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Wednesday, February 16, 2011
In many ways, our identities are really nothing more than complex narratives we create about ourselves. Often those narratives are based on imperfect recollections. See, our memories don’t exactly work like the metaphorical file cabinet most believe them to be. In fact, there’s a lot more creativity and subjectivity to the memories that inform our everyday vision of self. When George Costanza uttered the jewel, “it’s not a lie if you believe it,” we all laughed it away as the apotheosis self-delusion and the very essence of his character, but many neuroscientists would concede that he was on to something. Oh, this is a fantasy baseball column, isn’t it? Well, I’ll get there in a second.
Some of the visions we have about ourselves are more empirically verifiable than others. I could create a self-convincing story that I am quite wealthy, but this can be verified by checking my bank account, and of course I’d be confronted with my own dishonesty every time I did so. Part of my personal narrative is that I’m a fantasy baseball expert, whatever that means. Now, this is not going to be another column waxing philosophic about what it actually means to be an “expert.” I think that ground has been covered, and for today at least, I’m unconcerned with semantics. Today, I’m concerned with the empirical.
Earlier this week, I spent better part of an hour performing an exercise that should have taken me five minutes were I a good record keeper. I went back through all my fantasy sports leagues since 2004 (this date marks the beginning of my current account) and dug around to find entry fees and profits. Playing fantasy sports is often likened to playing the market; to being a good investor. So, I wanted to measure my success the way an investor does, by return on investment.
I didn’t know exactly how profitable I thought the uncompromising ledger would reveal me to be, but knowing what I know about how people tend to build their personal narratives, I figured the reality would be that I’d be a little less successful than whatever I’d settle on believing I was. I fashion myself to be pretty good at fantasy basketball and fantasy football too, to the extent one can be good at something as random as fantasy football. When I ran the numbers, I was a bit surprised.
Across all fantasy sports, I profited a total 11.8 percent over the past seven seasons. This is a tad lower than I would have guessed. In baseball alone, however, I profited 36 percent over the same time period, which strikes me as rather impressive. Now, I’m not certain how to look at these numbers as analogous to an investment in a mutual fund or something because I didn’t invest a lump sum back in 2004. So, I wouldn’t consider this an ROI in that sense, but rather the aggregated performance of a series of investment decisions made over seven years. To add another baseline for comparison, professional sports gamblers are considered very successful if they can pick winners at a rate above 54 percent or so.
I didn’t perform that exercise or chose to write this column simply to tell my readers about my fantasy performance or to try to establish my credentials. I did it to see if I would learn anything worthwhile about money and fantasy sports, or about how we construct perceptions of our success at this hobby we share. I’d like to share three thoughts resulting from this exercise.
The first thing that I found unsurprising, but worthy of mentioning, is that when you play multiple leagues for stakes, your successes, just as the performances of your players, are prone to random variation as well. I assume that many of my readers are like me in the sense that they play multiple leagues for various stakes. Personally, I have leagues that I play every season with relatively fixed stakes and then ad hoc leagues that I participate in for whatever reason as opportunities are presented to me. Among friends, the stakes may or may not be commensurate with the level of competition. In football leagues, for example, I’ve had the unfortunate luck of having more of my better seasons in leagues that happened to have been for lower stakes. These circumstances can work for or against you, and may not be particularly telling about your fantasy sports skill, but still extremely influential on your bottom line.
My second thought was brought when I tried to look at my performance to see if there were any patterns about my behavior that I wasn’t particularly aware of as well. I’m a self-professed conservative player. My highest stakes league mates will tell you that I’m the owner you have to worry about running down the title in the last weeks of the season every year, and not the owner who is prone to having explosive, break away from the pack, teams some years and cellar-dwelling gaggles of busts in others. I was curious as to whether I may have approached different stakes league with different appetites for risk. It was relieving to see that it didn’t appear that I did.
Giving this issue a bit more thought, I confirmed my gut feeling that there’s not a viable justification for approaching different stakes leagues with different risk tolerances. The value propositions of each league remain largely similar on a proportionate basis, so I think that adjusting your strategy based on the absolute dollar amounts is logically flawed. Eight to one odds are the same as 80 to 10 odds. Adjusting your risk appetite based on payout structure, however, can certainly be justifiable. On a related note, whenever I’m given the opportunity to weigh in on payout structures I try to influence more balanced payouts; this is in line with both my beliefs and my self-interest. Don’t ask me which is the cart and which is horse though, for I can’t totally be sure.
My third observation became clear when looking across my three sport performance begged the question of why I thought I performed better than I actually did. I think there are two unique factors at play here. First, my conservative always-be-competitive style leads to feel more accomplished than economically compensated, given that payouts are often quite top heavy. For example, if my basketball leagues were to end today, I’d have finished second in four out of my last five leagues without winning once. Economically, I’d have done better to win twice and bottom out three times.
Perhaps, my style of play isn’t suited to maximum payout, but maximum enjoyment and stability. It’s important to note that fantasy sports is a hobby first, as opposed to actual investing, and so the opportunity cost of the low entertainment value that comes with those bad teams you get when you take too many risks that don’t pan out is a non-trivial part of one’s value proposition when playing fantasy sports. Even the seamheads among us are not actually machines.
The other factor in the perception versus reality dynamic relates to how money comes and goes in fantasy sports. In fantasy sports you make a single bet over a long period of time and when you win, you win several times your bet. The social properties relating to the economics of a fantasy sports win are great; they’re the opposite of the practical economic impotency of quitting smoking. Let me explain.
When somebody decides to quit smoking, it’s a given that somebody else will mention to that person how much money they are poised to save. Of course, realistically, that person is most likely not going to save any money at all. When you quit smoking the economic impact happens over many, small, short term gains. The quitter will most likely just find a different way to spend those five dollars every day, or 30 or so bucks a week. Practically speaking, that money gets redistributed, not saved. (Of course, if you live in New York and are just quitting now, we’re talking real money.)
In fantasy sports, you make a substantial but not overly burdensome bet at the beginning of a season. That bet is singular and it plays out over months. By the time the payout comes you are so far removed from that bet that if you lose you’re not affected. But, if you win, you win a huge ROI out of nowhere. You’re not collecting a theoretical windfall a couple of bucks per day; you get that “I won the lottery” feeling. In terms of the economic structure of fantasy sports, I think that dynamic can’t be overstated.
Economic advisors will tell you that you shouldn’t aim to get a tax refund because theoretically you could be investing that money and making a return on it as opposed to letting the government hold it while inflation creeps up. But, so may of us set ourselves up for a return anyway because we’d rather the lump sum than have to exercise the discipline of withholding from ourselves and doing the homework required to invest wisely. Playing fantasy sports over the long haul offers a similar dynamic. Even if you come a bit short of breaking even, a slightly negative ROI can actually feel like a win if it’s distributed in a certain manner that encourages you to handle it better. And, if you’re profiting modestly, it legitimately feels like you’re deriving significant economic benefit from the endeavor.
Posted by Derek Ambrosino at 5:48am
Earlier this winter, The Hardball Times offered prospective fantasy baseball writers the opportunity to compete in a Hardball Times fantasy league. Entrants wrote fantasy baseball articles, the best of which would be chosen as our winner. While we could only choose one winner to play in the league (congratulations, Dave Chenok), we had so many great articles that we have decided to publish some of the best. This is one of those submissions.
Thinking of drafting Elvis Andrus next year? What about Denard Span or Austin Jackson? Hitting leadoff, particularly in the American League, may not be as valuable as you think.
In 2009, AL leadoff hitters averaged over 70 RBIs. In 2010, they averaged just over 54. Some fluctuation is expected, but a league-wide drop of over 16 RBIs is unprecedented. 54 RBIs is by far the lowest average in AL in the last ten years.
* Data reflects RBIs for whoever hit leadoff each game. For example, if Ichiro Suzuki played one game hitting in the number two position and got an RBI that game, that RBI would not be included in the data because he was not batting in the leadoff spot.
So what happened? Let’s take a look at some possible explanations.
1. “Year of the pitcher”
Given that run scoring declined from 2009 to 2010, we would naturally expect a decline in RBI totals. From 2009 to 2010, the average AL team had eight percent fewer total RBIs (decrease from 746 to 686). During the same period, the average number of RBI from AL leadoff hitters plummeted 23 percent (from 70 to 54).
The “year of the pitcher” may account for some of the missing RBIs, but there is obviously more going on here.
2. Eight/Nine hitters got on base less
I'm going to make a bold statement and say that it's easier to knock runs home when batting when the hitters in front of you reach base. Let’s examine the OBP of the eighth and ninth place hitters in the AL over the last 10 years.
From 2009 to 2010, OBP dropped across the board. AL No. 8 hitters dropped from .317 to .305 (-.012); AL No. 9 hitters dropped from .305 to .295 (-.010). However, we also observe that overall AL OBP dropped from .335 to .327 (- .008)
Given that the average AL hitter saw his OBP decline by .008, we see that AL eight and nine hitters posted an OBP only slightly lower than expected. This may account for some of the drop-off in leadoff hitter RBIs, but only a small portion at best.
2010 saw significant injuries to some big name AL leadoff hitters, such as Brian Roberts and Jacoby Ellsbury. We could even throw Grady Sizemore in the mix, although none of his 128 ABs in 2010 was from the leadoff spot.
Let’s account for these injuries by estimating the RBI production of these players had they stayed healthy.
In 2010 Baltimore leadoff hitters combined for 46 RBIs. Meanwhile, Roberts has averaged about 64 RBIs over the last 3 years. Had Roberts been healthy, we can estimate he would have had 64 RBIs. Let’s add the difference (18 RBIs) to the data. In his best year (2009), Ellsbury connected for 60 RBIs in 154 games (on pace for 63). Meanwhile, Boston leadoff men knocked home 57 in 2010. Let’s add 6 RBIs to the data While we’re at it, let’s throw Grady a bone and double Cleveland’s 2010 leadoff man RBI total from 42 to 84.
What happens when we add an extra 66 RBIs (18 + 6 + 42) to the data? The average AL leadoff man RBI number increases from 54 to 59, which is still easily the lowest total in the last 10+ years.
4. Evolution of the game
So far we have seen that a variety of factors contribute slightly to the leadoff RBI drop-off. However, the most significant factor may actually be the evolution of the game. It is no secret that homerun totals are down. Managers are emphasizing speed and athleticism more, especially from the leadoff spot.
These days, we see players like Denard Span, Elvis Andrus, Ellsbury and Jackson occupying the leadoff role. Leadoff men who hit 20+ HR and 75+ RBI are becoming rare. Not long ago we had guys like Ian Kinsler and Sizemore hitting leadoff, but managers are reconstructing lineups to get these bats in the meat of the order. The NL still boasts guys like Brandon Phillips and Rickie Weeks, but would any of us be shocked to see them hit lower in the order in 2011?
So what does this mean for your fantasy team?
Leadoff batters are providing less value. Scoring 100+ runs is great, but when a player contributes just five HR and 55 RBI, he better be swiping bags left and right to make up the value. Furthermore, I was surprised to learn that of the 17 players who scored 100+ runs last season, only three were everyday leadoff hitters: Weeks, Derek Jeter, and Jackson. You don’t need leadoff hitters to be competitive in the runs scored category.
Speed has become more available. Every year there are players un-drafted in most fantasy leagues who post great SB and respectable supporting stats. The 2010 crop was no exception (Jose Tabata, Coco Crisp, Angel Pagan, Cliff Pennington, and Will Venable, to name a few). Given the growing emphasis Major League managers are placing on having speed and athleticism in the lineup, we are likely to see more of the same in 2011. You don’t need leadoff hitters to be competitive in the stolen bases category.
Leadoff hitters will certainly offer some value in 2011, but think twice before dropping $10 or a 10th round pick to grab Span or Jackson.
*All data courtesy of ESPN.com and MLB.com.
Posted by David Neumann at 5:26am
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