Fantasy, in Theory: Stop Fixing Your Roster

Every team has holes. They probably won't sink you. Don't commit fantasy malpractice in the name of filling them.

As we mark off the last few days of the month of October, we start to get a pretty good feel for what kind of team we have to work with this year in fantasy football. We know which of our early round picks were tricks, and which of our late ones are treats.

Armed with that knowledge, most fantasy football owners are assessing their roster and lining up trades ahead of the oncoming deadline. For most of them, this means finding their biggest weaknesses— the holes on their roster— and trying to find a palatable way to fill them.

Personally, judging from the most common trade questions I receive, I think most would be far better off if they just stopped doing that.

Leaving Well Enough Alone

To explain what I mean, the two most common trade questions I get boil down to “should I trade (two good players) for (one great player)?” or “should I trade (one great player) for (two good players)?” I’d guess that at least 75% of the time, my answer to the former is “yes” and my answer to the latter is “no”.

Moreover, when I answer “yes” to the first question, the usual response I receive is “but would you be okay having to start (mediocre to bad player) on a weekly basis if I trade away (good player)?”

And the answer to that question is always, 100% of the time, “yes I would”. I am extremely comfortable playing roster dross on a weekly basis.

Psychologists trace this fascination with holes and the filling thereof back to early childhood development, and in particular the first lost tooth. (This is not the slightest bit true, but it sounds profound, and I’ve never met a 6-year-old with a missing tooth who doesn’t spend at least an hour a day probing his or her tongue into the empty socket.)

But this also represents a fundamental misunderstanding of what leads to success in fantasy football. Most owners seem to be concerned with shoring up their weaknesses, but the team that wins it all is typically not the team with the strongest weaknesses. Instead, it is the team with the strongest strengths, irrespective of holes.

The reason for this is simple. Most of us are probably familiar with a “normal” or “bell-shaped” distribution of outcomes. Normal distributions feature most outcomes clustering tightly around the center, with outliers on the extreme becoming less and less common as you move further away in either direction.

But fantasy football production isn’t normally distributed. Instead, it follows a “power-law” distribution. The example I used to illustrate this in that last article is as follows: in NFL history, there has been one season in history where a running back scored over 400 points, seven seasons with 350-400 points, 27 seasons with 300-350 points, 97 seasons with 250-300 points, 225 seasons with 200-250 points, 532 seasons with 150-200 points, and 1057 seasons with 100-150 points. (These numbers don’t include data from the 2015 season, but the larger shape remains unchanged.)

In a power-law distribution, the value of top-end performers positively dwarfs that of their peers further down the spectrum.

What This Means in Practice

I suspect if you asked most owners whether they’d rather have the #1 and #36 running backs, or the #12 and #13 running backs, they would choose the latter. After all, who wouldn’t rather have two borderline-RB1 types than a stud and a guy who wouldn’t even be a good backup, let alone starter?

But that is the wrong choice, at least if the goal is winning fantasy football games.

Let’s look at 2015. The #1 running back in PPR scoring last season, Devonta Freeman, scored 320.9 points. The #36 running back, Ryan Matthews, scored 130.5. Meanwhile, the #12 and #13 backs scored 203.4 (Ingram) and 199.7 (McFadden).

The #1 running back and the terrible backup outscored the really strong starting duo by nearly fifty points in 2015. In fact, in order to break even against the #12/#13 duo, the #1 running back would have had to be paired with Spencer Ware, the #60 running back. That’s a low-end RB5!

(This might even understate matters; the Le’Veon Bell / DeAngelo Williams duo outperformed even Devonta Freeman by 20 points in PPR, and to match the #12/#13 duo would have to be paired with the #74 or #75 fantasy running back— Benny Cunningham or Bishop Sankey.)

2015 was not an outlier in this regard. The #1 running back and a virtual nobody will outscore a pair of really solid starters pretty much every year. (In 2006, the “virtual nobody” part wasn’t even necessary; LaDainian Tomlinson scored more points than the #12 and #13 running backs all by himself.)

Nor is this a running back-specific situation. In 2015, the #1 wide receiver in PPR (Antonio Brown, with 382.2 points), trailed the combined score of the #12 and #13 receivers, (Calvin Johnson with 263.4 and Eric Decker with 254.7), by 135.9 points. That’s roughly what was scored by Cole Beasley, the #50 wide receiver.

So yeah, if starting Antonio Brown last year meant you were also stuck with Cole Beasley in another starting position… that’s not really a big deal. You’re still coming out just fine, because the top players at each position are just that good.

One Last Consideration

Let’s look at the Brown/Beasley vs. Johnson/Decker comparison from another angle. If the Johnson/Decker owner wants to improve his team, it’s pretty difficult to do so. In order to upgrade from either of his receivers, he needs to get a top-11 wide receiver in return.

But the Brown/Beasley owner? It’s trivially easy for him to get an upgrade. All he needs is a WR on waivers who outscores Cole Beasley, and there are tons of those guys available every year.

Let’s say the Brown/Beasley owner grabbed Reuben Randle. Randle finished the year as WR33 in points per reception, and he was available on waivers in plenty of leagues. Upgrading from Beasley to Randle— an easy upgrade— improved his year-end point total by fifty points. He went from a virtual tie with the Johnson/Decker owner to a dominant advantage, and it was easy.

This is the value of top-end stars. They are the most powerful force in fantasy football, and it is virtually impossible to replace them.

What I’m getting at is, if you have a major hole in your roster, you don’t need to weaken one of your strengths to improve on it. The worse your worst starter is, the easier it is to improve on him without spending a dime. Awfulness is an opportunity to improve.

So if you do find yourself looking over your team and there’s one name in your starting lineup that gives you a bit of a queasy feeling, know that you’re not alone, and definitely do try to improve there if you can. Just don’t consider weakening one of your biggest strengths to shore up a weakness as long as there are cheaper fixes available. And on the flip side, if you have an opportunity to acquire a true difference-maker, don't worry if it leaves one of your starting positions looking a little ugly.

Because in the end, the winning team is not going to be the one without any blemishes. It’s going to be the team whose players put up huge games at the right time. And the best way to do that is to not trade away the players most prone to putting up huge games.

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