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Chance Favors the Prepared Mind


A Skillful Look at the Gambler's Fallacy PDF Print E-mail
Chance Favors the Prepared Mind
Written by Todd Zola   
Tuesday, 10 May 2011 00:00

Perhaps the most asked question at this point of the season is exactly how long should one wait for a player to perform as expected?  How long should one wait before cutting bait?  Conversely, how long does a player have to exhibit a better than expected performance before it can be considered real?  While this discussion is not going to broach this exact subject, it is going to be in the neighborhood.  But for those interested in reading a rather involved study on the topic, I invite you to check out THIS PIECE, originally published by Pizza Cutter in 2007, recently posted again at www.fangraphs.com.  In it, the author determined the number of plate appearances necessary for a bevy of metrics to stabilize, that is be considered real, for better or worse.

What I want to talk about today is related and is more along the lines of what is commonly referred to as The Gambler’s Fallacy.  In layman’s terms, say you flip a coin twice and both times it comes up heads.  You are then asked to predict what will happen if you flip it two more times.  If you suggest it will land on tails both times, balancing the heads and tails for the four flips, that is an example of Gambler’s Fallacy.  In terms of chance, what is done is done and has no bearing on the chance going forward, so the proper response is to expect one head and one tails.  This is not to say it will definitely happen, but the probability of it happening is the greatest of all the possibilities.  In short, luck does not even out.

What does this have to do with fantasy baseball?  I feel more comfortable proposing the following as a hypothesis as opposed to a fact, as I have not yet “done the math” to prove it.  My contention is that when it comes to player performance, over the course of the long season, a player’s skill will find its proper level, but while a luck-based stat should regress, the luck, good or bad, will not flip.

Let us first look at a practical example to make sure everyone is on the same page with this hypothesis.  Without going into the details just yet, if you play the game at an intermediate to advanced level, you are aware that some aspect of a player’s batting average is luck driven along with a function of his skill.  Say we have a player expected to hit .300 that is off to a slow start, perhaps hitting .240.  If asked what the player will hit the rest of the season, there are two usual responses.  The first is he will end the season hitting .300, so he will ht whatever it takes to raise his average to that level, something in the neighborhood of .315-.320.  The second is what’s done is done, he is a .300 hitter, thus he will hit .300 the rest of the way.

Applying my hypothesis, here is how I approach the question.  There is a luck element and a skill element resulting in the .240 average.  The player’s skill is likely lower than normal plus he has incurred some misfortune.  With respect to luck, what is done is done.  I do not expect him to enjoy the necessary level of good luck to compensate the bad luck.  The level of luck going forward should be expected to be neutral.  But, assuming the player’s skills have not unexpectedly declined, I anticipate a stretch where his skills are above normal, so at the end of the day, his skill level is as expected. This does not mean he will end the season at .300, but he will approach it.  Of course, there is a chance his luck does flip and he indeed hits .300, just as there is a chance he remains unlucky, and even though his skills return, his average remains a good bit below .300, yet does increase above .240.

At this point, you may have some questions for me so please allow me to anticipate a couple.  If there is something else you would like me to address, please feel free to comment below of on the message forum and I will do my best to offer a reply.

I bet some of you are wondering what metrics I consider to be skills based, and which oriented in luck.  Long time followers of my work know I am a big fan of looking at strikeouts and walks, for both hitters and pitchers.

For hitters, I rank contact rate on top of the list of skills followed closely by walk rate.  I also consider line drive percent to be a player’s skill which impacts his batting average as well as his HR/FB ratio, which impacts his power.  It should be noted that HR/FB also involves some luck.  I have done some preliminary research that suggests some players may be above league average with respect to base hits on ground balls and others with base hits on fly balls, which raises their BABIP, hence batting average in general and can be considered to be a skill.  That said, until I can dig deeper into this, I will rely on strikeouts, walks, line drives and percentage of fly balls leaving the yard to judge a batter’s skill.  The luck element is primarily his BABIP and as just suggested, some aspect of HR/FB.   If you want to go beyond just homers and batting average, there is luck involved with regards to the timing of the hits, which may result in a high or low number of runs scored and RBI, not to mention stolen base opportunity.

For pitcher’s skills, strikeout rate rules, trailed by walk rate.  Then comes home run rate with the same caveat as above.  Some part of homers allowed is good or bad pitching, some is good or bad luck.  The same can be said for BABIP, but to a lesser degree.  How much a pitcher controls his BABIP is a hot topic, one which I lean to more than most believe, though still not much.   I have long theorized that each pitcher is actually two pitchers – stretch guy and wind-up guy and part of a hurler’s skill set is the level of effectiveness lost when working from the stretch.  My working hypothesis is the better pitchers lose little with runners on base.  I am getting off on a tangent here, but this may help explain why some pitchers always seem to out-perform their peripherals while others under-perform them.  Those pitching better than their peripherals pitch more effectively from the stretch and vice versa.   As you might imagine, the luck elements are just like hitters – BABIP, HR/FB and timing of hits which leads to a high or low LOB%.  LOB% is the generic metric that many of you may know as strand rate.   Strand rate is the specific term coined by Ron Shandler at Baseball HQ and has worked its way into mainstream analysis.  The concept is the percentage of allowed runners crossing the plate for pitchers is a matter of timing and not as much skill.  That is, when hits allowed are random so if a pitcher allows a cluster of hits with runners in scoring position, his LOB% will be low, due to bad luck.  To be fair, pitchers that fan a lot of hitters can have a better than average LOB% as it is really hard to score a run via a strikeout.  Plus, pitchers that limit walks can have a better than normal LOB% as they advance fewer runners to the next base after a walk.

Another question you may have is what makes me think skills will even out over the course of a season?  This is the part I need to research, but my supposition is there are some pitchers, or types of pitchers that give some hitters fits and others that are easier for the batter to pick up.   Say a hitter struggles against lefties and is facing a string of tough southpaws.  Chances are, he will fan a few more times than normal.  But eventually, since the number of lefties faced is pretty consistent from year to year over the course of the season, the batter will see some righties on which he will feast.  Or maybe a batter has difficulty facing soft tosses and in a small sample, the opposing hurlers are all finesse guys.  The results will not be favorable.  Then, the batter faces a string of hard throwers and his skills shine through.  Again, I need to do an analysis on this, but intuitively, my feeling is skills will find their level, with the caveat that a player’s skills may increase or decline.

Finally, you may be wondering is what does this have to do with managing my fantasy baseball team?  As discussed at the opening, with due respect to Pizza Cutter’s study espousing when certain metrics stabilize, we are at the point of the season where we need to make some judgments on some players.  This essay serves as some background to how I will go about evaluating players in future columns.  I will look at the performance and attempt to decipher what is real and what is fluke.  There is nothing I can do about the fluke.  But I can look at the skills portion and make an effort to determine if a player is displaying a new skill level, or if I expect it to return to normal.  Ultimately, this will be the key to the player’s projected performance the rest of the season.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 10 May 2011 08:57
 
A Look at April Numbers PDF Print E-mail
Chance Favors the Prepared Mind
Written by Todd Zola   
Tuesday, 03 May 2011 01:01

I apologize for the short effort today, I have been focusing on our first in-season projection update for the Platinum subscribers, which this season includes some additional playing time notes.

April showers have brought May flowers, check local listings.  This week, I am going to take a look at April numbers in Major League Baseball to see if we can glean anything to help us manage our squads in a fantasy sense.  Today, we will present some data then on Thursday, we will look at how we may be able to use it to our advantage.

What we will do is compare the standard rotisserie stats from this past April to April of 2010 as well as all of 2010.  Some numbers will be normalized per inning such as hits, homers, strikeouts and walks.  Others will be normalized per game, namely runs and stolen bases.

If you sense that offense is still down, you are spot on.   Here is a table showing the relevant stats:

 

H/9

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

R/GM

SB/GM

ERA

WHIP

April/March 2011

8.52

7.09

3.28

0.91

8.58

1.37

3.90

1.31

April/March 2010

8.75

7.13

3.66

0.95

9.09

1.34

4.20

1.38

2010

8.84

7.13

3.28

0.96

8.77

1.22

4.08

1.35

Compared to both last April and last season, scoring is down.  Batters are getting fewer hits, especially homers.  Stolen bases, however, appear to be up just a bit, though steals are usually more prevalent early in the season.

Looking at pitching, after rising for several seasons, at least for one month, the league strikeout rate has stabilized.  It is a bit interesting to note that last season, the league walk rate was high in April, but this season it is down.  This could be a result of hurlers coming after hitters since power is down, or it could just be a blip, time will tell.  But it is apparent that the reduced number of free passes along with fewer homers has been the primary cause of the reduced ERA.

So power is down and speed is up.  While this is not surprising, the astute fantasy player will see if they can use this to their advantage as the season progresses.  On Thursday, we will put this concept under the microscope.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 May 2011 04:21
 
The Concept of Buying High PDF Print E-mail
Chance Favors the Prepared Mind
Written by Todd Zola   
Tuesday, 26 April 2011 00:00

The conventional advice offered by every fantasy baseball analyst is to buy low and sell high.  And of course, the notion makes perfect sense.  Buying low implies you are getting a capable player at a discount because he is off to a slow start and his owner may have soured on him.  Selling high suggests a player is performing at a clip better than normal and the trick is to find someone that believes the player will continue to perform at that elevated level.

The approach is obvious, which has led to a problem.  In order to buy low, you need to find an owner willing to part with a scuffling player.  The same pundit that that espouses the buy low, sell high theory implores you to be patient with your slow starters so you should be reticent to sell low.   On the other hand, the analyst that screams sell high is also pointing out how lucky the fast starter is, cautioning you against acquiring the player.  So sure, the axiom to buy low and sell high makes intuitive sense and has morphed into conventional wisdom, but let us be honest, do you really want to play in a league where the sharks are able to convince the minnows to pull the trigger on a deal of this nature?  What sounds great on paper is not so easy to manifest in reality.

Several years ago, I recognized this conundrum and first discussed what was considered to be counter-intuitive advice.  Since then, I have seen it discussed a few times, so maybe the idea is not so bad after all.  The idea is buying high.

A trade can be consummated in a variety of ways.  We will simplify this by segregating the reasons into three classes.  The first is a needs for needs trade.  Both parties value the players exchanged equally, but their respective squads benefit as each trades from strength to improve weakness, yielding a net positive on both sides.  The second is a present value for future value trade, the essence of which will be the subject of future site essays.  The final fits into the buy low, sell high mode where the participants have different beliefs with respect to the player’s worth.  The key to buying high is finding a player both partakers disagree with regard to a player’s value.

By means of explanation, if we can quantify a player’s performance, someone playing well may be scored to be 100.  It is universally accepted he is playing over his head so that score will regress.  Say you feel he will be a 70 player the rest of the way and I feel he will be an 80 player.  In order for you to agree to a trade, all I have to do is offer you a 75 player.  We both feel we are getting the better end of the deal.  Now, if I deal you a player I feel is a 70 and you judge him to be 75, that is even better.

There are two requisites in order to pull this off.  The first is the identification of a fast-starter you favor more than his owner and the second is finding a suitable player to offer in return.  The former involves some number crunching along with reading the tea leaves while the latter entails good old-fashioned horse trading.

I prefer not to use this space as a means to review player analysis, the site has and will be doing plenty of that.  But my means of a brief synopsis, my personal favorite metric to evaluate a hitter’s performance is his strikeout rate.  Keep in mind the reason a player is off to a hot start is usually because they have enjoyed a good degree of luck in a small sample.  This luck can come in the form of a fortuitous hit rate, resulting in a high batting average or an elevated HR/FB, rendering more homers than usual.  Both of these will regress.  My hypothesis is if the player is simultaneously exhibiting improved skill, the regression may not be as steep as others suspect.  The primary skill I track for hitters is contact rate, secondarily looking at walk rate.  If a batter is fanning at a lower rate, the possibility exists that his skills have taken an uptick, leading to better than expected numbers.  With respect to pitchers, I also look at strikeout rate and walk rate and if the hurler has improved, the regression due from a fortuitous BABIP or HR/9 may not be as extreme as my trading partner anticipates.  While I am not a huge fan of looking at last season’s second half as a harbinger of present success, if the player also demonstrated an improvement in skills the second half of last season, I will consider this season’s fast start to have a better chance of being real.

After identifying a player you suspect might be a trade target, you must then find a way to gauge his availability and find a suitable player to deal in return.  This should segue into the proverbial “tricks of the trade” column, but I think I will save that for another time.  I will however, highlight a few recommendations.

The bottom line is every competitor is different and there is no single best manner to negotiate a deal.  Actually, this would make for a fun message board discussion, so I will initiate a thread on our forum and invite your participation.  In short, the best means of working out a deal is to be cordial and keep your fellow owner’s needs in mind.  Of course, you want to improve your squad, but as the saying goes, it takes two to tango.  My rule of thumb is if I initiate trade talks, I will make the initial offer.  If someone wants one of my players, I will always consider an offer, but may not be willing to make the first offer.  You came to me; you show your cards first.  If the owner inquires about a player I am actually looking to move, I may in fact open serve.  If after receiving an offer, I feel there is a chance of hammering out a deal, I will respectfully decline, but make a counter.  If I sense the interest in my player is significant, I may not even counter, instead waiting on a second proposal from my opponent as a means to gauge what they may be willing to give up.  This is dangerous as they may move onto another owner and involves a gut feel of how interested in your guy they truly are.  Perhaps this makes me a bad trader, but I personally believe in being up front and honest in negotiations, even though I know there is a certain level of acceptable gamesmanship permitted.  On a personal level, I just need to make sure no one takes advantage of this, but in the long run, I feel it aids my ability to make trades, not to mention sleep a little better.   And to think, I am in the midst of contemplating shifting my day vocation from making little chemical thingies to selling them.  Unemployment will do that to you, but I digress.

In summary, if there is someone in your league looking to deal away some fast starters because the smart thing to do is sell high, and you sense that player is not going to decline as much as his present owner, drop them a line.  You never know, you could deal for this season’s Jose Bautista.  Or the real Jose Bautista.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 26 April 2011 02:09
 
Please Tip Your Waitresses PDF Print E-mail
Chance Favors the Prepared Mind
Written by Todd Zola   
Tuesday, 19 April 2011 00:00

This is the worst time of the season for those of us in the business of offering fantasy baseball strategy advice.  There is not a whole lot we can do other than to regurgitate Fantasy Baseball 101.  You know the drill: be patient, it is a marathon, not a sprint and buy low, sell high.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is just kick back and clear your head so you are ready for the long grind ahead.  So today, I thought I would take a break from the deep thinking and just get a few things off my chest.  Some will be baseball related, some will not.  But if nothing else, hopefully this will be a reminder that this is supposed to be fun.

Is there anything worse than checking the box scores, seeing a slugfest only to discover your guy went 0-for-5?

I suppose having your closer being brought into that game during a non-save situation and getting racked would beat it.

I am actually enjoying the ESPN Sunday night broadcast with Dan Schulman, Orel Hershiser and Bobby Valentine.  Schulman is perfectly understated, letting his analysts do their job.  And although Hershiser and Valentine occasionally get into an “I’m smarter” contest, they play off each other quite well.  That said, to me, the best of the bunch is Aaron Boone.

How come a soft-throwing lefty is deemed “crafty” while a soft-throwing righty is deemed “sucky”?

Are ketchup packets really that expensive?  If not, why are places so stingy giving them out?

We all do it.  And it is okay, you will not go blind.  Heck, contrary to popular belief, females even do it.  We do not like to admit it, we pretend we do not do it, but we all do it.   Trust me, those that claim they do not do it really do.  We are only human.   Even though in the big picture, it really means nothing, it satisfies an urge so we do it.  Heck, Perry and Jason just blogged about doing it.  We all look at the standings and feel good about the teams that are doing well and are concerned about those struggling.

Martin Sheen has to be pissed Charlie did not use Estevez as his last name.

How come when a senior wide-receiver makes a tip-toe sideline catch the announcer chalks it up to his experience, but the next year in the pros, when he barely touches his toe out-of-bounds, he made a rookie mistake?

This Sunday has got to be the worst nightmare for those in the restaurant business as Easter and Passover coincide.

The commercial they show during Seattle Mariner games with Felix Hernandez dressing up in disguises is freaking hilarious.

Why the heck did Miguel Olivo just try to steal a base?

If umpires do not appreciate being shown up, why do some use such an exaggerated strike-three call?

Note to Joe Buck (like he is going to read this) – you have the greatest job in the world, can you please sound like you are not pissed off you are calling the game?  I understand some veteran teams turning it on for the playoffs, but announcers?  Come on man.

Did you ever notice the same people that spend the off-season criticizing the moves of real-life baseball general managers do similar things when managing their fantasy squads?

Sometimes I wonder if the only words written inside one of those “get rich quick” books are “put out a book saying you know the secret to getting rich quick.”  I mean, think about it, if the person really had the answer, why do they need to sell a book?  Same goes for gambling advice and how to beat the stock market.

Okay, gotta run.  I have some real-time standings to check out.

 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 19 April 2011 00:05
 
Early Season Tips PDF Print E-mail
Chance Favors the Prepared Mind
Written by Todd Zola   
Tuesday, 12 April 2011 00:31

While it is true that patience is the proper approach early in the season, there is a difference between being patient and being complacent.  There is still some early season roster management that you can do to help improve your chance of success.  Today, we will discuss a few of them.

COMB THE FREE AGENTS EACH WEEK FOR UPGRADES

This is especially true in mixed leagues where the available player pool is rather plush.  Even if you do not have an opening in your active roster, if you see an upgrade to your reserves, make the move as eventually, you will need everyone on your roster.  Pay special attention to the previous week’s drops as often, your fellow competitors get a bit antsy and release valuable players off to a slow start.

DO NOT WORRY ABOUT CATEGORIES

Even if you sense you are strong in one area and weak in another, unless you are floored by a trade offer and feel you are receiving more value in return, early on pound up your counting stats and worry about managing categories later.  What you perceive to be strength now can quickly turn into weakness with an injury or two.  There will be plenty of time to wheel and deal later once the categories have really fleshed out and you know where you stand.

BE COURTEOUS

Even if you are not inclined to make a deal early in the season, be courteous and consider all offers.  You never know when you will be approached with the proverbial godfather offer.  The comfort level and trust you establish now can do wonders later when you are in fact looking to swing a deal.  If possible, engage in casual discussion about your league or baseball in general.  You often can glean some tidbits that may help you down the road.

BE CAUTIOUSLY AGGRESSIVE WITH YOUR PITCHING

I know, cautiously aggressive is an oxymoron like a little bit pregnant or semi-kosher.  On one hand, early on, the conditions usually favor pitchers as the weather is cold and off days prevent hitters from getting into a groove.  On the other hand, I personally feel more comfortable starting a pitcher with a few outings under his belt so I can look at the peripherals and decide if the hurler is throwing well.  Similarly, one can argue that if you happen to get burned by a bad start or two, you have the whole season to get your ratios back in line while someone else can argue it is best to build up an innings buffer using high strikeout relievers early, allowing you to absorb some rough outings down the line.  The bottom line is there is no right way to deal with early season pitching.  My suggestion is if you have a knack for finding quality pitching as the season progresses, be aggressive early.  Sometimes it is a numbers game; the more pitchers you audition, the better the chance of hitting on one.  If you feel as though you are always behind the eight-ball with respect to your ERA and WHIP, do not take chances early and deploy solid middle relievers to build a foundation of strong ERA and WHIP.

PAY EXTRA ATTENTION TO YOUR HITTING

Early in the season, before injuries really set in is the best time to maximize at bats, especially in daily transaction leagues.  But even in weekly leagues, look at the matchups, the possible righty-lefty implications, the respective venues and do your best to have your best possible lineup active.  Trust me, as the season wears on, you will be starting your healthiest players, not your best players.  This is the time to jack up your counting stats with extra at bats.

CUT YOUR FAVORITE FANTASY PUNDIT SOME SLACK

You are no doubt aware that early in the season, some pitcher’s go through a dead arm period.  Well, on the off chance your favorite fantasy analyst is going through a dead brain period after working on content since November 1 and perhaps writes a shorter column than normal, in less depth than usual, give him a week to recharge his battery and I can pretty much promise things will be back to normal soon enough.  You know, hypothetically, of course.

Last Updated on Tuesday, 12 April 2011 08:56
 
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