By Eriq Gardner //
What do you like most about fantasy baseball — being able to test your knowledge of players against other competitors or having the power to act like a general manager with various choices to make in the pursuit of a league championship?
Recently, Baseball HQ founder Ron Shandler proposed moving the fantasy sports market more to “draft-and-hold” leagues — formats where competitors draft their teams and then sit back without the power (or worry) of making roster transactions during the course of a season. Shandler advocates these leagues because he seems to think fantasy baseball leagues are a test of knowledge and that in-season moves represent a poor test at that. I disagree with these points. You can hear more about our recent back-and-forth about the wisdom of moving the fantasy sports world to “draft-and-hold” leagues on the two most recent editions of Baseball HQ’s fantasy podcast.
Beyond the discussion of which formats serve competitors best, however, there are much bigger questions that underpin the discussion: Where’s fantasy baseball heading? What’s the real value of being able to forecast the future? And what competitive skills will define success in future fantasy leagues?
I’ll admit that I have a somewhat radical view of fantasy sports world and more generally, competitive pursuits at large. In an age where good, cheap information is proliferating and tools for data analysis are continually getting better, I believe that doing things like buying real estate, leading businesses, and yes, drafting fantasy baseball rosters will never be the same.
Let me quickly explain:
Ever since Michael Lewis first published his influential book, “Moneyball,” there’s been a widespread realization that statistical research can aide better decision-making. In the decade since the book came out, professional and amateur pundits are spreading sabermetric wisdom in mainstream sports publications, on blogs, on Facebook and Twitter. And the knowledge continues to get ever closer to the point-of-decision-making: It doesn’t take very long with Google to stumble upon a pitcher’s xFIP. People draft alongside ADP guides; And when people look at roster moves and potential trades, player pages now include both analysis and projections.
Not only is the information spreading, but the analytical tools are advancing, too. If you’re reading this post, you’re likely familiar with Bloomberg’s Front Office, a web-based application that crunches data and advises its users on their decision-making.
In short, we’re getting ever more closer to a situation of play that economic game theorists call “perfect information,” where everyone has near equal access to the best foresight out there about player performance. If I told you that Rangers pitcher Matt Harrison is getting lucky, is this really a secret that you wouldn’t have assimilated already or discovered soon by a cursory web search? And if you try to trade Matt Harrison to another member in your league, won’t your competitor also have an inkling — or the potential to easily find out– he’s due for some regression?
If knowledge itself is increasingly less advantageous in competition, what is?
I’d argue there are things beyond having insights about players or foresight about what’s likely to happen that matter in fantasy leagues.
For one thing, how to best use that information. Thankfully, all leagues out there are not alike: The standings are different from one league to the next. No fantasy roster is the same. Every competitor has different needs. And every competitor has their own personality quirks. Being able to look at the standings and calculate how to improve based on the best information out there and how to make the appropriate adjustments on shifting circumstances and how to do so by negotiating with one’s competitors — these are things often quite missed by pundits who mostly share generally applicable information instead of context-dependent know-how on ways to exploit the information to full advantage.
Perhaps computer algorithms will eventually conquer this terrain too, but for now, knowing that a pitcher has been lucky or unlucky doesn’t define success in the same sort of way that knowing the market value of a house doesn’t exactly tell us the price paid on that house by its specific buyer. Each situation is different. Figuring out how to adjust oneself and thrive in a world without secrets is the core challenge and should remain what counts.