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The Fade: A Contrarian's Guide to DFS

An introduction to a pair of weekly FanDuel features with a focus on tournament game theory.

It's beginning to look a lot like football. Preseason games are over. Final rosters are taking shape. Draft analysis is metamorphosing into start/sit analysis. 'Tis the season.

We're excited to announce that our DFS coverage this year is getting a major upgrade. In addition to all of the features from last year, we’ve expanded our coverage to multiple sites by multiple analysts. Plus, we’ve released what may be the most comprehensive and powerful DFS App on the market: the Daily Crusher. Download and dominate.

Two of the FanDuel features we’ll offer this year will be “The Fade” and “The Contrarian”. You may remember “The Fade” from last season. It’s back and better than ever. This season we’re taking it even further by splitting it into two separate studies, both of which will focus on tournament game theory.

To welcome you back, or If you’re new to Footballguys, to welcome you in, we’ve put together a primer of what these two columns will feature and how to implement the strategies detailed each week. You can also get live updates from the Cracking FanDuel Blog, so be sure to check that out. Our whole goal here is to arm you with the skills needed to navigate the wild, wild DFS landscape. Knowledge is power, and when you win, we win.

The Fade: Balancing Chalk Plays and Loss Leaders

Every good tournament strategy is comprised of three basic components: projecting ownership percentages, fading popular plays, and identifying contrarian plays. Last year in this space, under the title “The Fade”, we used Thursday night ownership percentages as a guide and introduced the concept of loss leaders. You can read a sample of that here.

If you’re new to DFS and tournament strategy, the concept of fading a player is basic: you identify a player the crowd is hot on—whether it be because of his matchup or salary or both—and you fade that player in hopes of creating a unique lineup. You will have done this successfully if the player you chose outscores the player you faded.

Thursday night ownership percentages provide a great foundation for that strategy. The numbers aren’t perfect but they do give us a map of groupthink. Chances are, if Julio Jones is 18% owned in GPPs that include the Thursday night game, he will have similar exposure in the Sunday/Monday GPPs. We’ll publish those numbers—assuming they will be available to us again—every Friday throughout the season in this space.

But as helpful as they may be, it’s important to take a logical approach. We will never fade a player just because he is highly owned. That’s a bad strategy and not something we will ever advocate. We fade players because we don’t think they are as good of a play as everyone else does, regardless of their exposure.

This is where the idea of loss leaders comes into focus. A loss leader is exactly what it sounds like—a player that will be in our lineups even though he might be highly owned. If DeMarco Murray is playing the league’s worst defense and is projected to score a healthy amount of points, we want Murray in our lineups even if he is 40% owned. He’s a loss leader in this situation. We’re not getting a jump on the crowd by using him, but we’re not falling behind the crowd either. It’s better to be in the 40% of lineups that stand to benefit from Murray’s projected points than the 60% of lineups that played a less desirable option.

Beyond exposure, the fade strategy includes avoiding bad matchups, avoiding bad game scripts, and avoiding a questionable injury status. These are the fundamentals, and when combined with projected points and projected ownership percentages, we have a great recipe for building successful tournament lineups.

The Contrarian: When It’s Cool to be Cool

Sort of the opposite of fading, the contrarian play means selecting a player that isn’t on anyone’s radar, or is being faded by the crowd for whatever reason. The trick is to identify a player that is low owned but has a good shot at hitting tournament value. Without a few good contrarian plays, your lineup has no chance of taking home first place.

But, like with fades, there’s no sense in being contrarian for the sake of contrarianism. If you want to take the most literal definition of the philosophy, there would be 1,000s of contrarian plays each week. But there’s a huge difference between a contrarian play and someone like Shaun Draughn. Even though Draughn is cheap and going to be on virtually zero lineups in Week 1, he’s a lock to score zero points. There’s nothing contrarian about scoring zero points even though you selected a player the crowd didn’t.

A good contrarian approach doesn’t always have to be about cheap salaries and longshot tournament plays either. In Week 15, for example, Antonio Brown was a hot play despite his $9,100 salary. His recent performance combined with what appeared to be a saucy matchup against the Falcons created a stampede; Brown ended up being the sixth highest owned player that week (21.86%). He did what Brown does and caught all 10 of his targets for 123 yards. Not bad, but not good enough to win a tournament considering his price.  

Meanwhile, Dez Bryant had an equally good, if not better, matchup against the Eagles and was $600 cheaper. Yet, he ended up on just 8.61% of lineups. He did what Dez does and caught 86% of his targets for 112 yards and three touchdowns. Now that’s a contrarian play.

Those are the exact situations we’re looking to find every week: someone that’s equal to or cheaper in salary but will score as many or more points. You should also use injury scares to your advantage. The crowd gets easily spooked when a player pops up on the injury report. Chances are, if he doesn’t practice much during the week, his ownership will be low regardless of cost and matchup.

A perfect example of this occurred in Week 5 of last year. Arian Foster, after being sidelined in Week 3 with a hamstring injury and clearly hampered by that injury in Week 4, ended up on just 1.3% of lineups. He proceeded to tear up a bad Cowboys defense to the tune of 152 yards and two touchdowns—the third best performance by a running back that week.

Managing the injury report and using it to your advantage is risky and tough to do, to be sure. But the weeks you get it right will cover the weeks you get it wrong.

In summary, it’s cool to be contrarian. And everyone wants to be cool. But don’t forget what happens when we try too hard to be cool: we end up looking like clowns. Clowns are definitely not cool, especially when they cost us our entry fee and a portion of our bankroll.      

How Much Do Ownership Percentages Actually Matter?

A lot of the focus of these two columns, as you can see, and the focus of DFS strategy across the industry, will always have ownership percentages baked in. Carving out a unique roster when playing in a field of nearly 230,000 other lineups presents two challenges: A) being unique without sacrificing upside, and B) being unique without creating a massive risk in terms of your lineup’s floor.

The basic theory behind our desire for uniqueness is best represented as follows:

Let’s say you’re in 100th place and you have Player X in your lineup with only the Monday night game remaining. This is extreme, but let’s pretend the 99 lineups ahead of yours all have Player A in their lineups. You have a massive advantage on the crowd in this scenario because if Player A flops, 99% of lineups flop with him. And even if he doesn’t flop, all you need is for Player X to outscore Player A by .01 points and you’ll leapfrog the crowd.

That example is all fine and dandy, but it still doesn’t fully portray how important uniqueness is. Or, to think about it another way, how much importance we should put on creating unique lineups versus, say, a high-floor lineup that might feature several popular players.  

Our own John Lee (@tipandpick) posted an excellent theory on roster uniqueness in the RotoGrinders forums last year. To paraphrase—using an example from Week 1—Jeremy Hill is the fourth highest priced running back at $8,600. In order for him to hit tournament value (at least 3x), he’ll need to score 25.8 points. Let’s say we project him to be 30% owned. Per Lee’s theory, you have to ask yourself will Hill score 25.8 points 30% of the time? Last year, in the 10 games where he had at least 10 carries, Hill scored 25.8 points or more twice. He met our criteria only 20% of the time.

Conversely, Chris Ivory is $6,400 (requiring a tournament score of 19.2 points). Let’s say he’s projected to be 6.5% owned. Over his entire career, when given 10 carries or more, Ivory has scored at least 19.2 points 9.1% of the time. Now we can tie together a fade with a contrarian play and leave Hill out of our lineups in favor of Ivory. The $2,200 we save in the process frees up a ton of roster flexibility.  

This example comes with some obvious arbitrary numbers, but it illustrates a great process that we’ll use every week in 2015.

We also wanted to know, what if you went with the chalk play at every position? That is, what if you looked back at the 2014 NFL Sunday Million series, built lineups using the highest owned player at each position (within the means of the salary cap) and calculated their total fantasy points?

We did that. Here are the results:

Week Ave Own% Total FPs
1 18.52 122.96
2 17.18 128.98
3 24.85 102.32
4 24.28 158.06
5 23.71 107.1
6 27.02 130.44
7 22.04 109.32
8 20.64 105.72
9 20.86 139.38
10 22.31 130.42
11 22.55 114.38
12 20.35 145.22
13 25.07 151.8
14 24.05 89.2
15 22.55 142.28
16 22.92 106.12
17 18.98 101.46

The second column, Ave Own%, takes the average ownership of each player in the lineup. All 17 lineups featured the highest owned player at each position, so long as we could fit them within the salary cap. The results speak for themselves. Never once did a single one of these lineups hit tournament value. The highest score was 158.06—not bad but not a cash cow. The average score was 122.7 points—a score that will cost you your entry fee in most weeks.

In reality, you’re never going to load your lineups with the chalk play. But this exercise illustrates how far off groupthink was in 2014, and why it’s always a good idea to fade the crowd, when it makes sense to do so, in large-field tournaments.