Fantasy Football For Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft

Jonathan Bales is the author of Fantasy Football for Smart People: How to Dominate Your Draft. He writes for the New York Times.

When Robert posted a link to the BSO “Dollarnaire Fantasy Football League,” I knew I had to have in. In that post, Robert claimed, “I am the self proclaimed greatest fantasy football player of all time” and “This is big money league, so if you scared stop reading now.”

Little did Robert know that the true world’s premiere fantasy football owner—me—would be taking his challenge. I write a fantasy football column for the Times. I’m the author of the top-selling fantasy football book in the world. And I ain’t scared, so I definitely didn’t stop reading.

I personally guarantee a victory in the Dollarnaire league this year. There’s literally zero chance I could lose to these fools. I could rank my players and auto-draft and still win handily. I could get absolutely hammered before the draft and pick only white players and still win. I’m that good. Frankly, all I’m thinking about is if I’ll go undefeated.

To terrify Robert and his minions even more, I’m posting the intro from my book. Part I is below, and Part II is coming later. While Mr. Littal is selecting players on “gut feel,” I’ll be using positions scarcity, game theory, and VORP to absolutely crush these nobodies. Seriously, how are you guys going to beat this? This is just the INTRO for Christ’s sake. . .

The Most In-Depth Introduction You’ll Ever Read

Note: These first few pages are a brief introduction to a rather complex draft strategy.  So why start with it? You can’t build a house without a frame, and the concepts mentioned in this intro will be the foundation of the rest of my analysis.  If you struggle to fully grasp all of the ideas mentioned in the densely-packed first few pages, fear not, as more detailed and all-encompassing breakdowns will follow in subsequent sections.

Fantasy football draft strategy can be paradoxical in that the most effective way to garner the maximum projected points for your team does not necessarily involve selecting the players who will score the most points. Wait, huh? How can you maximize projected points without drafting the players who will, you know, score the most points?

The Major Players: Starting Lineup Requirements and Position Scarcity

The reason temporarily bypassing maximum “value” can be beneficial deals with position scarcity and starting lineup requirements. Let’s starts with the latter. In fantasy football, you are obviously required to start a specific number of players at different positions. If you could simply start your highest-scoring players, quarterbacks would fill the first few rounds of drafts.

Since fantasy football requires you to start players at positions that naturally score fewer points than other positions (think kickers), at some point in your draft, it is necessary to bypass a high-scoring position for a lower-scoring one. The best fantasy football owners understand how to balance that delicate task.

Of course, the “best” time to take a quarterback, or a running back, or any other position changes based on a number of factors, including the season, your league, your previous draft picks, and so on. One of the factors that can help us determine which position to take at each spot is standard deviation. Standard deviation is the measure of diversity in a group of statistics.

For fantasy football owners, standard deviation means identifying “outliers” within each position. For example, assume the top quarterback in the NFL scored around 1,000 fantasy points each season. Gotta grab him in the first, right? Not necessarily, even if you know with 100 percent confidence which player will be the top quarterback in such a hypothetical league. If quarterbacks 2-12 scored about 990 points each year, the value of the top quarterback is miniscule. In that example, there is no outlier; the top signal-caller’s projected total is almost identical to the 11 quarterbacks behind him.

Whereas standard deviation relates to the diversity of points among players at a particular position, position scarcity is a comparison of diversity among positions. The two are very similar, but in essence position scarcity is a tool that incorporates standard deviation, and one that can greatly enhance your ability to draft efficiently. All other things equal, it is prudent to select players who are the “scarcest” at their position, regardless of the particular position they play or their projected points. Position scarcity allows you to decide which position to draft, and standard deviation helps identify the best player at that position.

So we know starting lineup requirements necessitate the selection of “non-optimal” players at certain spots, and we know both standard deviation and its cousin position scarcity can aid us in picking the right players at the right spots.

This, in a nutshell, is what VORP (Value Over Replacement Player) is all about. Most frequently used in baseball statistics, I’ve broadened the definition of the term a bit as it relates to fantasy football draft strategy. For our purposes, a ‘replacement player’ is the “next best” player at a specific position who could be drafted in subsequent rounds if the current top-rated player is bypassed. Let’s use an example.

Suppose you are in the fifth round of your draft and you are deciding between drafting a tight end or selecting a wide receiver. The top-rated tight end on your board is projected to score 180 points, but if you bypass him he will almost certain be taken. The next best tight end you could land in round six is projected to score 160 points. Meanwhile, your top-ranked receiver is projected to score 220 points, with the next best at the position who you could draft in the sixth round projected at 210 points.

And the correct choice is. . .the tight end. Despite projected to score fewer points than the wide receivers, your top tight end is 20 points ahead of the next best. If you take him and grab the second-ranked receiver in the sixth round, you are sitting pretty at 390 projected points. If you bypass the top tight end for the “best player available” in the wide receiver, you will be left with a total of 380 projected points. The top tight end has a greater standard deviation compared to others at his position, meaning he is scarcer.

But that’s not the end of the story.

Game Theory: A Brief Aside

Fantasy football is a game of competing decision-makers, i.e. others minds are involved. Almost all aspects of the game are zero-sum, meaning when one owner gains, another loses.  It is really a complex game of rock-paper-scissors.  As such, we can and should use game theory as a mode of decision-making.

Game theory is a strategic decision-making process that applies to zero-sum games, and wherein the beliefs of others affect your decisions. It is worth noting NFL play-calling is all about game theory; run when they expect you to pass, and vice versa. While game theory is an umbrella term that can apply to a plethora of processes, I’ve always liked to think of it as acting one step ahead of your opponents.

One of the greatest examples of game theory implementation I have ever uncovered was an at-bat in the 1990s between Padres slugger Tony Gwynn and Braves pitcher Greg Maddux. Both ballplayers were among the most intelligent in Major League Baseball at the time, and as a result their battles at the plate were a chess match.

The count was two balls and one strike, and Gwynn knew in this situation Maddux liked to throw a breaking pitch. A lot of hitters might stop right there, looking for a curve. But Gwynn knew Maddux was a smart guy, and he understood Maddux was often a step ahead of hitters. Maddux knew that Gwynn knew that Maddux was likely to throw a breaking ball. So Maddux decided to deliver a heater.

But Gwynn, in all his glory, knew that (and stay with me here) Maddux knew that Gwynn knew that Maddux liked to throw breaking balls in 2-1 counts. So Gwynn looked for what other hitters might deem the least likely pitch: a fastball. Gwynn’s knowledge of Maddux’s thoughts about Gwynn helped Gwynn look for the right pitch. And he hit a home run.

This is quintessential game theory, and its implementation into both the NFL and fantasy football can significantly enhance win probability. So when NFL coaches claim they are concerned only with their game plan and aren’t focused on what the opponent will try to do, they are either lying, or soon to be coaching high school football.


Check back later for Part II of the intro to Fantasy Football for Smart People.

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