Why One Should Draft Aggressively for Upside

In recent comments, I stated I'd rather have Braylon Edwards than Anthony Gonzalez (and that it was a no brainer) and also Michael Crabtree over a steadier option like Steve Breaston. While one can argue quite persuasively that the expected return in total fantasy points on Gonzalez and Edwards is close - and also that Breaston's is likely quite a bit higher than Crabtree's - especially in what's likely to be a run-heavy 49ers offense, those arguments miss a central point: that there's a bigger difference from second place and first, than second and last.

If we were talking about the stock market where every dollar counts equally, I think you'd be wise to pick the investments purely on the basis of expected return. If you swing for the fences too often, you'll get a five bagger occasionally, but you'll lose most of your investment on many others. The net might not be pretty, and for many, that kind of risk is unacceptable. Whether you are in the 80th percentile among investors or the 20th is all the difference to most people.

But in fantasy sports, the utility curve is far different. Winning is the goal, and the difference between finishing in the 20th and 80th percentile in your league is usually not that important. (There are some exceptions in leagues which pay good money a few places in and also for those that closely track average lifetime finish). But for the most part, it's about winning titles. In that case, each player must be evaluated differently - he needs a "chance that this pick wins me my league" factor.

Crabtree could score 10 touchdowns - he's a prototypical red-zone target on a team that lacks that. He could also do nothing. But Breaston is right now the Cards' third receiver, and while he's a better bet for 800-plus yards, he's not going to get targets in the red zone with Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin on the team. He has a lower "win your league factor" in my opinion.

Now, keep in mind that almost every player has *some* potential to break out, even ones we don't see coming. That DeAngelo Williams would score 20 TDs (and literally win hundreds of thousands of people their leagues), despite having Jonathan Stewart in the backfield with him was almost inconceivable. Same with Thomas Jones' monster year (check out how horrible his 2007 stats were), so one should realize that we're not always right in our upside projections, either.

But we do our best based on skill set, role, team context, etc., and try to get a handle on who the game changers are. We're not dealing in certainties - just possibilities. Every round after the second, you draft the player with the most plausible path to superstardom (given even a roughly comparable expected return).

The other reason this is a sound strategy (besides the steep climb in the second to first utility curve) is that unlike a stock, a player's floor is capped. If you buy a stock at 100, its value can go down to zero. But if you buy a player for a certain price, his value can only go down to replacement level. So even though Crabtree could be a nonfactor this year (and Breaston if healthy almost certainly won't), their downsides are not all that different because Breaston's is 750 yards and three TDs, hardly above replacement level in most leagues.

You should be less aggressive in the first two rounds because every player has the chance to be very good at that stage, and the replacement level floor is cold comfort in that case. Otherwise, swing for the fences.


By: Dalton Del Don
On: 7/4/2009 2:41:00 PM
I agree with this, but the one problem with your last point was this: Edwards was drafted so highly last year, it took a very long time to finally (if ever) bench him, and he was actually performing worse than replacement level. But I think your general point there had to do with later in drafts, and that makes sense. Plus, Edwards was a pretty crazy case.
By: Scott Pianowski
On: 7/4/2009 5:45:00 PM
I see the upside theory applying more in football, where one player can make a gigantic difference. In baseball, where your team in many formats is defined as much by depth as it is by studs, the Ibanez All-Stars have nice utilty, unsexy but reliable vets.

As for Anthony Gonzalez, to me, he *is* an upside player. Anyone playing regular pitch-and-catch with Peyton Manning could turn into another Brandon Stokley 2004.

One other thought: while chasing upside, you can't forget all about value. Consider how aggressively guys like Matt Wieters and David Price were pursued in March - in some leagues you saw owners brazenly saying "I'll pay whatever it takes" and forking over absurd prices. Even if they turn into All-Stars tonight, they're still loss-players relative to cost for 2009. Whenever buzz grossly inflates a player's cost in this manner, it's time to zag.
By: Scott Pianowski
On: 7/4/2009 6:04:00 PM
I also think the "title count" is the wrong way to look at fantasy goals. IMHO, the 1990s Braves are the model (consistent excellence, but just one title) more than the Florida Marlins (two titles in their history, but several crap-out years). My goal is to be in the hunt every year, knowing that the difference between cashing and winning, so often, is the tiniest things that no one has any control over. (That doesn't mean I don't want to come in first or that I won't go after it aggressively, it's just that I don't subscribe to the idea that one team wins and "everyone else loses.")

Just keep making the final table as often as you can. The bracelets will sort themselves out.
By: Chris Liss
On: 7/4/2009 6:34:00 PM
Agree that Gonzalez is an upside play - I've got him higher than anyone in FFI for that reason. But Braylon Edwards could get 13 TDs, and it would shock no one. I think it's a matter of degree in that case. As for the titles meaning everything, I think they mostly do, and over time, the good and bad luck should balance out for the most part. Remember, the Braves and Marlins are in a 30-team league, so they don't have the same opportunities we do to balance the ledger. If you win the total points crown in your NFL league but lose the title, that's probably good enough, too ( and there should always be prize money for that). But the point of the blog doesn't apply any less. If you want to have one of the 2-3 best teams in your 12 team league more often than not, you need to roster game changers, players capable of massive profits and do so at the expense of being the six seed in your 12-team league playoffs. Actually, if you're constantly looking for game-changers on the wire all year, and playing the matchups right, you can usually claw your way to a six seed even if your draft day gambles didn't pan out. Bottom line - only a title or a team that was every bit as good as the title winner should be one's goal. And someone's cheaper players will pan out big - so you'll have to have the same to match them. Also, I won't take upside over steadiness when the expected return is wildly disparate - until very late in the draft. About Round 3, I'll lean upside when expected return is close, and lean more upside than expected return as the draft goes on until expected return is almost zero, and upside is all.
By: Chris Liss
On: 7/4/2009 6:42:00 PM
As for your point, Dalton, there are some tough calls when an Edwards is not producing, but it's typically with lower end guys like Crabtree that you might wish you had 55 yards per week guy who scores 5 TDs so you're not so all or nothing in that slot. Still, I think the upside usually justifies having that problem.
By: daddymag
On: 7/5/2009 7:16:00 AM
I think the key is what you can determine as "replacement level" in your league. How shallow is the league, what is available on the waiver wire? In one fairly shallow just-for-fun league I'm in, the top player on the WW played out exactly at this level last year... it was Breaston breaking out, Braylon's owner hanging on too long then no one picked him up afterward, I grabbed Gonzalez but never started him... As long as you're not talking about WR1s you're guessing, so I can see taking a flier on Crabtree later in the draft for sure.
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