This week, I continue with the theme of recognizing and defending the human element’s contribution to the slightly irrational fantasy sports decisions we make. While last week’s subject was an act that is quite subtle, this week I’ll tackle what is probably the most overtly influential factor in a fantasy sports decision that does not pertain to the players or situation at hand.
Here’s a scenario that we’ve all experienced. You’re setting your line-up and deciding whether to activate one of the more marginal pitchers on your roster for a potentially precarious match-up. You hate these decisions; we all do. You try to think about the decision rationally and perform your due intellectual diligence in attempt to make the right statistical play, but you’re still conflicted. In this case, we often look for a reason to tilt us in either direction, and here’s a powerful one – you can watch this game on television. For those of us who have the Extra Innings package, or MLBTV, or are even serial users of game streaming sites, every game is on TV. But many of us still operate largely on the standard cable package system, meaning we get our team’s home games, along with games on MLB Network, ESPN and the weekly Fox game.
For me, I know being able to watch my pitcher (this doesn’t apply as much with hitters because they appear in the game less frequently) is a big driver of temptation to activate him in a questionable match-up. I have the Extra Innings package and often choose to watch the games in which I own pitchers in action. I think this is a perfectly expected and largely defensible impulse. Perhaps this behavior is somewhat connected to the endowment effect in that it is more difficult to “give up” a potentially great performance (many of these borderline start pitchers are streaky, high K/high BB types) when it’s in the fore of your mind and right on your TV than when you are disconnected from it. There’s something of a cash payment versus credit card charge dynamic here, where one transaction is emotional and stark while the other just involves numbers on a screen changing.
I don’t mind letting the proposition of watching the game affect one’s decision and I take this stance for two main reasons. First, quite simply, you can learn a lot by watching. It only helps you understand your players to observe them in action. Watching more baseball is always a good way to refine your instincts about players. Second, this is a healthy way to bond fantasy and real sports.
There seems to be a steady stream of derision of fantasy baseball participants that comes from the crotchety old guard of baseball. The guys who make decisions based on statistics and then fling criticisms at those who make decisions based on much more robust and predictive statistics just love to pile on the fantasy leaguer. But let’s be rational here for a second – most of us love actual baseball. The fantasy junkie and the baseball junkie are is a classic false dichotomy!
For the casual baseball fan eager to learn more, fantasy baseball is a great tool for learning. For the junkie, the desire to play fantasy baseball is a natural (though not inescapable) manifestation of a pursuit of a wider-ranging, more personal, and complete fan experience. At its most pure, fantasy baseball is an additional way to interact with the sport of baseball, and simultaneously a beautiful system unto itself to which the actual players are largely tangential. I think that for purposes of enjoyment and strategy, it’s important to embrace both sides of that coin. So, go ahead and pitch A.J. Burnett against the Phillies, but only if it’s the Sunday night game on ESPN.
While I’m here, let me just briefly expound on a non-reason to pitch A.J. Burnett against the Phillies, whether a televised game or not. Being a fan of the Phillies and an owner of A.J. Burnett and seeing the act of starting Burnett as a means of hedging your personal investment in the game is neither strategically sound nor philosophically sensible.
This is not uncommon behavior though. I know several people who have offered the win-win rationale for starting marginal pitchers against the team they root for. The ill-conceived rationale goes thusly – if the Phills demolish Burnett, I’m happy because my team wins, and if Burnett pitches a gem I get the satisfaction of fantasy success to mitigate my disappointment in my real team. Please indulge me while I debunk this utter mess of a philosophy.
First, let’s just state the obvious. While the good performance of your pitcher and the good (offensive) performance of your team of choice tilt the odds of particular outcomes in the game, a Burnett dud and a Philly loss are not mutually exclusive. The opposing starter can fail to make a quality start only to see his team win anyway. Such a confluence of occurrences isn’t really all that rare at all. In fact, those are the most painful performances your pitcher can deliver. Watching your pitcher fail to complete five innings of even mediocre hurling after having been handed a big lead is unbearable as an owner. You realize your guy doesn’t have it, and you know you’re going to take a hit in some of the categories for it, but you look toward to the salvation of a win and he can’t even do the bare minimum to achieve that. It’s infuriating.
The other, more fundamental, problem with this behavior is that you are trying to hedge bets that exist on two different planes. Now, I’m aware I just made reference to merging fantasy sports and real sports, but the difference is that behavior I just extolled was a healthy merger, this behavior is not.
Activating the player you are going to watch is simply a move that helps you get the most out of your experience of watching the game. An analogy would be somebody who isn’t fond of betting on horses in general and doesn’t bet regularly, but goes to the track once or twice a year just to get out and do something novel and lays down some bets while there to enhance the experience. When you start your pitcher against your team of choice you are doing something entirely different; you are essentially betting against your team to hedge your emotional investment in the game.
We’ve now entered into apples to oranges territory. The fulfillment of winning your fantasy league is a distinct form of emotional and mental gratification from seeing the team you root for capture a championship. You may think that these feelings are related because both are derived from the events and outcome of the same game, but while that may be true, one successful outcome is not a substitute for the other. Trust me; I inadvertently caught six minutes of Dr. Phil in a waiting room on Monday.