Head-To-Head Fantasy: You’re Never Good, Only Lucky

We’re two weeks into the baseball season, which means most teams have played about 13 games. Nobody would ever judge a baseball player’s season on such a small sample size—but 13 games is how long most fantasy football regular seasons are.

Because of this, it requires a great deal of luck to be successful in your fantasy football league. Most leagues feature weekly head-to-head matchups. So my team does not have to perform well—it just has to be better than whoever I happen to be playing. My team could have its worst week and win, or its best week and lose. Whoever I happen to be playing each week and how they happen to do is simply determined by luck.

Fantasy baseball though, with its long season requires much more skill—doesn’t it?

You may recall the Law of Large Numbers from statistics class (or from this Wikipedia article). This Law states that if you are looking to find the average of whatever, the more times you can run the experiment, the better. For example, if you want to find out the batting average for the league, collecting data from every at-bat over an entire season will get you a much more accurate picture than if you calculate the batting average of players during one random inning.

This is why nobody labels a baseball player as being good or bad after just 13 games.

So you would think that despite the luck-filled head-to-head matchups in fantasy leagues, the team with the best players will eventually come out on top at the end. Matthew Berry did an experiment with this very concept after last year’s baseball season.

Berry allowed readers to create teams with any players they wanted, based on the stats from 2012—which had already been completed. Already knowing every player’s stats, readers easily picked the best players at each position. Then without repeating any players, Berry was able to create teams to beat them all.

How? This can happen with any scoring system, but I’m going to use a points system for simplicity’s sake. In this league each team has three players and Team A plays Team B three times. A player with a great week will be over 80 points, whereas average is somewhere in the 40s.

Luck

In Week 1, Players A, B, and C all have fantastic weeks and Team A destroys Team B, which has three players who were merely average. During Week 2, all of the players have average weeks, but Team B is able to squeak out a win by a few points. The teams are now both 1-1. In the final week, Players E and F have above average weeks, whereas Players A, B, C, and D are all average once again. Team B wins for the second straight week.

Team-wise Team B is 2-1 and ahead of Team A in the standings. However, if you take a look at individual performance over the season, all three players on Team A are superior to all three players on Team B. Even more surprising is that Team A has far more overall points than Team B, even though they are 1-2.

Very few fantasy teams will consist of just three players, but despite an infinite number of team combinations and scoring systems, this basic pattern of teams with better players losing more games can and likely will manifest itself in almost every league.

Who cares though, what does this mean? Having the best record in a head-to-head league is all that counts as far as winning the league goes, and it is entirely luck. Because even if you are smarter than everyone else in your league, have the most accurate projections, and construct the best team, as we have just seen you can still lose.

What you want is a team that is good week in and week out, not great one week and suck the next. The when they are good is just as meaningful as how good they are. But while many projection systems can predict in the ballpark (pun intended) how well a player will perform, nobody can predict when they will do well or poorly.

And this makes it very similar to real life: The goal is not to be the best team, the goal is to win the championship. And the best team very rarely wins the championship.

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