Dynasty, in Theory: A Paean to Uncommon Sense

A warning against the dangers of common sense and an investigation into the value of consistency.

Consistency is one of the most valuable traits a fantasy player can possibly possess. One glance at the season-ending standings from nearly any league can easily verify this- the differences in average points per game from one team to another are usually quite small. This is typically especially true once you throw out the very best and very worst teams in the league and focus on the tightly-clustered teams in the middle.

Looking at one of my leagues last year, the 3rd through 6th place teams averaged 101.4, 99.3, 98.3, and 97.8 points per game. In another league, the 3rd through 6th place teams averaged 156.82, 155.81, 154.96, and 154.49 points- in other words, the difference between the third-best and sixth-best teams was less than 1.5%. One team in that league found himself in a five-way tie for the final two playoff spots, won entry based on tiebreakers, then got hot in the playoffs and made it all the way to the Super Bowl. For the entire season, he scored 154.96 points per game and teams he was facing averaged 154.42 points per game- a difference of just 0.54 points per game! If any of your leagues store historical data, I challenge you to look through it some time; I suspect you’ll see very similar results, with the second tier of teams being extremely tightly clustered in points per game and several teams reaching the playoffs with very small scoring differentials.

With this in mind, it’s no wonder consistency is so highly coveted. The difference between a guy who scores 10 points every week and a guy who alternates duds and blowouts can easily be a couple of wins, a playoff berth, and even a championship. This is why every offseason we are inundated with hundreds of articles from every fantasy outlet about prioritizing consistency. Here are some offerings from ESPN, Fox SportsCBS SportsFF Today, The Huddle4for4, and NumberFire. Bleacher Report uses consistency as a key component of its weekly player rankings. And this is just from the big-name sites- there are countless other offerings from smaller sites and individual experts, such as this one, and this one, and this one, and this one, and this one. Googling “fantasy football consistency” returns 797,000 results, including one entry from Forbes— Forbes!— comparing consistent fantasy football players to a low-risk investment portfolio. Fantasy football consistency even has its own Facebook page. You think I’m joking; I promise you I am not.

Setting aside for a moment whether consistency is a predictable trait, (and what little research I’ve seen on the subject suggests that consistency is itself wildly inconsistent from year to year), it is overwhelmingly clear that consistency is a very valuable trait. Anyone who thinks about it for 2 seconds can immediately see why. It’s just plain old common sense.

It’s also wrong.

While we could fill entire libraries with what has been written about the importance of consistency in fantasy football, the amount of words devoted to actually measuring that importance would hardly be enough for a decent leaflet. So just how valuable is consistency, really? Here is one article I have come across estimating the value of filling an entire team with all of the most consistent performers at every position to be worth less than half a point per week.

On Footballguys’ own message board, poster ZWK ran a simulation and estimated that a player who scored 10 points every game was worth as much as a player who scored 5.25 points 12 times and 30 points 3 times (for an average of 10.2 points per game). Even in his exaggerated hypothetical using extreme values for consistency and inconsistency that would never occur in the real world, the consistent player was only worth an extra 0.2 points per game over his inconsistent counterpart. In PPR leagues, that's roughly the equivalent to one extra 20-yard reception over the entire season.

This idea that consistency is nearly irrelevant seems absurd. How can this possible mesh with the numbers I quoted earlier about how teams tend to cluster together over the full season? The answer to this is that, while season-long averages tend to be very close, individual games tend to be blowouts.

For the hypothetical 10-points-a-week player to be worth more than the hypothetical 5.25-points-most-weeks player, his owner would need to find himself in a lot of games where the final margin of victory was 4.75 points or fewer. Games that close certainly happen, and when they do they are very memorable, (and we all know how reliably our memories record events as they actually happened, right?) The fact that they are memorable makes them seem more common than they really are, (that’s another bias called the “availability heuristic”; it’s also a topic for another article.)

The kind of analysis that poster ZWK and the unnamed author of the aforementioned article performed is high-grade stuff, beyond the capabilities of most fantasy football owners, including the author of this piece right here. With that said, anyone with an internet connection and 30 minutes to kill could perform a rudimentary analysis that would easily show that, in fantasy football, blowouts are the norm and close games are the exception.

For those that don't want to do the legwork, or those that don't have easy access to historical results, I've compiled some numbers from a few of my dynasty leagues. I joined a startup dynasty league with other Footballguys staff members last offseason. It was a competitive league filled with knowledgeable experts, with no weak links to take advantage of. Since it was in its first season, talent was still relatively evenly distributed. Each team started 9 players every week (1 quarterback, 2 running backs, 3 wide receivers, 1 tight end, 1 defense, and 1 flex— we don’t believe in kickers).

I went through the weekly results from that league and asked myself a simple question: if you took the losing team and added Jamaal Charles’ weekly average to his total (25.333 points per game), how many times would that losing team have won? Basically, if the winning team got his 9 players, and the losing team got his 9 players + Jamaal Charles, too, how often would that have changed outcomes? I limited myself to the first 13 weeks to avoid the playoffs, where eliminated teams often didn't bother to set lineups. The answer to that simple question over the course of the season was just 52.6% of games. Just barely more than half the time.

This was in a very competitive startup, too. One of the reasons people love dynasty leagues is that, over the course of several years, good teams can compound their advantages, bad teams compound their disadvantages, and eventually the spread between the best and the worst teams is substantially larger than it could ever be in any redraft league. If consistency means so little in the first year of a league, how much less does it mean once the league has been around for a while and the gap has widened between the “haves” and the “have nots”?

My oldest dynasty league has been around since 2007, so I asked the same question of that league— if you added Jamaal Charles to the losing team, how often would it have changed the outcome of the game. And in this case, the answer was just 43.1% of the time, despite Jamaal Charles in this league representing a larger percentage of the total team production, (with no flex, adding Jamaal Charles turns this into a 9-player vs. 8-player comparison, which is more advantageous than the 10-player vs. 9-player comparison.)

If the majority of games are such massive blowouts that adding the best player in fantasy football wouldn’t matter in the slightest, how much good is getting an extra 2 points in most weeks from a “consistent” WR2 really going to do? In the staff dynasty league I mentioned, there were only eight games all season long that were decided by 5 points or fewer. In my older league, there were only seven games where the two sides were even within 10 points of each other.

I don't mean to suggest that anecdotal evidence is a substitute for rigorous analysis, but at the very least it is a marked improvement over unquestioning acceptance, and when all anecdotes converge on the same point it becomes quite suggestive. So I ask again: just how valuable is consistency, really? I suspect if you spend even 15 minutes looking into your leagues’ histories and gathering your own evidence, you’ll reach the same conclusion I have; it is not valuable at all.

This leaves us with quite the riddle: if consistency is so meaningless, and if it is so easy to demonstrate why, then why are so many articles written every year about the importance of consistency? Fortunately, this riddle also has an answer. The importance of consistency seems obvious.

At the beginning of this article, I told a very plausible narrative about why consistency matters; if you are like most, you were probably nodding along in perfect agreement until you hit the twist in paragraph five. This doesn’t make you trusting or naive or foolish, it’s just how our brains work. Thinking is hard and requires tremendous amounts of mental resources, so our brains are designed, counterintuitively enough, to avoid doing it whenever possible. If we are told something that seems crazy or absurd, our brain instantly engages and starts thinking about the various aspects of the statement, trying to either confirm or deny it. If we are told something that seems obvious or self-evident, our brain decides to save the processing power and just accept it. In short, we are lazy thinkers.

To be perfectly clear, I do not mean this as an insult. I don’t mean to suggest that some people are lazy thinkers, but others are smart and clever and hard-working and their brains naturally remain engaged at all times. Each and every one of us, from the brightest to the dimmest and from the most industrious to the most indolent, are lazy thinkers. And I can prove it. In a famous study, researchers asked students at Harvard, Princeton, and MIT a simple math problem: “A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?” This is the kind of basic arithmetic problem that anyone with a middle school education should be able to answer, and it was asked of students at the most prestigious and selective universities in our nation. And over half of the students gave the wrong answer, saying that the ball cost ten cents.

The amazing thing about this experiment is that the answer is obviously wrong. If the ball costs $0.10, and the bat costs a dollar more, (so $1.10), then the two items combined cost $1.20 and not $1.10. Anyone who devotes even the barest amount of mental processing power to checking their answer should immediately see that $0.10 cannot possibly be the answer. And yet, student after student got the question wrong simply because they were unwilling to devote even the barest amount of mental processing power to the task. They heard the question, they immediately landed on an intuitive, plausible-sounding answer, and they just accepted it without questioning.

That’s how our brains work. The fact that these students were smart, successful, and hard-working was irrelevant. If anything, research suggests that being smart, (or "cognitively sophisticated"), makes people more susceptible to these types of errors, not less. In the case of consistency, a bunch of very smart, talented, accomplished fantasy football experts heard a story that was so self-evidently true that they never bothered to check whether it was actually true.

It is because of this phenomenon that one of my personal aphorisms is “There are few things as dangerous as a plausible narrative.” Plausibility is a drug that lulls us into complacency. It causes us to accept without verifying. Some of the greatest fantasy malpractice will be committed in the name of “common sense”. Instead, I would encourage everyone to develop a little bit of uncommon sense. We must start questioning things that sound intuitively right with the same tenacity we typically reserve for questioning things that sound intuitively wrong. We must engage in a daily struggle against the temptation to shut down our critical faculties in the face of reasonable statements; and make no mistake, it is a daily struggle. When our thinking is naturally lazy, we must begin to think unnaturally.

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