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February 14, 2012
What Yu Darvish Represents
As this is my inaugural post for Baseball Prospectus, I thought I’d take this opportunity to introduce a guiding philosophy that will inform what I have to say in this new weekly column. At the center of today’s discussions will be one of “my guys,” Yu Darvish, the Japanese import who will be playing his rookie season in a Texas Rangers uniform.
Let me qualify at the very start what I mean by “one of my guys.” Unlike other pundits out there, I don’t intend to make endorsements a primary goal of this column. If you’re looking for someone who will tout players as being on the cusp of success or denigrate players as being primed for disappointment, we have plenty of other bright minds here at BP. No, by one of “my guys,” I merely mean that Darvish, to me, represents a fascinating study, reflective of how we evaluate potential assets in competitive endeavors like fantasy baseball. To me, this is a lot more interesting and is potentially more useful fodder for insight and gamesmanship.
You see, through years of competing in leagues, watching sport competitions, and being part of the punditocracy myself, I’ve come to the conclusion that knowledge itself is a commodity of withering worth or, stated another way, that we live in a post-Moneyball era where there’s no advantage to uncovering hidden value. The reason I believe this to be true is that we now have all sorts of knowledge virtually at our fingertips, and even if there are increasingly brief moments where one person has access to data that others do not share, usually information spreads and we arrive at a rather informed interpretation from the best wisdom of crowds.
I believe that fantasy competitions are beginning to represent what game theorists in the economic realm might call “perfect information” situations, where competitors share roughly the same knowledge in making informed roster decisions (hence the title of this column). This is unlike, say, poker, a game of imperfect information where competitors must make bets merely on the odds and their suspicions of the hidden cards that others are holding.
This is not to say that all competitors are equal, and the reasons why they’re not will be a running theme for this column. This brings me back to Darvish and what he represents for those engaged in fantasy baseball competition.
By now, if you’ve paid even the slightest bit of attention to what the crowds have to say about Darvish, you’ll understand that he’s a little bit of an odd duck in the 2012 player pond.
In many ways, he’s dissimilar from other players out there, whose seasons to come can be projected with some measure of confidence. We’ve seen what these other players have done in past seasons. We understand the peripheral statistical trends or, at very least, that the information has been imparted to us reasonably enough. We might not be able to pinpoint exactly how these other players will perform, but we can take comfort in having a range of prospective performance that’s narrow enough to translate into a near-consensus estimation of what they are worth at the draft table.
But that’s not Darvish, who represents a different type of player.
Darvish’s proponents look at the elite numbers that he put up in the Nippon Professional Baseball League and make the case that these numbers translate to immense upside. One analyst takes the performance, filters it through a projection system, adjusts to the major leagues, and boom, the top three comparables are Pedro Martinez, Justin Verlander, and Randy Johnson. Another analyst takes a slightly more visual approach by plotting FIP-minus on a graph and, voila, it’s possible to title the graph, “Darvish in a Class of Maybe Two,” alluding to the fact that Darvish has got Roy Halladay beat in a certain metric and that his overall past performance certainly suggests a top 15 or 20 pitcher.
His detractors, meanwhile, look at other Japanese imports who have come to American shores with quite a bit of hype and make the case that this latest Japanese pitcher carries a great deal of risk. They raise bogeymen like Hideki Irabu and Daisuke Matsuzaka to tar Darvish, and like one analyst recently asked, “How many starting Japanese starting pitchers have been incredible starters in the major leagues?”
One camp might be putting too much stock in major league equivalencies and underestimating the difficulties of pitching in the Texas environment. The other camp might be expressing a bit of cultural bias, a reliance on small sample sizes, and maybe some amnesia (Dice-K’s first season wasn’t so bad, was it?). Who knows who will wind up being the right? The point, in fact, is not to figure out who is right—both sides present reasonable cases—but rather to figure out what to do with inconclusive evidence that suggests high variability in the projection range.
This is the start of answering the question of what skills matter in a “perfect information” setting of competition in this day and age. You’ll see that the word “perfect” doesn’t refer to the data itself, which can always be improved upon, but rather the availability of information to inform a decision point. Yu Darvish is, in short, perfectly imperfect. As such, smart fantasy competitors across the nation will have to figure out how to price such a volatile asset and, in doing so, account for his immeasurable upside (bourn not merely through the possibility he can be a Cy Young candidate but also through the hype that will inevitably accompany any immediate success this season), all while aiming to build a portfolio of assets that doesn’t sink from an anchor of too much risk.
In sum, our access to information is nearly equal these days. But how we exploit it, in context-dependent situations, is what really separates the winners from the losers.
Jaa mata ne.