Everybody’s shouting, “Which side are you on?”
Spring Training is right around the corner and soon it will be time to get into the nitty-gritty of preparing for our fantasy baseball drafts and auctions. But before we dive headlong into the new season, now is a great time to take a 30,000 foot view and consider some broad strategic principles. Specifically, what are our overarching goals as we construct our fantasy rosters? There are many ways to answer this question and the conclusions we reach structure how we go about preparing for the season. In this post, I will evaluate the approaches of two of the leading experts in the fantasy baseball industry, Larry Schechter and Ron Shandler, to show how successful players can have very different understandings of what they are trying to achieve when they take their seats in the draft room.
Larry Schechter is perhaps the most successful fantasy baseball player since the game has been invented. He has won more “experts” league titles than anyone else going. He laid out his approach to success in the book Winning Fantasy Baseball: Secret Strategies of a Nine-Time National Champion. If you are serious about becoming a better fantasy baseball player you should read this book. I don’t intend to provide a full review here, but I will flesh out his general approach to the game and how it contrasts with Shandler’s. Schechter succinctly states his general strategy: “Get the most total value possible at your auction or draft.” That’s it, very straightforward, nothing gimmicky. With that grand vision in mind, Schechter executes his strategy by constructing very precise player value projections and purchasing players at auction for a discount (i.e., buying players that sell at prices lower than their projected values). There are lots and lots of details to fill in about how, specifically, to pull this off, but for now let’s just call this the scaffolding of the Value Maximization approach to fantasy baseball.
Ron Shandler has probably done more to promote the game of fantasy baseball and encourage analytical thinking about the game than anyone else. His annual Baseball Forecasters are a treasure trove of information for the fantasy player. The bulk of each Forecaster consists of the player statistical projections section. Much as with Schechter’s approach, the Forecaster provides a detailed projected valuation for each player. However, the Forecaster includes a “Consumer Advisory” which emphasizes that the statistical projections are only general guidelines and that the true value of the book lies in its analytic essays and underlying concepts. In recent years, Shandler has gone one step further and backed away from detailed statistical projections entirely. He has developed a new approach, the Broad Assessment Balance Sheet, detailed in The BABS Project: Uncovering the Truth About Winning at Fantasy Baseball. Rather than attempting to maximize projected statistical output, BABS emphasizes risk management by maximizing assets (e.g., skills such as power, speed; playing time) while minimizing liabilities (e.g. injury risk, lack of big league experience). Rather than assigning players a statistical projection, they are instead given broad scores in different categories of skills and liabilities (extreme impact, significant impact, moderate impact) and then grouped into “asset classes” with players who share similar scores. Players within asset classes are treated as essentially interchangeable. Fantasy players utilizing the BABS approach enter the auction with a balance sheet containing columns for each of the different asset and liability classes and seek to meet acquisition targets for players with impact scores in each of the different asset categories while not exceeding preset limits in each of the liability categories. While there is a great deal of statistics underlying the assignment of players into asset classes, at its core BABS is a sophisticated Qualtiative approach to fantasy baseball.
Now that we have a general understanding of what Schechter’s and Shandler’s strategies are trying to achieve, let’s take a moment to evaluate the fundamentals of each approach. Schechter’s Value Maximization strategy is elegant in its simplicity and comprehensive in its incorporation of all the various factors that impact player performance. What I mean by this is that, in theory at least, all the gimmicky fantasy baseball rules of thumb that you read about on the Internet (target Age 27 players, avoid pitchers who had a big IP jump the previous season, make sure you get power at 1B, etc., etc.) are subsumed by the Value Maximization framework. A player’s statistical projection will take into account factors such as where he is on the aging curve, his injury history, his risk of losing playing time, etc. The projection represents something approximating an over/under line for a player in each of the Rotisserie categories (it’s not exactly the same as an O/U, but we can geek out on those details in a later post). Once you have projections for each player, it is relatively easy to model the player pool and convert statistical output into dollar valuations. With those dollar valuations in hand, your marching orders for the auction are straightforward: buy players who sell at bargain prices. This is, so far as I can tell, the dominant strategy among people who consider themselves fantasy baseball experts. The very wide differences from one fantasy player to the next lie in the details of how they execute this strategy.
However, Shandler, the once king of the statheads now turned heretic, has called this framework corrupt at its core. He argues that the Value Maximization approach relies upon an illusion of predictive precision that does not exist. The early chapters of his BABS book detail the statistical volatility and biases of human judgment that make precise forecasting, in his opinion, a fool’s errand. You should read these chapters to get a full sense of how fallible even the best projection systems are. These are strong challenges to the dominant paradigm and should be taken seriously. However, while the Qualitative approach is intriguing, and may be very useful to a certain type of fantasy player, I’m not sure that it escapes the fundamental problem of fantasy baseball – how to predict future changes in skill, luck, health and performance amongst a group of highly talented human beings in a dynamic, competitive enviroment – any better than the Value Maximization approach. Pardon a little basic statistics jargon here, but when you convert continuous variables (e.g., FIP, K%, etc., variables that have values along a numerical continuum) into categorical variables (e.g., lumping players into skill groups of extreme/significant/moderate) you risk losing a lot of useful information that can help you differentiate one player from another in the name of avoiding false precision. A valuation system that treats, say Madison Bumgarner and Felix Hernandez, as interchangeable assets is, I would claim, a bit too modest in its ambitions of assessing player talent. More troubling, with a system based on categorical variables containing very broad ranges in each category, as BABS is, you also run into the problem of boundary issues. A player whose skills are close to the edge differentiating one category from another is likely to be placed into an “asset class” in which his skills are more different than those of players in the adjacent class. For example, a player in the top 25% of a skill is labeled with the “significant impact” tag, whereas those in the top 50% of a skill are labeled as having “moderate impact.” Now, what about a player in the top 26%? This quite talented, well above average player gets dumped into the same bucket as merely average players, even though his skills may more closely resemble those of many players who just sneaked across the line into the “significant” zone. Also, the determination of “top 25%” is made by a statistical computation that attempts to quantify a player’s underlying skills. These computations are subject to imprecision, just like the statistical projections used in the Value Maximization approach.
What the Qualitative approach has going for it is that it emphasizes balance and management of risk. Especially if you play in a league of gung ho owners who bid every prospect to the stars and pay for Strasburg like he’s a lock for 200 IP or guarantee that this is the year Giancarlo Stanton finally tops 150 games played, then BABS might very successfully guide you to a roster filled with reasonably priced, stable veterans who put up solid numbers and keep you in the running in all 10 categories (everybody plays 5×5 now, right?). I have seen this work before, although it’s been my experience that this is more of a recipe for a 3rd or 4th place team.
For now, I am sticking to the Value Maximization approach. Despite the fact that all projections are subject to error, I will still be entering a projected statline for each player this spring and deriving a projected dollar value based on those expected stats. I like entering an auction with the idea that I can purchase any player at the right price, that I am not limited by overly restrictive prohibitions against buying certain types of players. What if my league’s owners are generally squeamish about bidding up injury prone players? What if my NL-only mates haven’t done their homework on new players entering this year’s pool from the AL, Japan, Cuba or the KBO? What if owners in my keeper league are hesitant to pay the 50+ in auction-inflated dollars it takes to acquire a superstar? Nearly all leagues have their market inefficiencies. The trouble is it’s hard to know in advance what those inefficiencies are going to be. The Value Maximization approach is the best framework for being able to pounce when those inefficiencies reveal themselves in the auction room. Nevertheless, it behooves the fantasy player utilizing this approach to keep Shandler’s critique in mind. While we rely on projected stats and dollar values to guide us in the auction, we shouldn’t be overly dogmatic about it. If it makes strategic sense to bid an extra dollar or two on a particular player, by all means, we should do that. Our dollar value cheat sheets are guides, not restrictive edicts that prevent us from exercising judgment on the fly.
One final note on these grand strategies by two giants of the fantasy game: after reading both Schechter’s and Shandler’s books, I am convinced that what makes each of these guys successful at fantasy baseball is not necessarily their systems as such, but rather the hard work of nuanced player evaluation that is part of each man’s preparation process. Whether you produce a detailed projection or do a qualitative skills and liabilities assessment for each player, if you put in the work of understanding a player’s history, his strengths and weaknesses, and the various soft factors that might impact his performance for good or for ill, then you probably already have a competitive advantage over many of your leaguemates. I may not nail every player projection but in the process of developing my projections I will gain a deeper understanding of each player and where he fits in the larger MLB ecosystem. I may still miss wildly on many players, but I believe the understanding I gain from the process helps me to minimize my errors and make it more likely that I will roster a successful team. Regardless of the approach you choose, if you utilize it to make you a more informed player, then you are already one step ahead.