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Regression Alert #1: Hunting for Outliers

Can we use a knowledge of history and statistics to sell high and buy low on players with minimal risk? We can. And we will.

Regression to the mean. If you've been playing fantasy football for more than three minutes, you've heard the phrase, typically wielded like a cudgel against a player that one owner or analyst didn't see coming as a way to justify their failure.

Someone has a good game? He's going to regress. Someone has a bad game? He's going to regress. Someone has a good season? He's going to regress. Someone has a bad season? He's going to regress. In many ways, regression is the Muzak of fantasy football analysis: bland, unobjectionable, engineered to blend seamlessly into the background without drawing attention to itself.

This kind of regression talk is little more than a talisman we invoke, a prayer to the fantasy gods, a ward against the unknown. It is often a tool of explanation at the expense of understanding.

That stuff about players coming off of good seasons and players coming off of bad seasons all regressing? It's true, all of it, every word. It's also useless. A receiver coming off a 1600-yard year will probably regress. So will a receiver coming off a 1400-yard year. And, all else being equal, the 1600-yard receiver will still be ahead afterward.

(“All else being equal”, it should be noted, is another favorite talisman of fantasy analysts.)

And more, guys coming off of boring, generic, ho-hum seasons are going to regress, too, in ways both visible and invisible. But the mean that Ted Ginn is regressing to is not the same mean that Antonio Brown is regressing to.

The truth is that regression to the mean should be the midpoint of thoughtful fantasy analysis, not the endpoint. (If you'll forgive a pun— and forgiving puns is something you'll likely have to do relatively often around these parts— regression analysis should be more concerned with means than ends.)

“Regression Alert” is a new column this year that seeks to change all that, to demystify regression. It's not a magical force, it's a simple and logical process, one that we can harness and put to good use.

The truth is, fantasy analysis doesn't have a great hit rate. As Niels Bohr once famously wrote, “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Regression stands as a notable exception. We may not be able to know what's going to happen... but we can get a pretty good idea of what won't.


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