While this winter was mild in most areas of the country, the opening of spring training in Florida and Arizona was as welcome as usual. As has been the case for much of the last century, fans head to the warmer climates and watch some of their favorite players and teams prepare for the upcoming season.
For people who like numbers, baseball has always provided a plethora of them. While once baseball enthusiasts watched spring games while reading The Sporting News to catch up on statistics and their favorite beat writers, the choices have expanded exponentially. Whether you use a laptop, tablet, or phone, it is easy to follow players and teams.
Numbers lovers have had increasing options in testing their skills over the last fifteen years. Bettors residing in Nevada or outside the United States can bet on games in a sportsbook or on a betting exchange. Players who prefer season long tests can play traditional fantasy against friends or strangers. Those who prefer shorter contests and quick decisions can participate in Daily Fantasy Sports.
It is the latter two options that have attracted the greatest number of participants in recent years. In following, we review two recent books covering fantasy play and look back at an electronic offering from a few years back that addresses behavioral aspects of fantasy sports.
The BABS Project – Ron Shandler
In this short book, Ron Shandler, familiar as the founder of BaseballHQ.com and for the annual Baseball Forecaster publication that bears his name, proposes a balance sheet approach to rating players. The methodology is intended to give some depth and risk awareness to the process.
He begins by citing multiple instances of research showing how imprecise at prediction the carefully calculated dollar values are. He gives examples revealing the poor percentages at which premier dollar valued players repeat that performance. His statistics on Average Draft Position show it also comes up wanting. No matter the reference book or website you use, you can see this for yourself by going back and examining the highest rated players from year to year.
Like a financial balance sheet, there are assets and liabilities. He covers various risk factors from injury to inexperience and players moving out of their prime. For batters, factors related to playing time, power, speed, injury risk, expected performance regression, and volatility due to inexperience or skill decline are included. Pitcher specific factors include power categories like strikeouts and situational ones like saves.
Shandler’s point is the exact numbers create a false precision that is not validated by their subsequent results when used for prediction. Given this, he suggests rating players in broader ranges and taking advantage of the fact that many players have similar skill profiles at diverging prices. He outlines spreadsheets for tracking value, assets, and liabilities.
The book is available as an Amazon Kindle book for $5.00 and as a PDF on his website (ronshandler.com). There is also a detailed description of the book’s concepts as well as the table of contents at the site.
Dueling with Kings
Spurred on by boredom with his day job covering baseball for the Wall Street Journal, Daniel Barbarisi began dabbling in the world of Daily Fantasy Sports. The eventual result was this book. It is in equal parts a memoir of his attempt to succeed and an analysis of the participants, history, and challenges of the DFS industry.
The author’s initial thought was that his job-related baseball knowledge would give him an edge. He quickly is disavowed of this as he faces players with deep bankrolls who can create thousands of contest entries each day. They can also identify and seek out inexperienced or weaker players. He contrasts the game to poker where lower stakes games will often attract players of similar skill. Here the best players can scale up and down the prize pool to find situations that offer the best risk/reward profile.
In response, he develops a plan to seek out the sharks, learn from them, and gain enough knowledge to be consistently profitable at the game. He uses his journalistic skills to advantage, locating and interviewing very successful participants. The stated goal is to reproduce the $70,000 salary he earns writing for the Wall Street Journal.
Like the financial markets as well as other speculative pursuits, there is an industry within the industry. Some of the best and most well-known players offer their expertise in seminars as well as to media outlets. It is here he makes his first networking forays. Eventually, he will find a mentor and the journey will take him north of the border and to a sport with which he has little familiarity.
A running theme throughout the book is the massive advantages technological skill has brought the best players. Advances have been in the news lately with the success of Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning concepts in heads-up no-limit Texas hold ‘em and Go. While the strategies employed by most of the professionals in Barbarisi’s book are more mainstream, they highlight the advantages technology brings. Programs written by the players he cites allow them to optimize lineups and quickly enter contests. Some of the more well-heeled professionals in the text incorporate proprietary databases used by the sports franchises into their approach. Many have adapted the odds and betting information available from sports betting to help them get an edge.
That technologically literate people are attracted to the game is not a surprise. At its heart, DFS is an optimization puzzle. Whether it is the efficiency of salary structure or the correlation of lineups stacked with players from the same team; there are always new factors and ideas to explore.
An issue Barbarisi spends a lot of time on is the ability of stronger players to dominate tournaments with large numbers of entries, locate poor players, and programmatically gain what he sees as an unfair advantage. The exploitation of weaker players is the theme that when written about by multiple journalists causes an outcry. The ability to aggregate the results of other players and then seek out the weakest contestants is at the heart of the changes Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey urged the major DFS Companies to enact. This turmoil occurs during the period when many states were considering the legality of DFS.
The companies respond by instituting entry limits, beefing up compliance, and attempting to address technological advantages some players have. Still, as the author points out the latter is an issue that presents problems. DFS is not alone and in both the financial and gambling worlds there will always be a technological arms race to gain whatever edge is possible.
In addition to his own story, Barbarisi tracks the industry from its advertising peak through state court challenges. He has entered the game at a turbulent time, and manages to talk to industry leaders, players, gambling addiction experts, as well as political insiders. Mixed into the narrative is the story of how the two major companies, DraftKings and FanDuel, came into being and eventually sought to merge.
For those playing DFS or interested in doing so, the book is an overview that is both historical as well as a first-person account of one journalist’s attempt to turn professional.
Cognitive Bias in Fantasy Sports: Is Your Brain Sabotaging Your Team? – Renee Miller
This book is several years old but is interesting in its parallels to behavioral finance theory. I mention it here because Barbarisi refers to it when he discusses meeting the author as part of his DFS networking attempts. Miller’s work has appeared on many media outlets including ESPN both in print and on podcasts. She covers many familiar concepts from the behavioral finance world including Confirmation and Recency Biases, the Endowment Effect, as well as cognitive errors related to Omission and Outcome. It is a very quick read and a concise introduction to behavioral traps that can affect fantasy players. Though the examples she uses come from football, the ideas are applicable to all sports.
The book was available recently as an Amazon Kindle book for $3.03 and a Barnes and Noble Nook Book for $3.99.
On The Horizon
ESPN analyst Keith Law examines the relative value of different statistics in Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball. Published by William Morrow, it is scheduled for release in late April in hardcover, electronic, and audio formats.
With baseball season getting underway we reviewed a new book by a former Wall Street Journal writer attempting to succeed as a DFS player during a tumultuous time for the industry. We also looked at Ron Shandler’s new electronic book, which seeks to add risk to the focus in the rating of fantasy baseball players.