Daily Fantasy Primer Vol. 1

One of FbR’s main focuses will be on Daily Fantasy Baseball (“DFB”). For the uninitiated, DFB is a game, often played on sites like DraftKings and FanDuel, that allows individuals to play in a fantasy league that operates for only one day. The would-be player evaluates the slate of games for that night / afternoon and constructs a roster, under a set salary cap, whose fantasy success depends on the real life success of its players.

There are a variety of different games and tournaments to compete in. Players can play for real money – with a wager as little as $1 wager or as high as $25,000 – or just for fun. There are three main tournament types of compete in: head-to-head, double ups (sometimes referred to as cash games) and tournaments. Double up and tournament leagues can be small, featuring only five to 10 players, or large, with over 25,000 entrants.

The options are limitless and create for a novel experience each time. The real beauty of DFB is the frequency of games and the dynamics of how match-ups can be evaluated. Since baseball games are held nearly every day, a DFB player can draft a bad roster and lose some money one night but start fresh and try their wares again the next day. And they can do so intelligently, with a slew of advanced statistics at their grasp to find the perfect lineup.

For those who are analytically inclined this is almost like a dream hobby, with a fresh set of variables to analyze every 24 hours. For those who simply want to add a little extra spice to their baseball watching experience it is also great for that. But regardless of who you are, it makes the six month plod through the baseball season much more interesting. And if you commit to it, your baseball knowledge will increase exponentially and you might even make a little money out of it.

I would be remiss not to mention one caveat: the frequency of games and availability to bet large sums of money can spell disaster for the uneducated and/or addictive player.  There is real money at stake after all, and DFB is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Think of it like walking into a Las Vegas Casino and setting up on the Texas Hold ‘Em table. You better know what you’re doing beforehand otherwise you’ll get fleeced. In fact, many of the best DFB players are former poker professionals who use the poker principles to make money with fantasy baseball.

But we’re all consenting adults here. I trust the reader to be responsible enough to take losses with grace and keep their humility on hot streaks. The purpose of this series will be to lay the groundwork for anyone interested in starting DFB or looking to strengthen their skill.

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Basic Roster Construction

Drafting a DFB team is very similar to drafting a standard fantasy team, especially one in an auction league. If you were to draft a team on DraftKings, you’d need to fill out:

C, 1B, 2B, SS, 3B, OF, OF, OF with two SPs

FanDuel is much the same, but only requires one starter. I personally prefer two starters, because given DraftKing’s $50,000 salary cap, it forces the player (and the rest of the field) to be more resourceful in finding good, undervalued pitchers. More strategy equals more opportunities to differentiate oneself from everyone else, which means greater chances at success.

The best hitters – the Mike Trouts and Bryce Harpers of the world – will typically cost around $5,500 to $6,000 on a given night. The best pitchers, on the other hand, might cost upwards of $13,000. If one rosters a Chris Sale or Cory Kluber, who will assuredly cost 30%+ of the team’s budget, then that leaves scant funds to be spent elsewhere, and all but guarantees that the second pitcher selected will need to bring real value. But whether one should draft the stud ace is a complicated discussion, dependent on the match-ups of the day and what type of contest one is playing. We’ll expand upon this in more detail in a later post.

Value, value, value

One mistake that early DFB players make is taking too much of a traditional fantasy approach to evaluating their nightly roster. They surmise, “oh, I would love to have Charlie Blackmon on my year-long fantasy team, so I definitely want him on my DFB team”. Similarly, they think that, since Mitch Moreland isn’t that good and doesn’t hit everyday, “I don’t want him”.

The fact is, on a given night, Mitch Moreland could be the most valuable pick in all of DFB. That’s because a player’s value in DFB is as much a function of their price as their real-world ability.

Charlie Blackmon, especially if the Rockies are at home, could cost north of $6,000 on DraftKings. If he puts up 12 points that night he was worth 2x his cost. Mitch Moreland is more likely to cost in the $3,500 range, and to be worth 2x only needs to earn 7 points.  This is especially relevant for pitchers. If one drops $13,500 on Chris Sale, he’ll need to earn 27 points (!!!) to be worth 2x. Even at their prices Blackmon and Sale could still be good plays, it’s just that the savy DFB player always needs to contemplate how their players need to perform to justify their price.

What I’m saying might sound obvious, but it’s one of the most important facets of daily fantasy. Our pre-conceived notions about who’s good and who’s not can lead us to err in multiple ways in terms of lineup selection. Putting together the optimal lineup takes some time and tinkering, and a selection of Sale and several Blackmon-like players will leave managers pinching for pennies to fill out the last spots on their team.

Start looking at price first and the player’s name second. If a player costs a lot, or the price recently shot up, become skeptical and research whether they’re worth the cost. In many cases they will be. But in some cases they won’t, and it’s upon that realization that you gain an advantage on the competition.

Match-ups Matter

This won’t be the last time I talk about how important match-ups are in the scheme of DFB success. For instance, if one is intent on drafting Bryce Harper, but the Nationals are going up against Madison Bumgarner, it might be smart to fade (i.e, don’t draft) Harper for that night because he’s probably overvalued at his asking price.

Or, if someone had their eyes on stacking (i.e., drafting a bunch of players from the same team) the Cincinnati Reds, and they’re playing in the bandbox that is Coors Field that night, that strategy might appear smarter than if they were playing in San Francisco’s AT&T Park.

Those are the obvious match-up plays. So obvious, in fact, that DraftKings and FanDuel have adjusted the prices for players going up against stud pitchers or playing in ballparks like Coors to reflect those match-ups. These price adjustments make it harder to derive value in employing those match-up strategies.

But oh, there is so much more. Most of the stats quoted in the baseball universe are mean figures  – and by mean, I mean average (huh?). For instance, Josh Reddick has a .795 OPS since 2015. That is an average figure, taking into account the individual combination of his OPS in a variety of different circumstances (or splits, in baseball parlance). At home, away, verse lefties, verse righties, in the spring, in the fall, etc. What we want to find is significant deviation in splits, because this creates opportunity in DFB. Whereas sites like DraftKings and FanDuel are quick to adjust the prices of players with obvious match-up pros and cons, they don’t typically adjust for the more subtle ones.

In the case of Josh Reddick, his OPS was .853 verse righties and .599 verse lefties since 2015. So yeah, if you were to draft Reddick in DFB when the Astros are facing a lefty, that would be like rostering Adam Rosales or Trevor Plouffe. Obviously you don’t want to do that. Conversely, he’s likely worth more than his salary against righties. The funny thing bout Reddick’s platoon splits is that he’s still an everyday player, with almost 25% of his plate appearances coming against lefties. That creates opportunity.

Reddick is but one example. The lefty/right split is a prominent one and affects many players, and its one the fantasy sites don’t usually adjust for properly. Other, more granular splits exist, like success against flyball v. groundball pitchers. Ballpark splits are also important, not so much in how a specific player has done historically at a park, but more regarding how that ballpark and its dimensions play to where the hitter typically hits the ball. Did you also know that weather is a significant factor too? If a game gets rained out all players accrue zero points in DFB – clearly not a good thing for fielding a successful roster. There is also a direct correlation between runs scored and game time temperatures.

Top-down or Bottom-up?

There are two main ways to construct a DFB roster. The Top-down approach focuses on finding specific games that are attractive for fantasy purposes, and then selecting players from those games. The Bottom-up system targets individual players who are smart plays across a variety of games. Both have their pros and cons.

For instance, the Twins, who (let’s pretend) crush flyball-inclined right-handed pitchers, are going up against Nick Pivetta of the Phillies on a hot summer afternoon. The Twins become an attractive team to target in general, and you might want to consider rostering multiple players from the team. Now our lineup is  filled out your 2B with Brian Dozier, 3B with Miguel Sano and one outfield spot with Max Kepler. We also know that we don’t be picking Nick Pivetta as a pitcher. This is the top-down approach.

The Top-down approach is great because it takes a lot of hard work out of the equation. There is no need to scour splits for every hitter against every pitcher with a much narrower field. The Top-down approach also allows the DFB player to better utilize Las Vegas betting odds to their advantage. On strategy is to find games with high over/unders (the amount of total runs that will be scored in the game for both teams) and target offensive players on those teams.

The issue with the Top-down approach is that it overlooks potentially outstanding individual values. One recurring valuable fantasy player last season was Nationals outfielder Brian Goodwin. He was a nondescript 26-year old career minor leaguer who found himself getting serious at bats atop Washington’s lineup later in the season. He was very cheap, in the $3,000s for much of the year. Despite him not being a terrific hitter, coming that cheap in the #2 hole of the Washington lineup is terrific value. Goodwin would be a player you’d want to roster a lot, even if Washington didn’t have a great match-up. Similarly, recent call-ups are often very cheap as well. And from our previous discussion on match-up splits, we know that some players might individually be great values in a certain game even if their overall team isn’t projected to fair as well.

Ideal roster construction should employ a mix of both approaches. I like to start with the Top-down approach and find a very solid match-up to stack against. If there are multiple good match-ups I might stack players from two teams. From there I will fill in the cracks with my short-list of guys who I know are great individual plays and present tremendous surplus value.

 

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