Entering the FrayApril 15th, 2010 by Derek Carty in General Guidance, Prediction, Theoretical, Uncategorized
The on-going debate between Chris Liss, Eric Kesselman, and Bill Phipps is a terrific one that makes me very happy I was invited to participate in the CardRunners league this year. These are the kind of theoretical discussions that I love to have, and I feel like it’s being framed and discussed much more intelligently here than it often is among baseball bloggers.
Anyway, I thought this would be a good time to jump in, introduce myself, and give you a feeling for who I am and what my thoughts are about fantasy baseball.
I’ll start by saying that I’m far more on the “quant” side than “intuition.” Some may argue that this is out of necessity because I’m just 22 years old (incredibly young in fantasy years – were I instead playing poker I’d probably find myself one of the senior members at some tables) and don’t have the experience of my fantasy counterparts. In fact, I’ve been playing fantasy baseball at the higher levels for just two years, giving the other fantasy guys in this league exponentially more experience than me.
I don’t view this as a disadvantage, though. I view it as an opportunity to distance myself from some of the preconceived notions my fellow fantasy analysts may have, from the groupthink they may unwittingly be involved in, and from the habits they may have slowly and unknowingly developed over the years. It allows me to take a step back and forces me to think rationally, logically, independently, and quantitatively about things because I don’t have that experience to guide me and to fall back on – and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing.
When I won LABR as a rookie last season, I had never participated in an auction before. Not one. All I had to guide me was theory, and I wound up doing pretty well. That’s not to say that I now consider myself a perfectly adept auction drafter (I’m not), and that’s not to say that experience wouldn’t have allowed me to do even better (it would have). I’m still learning the ins and outs of reading the market, and with more experience I may not have had quite so much money left over at the end of Tout Wars this year. Still, I think the fact that I’m so much younger than my fantasy counterparts leaves me with a unique perspective on things.
What I find to be quite interesting is that my views in almost all respects of this debate seem to conflict with those of Chris Liss – the other fantasy guy in this debate and a guy whom I have a great deal of respect for –and, from what I can tell, seem to mesh more with Bill and to an extent Eric (or perhaps just with Eric’s devil’s advocate stance). I think this quote from Chris best exemplifies where we differ:
“It's true I have a vague projection, but who cares if I have Jeter for 22 steals or 25? I know it's just a guess anyway. I put him at 22-ish steals if I bother to think about it which I don't when I'm drafting. The more important thing in many ways is my overall impression of Jeter compared to the shortstop pool, not just in numbers, but in reliability, durability, etc. I'll target him as a nice piece of my overall puzzle. I'll determine how important he is based on league depth, quality of shortstops, etc.”
I’ve heard this line of reasoning from fantasy experts (even those who have a more quantitative reputation) before – Ron Shandler, for example, has adopted this approach in recent years– but I just can’t agree with it. Sure, all projections are a guess, and we can only achieve a certain level of accuracy, but by watering our projections down further, all we’re doing is reducing that accuracy. Even if all you have is a rough idea about a player in your head without a precise projection, you implicitly do have some sort of projection for that player. And whether you have an explicit numerical projection for a player or not, you’re still obligated to pay for that player’s numbers. And at the end of the year, those numbers will have been worth X dollars (whether we know – or care to know – precisely what X is or not).
This game is inherently about numbers and getting as many of those numbers as you can for as little money as you can. Whether we adhere to the notion of “projections” or not, at the end of the year we will still be judged by it (if only implicitly by our league standings). And by ballparking our expectations, we will necessarily be removing some of that accuracy.
Even if I were to concede that projections are “necessarily wrong” as Chris and many others claim (and I will only concede this point for the sake of argument – I actually consider this to be a vast oversimplification) – what is the alternative? Chris has said, “But when your projections are so inaccurate that only 40 percent of the consensus top-15 picks actually live up to their billing, I'm going to trust in my intelligence.” Let me ask you this, though. Based on your intelligence (which I’m in no way questioning), who would your top 15 players be? I’d wager that, assuming most projection systems actually do adhere to this 40% rule, your top 15 players (selected by whatever method you deem acceptable) would do exactly the same. It’s not as if forsaking the use of projections is going to lead you to something more accurate than them.
In pointing out his qualms with projections, Chris also said, “So your model either has no outliers or random outliers. That's the trouble with projections – they're impossible to do right not only because of variance, but because they're either too timid, or too speculative. So I've found it's better to just practice identifying the breakout players, and go the extra buck for them at auction (within reason).”
But why can’t I indentify the breakout players in my projections? What are you doing differently?
“If you could build a model that synthesized those variables better than my brain, I'd be concerned.” How could it not? Chris, what if you took whatever is coming out of your brain and wrote it down – quantified as best you could. Then combine it with whatever truly objective data you find appropriate, and put it all into a model. Why wouldn’t that beat whatever rough estimation your brain (or anyone’s brain, for that matter) comes up with? The ideal projection system, in my mind, will have a foundation in the numerical, and based upon scouting data and context (that is, whatever context can’t be expressed numerically – most of it can be), will be altered where appropriate. I don’t see how a human brain can come up with a more precise and accurate expectation for a player than that. The human brain, as magnificent a thing as it is and as much as it can do, has severe limitations, especially when it comes to taking a confluence of factors into consideration and trying to reconcile all of them. It’s just not built to do that.
The last point I’d like to make relates to Chris’s description of his intuition method.
“Moreover, I don't even bother to do projections in preparation for my auctions. I merely research all the facts about every relevant player (past performance, playing time, team context, age, health, historical context, etc.) and put him in a rough order on a list.”
“I try to know the player pool deeply (from historical performance, to health to team context), use past experiences with pricing in the given format and adjust for market conditions on the fly.”
Why are these – and other similar, context-driven factors – not something that can be incorporated into a quantitative person’s game, and more precisely so? Health, team context, historical performance, ballparks, lineup position, etc. are all things that can (and should) be incorporated into any good projection, even if it takes some intuition to do so. Being vague about your expectations only serves to decrease your eventual accuracy.
Finally, I know it seems as though I’m picking on Chris a lot here, but that’s not the case at all. Chris is a very talented and accomplished fantasy baseball player/analyst, and I have all the respect in the world for him. I enjoy healthy debates, though, and I find it quite interesting that our views differ so greatly here.