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June 26, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

Weaknesses, Decision Framing, and Trades

by Jeff Quinton

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Narrow or incorrect decision framing will lead to bad decisions. This is nothing new. I even did a primer, an overview one could say, on decision framing (here). In short, by taking too narrow a view of a particular decision, we may miss out on less obvious, more optimal options. Today, we will be bringing this conversation on decision framing down to a more specific level; that level being how we go about trading to improve our team. For this article, I will keep the conversation to redraft leagues; however, the concepts can certainly be applied to any league.

When looking to improve our team, the first thing we tend to do is look to improve our biggest weaknesses. Brief example: if our pitchers are terrible and our hitters are good, then we look to trade hitting for pitching. The “fix your weaknesses” strategy is not exclusive to fantasy baseball either. In business we use resources to grow in markets where we are underrepresented, we perform the most analysis on how to improve our weakest brands, and we take the most time to make decision about our least profitable products. In baseball, we ask if a prolific minor leaguer would be able to handle a position switch in order to replace our least prolific major leaguer, we ask if we are better off finding a platoon partner for a hitter who is really struggling against lefties, etc. Our obsession with weaknesses seems innate.

One could argue that it is the organismic norm created by a hardwiring to survive in order to have our genetics passed on. One could argue that it is a creation of a society and an education system that incentivizes being good enough rather than exceptional. One could argue that the fact that “the self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones,” makes us focus on improving or protecting against our weaknesses. Whatever it is, when we are sitting at a strategic planning meeting or staring at our fantasy baseball rosters, we tend to go right to the weakness. That is the narrow decision frame we need to be wary of this time of year. By focusing solely on how to improve our weaknesses, we will miss opportunities to improve elsewhere. Moreover, we may be able to improve our team more by improving our perceived strengths rather than by improving our weaknesses. To get even more tangible, let us take a look at how narrowly framing our strategic decisions through our weaknesses can negatively impact us in both head-to-head points leagues and rotisserie leagues.

Head-to-Head Points Leagues
One of the more common Bat Signal questions we get goes a little something like this: “[number of teams] team league, head to head, points league. I am [near the top] in [hitting] and [near the bottom] in [pitching]. My [outfield] consists of [four great outfielders]. I have a standing offer of [one of my outfielders] for [another team’s pitcher]. My [pitching staff] consists of…”

You get the gist of the trade. Trading an outfielder for a pitcher might be the best way to improve your team, but it might not be. In a head-to-head points league (and this goes for any fantasy sport), the value of a trade should always be measured in the new level of output for your team. In other words, in a points league, it does not matter how you get points, it matters how many points you get. While pitching seems like the obvious place for your team to improve because your current pitching output is low, there is still a chance that someone is willing to trade a redundant third baseman that would be a bigger net upgrade to you than a better pitcher would be. In other words, we should always be asking, “by how many points does this trade improve my team?” We should always be asking, “What is the net gain of this trade?”

To answer these questions, we need to sum how much production we are losing based on what we are giving up plus how much production we are gaining based on what we are getting back. Crude example: If our hitter always gets 20 points and our pitcher always gets five points, then trading those players for a hitter that always gets 10 points and a pitcher that always gets 16 points improves our team by one point a week. The goal is thus to make the trade the trade that will improve your team by the most points per week (or per week in the playoffs if you already locked up a spot). While this seems obvious, the fact that we can become so focused on our weaknesses, that we can become somewhat blinded by a narrow frame, means that this is a mistake that we too often make.

Rotisserie Leagues
There are three particularly bad ways to narrowly frame strategic decisions through weaknesses in rotisserie leagues. They are below:

1. Looking to improve in your worst categories rather than looking to improve in categories where you can make the biggest gains.

Example: you are last in saves and fourth in strikeouts. Adding a closer will only get you from 12th to 11th place in saves. Adding a starter that a team just made available will probably get you from fourth to first place in strikeouts. Here it becomes apparent that we should be adding strikeouts even though we are worse off in saves.

2. Looking to replace your worst players with better players rather than looking to add players that will allow you to make the biggest gains or help you to best maintain your current positions.

Example: Your worst hitter is an outfielder that is pretty much useless in every way except for the occasional home run and some runs batted in here and there. The category with the fiercest competition is runs batted in. Also, you are pretty much locked in at second in stolen bases and batting average. In this case, while Craig Gentry is an overall a better player than your current outfielder, trading for him is not going to move the needle for you in any category. Thus, you may have to make improvements elsewhere, where improvements will improve your standings.

3. Looking at areas where you could gain points, while ignoring ways that you could lose points.

This is particularly true when we are chasing down a first-place team. We do our analysis of the potential ways we can catch the first place team (find our weaknesses) and make the corresponding moves, only to come up just short because we gave away too much ground in other categories. This brings us back to the net gains from the points league discussion. If we are gaining in a category just to fall in another, we are mistaking activity for achievement. John Wooden would not be happy. More importantly, we are letting our frame obscure our decision.

It should be noted that our frame is conversely impacted by weaknesses when we are attempting to maintain a lead. In this situation, we tend to over-focus on areas we could lose points (still weaknesses, just in a different sense), while not paying attention to areas we could gain points.

In all these cases, we are going to have to look for improvement outside of our greatest weaknesses. Every league is different in regards to how talent is distributed across teams by both position and, in rotisseries leagues, by category. As a result, supply and demand for certain positions and categories are going to vary for every league. Paying attention to what is cheaply acquirable is often more important that knowing how to improve on your greatest weakness. Ultimately, for every strategic decision, make sure to ask yourself, “Is this the best option for improving my team’s chances of winning?” To do so, you need to make sure that you are not mistaking weaknesses for opportunities.

Sources:
Baumeister, Roy F., Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer, and Kathleen D. Vohs. “Bad Is Stronger Than Good.” Review of General Psychology. 5.4 (2001): 323-370. Print.

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

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