Abandon Your Strategy
Hi all. I write about strategy, decision making, and human behavior as they relate to fantasy baseball and not-fantasy baseball over at Baseball Prospectus. Here at TDG I have written an article about these topics as they relate to fantasy football. If you have read my fantasy baseball articles, then you will recognize the concepts discussed in this article. My hope is that the ideas discussed are properly related to the concepts of fantasy football.
After a long offseason, after a lot of draft and auction preparation, after a lot of strategizing, drafts and auctions are finally upon us. We are in a wonderful day and age for fantasy football participants in which more amazing player analysis and (stemming from that player analysis) amazing strategy analysis is readily available than there was ever before thanks to our old friend the internet. Tons of information and analysis can be accessed with only a wi-fi connection and a little bit of effort on the participant’s behalf. The result of this? The 2016 fantasy football participant population (at least those competing in “competitive” leagues) will likely be the most informed and prepared fantasy football participant population ever.
The issue—at least an issue for those trying to win—is that preparedness or consuming the best analysis or having the most cutting edge strategy is likely only going to be enough to keep up with our competition as opposed to differentiate us. Why? Because if everyone is more informed, if everyone is improving, then no one is better off. In other words, improving is a means of survival rather than a means to thrive. So how then do we thrive? How can we hope to improve in ways beyond our competition? To do so, we need to improve in areas outside of rankings and analysis.
At any fantasy sport’s core is decision making. At any point, we are only as good our decisions. Luckily for us, decision making is more than rankings and analysis, it also involves process. What is process? In this case it is the part of decision making that includes the steps we take when making a decision, the information we choose to use, the way we adjust (or do not adjust) for biases, the way we decide upon strategy, and many other pieces (outside of the actual analysis) that lead us to the decisions we make.
Ok, so that’s great, but how are we actually going to differentiate ourselves through process on draft (or auction) day this year? We are going to do so through strategic agility.
Strategic agility, for the purposes of fantasy sports, is the ability to change course in order to still meet our end goals. You can probably already see where this is going regarding fantasy football. Let’s say you play in a PPR league where running backs have long been overrated and, consequently, you plan to wait on running backs, building a team around elite wideouts and an elite tight end. This is all good stuff—analyzing past trends, targeting undervalued players. The problem, though, is that we are rarely as smart as we think we are (most people think they are above average drivers, most people think they are of above average intelligence). This is a problem because we are placing value on the originality of an idea that is probably not original. Put differently, if we think a certain strategy will work, it is very likely that our leaguemates will be trying the same strategy, which would make our strategy less prolific.
The thing about fantasy sports that we often ignore is that fantasy sports are designed to create parity. If you pick first in one round, you will then pick last in the next round. If you spend a lot of money to get the best player, you now have less money to spend on other players. This is all to say that our decisions are always affected by the decisions of others because this is how the game is designed. Which is all to say that if we plan on waiting on a running back until the sixth round, and if our leaguemates also plan to do so, then we should happily abandon our strategy when the best running back in the draft falls to us with the ninth overall pick.
This sounds like a no brainer, but how many times have we seen someone reach for a running back in the third round because they didn’t want to go into the fourth round without one? How many times have we seen teams reach for (and by “reach,” I mean “select in place of superior options”) a tight end in the fourth round because we want “one of the top tier tight ends”? The answer, at least from my experience, is that this happens a lot.
Making suboptimal decisions in order to stick to a strategy happens in fantasy because for two reasons. The first reason is that it allows us to reduce uncertainty and we (people) hate and fear uncertainty. There is nothing we are more afraid of than being stuck with a bottom tier player as a starter as we head into the season. Consequently, we reach in order to lock in starters, often passing up superior flex options. This logic, while comforting, is foolhardy. Players get hurt, players play poorly, helpful players always emerge from the waiver wire and/or free agency pool; consequently, our worry about our starting lineup looking like world beaters is not helpful because our lineups throughout the season are will be dynamic. Instead, we should be taking the superior players being left to us by our leaguemates who are worried about reducing uncertainty.
Does choosing the best player left for us in the early rounds mean that we might end up with Matt Stafford instead of Kirk Cousins or Ryan Matthews instead of Jonathan Stewart in later rounds? Absolutely, but (i) the farther down the draft sheet we get the worse we get at predicting production anyway (in other words, it’s nearly a coin flip as to which of these players being compared actually performs better) and (ii) it is completely worth the value we are getting in the early rounds.
But even knowing all this, many of us will still stick our pre-draft strategies. Many of us will do so because sticking with a strategy makes our decisions defensible should an uncertain future unfold unfavorably. You’ve heard a friend say it when explaining her or his terrible team and you’ve probably said it to yourself when rationalizing a poor outcome, something like “well this worked for me last year” or “Internet Writer X said that this is the way to go if drafting in the middle of the pack.”
This, of course, is ridiculous (albeit, incredibly normal for human beings) because we as fantasy football participants should not be interested in making decisions that will be defensible; rather, we should only be interested in making decisions that give us the best odds of winning. So, when it comes time to bid a dollar on a player you were not targeting or time to take a player that fell to you, even though it was not a position you envisioned taking that round, take what your opponents’ have left for you because it is what their fears about uncertainty and need for defensibility have left for you, and that is usually something that is pretty good. All we have to do to take advantage of this is be willing to abandon our strategy, so let us endeavor to do so.