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January 19, 2015

The Quinton

Middle Infielders, Expectations, and Weaknesses

by Jeff Quinton

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Easily gleaned from the title is that while this is Second Base Week™ for the Baseball Prospectus fantasy squad, this article will pertain to both the keystone and shortstop position (one could argue that it will be even more relevant to the latter).

But enough with the qualifiers; let us get to it. Second basemen and shortstops do not compile as much, let us call them “fantasy stats,” as players at other offensive positions with the exception of catcher. Put differently, middle infielders hit fewer home runs, accumulate less total bases, walk less, score fewer runs, and drive in fewer runs than their counterparts. Sure they might hit for a better average and definitely steal more bases than the corner infielders, but all in all it is a less prolific package than the corner infielders and outfielders provide.

We already knew this though, so why bring it up? This has been brought up because the middle infields projected lower levels of production often fall below our expectations. Furthermore, when we make decisions regarding risk (uncertainty), expectations matter. All of this combined causes us to err strategically in two ways (the first way causing the second way, but we will get into that). Explanations follow.

1. When all our options fall below our expectations
It has been a while since we have discussed his work directly, but our main human, Daniel Kahneman, wrote the actual book on decision making under (when facing) risk. The possibility effect—a part of Kahneman’s and his colleague Amos Taversky’s prospect theory—explains that when options fall below our expectations, we tend to make choices based on upside. We know how this one plays out. Rather than taking the option that is likely to return the most value (when that value is below our expectations), we take the option with the best chance to beat our expectations. In fantasy baseball, we see this at the end of drafts and auctions. This is how we got Brad Miller, Xander Boegarts, Jonathan Villar, and Jurickson Profar with higher average draft positions than Jimmy Rollins, Jhonny Peralta, Neil Walker, and Erick “Electronic Rick” Aybar last year*. My apologies if this sounds familiar, but it warrants repeating for middle infielders, with whom we see this happen a lot. Moreover, it leads to our next strategic error.

2. Avoiding having all our options fall below our expectations
In strategic planning, the worst decision we often make is not what we do when we are in a difficult situation; instead, the worst decision we make is trying to avoid a difficult situation in the first place. Regarding fantasy baseball, middle infielders, and our knowledge of how ugly the end game looks, we will often reach for middle infielders in the middle rounds in order to avoid an untenable decision later in the draft. Obviously, this is putting the cart before the horse. Just because we tend to make sub-optimal decisions when all of our options fall below our expectations does not mean we should be making sub-optimal decisions earlier in our drafts and auctions in order to avoid this situation. Ignoring treating the symptoms instead of the cause (making poor decisions when facing risk); it is almost always best to make sub-optimal decisions later than earlier in our drafts and auctions (in auctions an “early” bad decision can be inaction) because the stakes tend to be smaller later.

So, now that we know the obstacles we face, it is time for solutions. The solutions are as follows: (i) do not reach for players in order to avoid difficult decisions later. Also, (ii) when faced with options below your expectations, take the player that is likely to return the most value.

Anyone would understand if you need a moment to take in this groundbreaking advice. The issue is that typing, saying, and reading these solutions and saying “POSSIBILITY EFFECT” is easy to do, but doing so does not actually help us make better decisions. For that, we need to dig into what is driving our behavior. The driving force for this type of behavior is the emphasis we place on weaknesses. Our obsession with negatives and weaknesses (relative to positives and strengths) is well documented; the psychologists who published “Bad is Stronger Than Good” in the Review of General Psychology in 2001 note, “The self is more motivated to avoid bad self-definitions than to pursue good ones.” The consequence of this is that we often confuse putting together the best team possible and putting together a team with the no weaknesses or the fewest weaknesses. Looking at our behavior through this lens, we can see why we reach for upside in an endgame decision—we do so as a last ditch effort to avoid a weakness even though it will likely produce an even worse weakness. We can also see why we are likely to make decisions to cover up weaknesses earlier in drafts and auctions in orders to avoid having an obvious weakness later. The issue is that Not a Weakness + Not a Weakness can be less productive than Not a Weakness + a Weakness depending on the strength of the non-weaknesses and just how weak the weakness is. We can also clearly see the problem in looking at decisions as non-weaknesses and weaknesses as opposed to value. Solutions to execute the above solutions are in sight and follow.

Solution: Frame your decision through value not through weaknesses (or strengths)
You can bet that this article is going to walk in step with Mike Gianella’s excellent “Stop Looking for Sleepers, Start Looking for Value” article. By stripping out the expectations for a roster spot or draft pick, we enable ourselves to better avoid the possibility effect and improve our chances of taking the best value. Because framing these decisions through value will help us improve our decision quality, we should probably look at how to put ourselves in the best position to be able to frame these decisions through value and that follows.

Solution: Be Cool with Your Weaknesses
This is easily the most liberating (and catchy) solution. By embracing the fact that drafts and auctions are structured in a way that are going to leave each team with strengths and weaknesses, we can hopefully get over our weakness fixation. While our leaguemates will often want to take counter-productive measures to try to avoid having weaknesses, we can go ahead capture all the values they are leaving behind.

Again, the advice and solutions are not groundbreaking, but hopefully by looking at these decisions and processes from another angle will help us avoid mistakes we were previously making.

* It should be noted that given the depth of the league, drafting players based on upside can be beneficial depending on the replacement options and how easily those replacement options can be acquired. That said, in situations where all options fall below our expectations, we tend to place too much emphasis on the upside of the higher upside players, while placing too little emphasis on the upside of lower upside players (think Jurickson Profar versus Jhonny Peralta).

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

Related Content:  Fantasy,  Second Base,  Middle Infielders

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Premium Article Moonshot: Projecting U... (01/16)
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