In Defense of Trade Calculators

By Doug Ludemann (@SubstanceD3)




Welcome to the fantasy offseason where your average fantasy analysists are still convinced that their relative inability to predict the future in past seasons will be rectified THIS season, while casual fantasy managers all over the globe are bemoaning their particular serving of bad “luck”, which was served unto them in more than a dollop this past season.


In this season where hubris is celebrated and nuanced opinions typically bemoaned as equivocation, when we all gain collective amnesia regarding fantasy season’s past; we’re actually conferred the perfect circumstances to challenge some of the fantasy dogma we treat as common-sense aphorisms throughout the regular season.

With this in mind, few topics are as polarizing in fantasy sports as the use of trade calculators. Some fantasy managers swear by them, most just swear at them. I’d contend that many fantasy managers use them incorrectly, thus leading to their ignominy.


Given the proper usage, the information that trade calculators provide can be very useful in facilitating a successful trade. However, if you interpret or utilize the information therein incorrectly, not only will you stand a pretty decent chance of undermining the talent-base on your roster, but you stand the chance of alienating potential trade partners as well, potentially dooming your chances of making a successful trade with that manager in the future.


Market Value

The first key to finding value in the trade calculator’s findings is to understand what those calculators are trying to tell you: approximate (and sometimes dynamic) market value. Most trade calculators make minimal effort to try and decide if the trade is a “good” trade, they merely look at the trade in terms of the exchange of the value of fungible goods.


Look at it this way, many items in our world hold a value that is far above what the actual product should be worth. These “fetish properties” like comic books, trading cards, sports memorabilia, or even classic cars all gain value because of one simple facet: people desire them. This 1964 Mustang currently available for nearly $40k is not superior to a modern stock Mustang (MSRP: From $27,205) in any single performance metric. But it’s the market economy that determines the actual monetary value of those vehicles, not stats in excel tables…much like fantasy players.


This obviously implies that if you’re going to need to rely on the car’s performance, the modern Mustang is the better bet. But if you want others to drool at the sight of your car, perhaps the vintage muscle car is the better option. Consider this when making a fantasy trade: will it make my team perform better, or just look better? Adjust accordingly.


That, and that that trade calculators can only give you a value you should hope to achieve, or exceed, in return for that player, not the value you should be insisting that player is “worth”. Remember, in the end, a share of any player is only “worth” what that manager is willing to give. Your job is to discern their valuation of those players, not insist on the veracity of your own valuations.


Context

I can’t believe I even have to put this into print, but considering some of the offers I’m receiving this time of year, this redundancy seems obligatory: context is everything in evaluating fantasy trades.


Consider the following trade evaluation from Dynasty Trade Calculator:



Beyond the obvious contextual issues of league settings, on its face, this is what I would call a “fair” offer, with both sides getting a similar market value for their fantasy asset. However, whether or not you accept this trade has everything to do with the context with which your team is currently operating. Does the trade leave the manager on the left with no starting TE option? Then it is the epitome of a bad trade, and an easy smash-reject non-counter situation. Similarly, if the manger on the left already has a stable of young RB assets that stand a good chance of maintaining or accruing market value in the near-term, this is again a bad offer that stands a good chance of rejection. However, if the player on the left happens to have Kyle Pitts on his roster as well, then this may be perceived as a win by that manager.


Context doesn’t always include a manager’s depth at the position in question, context often means the state of the team in terms of its competitiveness in the league. Are you rebuilding? If you are, you’re potentially not going to desire an aging player as much as the young RB or perhaps a package of draft picks. Exchanging one high-value player for several assets likely to appreciate in value is a literal key to my dynasty 101 strategy, and in reverse two quality assets can net you a single elite fantasy asset.


Offering contextually relevant trade offers is absolutely essential in establishing a reliable trading partner. The alternative is simply that your trade offers will receive less consideration and you’ll receive fewer counter offers, and any imbalance in the trade offer will have it more likely perceived as a “low-ball” offer, simply because of its lack of contextual relevance.


Lagging Updatability

In a point I have made over and over again, not all fantasy players are playing the game the same way, or for the same reasons. During the offseason, some managers turn off notifications from their league and concentrate on March Madness, or even on their respective lives, careers, and families. Other fantasy football managers spend the offseason grinding tape and updating their models, searching for the next great fantasy players out of a group of largely unknown prospects. There are even those who won’t find out how free agency played out until August, and those that have Adam Schefter on push notifications on their Twitter machine.


Inasmuch as I’ve always recommended buying rumors and selling on news, some fantasy players simply can’t be bothered to stay up to date on all the NFL scuttlebutt. Were you selling your Clyde Edwards-Helaire shares along with the rumors and reports of an imminent signing of Ronald Jones? The problem is that in the days and weeks following a blockbuster NFL trade, the values on fantasy trade calculators will still reflect players original teams, not an updated contextual evaluation based on their new destinations.


Calculators that operate exclusively based on a group-think interface like KeepTradeCut.com, where user opinions literally dictate dynamic player values are an improvement, as it generally takes only a few days for player values to adjust after large NFL moves, minimizing the opportunity for managers to move players under false pretenses. However, group-think valuations are prone to errors of perception, and players unpopular with the group have diminished values, whereas trendy players have their value artificially inflated regardless of their actual contributions on the field. Regardless, a simple internet search of the players in a trade offer can tell you immediately if and why those players have been in the news recently.


Nickel and Diming

One of the more frustrating results of people using calculators incorrectly is the tendency to make nickel and dime trades, where a selection of moderately valued assets are packaged together in an attempt to obtain a single more valuable asset, as demonstrated by this extreme example of nickel and diming below.


The calculator indicates that that collection of misfit toys on the right has a value equivalent to George Kittle, yet you’d have to be in an awful pickle to even consider such a trade.



Players like Terrace Marshall, who rarely saw the field their first season, don’t stand a tremendous chance of accruing fantasy value through time. Likewise, older players like Melvin Gordon or Julio Jones have questionable probability of maintaining fantasy value in even the near-term, where a serious injury could make them a cut-candidate in smaller leagues, or roster-cloggers in deeper leagues.


Don’t get me wrong, if you’re rebuilding and you’ve got the roster space, moving a single key asset for a package of assets can absolutely work in your favor, particularly if those assets stand the chance of appreciating in market value in the near-term. However, that necessarily implies that every asset in that trade is better than the worst asset on the far-bottom end of your roster. Depending on the settings in your league, you may have to drop players (sometimes immediately) once the trade is accepted. I suggest you subtract that value from your side when evaluating a potential trade, knowing that you’ll have to purge that player value to get the trade processed.


Thus, you can see that the trade is no longer a net zero valuation but rather a lopsided trade in the favor of the more valuable stud player.


Also keep in mind that empty roster spots have a definite value in fantasy, especially leading up to the rookie drafts. In the example above the manager giving up the stable of players will be able to use those spots to add lottery ticket type waiver additions, potentially even adding the players you’ve just cut to process the trade.


If you were to reevaluate the trade above, you’d see that much of value from the right side would be offset by the purging of value from your roster to accommodate those new players. Aside from the fact that one player is giving up a productive “stud” player, it doesn’t really matter that the calculator thinks this is a “fair” trade, and the numerical values you see in the image are only telling you a fraction of the values changing hands with the trade.


You Don’t Have to Win the Trade

One of the more frustrating trading partners is the player who feels obligated to “win” all trades. As bemusing as this stance may be, its probably short-sighted regardless. As we all know, the difference between pre-season projections and a player’s end-of-season finish is often a gulf wider than the Grand Canyon. I’ve demonstrated a correlation coefficient between Fantasy Pros consensus WR projections and that season’s end of year finish of R^2 = 0.68 (this number varies between negative one for a perfect negative correlation and value of one for a perfect correlation), a value that demonstrates both the overall utility of preseason projections, and the considerable margin for error and improvement.


Thus, in some instances, the only way to “win” a trade, is for a manager to accurately project a player’s production, and a willingness to bet on their projection over that of the consensus projections. In that sense, a manager can objectively lose a trade in the near-term, and win the same trade after on-field performance induces the evolution of consensus perceptions.


As savvy fantasy footballers have seemingly been echoing for generations, exploiting the difference between your opinion and that of the general consensus is the surest way to fantasy success…provided your opinion is well-informed, of course. That, plus the reality that most fantasy value is based on consensus perception, much like the aforementioned playing cards or classic cars.


High Fidelity

That’s why I maintain that it is valuable to view all trades you’re offered/offering in terms of the general consensus values offered in trade calculators, at least initially, this rather than by the values with which you personally hold those players. Search the news and social media for those discussions of those players. Begin from a position of, “What were they thinking?” when you’re offered a trade. Even if you don’t like the offer, you should be able to discern those who are attempting to craft a legitimate trade offer, those who are trying to pass off players with damaged stock over market value, or those simply looking to buy on rumors for pennies on the dollar.


Fantasy success is literally predicated on embracing the reality that fantasy value is most often based on perceived value. Perhaps you’re not much of Mustang guy and would value a similar Corvette Stingray more greatly. More poignantly, perhaps, like myself, you’re not as high on Cam Akers as the consensus seems to be. That would imply that Aker’s value in trade is higher than Aker’s value to you. Finding the league-mate that concurs with this valuation and extracting every last bit of Aker’s market value should then be your goal. Rather than being dubious or flat-out dishonest, the ability to perceive and exploit the difference between your projection and that of the consensus remains one of the single best ways to improve your chances of dynasty success. As John Cusack’s character in the cult-classic High Fidelity said, “Fetish properties are not unlike porn. I'd feel guilty taking their money, if I wasn't... well... kinda one of them.”


Happy hunting.

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