The Power of Knowing What You Know in Dynasty

A look at the difference between confidence and certainty and the value of knowing something for sure.

Given the breadth of information available to fantasy owners today, one could be forgiven for believing that the road to fantasy dominance was gaining knowledge and confidence in a very wide range of skills. Here on Footballguys alone you can find articles helping you scout talent, understand schemes, and value draft picks. You can learn the medical implications of injuries from an actual doctor. You can learn about negotiations from experienced businessmen. You can get inside information on players from a credentialed member of the press, or learn about correlations and regressions from a college math professor. There are even a couple lawyers on staff who can offer whatever it is that lawyers have to offer… (kidding, guys!)

And that’s just here at Footballguys. All over the internet we’re seeing more and more incredibly smart people applying their knowledge and their passions to this common hobby of ours, solving problems from new perspectives and approaching situations from unexpected directions with clarity and radical insight. There are neuroscientists and professional gamblers and actuaries and statisticians and economists and historians, and I’m just talking about the guys that I follow on Twitter. And this is great! I’ve borrowed heavily from many disparate fields such as finance, probability theory, game theory, behavioral economics, neuropsychology, and even philosophy, (I’m willing to bet I’m the only fantasy writer who has analyzed receivers through the prism of Platonic Realism), to form my own unique approach to the game. And so far, it’s been extremely successful for me. Obviously I think it could be just as successful for you, too, which is why I write articles like these explaining my methods and approaches.

Make no mistake about it, I think the impossibly large number of ways to approach fantasy football are a good thing, and I think that the better an owner can get at each of them, the better that owner will be at the hobby. Ordinarily, I’ll be the first person to stand up and recommend you broaden your horizons and vary your approaches. But today, I want to step away from that a little bit and sing the praises instead of a laser-like focus on one or two areas. And to highlight the benefits, I want to discuss the difference between “confidence” and “certainty”.

“If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.”
-Francis Bacon

In 2004, the New England Patriots were at the height of their power. They had won two of the previous three Super Bowls, and with new addition Corey Dillon serving as the engine behind their suddenly-potent rushing attack, they had shored up their only weakness and were steamrolling the league en route to their third title. By the beginning of the season, they had set a new NFL record with a 21-game winning streak, which ended only after a setback to the mighty Pittsburgh Steelers, who would finish the season at 15-1 (and against whom New England would later exact revenge in the playoffs). On December 20th, 2004, they took their 12-1 record on the road against the pathetic 2-11 Dolphins, a team still reeling from the unexpected retirement of Ricky Williams and the resulting collapse of their offense, a team that led the race for the #1 overall draft pick. New England opened up an 11-point lead with just four minutes remaining in the contest, only to see Miami score two touchdowns- sandwiched around an interception of Tom Brady- and walk away with a stunning come-from-behind victory.

It’s easy to say that in any human endeavor such as football, there exists no such thing as certainty. There are too many complex variables, all interacting with each other in too many unpredictable ways, for anyone to ever feel assured in their knowledge of how the future will play out. Sometimes the 2004 New England Patriots lose a game to the Miami Dolphins. Sometimes an absolute nobody sandwiches a football against his helmet in the biggest game of his entire career. Sometimes a running back at peak of his career walks away from the game with every major record firmly in his sights. It would be easy to argue that all we can possibly have is varying degrees of confidence in how events will unfold. It would be easy to argue that certainty is an illusion, a false confidence, a manifestation of hubris and a precursor to humiliation. All of this would be easy to argue, indeed.

Instead, I will argue the opposite. I believe that it is possible, in very rare situations, to achieve certainty, or at least a degree of confidence so great as to be functionally identical to certainty. A security guard named Bill James was once so certain that there was a better way to understand baseball that he wrote a book; today, the sounds of his footsteps can be heard echoing through every holy cathedral, through all the halls of power that reign over his beloved sport. James was not certain that he was right in every instance, he was merely certain that his processes were better than the processes in place at the time, and that better processes can be relied on in the long run to produce better outcomes. Likewise, oddsmakers in Las Vegas are so certain that they are better than you at predicting outcomes that they’ll let you choose any game, with any sum of money on the line, and they know you still won’t beat them.

I have a lot of convictions concerning the NFL in which I believe strongly. For instance, I believe that the NFL draft is a largely efficient market in the way it distributes talent, and that individual observers will be unable to outperform it over a long timeline. This belief is actionable- I can make moves with my fantasy teams where I leverage this belief. If this belief is accurate, then over the course of many transactions I will consistently turn a profit. If this belief is inaccurate, then over the course of many transactions I will hemorrhage value. Because I believe, I’m willing to take that risk- I’m willing to consistently draft players whose ADP lags their NFL draft position, and I’m willing to shy away from players whose ADP far outstrips their NFL draft position. Because I merely believe this- as opposed to knowing this for certain- I’m not going to stake my entire team’s future on the belief. I will hedge my bets. I will refrain from putting too many eggs in this one basket.

Likewise, I believe that players who underperform expectations in weeks 1-4 are strong candidates to rebound in weeks 5-17. Statistically, preseason expectations correlate much better to performance from weeks 5 on than early-season performance does. Because I believe this, I will spend valuable assets trading for underperforming players early in the season. Because I merely believe this- as opposed to knowing this for certain- I will not take this to extremes. I will not gut my roster of all productive players and replace them all with underperforming stars. I will pick and choose my spots, and I will diversify my portfolios.

I have a wide range of things that I believe to be true, and when building a team, I will spend a little bit of time and capital acting on each one of them. I will not devote too many resources to any one belief, however, because that opens me up to risk- over-investing in a single idea, if incorrect, can bankrupt my entire team. By spreading that risk out over several fronts, I become much more insulated from the consequences of my mistakes.

There are a few points, however, that I do not merely believe. There are a few things that I absolutely know, with the certainty of Bill James or the Las Vegas oddsmakers. I know that humans are prone to a variety of cognitive biases, and some of these biases conspire to cause the value of future draft picks to fluctuate wildly over the course of the year. I absolutely know this to be the case- I have observed it in practice over and over again, I have seen reports of it in nearly every other league, and I’m familiar with the mental processes universal to all fantasy owners that drive these changes. Because I know this for certain- as opposed to merely believing it to be true- I will not hedge my bets when taking advantage of the market for future firsts. I will go all in every chance I get, acting not with confidence, but with certainty.

Another thing I know with certainty is that, in many (but not all) cases, the fantasy market overreacts dramatically to the news of injury. Ryan McDowell of runs a series of dynasty startup mocks every month to capture a snapshot of player value (aside: give him a follow on Twitter at @RyanMc23- he is an incredible value-add for any dynasty owner and an all-around good guy, besides). He was kind enough to provide me a graph of the value of several high draft picks from last offseason who suffered serious injuries during the year. Looking at this draft, what is the first thing that you notice?

ADP by Month

Stars Julio Jones, Rob Gronkowski, and Doug Martin saw very little shock to their value as the result of their injuries- each received a minor downgrade that was perfectly reasonable given the nature of their injuries. Percy Harvin and Michael Crabtree, though? The market reacted in a massive panic to each of their injuries, as it will occasionally do. When this happens, I know- I do not believe, but I *know*- that this is an overreaction, based on historical trends. I spent all of last offseason pointing out how much of an overreaction this was, and telling everyone who would listen that both players would see their value rebound in a big way. And both players saw exactly that, despite neither doing anything impressive enough to warrant it on their own. We knew as early as August that Michael Crabtree was likely to return during the season. He did, just as we were told he would. He didn’t perform particularly well- in fact, his numbers are virtually identical to the statistics he put up during his disappointing rookie season. And despite all of this- for returning when we were told he would and having a mediocre season- Crabtree’s value rebounded nearly all the way back to where it initially was. Percy Harvin’s rebound is even more inexplicable- not only did Harvin not do much, if anything, to warrant it based on his play on the field, he actually suffered two more injuries. If anything, the results from last season should have downgraded our expectations of Harvin, not upgraded them. And yet, because the market had overreacted so badly in the first place, his value still rebounded massively from his post-injury low. These rebounds were not surprises- they were wholly predictable and predicted responses to a major market inefficiency. Knowing that the market overreacted presented us with actionable information. Because I was certain the market was wrong- because I knew with certainty that the market had a tendency to overreact to this type of news- I did not bother to hedge my bets like I would with mere beliefs. Instead, I bought Harvin and Crabtree in literally every dynasty league I was participating in. Even if nothing else happens, I am now positioned to sell both of them for a handsome profit over what I paid to acquire them.

“In our reasonings concerning matter of fact, there are all imaginable degrees of assurance, from the highest certainty to the lowest species of moral evidence. A wise man, therefore, proportions his belief to the evidence.”
-David Hume

The search for certainty is a dangerous pursuit. While true certainty is of incalculable value, false certainty is perhaps the most dangerous thing an owner can possess. Strong belief masquerading as certainty has the potential to ruin entire teams- if you act without hedging or hesitating and you are wrong, you can decimate your entire lineup. As Hume advises, we must proportion our belief to the evidence. Anecdote and personal observation are not enough to create a sense of certainty. If we believe the market is inefficient, we need to have a story to explain that inefficiency. That story must not be merely plausible, it must be testable and falsifiable. In my case, research in behavior economics and cognitive bias have provided consistently replicable results confirming my hypotheses- that people are prone to hyperbolic discounting, overrating the value of short-term gains and underrating the value of long-term gains. This theoretical underpinning predicts results in the real world, and through actual observation I have confirmed that these predictions are true. Only through this process- building a theoretical underpinning, mapping out what outcomes that underpinning would predict, and verifying that actual outcomes match those predictions- can I move from confidence to certainty. True certainty is a rare thing in fantasy football.

Moreover, true certainty is something that needs to be constantly questioned and tested. Fantasy leagues are not static, unchanging moments, forever frozen at a particular point in time. My league mates are learning and adapting all the time. If everyone was certain that future draft picks were underrated, and everyone acted on that certainty, then everyone’s certainty would be wrong. If my league mates begin to adapt to my strategies, I need to be responsive, downgrading them from certainty to mere belief, or even abandoning the belief altogether as the market inefficiency closes itself. As I said, a false sense of certainty carries with it devastating consequences. True certainty, though? True certainty makes eventual domination an inevitability. If you can achieve average returns in every area of team management except for one, and in that one area you can consistently achieve 10% returns, then you can merely focus all of your efforts on compounding your gains from that one area. If you do so, the question is not whether your team will become a league-destroying juggernaut, it’s merely a question of how long before it does so.

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