Luck Is A Fantasy

It has been brought to my attention that in the year 2021 there are still those who believe that much of the outcome of fantasy football is due to something they call “luck”. Apparently, some people attribute their occasional lack of success to bad “luck”. The corollary to that assertion of course is that their wins were equally influenced by good “luck”.


The problem is that is not what we see in fantasy football. Anybody who’s been in a long-running fantasy league knows that there are good fantasy managers and there are some not-so-good managers. Are those managers who find themselves in the playoffs year after year luckier than the manager who rarely makes the post-season?


I think not.


So then, what is luck and how does it impact fantasy football?

 

Semantics

Wikipedia (the world’s foremost expert on all things) calls luck “the phenomenon and belief that defines the experience of notably positive, negative, or improbable events.” The problem is how improbable the event actually maybe is often a matter of debate and often with a degree of subjectivity.


Consider for a moment the quintessential icon of good luck, the four-leaf clover. Obviously, the biological default for the clover plant is three leaflets, or what the indoor kids call a trifoliate leaf. The probability of an errant multifoliate plant with four leaflets is about 1 in 5000. Not impossible, just unlikely, especially if you find one without inspecting about 5000 plants. Thus, the occurrence of an unlikely event within a small sample is what we like to call “luck”.


Yet, if you have a football-size field covered with one clover plant per inch, how many four-leaf clovers will you have? The area of a football field is 48,000 square feet, which is over 6.9 million square inches, with a roughly equal number of clover plants. This means that that there are probably at least a thousand of those four-leaf clovers per football field of clover. That’s an awful lot of luck.


But what about truly unforeseen events? Calvin Ridley was put on the IR due to his struggles with mental illness, for example. Nobody could have predicted that, right? Obvious bad luck.


Consider for a moment throwing six-sided dice. The probability of rolling any one of the six outcomes on a dice is equal. Throw three of those dice and you now have three unique organic outcomes, let’s say you rolled a 2 on the first dice, a 3 on the second, and a 5 on the third. Are you impressed with the outcome? Does it feel lucky? You could roll those dice another 200+ times, you may never see that combination of numbers again. Is there inherently anything special about outcomes 2, 3, or 5? No, of course not, unless of course if we provide a prize for the person who rolls this outcome.


This is why when we roll the dice unless it’s a combination of numbers that seem unlikely such as 6,1,2 (my phone area code) or 1,2,3 for example, we don’t feel like it was improbable. We literally expect some random set of outcomes, an outcome of 2,3,5 satisfies this expectation. Events like rolling 6,1,2 or 1,2,3 feels inherently “lucky”, even though it has the exact same likelihood as rolling 2,3,5 in this example.


Thus, some outcomes conjure feelings of luck, rather than the outcome being just as likely as many others. In addition, we know Ridley isn’t the first player to miss time due to mental illness, nor will he be the last, making it far from unforeseen. This is especially true given how little information we’re typically given about players who have “non-injury related absences” and thus we can only guesstimate the probability of this potential outcome.

 

Probabilities

Speaking of probabilities, you’re probably not going to win your fantasy league this year. Oh, you’re the highest-scoring team? Does your title feel inevitable? Well, it’s not. Actually, it’s still quite improbable as a matter of fact. How can I say that so confidently? Easy math, that’s how.


Most fantasy platforms will produce a percentage of win likelihood on your head-to-head matchups. Without even discussing their relative accuracy, most of the time we see percentage likelihoods close to that 40-60% range, especially in the playoffs where the “unlucky” low-scoring teams have already been eliminated from the sample. With two possible outcomes to any playoff matchup (win or lose) defined by those percentages, you can literally calculate your probability of winning by simply multiplying the probabilities of each event. If you have a first-round bye, with a 50/50 shot of winning either week, you only have a 25% chance of winning the ship. If you don’t have that bye, the chances are literally half that.


Oh, your team is good you say? Inevitable? If you have a 70% chance of winning against a field of playoff teams and have a first-round bye, you still have less than a 50% chance of hoisting that fantasy trophy. If you don’t have that bye, your chance of winning is only about 34%, which is not in any way inevitable. Adam Harstad did a tremendous write-up regarding this phenomenon for the FootballGuys blog.


Don’t believe us? Flip a coin three times in a row, did it land heads every time? Chances are it didn’t. If it did, is that luck? If it didn’t, was your luck bad?


If you manage your expectations about the likelihood of winning it all as closer to that 10-20% range after gaining your playoff berth, losing feels much less “unlucky”.

 

Injuries

Injuries are unpredictable. No? Well, kinda…and then again, kinda not.


Sure, it sucks when a player goes down mid-game derailing your fantasy matchup…along with their careers and livelihoods. However, there are probabilities attached to all things, and injuries are no different. Research indicates that rushing back after ACL reconstruction is correlated to an elevated risk of re-injury, as is increasing age.

Soft tissue injuries, like groin and hamstring injuries, have notoriously difficult to predict recoveries and elevated chances of re-injury, just ask Curtis Samuel or Julio Jones. Both had an essentially lost fantasy season due to nagging soft-tissue injuries, as did managers who built rosters that depended on the success of those players.


While I don’t necessarily subscribe to the injury-prone label, certain players may be more “prone” to injury due to their playing style, despite the absence of any biological facet that inherently makes injury more likely. Chris Carson missed most of this year due to a neck injury. That he invites contact on seemingly every play has been suggested as the cause of this injury, as well as some of his past injuries. A similar concept could be applied to say Mike Williams, who throws caution, and his body, to the wind on just about every catch. As a result, nobody is particularly surprised when either of these players misses time due to injury.


Additionally, as is the case for so many events that seem improbable, like the four-leaf clover, for example, the exact probability of an injury is always non-zero. Thus, losing a player to injury is something you need to consider as a possible outcome on any given Sunday and manage your expectations based on that chaotic reality.

 

Covid

Who can predict who’s going to catch Covid on any given week? Surely it’s just bad luck. Right? Again, kind of, but then again, not really. Common-sense behaviors from limiting your time in the general public (at bars or restaurants, for example) to simply wearing a mask (properly), can limit your exposure and decrease the likelihood of experiencing severe illness, as well as your chances of getting infected in the first place.


Ask yourself, is that player the kind of guy who’s going to go home after the game kiss his wife and then tuck in his kids, or the kind of player that’s going to get in a scuffle outside the club after it closes at 2 am?


Even if you ignore those convenient truths, the NFL spells out its Covid policy in plain black and white. If you’re vaccinated, regardless of what you personally believe about the vaccines, you’re simply less likely to miss games.


It really is that simple folks.


Lastly, these football players do not live in a bubble. They’re out there in the community with the rest of us dirty plebians. Ask yourself, are the covid numbers higher in LA or SF? Florida or Washington state? Michigan or Denver?


Regardless of what your personal feelings might be, the NFL has rules and protocols the teams must follow, providing us with actionable information about the game upon which we’re betting. And in this game, any small edge can be the difference between a winning week and a losing week.

 

So then, how do you minimize “Luck”?

Have I been able to convince you that luck is simply what we call an outcome we didn’t see as likely? No?


Fine, then perhaps I’ll be able to convince you that there are ways to minimize the impact of the (seemingly) unpredictable. Make no mistake, I’m not telling you I’m better at predicting events than you, I simply work proactively to minimize the impact of chaos on my fantasy rosters.

 

Activity and Discipline

First, while it may not have been entirely predictable when and where a player would miss games, generally speaking, we have up to a week to make our pivots. Oh, you missed out on Tyler Huntly on waivers? Sucks to suck, but that ain’t luck.


Additionally, as Robert Redford’s character, Nathan Muir asked in the underrated movie Spy Game, “When did Noah build the Ark?”


Then answering his own question, “Before the rain.”


So, when do you pick up the handcuffs? Before you need them, obviously. Redraft or dynasty, if you’re not trying to add talent to improve your managed rosters from week-1 through the championship week, you are absolutely doing it wrong. I added Alvin Kamara off-waivers his rookie season, James Robinson as well. Both propelled me to a championship, neither were “necessary” adds nor pivots from injured players. Elijah Mitchell was a popular waiver pickup and almost certainly helped a few managers gain playoff berths.


Simply staying informed about injury status can give you an edge as well. Do you follow Schefty on the Twitter machine and know that the rest of your league mates aren’t the kind of sadists who subject themselves to Twitter? Then you have a decided advantage over your league. Regardless, make your moves swiftly, anticipating any absences as best you can. Simply beating your opponents to the waiver wire by a few hours will give you a decided advantage in most leagues.


There’s also more to sit/start decisions than simply who is projected for the most points. In this day and age, every fantasy analyst provides weekly reminders for managers to remove early island game players from their flex spots. Many still fail to do so, denying themselves the ability to pivot from an RB to a WR/TE should their stud RB miss a game due to injury prior to MNF or the Sunday slate.


Additionally, in head-to-head matchups, you should be playing your opponent, not always simply picking your players with the highest possible projections. Consider starting volatile players, like Tyler Lockett for example, if you see yourself as an underdog. Lockett may average 15.1 PPR points per game, but he’s also one of the few players who could put up 40-plus fantasy points on any given Sunday.

If you see yourself as the likely matchup winner, but that the outcome will be closer than you prefer, perhaps you choose a player with a lower ceiling but with a floor elevated above Lockett’s floor of essentially zero. You obviously need to have a similar player to which you can pivot, and it certainly isn’t bad luck if you don’t have one.


Do you have two legit QB options heading into Sunday? Is one of them linked to your opponent’s top receiving options? Because he may have Davante Adams; but if you start Rodgers and you’re getting 4-6 points every time Adams scores a TD, you’re effectively neutralizing the impact that their best player can have on the outcome of your matchup.

In terms of mitigating the impact of Covid, do you have a startable player going early Thursday and a roughly equal player going Monday? Then there’s a very compelling reason to start the guy playing on Thursday, if simply because of the non-zero probability of losing that Monday player to a positive Covid test.


Players also miss time due to suspensions. Perhaps you should include a “knucklehead demerit” to your player evaluations because it’s not as if the missed playing time for Antonio Brown or Chase Claypool this season was unprecedented.

 

Format

Lastly, as improbable as it may seem to me, people still prefer snake drafts. I don’t understand it, as it feels like inviting the influence of randomness into your draft process. Random choice determines who gets the 1.01 and who is stuck with 1.07. Oh, you want Jonathan Taylor on your squad? Hope you get “lucky” on draft day.

Third-round-reversal definitely removes a bit of the imbalance, but you’re still stuck taking players in a range where you may prefer “none” as an option. You can reach for a player you like of course, but throwing away draft capital is rarely a winning strategy.

My preference of course is to employ an auction draft where you’re allowed to build a team any way you choose, spending draft capital as you see fit. I like to eschew expensive talent in drafts and opt for assets with a greater likelihood to appreciate in value. I can load up on players that would have gone in rounds 4-8 in a standard snake and pair them with a handful of promising rookies that I can obtain on the cheap. My team might not look like a playoff team at the end of the draft, but by the time byes start rolling in, my deep squad usually outcompetes the less balanced rosters, even if that is due to attrition of absences due to injury, illness, or suspension.


You can do the same by trading away your blue-chip players of course, but that requires a trade partner, limiting the player pool significantly.


Additionally, adding a game against the league median eliminates the most common cited anecdote: I scored the second-most points and lost. Hey, I’ve been there. I once started a season 0-6 and led the league in points at the same time. Had we had a league median rule, I would have had a far more palatable 6-6 record.


A selection of the geekier fantasy players also espouse the use of a point per first down scoring format, or perhaps a hybrid of PPR and PPFD, as first down scoring has less year-over-year volatility than does PPR scoring finishes. I have written at length about the virtues of aligning yourself with predictive and sticky stats, scoring your league based on this type of metric will lessen the impact of scoring volatility on your league’s matchup outcomes.


So, instead of complaining about how bad luck ruined your fantasy season, work instead on improving your game and your league format as well. It’s also a good idea to manage your expectations using actual probabilities and embrace the reality that not everything is perfectly predictable. Insulating yourself from the chaos is a better bet than becoming the proverbial old man yelling at a cloud.


There’s no reason that in 2021 we still need to call losing strategies and old-fashioned league formats “bad luck”.

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