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September 4, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

A Behavioral Look at Lineup Setting

by Jeff Quinton

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In leagues where we set weekly lineups, we do so every week of the season, but the most important lineups we will set (and certainly the ones we will most agonize over) are our playoff lineups. While the technical aspect of setting a lineup (clicking a mouse, typing, using an app etc.) is pretty much behaviorally neutral, there are many cognitive biases that are quite possibly affecting our sit/start decisions. We will take a look at the potential impact of these biases on our decisions and how we can navigate these biases to improve our decisions.

The Biases

1. Pseudocertainty Effect

Directly related to prospect theory, the pseudocertainty effect explains why we tend to take less risk when we expect a positive outcome and more risk when we expect a negative outcome. Consequently, whether we view ourselves as the favorite or underdog will impact our sit/start decisions. If we view ourselves as the favorite we will tend to start less risky players. If we view ourselves as the underdog we will tend to start riskier players. When choosing between two players whose projected production is equal, acting in accordance with the pseudocertainty effect makes sense. An issue arises, however, when the pseudocertainty effect tempts us to start an inferior player simply because of consistency or upside. Starting an inferior player decreases our team’s expected output and thus decreases our chances of winning. Only in the most extreme cases, where one team is likely to win should they underperform and their opponent overperforms, does decreasing one’s odds in order to alter one’s variability make sense (and this situation is almost unimaginable in a weekly fantasy baseball format).

2. Omission Bias

Omission bias is our tendency to view harmful action to be worse than equally harmful inaction. This makes us more likely to “stick with what got us there,” to “not fix what ain’t broke,” and to “not mess with success.” When we make decisions in this vein, we shift the goal away from trying to win and towards trying to be able to defend our decisions (usually to ourselves). Shifting our goal and focus from starting the team with the best odds of winning to something else could potentially lead to us starting a team that, believe it or not, does not have the best odds of winning.

3. Compromise Effect

The compromise effect impacts our sit/start decisions when we are deciding on more than two options. Rather than choosing the best option, we will often choose the middle option. Please note that by middle I do not mean the second best option. Middle could be in reference to any criteria such as playing time, injury risk, volatility (risk), etc. The middle option could certainly be the best option in many cases, but there is no causal relationship to actual production. Like the omission bias, the compromise effect helps us feel better about the decisions we are making while taking focus away from making the best possible decision.

4. Illusion of Control

The illusion of control is the tendency of humans to believe that they can control events more than they actually can. (Note: this may or may not be a reason for the popularity of fantasy sports). In most fantasy leagues we are starting lineups of at least 17 players, and if you are doing so, then you are at most only making meaningful sit/start decisions on 25 percent of your roster (and that number is probably too high). When you take into account that these players are not your most productive players, then you find that you are deciding on less than 25 percent of your production. On top of that, when you take into account that there is probably not much difference between your alternatives (they might perform much differently on any given week, but this is due to random variation, the nature of small samples, and probabilistic futures, not the actual players or the decision maker), then you really find how little the impact our sit/start decisions carry.

I mention this not to point out the insignificance of the decision, but to point out that our role in the decision is largely overblown. Put differently, as team owners, we are most able to impact our team’s projected production through drafts, trades, and waiver moves not through a sit/start decision. Moreover, thinking that we can make a genius sit/start decision that will be the deciding factor for our team could lead us to making sub-optimal rather than optimal decisions. Given all of these biases and behavioral factors, let us take a look at what we should be considering come the time to enter our lineups.

Recommendations
The goal is to start our best players and by that I mean that we should be starting the players that we project to score the most for the given time frame. (Note: this is not an article about improving projections; rather, this is an article about helping our biases get out of the way of our projections.)

1. Audit your words

Whether you are explaining your decision and logic to your co-worker, co-habitant, or yourself, it will behoove you to take a look at the words you are using and the logic behind them. Lots of times we can catch ourselves being impacted by these biases right there in the statements we make. Examples:

Pseudocertainty effect: “I think Player X is better, but I think I am going to go with Player Y because the only way I think I lose is if Player X goes into one of those slumps and gives me nothing.”

Omission Bias: “I like Player Y’s matchups, but I got to stick with Player X, he’s been a workhorse for me all season.”

Compromise Effect: “Player X is the riskiest and Player Y is super consistent; I think I am going to go Player Z because he gives me a little bit of both.”

Illusion of Control: “I think I am going to go with Player X, if he blows up, I think it guarantees me a win.”

So you get it. The words will probably not be as clear-cut as my examples, but I have heard all of those things said in one form or another. The key is catching yourself making these statements before you act on them.

2. Play the odds

Going back to the examples above, they all have one thing in common—they focus on factors other than playing your most productive players. Put differently, they focus on factors besides giving your team the best odds to win. When dealing with a probabilistic future, all you can do is make your best bet and hope for the best. It won’t always work out and obviously there are no guarantees (it would not be fun if there were), but it is the best course of action available. To conclude, check for biases in your logic, play the odds, and good luck.

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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