At any point in time, players perform well, poorly, and somewhere in between. Their performance fluctuates from at-bat to at-bat, game to game, week to week, month to month, and even year to year. As fantasy baseball participants, we are not really interested in fluctuations and we are certainly not interested in past fluctuations. We are, however, interested in future production. The issue we face is that how we react to such fluctuations, particularly negative fluctuations, can cause us to make sub-optimal decisions. As always, we will take a look at the decision-making obstacle and see if there is anything we can do avoid it.

Two downsides of fluctuations

The first downside of fluctuations is noise. Some have already deduced that “noise,” as used previously (and as used in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness in 2004 and then, most famously, in Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise in 2012), is referring to non-indicative information; as opposed to “signal,” which would refer to indicative information. The downside here is thus obvious. If we confuse signal as noise or vice versa, we are going to make incorrect decisions. Also, in the information age, as pointed out by both Taleb and Silver, it is easy to confuse more information with better information, which is a mistake. This mistake often leads to overconfidence in decision-making, which is the real issue for decision-makers.

The second downside of fluctuations is the toll they can take on us. We have discussed previously how we are more affected by negative outcomes than we are by positive outcomes. In Fooled by Randomness, Taleb writes, “people who look to closely at randomness burn out, their emotions drained by the series of pangs they experience. Regardless of what people claim, a negative pang is not offset by a positive one.” Taleb is talking about investors who follow their investments daily or hourly, but I think this also applies to fantasy baseball participants. My concern is not about burnout, but rather that if we take the negatives harder than we enjoy the positives, we are going to prematurely sell low or drop players. I think I know this because I have done it, seen others do it, and we often get bat signal questions that go “Is it time to drop Player X? He is killing me.” for a player that most would never think of dropping, unless we were living and dying with the player’s production on a day to day basis.

So what to do? Taleb’s solution to this is to not pay attention and read poetry (or something that involves not paying attention). This seems like a fine idea, and maybe it works for him as an investor, but it probably does not work for fantasy baseball participants because paying attention is the fun part. A fake conversation to explain the ridiculousness of playing fantasy baseball, but not watching baseball if that is the part you enjoy:

Person A and Person B are having a discussion at a weekend barbecue.

Person A: So what are you doing with you free time nowadays?

Person B: Oh, not much. I cook, read—although not as much as I would like to, try to eat delicious food, hang out with the cat, hang out with friends , play fantasy baseball, go to the beach in the summer. I started listening to the Design Matters podcast with Debbie Millman and it’s great. So, you know, nothing too crazy.

Person A: Oh, you play fantasy baseball? How are your teams doing?

Person B: They’re doing okay, although I haven’t been paying attention. Someone on the internet said I shouldn’t.

Person A: Isn’t that the fun part though? Or do you just like meeting your buddies for the draft?

Person B: I mean I like seeing my buddies, but I really like watching baseball.

Person A: *confused stare*

Person B: Hmmm. I don’t know. It’s confusing.

All right, that was overkill, but we all get the point. This hits home for me because this is something that I have contemplated a lot. Am I watching too much baseball? Is there such a thing? Does it matter? And this is before getting to the important stuff, like balancing a hobby or a passion with the rest of your life or whether there are other, better ways to achieve the ends that these actions strive for. Given all this, I am going to go through some of my thoughts and contemplations on the matter and hopefully we can find a process that works for each of us. Maybe your process already works. If so, you can read along or not. If not, you can also do the same.

Why we play and why we watch

I originally thought this would be an article about dealing with information overload and negative fluctuations. It still is, but I realized that this conversation would be incomplete without discussing what it is that we want to get out of fantasy baseball. Put differently, our solution to dealing with the downsides of fluctuations should be dependent on the reasons we play fantasy baseball and follow baseball in the manner we do. The reason I mention all of this is that I am not interested in saying that one way is the right way to participate in fantasy baseball, I am only interested in finding ways to improve our decision making within the manner we prefer to enjoy baseball. That said, an optimal process will probably differ for those that only play to win than from those who play to win and to enjoy watching a lot of baseball. More importantly, while the latter’s goals will may conflict with each other, the former’s goal cannot because it is a single goal.

Can we watch from a distance?

This, I think, is the obvious question. Can we watch in passing to avoid the downsides of dealing with negative fluctuations? This is the obvious question because watching from a distance would be the easiest way to remedy fluctuation overload; however, it is easier said than done and not a solution for everyone. Yes, anyone can actively avoid watching baseball or watch less baseball, but if that is the fun part for you (as it is for me), then I am not going to recommend doing so. If you can do so though, by say only watching the team you follow or having more substance in your life, then, wonderful, you are probably in a better position to make fantasy baseball decisions than are your information overloaded counterparts.

I have tried this approach and it does not work for me. Not checking in on Josh Donaldson or Cole Hamels or Carson Smith is just less fun. I have tried to only focus on the best pitching matchup of the night, but I always find myself itching to flip back to see my newest waiver wire addition’s next at-bat or pitch. Consequently, I needed a plan to reconcile my two conflicting goals. I am still far from where I want to be in dealing with negative fluctuation, but I have improved. The hope is that in discussing these improvements that others can too.

Trying to see the forest through the trees

First, experience helps. The more flukes, hot streaks, down years, or any other fluctuation we see, the less likely we are to get overly swayed by the “sea of variability.” Unfortunately, not all of us have experience, but that does not mean we cannot leverage the experience of others. So ask. Ask the Bat Signal or the internet writer or, even better, someone you know that has more experience playing fantasy baseball. The less comforting advice is learning from our mistakes, but here it is important to be able to separate process and result.

Second, playing in multiple leagues helps us to avoid the downsides of fluctuations. The first advantage of playing in multiple leagues is that it quickens the pace at which we accumulate the aforementioned experience. The next advantage is that it allows us spread out our worries. This lessons the amount we worry about anyone decision or player, thus lessening the negative impact of the “negative pangs” as Taleb calls them.

Lastly, watch the games, but do not check the fantasy standings. This is a tactic I have employed this year with some success. It also balances my desire to make better fantasy baseball decisions, watch baseball, and watch “my players.” It is easy to watch your team plummet in WHIP after two bad starts from a particular player early in the season, but if we are not obsessively checking the score, then we are less likely to act on a poor start. I now check my team’s fantasy standings and scores on Fri and Sunday (as opposed to throughout the night), and I certainly feel as if the negative pangs are affecting me less.

Also, please let me know if any of these have or have not worked for you, and if you have any other tricks that work (that you are willing to share).

Thank you for reading

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I've adopted the strategy of standings watching only when I'm doing well, then ignore it when not.
This is kind of beautiful in its simplicity. I dig it.
1. I check the standings all the time, but don't make decisions based on them early in the season. Only if the standings support my analysis of my team's underlying strengths and weaknesses will I take action.

2. I read the BP Annual player write-ups. They provide essential context to add depth to current stats and projections. The write-ups are as, if not more important than then projections.

3. If a player's performing poorly, are their BABIP, HR/FB, LOB numbers due to regress? If they are, I don't worry about weak ERA/BA/Production numbers. If a player's K% and BB% (for hitters and pitchers) is out of whack, then I might worry).

4. I check in on my pre-draft valuations (which consider the results of LABR, CBS, and Tout Wars)--if there's a player I liked beforehand who's struggling, are they a potential target? This year, my team was weak on pitching coming out of the draft, so I went out of my way to acquire guys whose peripherals were strong but whose front-line stats were bad. None were available at extreme discounts, but all were decent values.

Thanks for your on-going work, Jeff. You articulate the processes that go into decision-making very well, and highlight the traps that are out there. It's really helpful.
Thanks! I really like the idea of going back to the preseason valuations.
My name is JimJames, and I'm a Baseball-aholic. Obsessive fantasy baseball watching is a problem - but I've overcome my addiction. The negative pangs is real and not only leads to sub-optimal decisions but a dark cloud follows over head until the next morning. I control my urge with a simple set of parameters, just like drinking: have a couple a few nights a week, go crazy and stay out until 4 am once a week, and have your days to sober up and think about your decisions and life's other responsibilities.

This article is basically perfect.

I'll keep coming back.
Hi JimJames. I'm technically JeffJames or JeffJim. I have been doing parameters this year as well and it has been great. I do a little bit at night during the week, maybe a bigger night when a couple of my pitchers are going, and then pick a an afternoon during the weekend if I've got nothing going on.

Thanks for the kind words and I'm glad you'll be coming back.
It's one reason I like playing in deep leagues, the FA pool is so limited it necessitates patience. Sure I have been frustrated with Carlos Beltran in my 12 team AL only, but when the best FA option is Shane Robinson there is not a whole lot you can do. I can't imagine playing 10 or 12 team mixed when the FA pool is so deep and you have so many viable options on the fringe. Combine that with daily transactions? I'd drive myself crazy.
Don't make any moves in April that aren't dictated by injury.