The human element: choosing our own fate

As savvy and studious contestants in our fantasy baseball leagues we take the strategic element of the game seriously. We look for edges and gravitate toward decision-making paradigms based firmly in rationality. We seek empiricism as backing for our decisions more than we value emotional gratification.

If you’re like me, fantasy baseball is a hobby, but it’s foremost a competition, in the form of a puzzle. The challenge I present to myself is one of dissecting a complex system more completely and accurately than my competitors. But it is also a hobby and as such it’s supposed to be fun. In this mini-series of posts, I’d like to explore some of the more human, less analytical, decisions we make in fantasy baseball and actually defend them a bit. If something narrowly lowers your odds of winning, but increases your enjoyment or level of engagement in the game, and maybe in baseball itself, can it actually be said to be a bad decision?

In fantasy baseball, as in many issues, there’s a potential slippery slope in terms of being able to justify rationally unwise choices on the basis of promoting pleasure or protecting pain. So, let’s draw some lines right off the bat. If you’re a Mets fan who is unwilling to root for Phillies under any circumstances and therefore abjectly refuse to draft Roy Halladay or Chase Utley on your team then you should not be playing fantasy baseball, period. Engaging in this behavior is not simply irrational; it serves to undermine the game for everybody involved. Such behavior is not different than deciding never to stand on 17 at the blackjack table because that’s the date you found out your ex was sleeping with your roommate. Fantasy baseball is only for the emotionally mature; rebuking Roy Halladay on principle is equivalent to poisoning the shoe for the whole blackjack table and can in no way be justified. But what about some other much more subtle decisions?

Sometimes you hear about the those who are diagnosed as terminally ill having to deciding to forego high-risk, intensive therapy that may prolong their life, but could diminish its quality in favor of living the rest of their life in peace with the faint hope of a miracle, resigning to die peacefully in less pain. I’d like to relay an anecdote from this past season where a friend was faced with a difficult decision and chose a death he could live with over the possibility of one he could not.

After I was eliminated in a H2H league in the Casper Wells-Juan Pierre affair that I’ve anointed as one of my most memorable fantasy sports experiences, the show went on. The following week began the finals. The two finalists and I were all good friends and both of the finalists have been known to seek my counsel on issues relating to fantasy sports.

About two-thirds of the way through the final scoring period, the owner who was losing sent me an email asking for my advice. After looking at the match-up, I made an odd diagnosis and fairly unconventional recommendation. Pitching was pretty much up for grabs, with this owner having slight edge in most categories – but he basically needed two offensive category wins to pull out a victory and was leading in SB, but being beaten pretty handily in R, HR, RBI and OPS. (This league is 6×6 – traditional 5×5 plus OPS and K/BB.). He faced a batting average deficit, but it seemed the most realistically surmountable. I told him that overall the prognosis looked bad, but suggested on high-risk surgical procedure. I advised him to bench his Adam Dunn types or outright drop them in favor of empty batting average guys. I figured that it was unlikely that he could make up eight homers or 23 RBI (or something like that) in three days, but that because the volume of daily ABs is high, BA can swing drastically from day to day. If his team hit .380 over three days and his opponent’s team hit .210, that could really swing the pendulum.

The other choice I offered, quite boringly, was to do nothing. It was an interesting proposition, and I would have loved to see a complete probabilistic model of the situation. (I also wish I remember the exact categorical totals at the time.) But, no matter what, this owner was going to need his team to play above their true talents, and most likely need his opponent’s players to play below their true talents. He could lay back and wait for, ostensibly, a miracle or he could undergo a radical surgery. Maybe Adam Dunn hits five homers over the last three days and enables this owner to pulls out the category. These possibilities, faint as they were, exist so long as the owner elects against the surgery.

To adopt my recommendation, would require putting all his eggs in the quant basket with no additional certainty to speak of. Surely, the sample sizes here are tiny and there’s no guarantee that swapping an Adam Dunn for a Ryan Theriot would positively impact his team’s batting average. In fact, it was more of a certainty that by doing so he was going to give up HR and RBI, the separation in the respective categories being much greater. So, the proposition was to concede four faint glimmers of possibly ill-conceived hope to create a significantly more rational basis for increased hope in one area. When phrased like this, it seems that my recommendation is a logical and easy choice. But this is where the human element comes into play; I even sensed a hesitance as I was formulating my recommendation, realizing I’d recommend it but that I wasn’t sure I’d actually do it if I was in my friend’s shoes.

What if the miracle happens? What if you play Ryan Theriot and he goes 1-for-13 over those last three games and Adam Dunn goes 6-for-9 with four homers and nine RBI? I told my friend that before adopting my approach, he’d have to ask himself if he would be willing to lose this way. Again, Adam Dunn could outhit Ryan Theriot for batting average over three games – there would be nothing strange or anomalous about that, it’s an entirely insignificant sample size.

My friend chose to hope for a miracle and most likely die in his sleep. Knowing that most likely neither decision would actually win it for him, he decided that he would be comfortable losing by staying put and dealing with the slight possibility that he could have done something to at least improve his chances. On the flipside, he decided that he could not stomach the less likely but far more excruciating potential outcome of making a drastic shift in his strategy only to see that the miracle comeback knock on his door, with Adam Dunn was napping unable to let it in. He chose to prioritize protecting against the most trying failure possible as opposed to doing everything he could to improve his chance to triumph.

Though it goes against my general approach to competing in fantasy baseball, I can understand and sympathize with this owner’s decision. Factoring in how one may feel about certain outcomes is a human element that often becomes a part of our decision-making calculus and it isn’t always sensible on the most strictly rational of levels.

Take, for example, any circumstance that involves deciding whether to activate a non-elite pitcher in a precarious match-up. The level of satisfaction or happiness you get from a wise decision (or the dissatisfaction or anger from a decision that proves unwise) is not calibrated to be a direct reflection of how helpful or hurtful the decision proved for your team. The spectrum of your emotions as they relate to such decisions exists on a fundamentally different scale than the probability of your ultimate victory and how it is affected by an individual decision (especially in a roto league where every one of these decisions is likely inconsequential, taken individually). So, it is practically impossible to accurately account for this, or fully ignore it, when making decisions.

While many of us try to emulate a computer in our tactical approach to this endeavor, it is the human joys and disappointments, the real thrills and anxieties that make this simulation-based game fun and engaging. Ultimately, the experience we derive from this, as any hobby, comes down to how we feel about it. So, I can understand and defend some smaller decisions being made on a more visceral level. I think the balance in being a fantasy baseball junkie lies in doing what makes you happy when the stakes of a decision are small, but doing what is most sensible when the stakes of a decision are large
Next week, I’ll continue this theme and explore some of the circumstances that surround “sit or start” decisions.

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  1. John K said...

    man, it is like nails on a chalkboard when i hear that a single, arbitrary week of the season determines the champion in fantasy baseball.

    interesting read, thanks for the post.

  2. jim said...

    John, I agree, and when you add to the fact that the final week sometimes is very different than the rest in that players might sit more or a SP for a playoff team may only pitch a few innings, etc., it makes it even more cringe-worthy.

    Our league doesn’t have official playoffs deciding who wins. The official winner is the one with the most points over 26 weeks. We do a side playoff just to keep those out of the money involved, but no one thinks of the playoff winner as anything but ‘the playoff winner’ who gets $50 or so.

  3. neoforce said...

    you said: “If you’re a Mets fan who is unwilling to root for Phillies under any circumstances and therefore abjectly refuse to draft Roy Halladay or Chase Utley on your team then you should not be playing fantasy baseball, period. ” 

    This issue actually kept me out of fantasy baseball for a long time.  I couldn’t root against my team, couldn’t possibly pick players from their competitors, so I didn’t play.

    then someone told me about AL/NL only leagues.  thank goodness!  Now it is only an issue during interleague play and doesn’t impact draft or waiver decisions.

    But I do agree the Mets fan shouldn’t play NL or mixed leagues.

  4. Nick said...

    I agree that anyone who doesn’t draft Phillies because he’s a Mets fan shouldn’t play in a competitive league. But who are you or is anyone to decide that this type of player shouldn’t play? There are plenty of people who play casually (which is more conducive to pure fun). I applaud your desire to put some rationale to making decisions based on the human element, but it’s a pretty slippery slope to pass judgment on the reasons people choose their players as evidence that they shouldn’t be playing. Maybe just people who take fantasy baseball seriously shouldn’t play with people who don’t, that’s all. Fantasy baseball isn’t a fraternity.
    That particular angle to set the boundary for what’s acceptable just bothered me, my apologies if I come across as extremely critical. Again, I love the concept for the piece. If data made our decisions for us, we wouldn’t be human, and who wants to give that up?

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