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March 20, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

Beating the Success Trap

by Jeff Quinton

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As drafts and auctions approach, we are going to be making many decisions. Depending on your metaphysical or philosophical views, these decisions may or may not be important. Removing these views from the equation, these decisions will be important in determining the success of your fantasy baseball team. In general, we make decisions based on the following criteria: (i) what was successful and (ii) what was unsuccessful. We avoid doing the latter, while repeating or trying to repeat the former. Success is good. The goal of our game is to enjoy the most success possible. The problem with success is that it can preclude future success. In the world of fantasy baseball, success does so largely in two ways:

1. Success puts the focus of analysis on results rather than process (assumptions, analysis, strategy, and execution)
Both bad process and good process can lead to good results. Not exactly groundbreaking, but the problem is that it feels so darn good to credit every success to our own brilliance, whether or not our brilliance was the actual cause for success. This is due to the true brilliance of the human mind, which is its ability to rationalize such a complex world. Marshall Goldsmith, author of What Got You Here Won’t Get You There explains better than I could,

“Success brings positive reinforcement, and we easily leap to justify the expectation that past success predicts an ongoing record of brilliance…Such delusional thinking is not all bad. It provides a number of benefits: confidence in the face of risk or danger; and blindness to doubt and the possibility of failure. If we weren’t so selectively perceptive, we might just stay in bed all day…These delusions shift from assets into liabilities only when we need to change in order to move to a new level of performance.”

This guy Marshall gets it. Making decisions based on past successes is easy in fantasy baseball, but not necessarily optimal. Why? Because we play a game of probabilistic outcomes, meaning that even inside straights hit one in every 11.75 times, regardless of whether you had good or bad pot odds. When making decisions this year, we will rely on decisions that “hit” last season, rather than decisions that gave us the best possible odds. More succinctly, we will choose results over process. Using the “because it worked last year” reasoning, we tend to make statements such as “I’m targeting young arms late,” “I’m keeping Adrian Beltre at $33,” and “I’m drafting starters based on BB% and K%.” If this is done based solely on past success, then this is analyzing results. What we should be doing is analyzing assumptions, analysis, strategy, and execution. This means asking questions about what drove these results. Why was I successful drafting young arms? Why was keeping Adrian Beltre at $33 the right decision last year? Do I face the same situation this year? How did drafting starters based on BB% and K% affect my draft? Did I actually execute this strategy?

I know, I know, you all are already doing this. But that is the greatest trick our mind plays; it tells us that it is not taking shortcuts when that is exactly what it is built to do. While we may do our due diligence most of the time, success often causes us to take shortcuts. This is why we tend to end up with teams that all look the same with many of the same players on every team regardless of our competitors or league format. If there is one Kool-Aid we love to drink, it is our own. But enough with the flaws already, how are we going to make sure we do not fall victim to our past successes during our next decision or set of decisions? We can do so through an improved process. Below are a bad and a good process. I recommend the good process.

Pretty slick, right? But how can we actually apply “The Good” process? How should we go about analyzing assumptions, analysis, strategy, and execution? We can do so by asking questions. I try to ask what I did, what the consequences were, and what the alternatives were. More specifically, I ask the questions below:

  • Analyzing assumptions: What assumptions did I make? How did that affect my analysis and strategy? Would different assumptions have lead to different analysis and strategy?
  • Analyzing analysis: What did I analyze? What was my method of analysis? What outside analysis did I use (I try to rely on the analysis of those smarter than me whenever possible)? How subjective was my analysis (was I searching for a result)? What biases impacted my analysis?
  • Analyzing strategy: What was my strategy? Why was it my strategy? Did my strategy give me the best possible odds? What would have been a more optimal strategy?
  • Analyzing execution: Did I execute my strategy? If not, why did I deviate? What challenges did I face in executing my strategy?

One last note on this point: make sure to analyze the relationships between your assumptions, analysis, strategy, and execution. How did the assumptions you made about closer runs impact your ability to execute your strategy? How did your playing time analysis impact your strategy and did that give you the best possible odds? It is tempting to jump right into rankings, valuations, and roster moves when the season ends, but analyzing your process can help you avoid the results-process trap. This will help you stay one step ahead of the competition, which brings us to the last major pitfall of fantasy baseball success.

2. Success causes blindness toward competitive response
The obvious part here is that our leaguemates can, for the most part, see how we were successful in prior years. This means that if our less successful leaguemates copy our past successful decisions, then our competitive advantage has a lifespan of one year. In business school speak, these competitive advantages are not sustainable. You probably will not be successful punting saves two years in a row. That sleeper you found last year will probably not be going at a discount this year. At least for competitiveness sake, I hope not. What is almost as bad as our ingenuity being counterfeited by our leaguemates is the fact that we (humans) tend to ignore these potential competitive responses. Even though we know that a couple of our leaguemates will be punting saves next season because we won last season doing so, we will still be tempted to run back our successful strategy. In order to stay ahead of the copycat cycle, you are going to need to find new or better assumptions, strategy, or methods of analysis. This brings us back to “The Good” process. I know it is not specific, but given that we all have our unique process, how helpful would specificity be? We are right in the middle of draft season, but before you get to your next draft or auction, make sure to get your hands dirty analyzing your process and all the parts that go into it.

Goldsmith, Marshall, and Mark Reiter. What got you here won't get you there: how successful people become even more successful. New York, NY: Hyperion, 2007. Print.

Jeff Quinton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

Related Content:  Fantasy,  Championships,  Success Trap

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The Lineup Card: 11 Sp... (03/19)
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