Word Lovers and Baseball FansApril 12th, 2010 by Robert Dixon in General Guidance, Theoretical
Hi, my name is Robert Dixon. I am a co-owner in the league. I've been a serious games player and bit of a math geek pretty much all my life. I really enjoy fantasy baseball and am excited to be part of this league.
Back in the early 1990s when I was in college I took up tournament Scrabble. I'd already been in the tournament chess scene for a few years and assumed that Scrabble, like chess, would be filled with a bunch of games loving people looking for an outlet for intellectual competition. I was very wrong.
Scrabble clubs and even tournaments were primarily filled with incredibly smart interesting people who mostly shared a deep love of words. I really liked those people and enjoyed their company, but after just a few short months and with a vocabulary significantly smaller than almost everyone else's I was destroying almost everyone at the Seattle Scrabble Club. Why?
Where they loved words, I loved games. I didn't waste time on definitions or oddball words with almost no utility in the game. I memorized lists of important words to the game (2s, 3s, high frequency 7s and 8s and such) but I also tried to figure out what made a play correct. Even the good players out of the word lovers thought defense was worth way more than it was. They also made serious mistakes valuing the letters left on their rack after a play. There were enough gamers like me in the Scrabble community and computer programs were becoming available to tell people what the real value of plays were that by the time I gave the game up two years later play had already started to improve noticeably.
I think the current state of fantasy baseball is very similar to what Scrabble was back then. The vast majority of participants are hardcore baseball fans and not much of gamers if at all. A lot of these guys know major league and minor league rosters with more detail than I know my extended family. This is not a bad thing. Fantasy baseball is a great hobby for hardcore baseball fan who can simultaneously satisfy a desire to be both a scout and a GM, jobs that there are literally thousands of times more people who want them than can ever have them.
Now, I am part of a different group of people who play fantasy baseball. I am a baseball fan, but not a huge one. What I am is a gamer. Now in my late 30s my early trajectory of playing chess and Scrabble tournaments has just continued and fantasy baseball is among the many games I have enjoyed immensely over the years. And while there are certainly aspects of the game that have some resemblance to being a scout or a GM, they are crude imitations of these roles set up within the framework of a game.
I think there are some aspects of the game where there are widespread mistakes that get reinforced by a level of groupthink similarly to how the word lovers almost all thought defense was an important part of Scrabble.
For starters, saves are incredibly overvalued. Not just closers, but saves themselves. Also, I don't think anybody can eyeball a stat line and tell you within 3% what that is worth. As someone who is facile with numbers and has been using a good model for five years I think my eyeball estimates are close to 10% off and for most people, even those who play a lot of fantasy baseball, that error is probably more like 15 to 25%. If I am right about that, which I will happily defend, we have reached the point where someone operating without that 15+% error has clear edge over someone with slightly better projections.
But what answer can I give to someone who says that projecting players and using a model is not the right approach at all anyway? Well, most likely I have no answer that will satisfy that person. As much as I enjoy the company of word freaks and baseball fans there are areas we are far enough apart in that we are unlikely to ever convince each other. I will attempt to answer that question, but in reality, I am probably only going to be able to write for gamers who enjoy fantasy baseball. But, for what it is worth, here is my attempt.
Taking this auction as our example, there is a set pool of players we are dealing with. There are ten teams, each with 260 auction dollars to use. The value of the entire pool of players must on some (possibly unsolvable) theoretical level sum to 2600. I say it is impossible to speak intelligently about the value of players without first taking that entire pool and using some method to divide the 2600 dollars among the players. I just don't see how it is possible. I understand that having auctioned enough times people can develop an intuition for it, but there is no way that intuition can be the ideal approach. Use all the experience and intuition you want when determining values, but any truly correct strategy has to start with valuing the entire pool and making it add up.
This is where it starts. For those who can agree with these points there is a conversation to be had. For others, I am still happy to play some fantasy baseball with you, go out for drinks when the season is over, and do it all again next year!