Thursday, March 20, 2014

I Have A Special Fantasy Baseball System That Does Not Work

By: Ben Johnson

Mathsdrubal Cabrera

It’s fantasy baseball draft season, which, if you’re lucky, does not mean anything to you. In a perfect world, “it’s fantasy baseball draft season” would mean the same thing to me as somebody telling me “it’s the corporate tax deadline” or “it’s beehive maintenance season.” Those things seem arduous, specific, and self-imposed. 

Over the last couple of years I’ve developed and refined a system for drafting a fantasy baseball team. It is rooted in statistics and projections and objectivity. After a few seasons in the muck, I grew weary of going with my gut and then losing at fantasy baseball. My response to that weariness was not to just walk away from something entirely pointless that was nonetheless causing me irritation. Instead I reinvested a huge amount of time and energy in figuring out how to be better at fantasy baseball. The only potential rewards for generating a successful outcome in fantasy baseball are increased self-satisfaction and a miniscule money-per-time payout. There’s also a process-based reward of increased self-satisfaction at having built a draft valuation system, and the obsessive participation in an activity which also technically increases the amount of “time” I “spend” “with” my friends and family. But that’s it. That’s the full reward. It’s a lot of stuff I could drop the pretense of and do anyway, but have decided arbitrarily to call “fantasy baseball.” I feel like this may be a dangerous and insulting metaphor for my life. I’m fine with it.

The system is I get a bunch of projected numbers for the upcoming season (I use ZiPS), and then I port them over to a big spreadsheet file, separated into tabs by player position. Starting with offense, I isolate the stat categories we keep track of in my fantasy baseball league, and use the RANK function to determine who’s the best at each of those categories at each position. Then I average out the ranks of the relevant categories into a “Positional Rankishness” number. Once I’ve done this with every position, I combine all of the players into one total offense spreadsheet, and re-rank all of the relevant stat categories based on their relation to the entire field of offensive players. I average those ranks, which gives me a “Total Rankishness” number. Then I average Positional Rankishness and Total Rankishness to get Overall Utility Rankishness. Then I… Jesus. Right? I did all of this. I actually physically did all of this. For “fun.”

I am looking forward to this fantasy baseball season. I’m in a league with both of my brothers, and some friends of mine have joined this year, and it should be really great. I’m going to have a great fantasy baseball team. I did this system thing, and it told be some things about who to pick for the team and who to avoid. I think I picked good players. I don’t know. They could all break their legs and then I’d be a guy with a system holding a list of baseball players with broken legs who aren’t playing baseball. I’d be a guy who hates to lose, losing at an arbitrary thing, and probably acting surly and curt and distant about it to people who I love but have nonetheless acted surly and curt and distant towards for basically my entire life.

So after sorting all offensive players by Overall Utility Rankishness, I look at the pitchers. I don’t really know how to account for relievers and the value of saves, but I am in a twelve category head-to-head league, which means I only have to win seven of the twelve categories in any given week in order to win the matchup, so I’m fine with not even looking at saves in my valuations. I might try to fix this in the future, but won my league last year with I think 3 or 4 total saves for the year, so I’m not going to sweat it too hard unless I have to. Pitchers in general and relievers specifically are volatile, and there is at least one top-20 saves leader sitting on the waiver wire as we speak. As it is, I set an eligibility cutoff of 100 projected innings pitched for my ranking system. This is something I did with the limited amount of time I’ve been afforded to wander planet earth and experience life through sensory inputs which feed into a brain complex enough to generate language and retain memories. There is nothing stopping me from exploring the steppes of Mongolia by horseback right now. Instead I have a system for ranking baseball players.

At this point I projected the “starting quality” offensive players by Overall Utility Rankishness. I took the twelve highest at each position, 36 highest at outfield, and then sorted by Total Rankishness to see who the top 12 starting-quality utility/DH players might be. I then had a reasonably objective idea of a pool of draftable offensive players, from which I averaged Positional Rankishness and Total Rankishness, and divided the latter by the former to get a positional-to-total ranking quotient. I then took the Positional Rankishness of the pitchers (multiplied by 120% to account for the lack of saves in positional rankings) and multiplied by the quotient to get a ginned-up Total Rankishness value, then averaged Positional and Total Rankishness to get an Overall Utility Rankishness for pitchers. At this point the pitchers and batters end up on the same spreadsheet with a reasonable facsimile of approximate objective value which I can sort and parse to my heart’s content.

I’m terrified of dying. I’m not getting as much as I can out of my life. I’m not as good of a friend or a son or a brother or a lover as I could be. I’m never going to figure out any of life’s actual mysteries. I’m never going to reach a point of equilibrium where I am okay with everything. And I’m going to die one day knowing that. It’s terrifying. These are the lengths I go to not to have to think about it.

My fantasy baseball ranking system has a few shortcomings. One: it does not account for degree. If, for example, Miguel Cabrera is projected to have a .317 batting average, and the next highest projected batting average is Mike Trout and Ryan Braun at .300, my ranking system does not say “Miguel Cabrera’s batting average is projected to be 5.67% better than anybody else in the entire game of baseball,” it just says Miguel Cabrera 1, Mike Trout, Ryan Braun 2. Then Adrian Beltre is at 4 with a still amazing .297 projected batting average, which is three tenths of a percent worse than Braun and Trout. So this system tends to artificially deflate the value of the batting average (and OPS--my league has OPS) category, and artificially inflate the value of the counting stats like runs, home runs, RBI, and steals. I’m actually fine with this. I tell myself I am fine with this. All of this. I am not. I am not fine with this. Any of it. Nothing, ever, am I fine with.

Another major flaw of my ranking system has to do with its blindness for the way fantasy baseball rosters may be constructed. This is part of its design, but it bears mention. Say you have Miguel Cabrera, projected to bat .317 (1st) with 92 runs (8th), 38 homers (2nd), and 119 RBI (1st). Should it matter at all that he’s only projected to steal 3 bases, ranking him 321st among all offensive players? Can’t you draft Miguel Cabrera and then, later, draft projected steals leader Billy Hamilton, and have the two players average out to roughly two Carlos Gonzalezes, which would be insane? Yeah, maybe you could do that. But I’m picking 7th this year. I’m not getting Miguel Cabrera, and I don’t have the brain power to calculate my roster’s strengths as weaknesses and come up with a player-dependant draft strategy on the fly. My ranking system is based on knowing my limitations. I don’t know everything. I am not perfect. I am not close to perfect. Actually, I don’t know anything. Not one thing. Admitting this always makes me feel better.

I am content to let the ZiPS people come up with projections, and I am content to treat those projections like gospel truth in my ranking system. I don’t know the ZiPS people, personally or even conceptually. I don’t know who they are or how or even why they’re doing what they’ve done, which is to look at available baseball information and try to predict the future. They are not perfect. They do not know everything. They know some things more than I do, though. They look at things like strikeout rates and BABIP, and they have looked at those things enough to know that one thing they see is a somewhat reasonable predictor of another thing that might happen. If that’s good enough for them, it’s damn sure good enough for me. I’m just trying to win money from my friends, here.

Is that all I’m trying to do? Of course not. I’m probably trying to solve something inside of myself. Trying to boost my confidence. Reassert that I am a thinking person who can work out practical solutions to things in the world such as fantasy baseball. It feels good, somehow. To know what I am doing, even though I am messing it up and doing it wrong and know it, and even though I have accomplished nothing, and spent enough hours developing this ranking system, already, to render any possible fantasy baseball winnings a less-than-minimum wage pursuit. This is before the season has even started.

I of course tested my rankings through rigorous mock drafting. I sat looking at a computer or an iPhone screen as the computer sent variations of my ranking system through the ether into the screens of other anonymous people who were also at least curious about what baseball players they might be able to pretend to pick in some arbitrary game among friend and relatives and faceless rivals. Here’s what I’ve learned: players which are average or only slightly below average at many things tend to be undervalued in fantasy baseball drafts. You can stock up on these players and have a deep team which is resistant to injury. Often such a strategy will help you generate extra value in trades, where the small drop off from one of the more splashy names on your roster to one of the workmanlike producers on your bench can yield greater upgrades in pitching or another targeted position. If you draft value-first, it’ll look to other players like you’re reaching with all of your picks, but you end up with a sturdy roster full of guys like Michael Cuddyer and Alfonso Soriano and Eric Hosmer, who are unspectacular but do not cause you to lose.

Really the game of fantasy baseball is about preventing losses. This is why it doesn’t bother me to undervalue batting average or overvalue steals. Those things average out in my system. Players that do only one thing well don’t help you as much as players who do everything sort of okay. There’s more negative space, more total surface area of “here’s where I’m not helping you” with a player who is exceptional at only one thing. Steals are such a thing. Batting average is such a thing. Spiritual interconnectedness is not. This is not a life-related lesson. This is only a fantasy baseball-related thing. There is no allegory at work here, where “preventing losses against predictable and measurable achievements in several categories of success” is also somehow an actual or desirable way to live. Life is too sloppy for that. There is no win/lose binary, and even if there was, nobody is keeping track. We’d maybe like to. That’s maybe why we keep track in real baseball and fantasy baseball. But those are not real life things. Those are the things we do instead of real life things, when real life things are too terrifying or unmanageable or mundane or fruitless or pointless.

I’ve also learned that after the first ten or so best pitchers, who mix in fairly well among the top 50 batters, offensive players are more valuable. Pitchers get hurt. They come and go. They pick up hot streaks. Depending on the rules of any given fantasy baseball league, there are probably some excellent setup-style relievers currently available on the waiver wire to help lower your team’s ERA and WHIP. There are ways to get by with the Ivan Novas of the world which just don’t work on the other side of the plate when you’re stuck with Aaron Hill at second base because you over-drafted Shelby Miller in a previous round. This means nothing, but also the current price of soy beans means nothing, and there are people who know about that and who can tell you about it, and I bet that is a pleasure for them, knowing and telling about soy bean prices. If that’s what they spend their time on, then that’s probably what they like doing. Good old international soy bean markets. Yes sir.

I’ve learned that if I concentrate on something fully, and remove myself from participation in the rest of the world in order to concentrate on that one thing, then the time passes around me more quickly. I can feel myself hurtling towards the end of my time, cocooned gently in an electric spreadsheet full of baseball numbers, and I may be totally wrong to have done this with my time, but I am at least spending my time not being as worried about my own shortcomings and inevitable doom as I might otherwise be if I didn’t have fantasy baseball to try and figure out. Maybe there is a somewhat allegorical lesson I can get from my fantasy baseball ranking system’s emphasis on preventing losses in measurable categories. Maybe the real categories are being horrified, the latent unfairness of all things, and the passage of time. My team’s looking pretty good right now on paper, but that’s why they play the games.