  When you look at it this way, it helps you to avoid getting too cute about “value picking”.  And avoiding value picking is a great help in keeping your eye on the overall strategy you’ve selected for putting together your roster.

    Finally, a word about auction nomination and game theory.  I think you can take a page out of the poker manual for that one as well.  Basically game theory says you must incorrporate a certain amount of randomness into your betting.  If you always nominate players that you don’t want and then you find yourself in a situation where you have to nominate a player that you do want, it’s going to be painfully obvious to everybody when you do it and you’re going to get price enforced.  Even if you go to a pattern of sometimes nominating a player you want and sometimes a player you don’t want, that is still a pattern that gives rise to a tell, gives other players information.  However, if you basically pick players at random in the first half of the auction, nobody will have a read on you.  That allows you to then choose a player to nominate later on in the auction for a specific tactical purpose without tipping too much information about that purpose.

  6. bohman said...

    you gotta take the guy if you want to own him.  no point in waiting a round or two ‘hoping’ he’s still there.  he won’t be.

  7. Pochucker said...

    ahh the nuances of fantasy baseball
    Heres situation that happened to me last year. In my 12T league had the #1 pick. Conventional wisdom of course was to take Pujols. However my top rated guy was Miggy.

    However my league is set up in 6tm divsions
    winner division (top three from divs previous yr) and losers div.

    Guy at #2 was in my div was in my division, next 3 were not. I knew if I took Pujols he was taking Hanley but if I took Cabrera he was taking Pujols.
    I was not worried about Hanley but didnt want Pujols in my division.

    I took Pujols he took Hanley—I made playoffs he did not

  8. Brad Johnson said...

    As I’ve moved to more difficult leagues, I’ve had the opportunity to ignore pre-rankings more often. The higher the quality of your competition, the less it’s worthwhile to trust a Yahoo! assigned number.

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