The current world record to beat the original Nintendo Entertainment System classic video game Super Mario Bros –from a fresh start to evading Bowser to save the princess — is 4 minutes, 54 seconds, and 881 milliseconds. The second-fastest time is 4 minutes, 54 seconds, and 914 milliseconds. A human thumb can’t twitch fast enough to accurately clock the difference between first place and second place (although I bet you’re trying to prove me wrong right now). That one-thousandth of a percent faster time by the elite speed-runner Niftski has placed him at the top of the Super Mario Bros speed-running pantheon. Many speed-running fans believe we have reached the human limit of optimizing the Super Mario Bros speed run, meaning that everything about the game has been studied, examined, optimized, and played out. In other words, if you decided to go pick up Super Mario Bros and try to speed run it today, you would have the work of hundreds of thousands — nay, millions — of other runs that have shown you the optimal path to complete the game in the best possible time. To arrive at the top of the speed-running leaderboards at this point, one would need a confluence of skill and luck: they would need to be skilled enough to pull off the necessary moves AND successful at lining up each and every one of the low-chance maneuvers in order to succeed.
Of course, this whole speed-running spiel is a metaphor for fantasy sports: we fantasy sports-ers have draft optimizers, lineup optimizers, draft analyzers, projections, and people competing to be the best in the world. Only, the difference is, is that people can make a lot of money or social capital in fantasy sports. Speed-running Super Mario Bros isn’t something that Niftski can do to make a million dollars in one night or even one year. But for a fantasy sports fan, you could win any number of contests through multiple providers — whether they be season-long or daily fantasy sports — and walk away much richer or much more respected. OK, maybe not either of those, at least for most of us. But when providers like NFC, DraftKings, FanDuel, and so on are paying out millions of dollars to players every year, there’s a natural human urge to, at the very least, wonder how to climb that metaphorical fantasy mountain and stand atop it for a short while. The same sentiment applies to even the most mundane fantasy player who wants to win their friends and family league just to show up Uncle Ken, the guy who both introduced you to the un-edited cuts of Star Wars and the flavor of tequila on your 16th birthday.
And in case you’re thinking, “This is just Blair being crazy,” it’s worthwhile to mention that Jonathan Bales — the creator of FantasyLabs and the gold medal winner of the informal “Gambling Olympics” — has been investigating game theory via video game speedrunning for the better part of a year, saying,
“world-class performance requires a completely different way of thinking. Why is it that in so many areas—from poker to business to video games to chess—the greats seem to be playing a fundamentally different game than their opponents?”
So, let’s try to be great and think about how skill and the ability to manage variance can help you in fantasy sports.
Both in speed-running video games and in fantasy sports, you need an edge to win. Sometimes that edge has a minuscule chance of happening, but if you know the type of game you’re playing, you can adjust your level of risk to increase the likelihood of winning. Winning — at anything in life — is not in and of itself a condition of “being skilled” or “being the best.” Especially in games that involve risk and chance — like fantasy sports and video games — “winning” is more about the ability to know how to line up the conditions optimally such that your attempt has the maximum amount of besting all the other players. This is why participation trophies matter: there will be no innovation in a field if people aren’t rewarded for challenging the masters. Imagine if baseball fans said, “Babe Ruth’s the greatest, there’s no point in playing on, nobody’s beating that home run record.” Also, Barry Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame.
The type of fantasy sports league you play in dictates the amount of risk you should use while drafting your team. Here’s my breakdown based on the type of league you’re trying to win:
Standard Friends and Family League
These leagues are fairly optimized. At the outset of a 10-team draft, every player has a 10% chance of winning (100% chance to win / 10 players = 10% chance/player); the chance to win varies by the number of players in the league. These leagues are much like Super Mario Bros: the route is optimized, and deviating from the plan will decrease your chance of winning and increase other players’ chances of winning.
Imagine you’re playing tennis and you decide to Happy Gilmore the tennis ball every single time you play; every time you do something like smashing the ball out of the court, your opponent gets closer to victory by doing nothing. Love-15. This is a classic zero-sum game. You can win by smashing the ball wildly, but the odds of doing so are much lower than if you just played the game as everybody else does.
In fantasy baseball terms, you can win by drafting a team of Jacob deGrom, Byron Buxton, Adalberto Mondesi, and Keibert Ruiz, but the odds of these players getting injured or not getting playing time are so high that lining them up on the same team helps other players because you’re purposefully taking on a ton of risk. You can win a league by taking two pitchers first, but you’re more likely to win if you take a hitter in the first round.
In a standard fantasy baseball league, you should follow the metaphorical optimized Super Mario Bros course. You can see a comparison of all the top Mario Bros runs in this video; you’ll notice the field is small (5 players) and the course is short (5 minutes). In both Super Mario Bros and a 10/12-team league, there isn’t a lot of variance to compete against. You only need to beat 9-to-11 other people in a standard fantasy league. You don’t need to reinvent the wheel to win a standard league. By making a non-optimized move, you allow others to gain a small advantage over you — your 10% chance to win becomes a 9.5% chance while your closest opponent has a 10.5% chance to win. What if you accidentally give your team an 8% chance to win while your nemesis Uncle Ken benefits and gains a 12% chance to win? It may seem like a small difference, but Uncle Ken is starting the season with a 30% head start on you, and all he had to do was show up. Sounds like you’ll be the one finishing at the bottom of the league this year.
These include site-wide tournaments like podcast leagues that might have 50 players, free tournaments like TGFBI and RazzSlam that might have 250-400 players, the 2,000ish-player NFBC Main Event Tournament, the 4,500 entry Underdog Dinger contest, and a 10,000 entry DraftKings contest. You’ve probably calculated your chance of winning one of these already: somewhere between a 2% chance in a podcast league and a 0.0001 chance of winning a massive tournament. In other words, you should lose. You and hundreds and thousands of other people — all losers. Accept this as normal. But in the land of 0.0001, having a 0.0002 chance of winning means you’re a master.
Because these leagues are 10-1000 times the size of a standard league and have many people following an optimized course, you need to create a modicum of “non-optimized” draft plays to differentiate yourself from the pack. These are the “2021 Robbie Ray” style plays — a pitcher with a great K/9 arsenal who cost nothing in the draft (ranked SP120 in the preseason) and who entered a new environment (traded to Toronto) and who had a guaranteed job (signed a one-year “prove-it” contract). During his legendary 2021 fantasy season, Phil Dussault featured Robbie Ray on both his #1 and #3 overall Main Event teams, defeating — nay, destroying — a field of 2,000 other contestants and walking away with over $100,000 in prizes.
Of course, these types of tournaments exceed the Super Mario Bros-style of speed-running lessons. A better example would be the Super Nintendo role-playing game Earthbound, which has an optimized beginning and a nearly random end to the speed run. In other words, players start the game in a prescribed manner and then have to face the reality that randomness takes over for about 3/4 of the game. For a game that takes nearly 3-4 hours to finish, it’s a fine metaphor for fantasy sports: you can do nothing wrong for the first part of the draft or the first few months of the season, and then forces outside of your control can ruin your run at the 75% mark. Mike Trout never returns. Huascar Ynoa breaks his hand against a bench. Yermin Mercedes hits a home run off a position player and is benched. Nelson Cruz decides not to hit while Joc Pederson goes off the rails. It is not a personal failure or a sign of bad play if forces outside of your control dictate that you won’t win; rather, this is the natural state of the game, and the most you can do is either ride out the game or hit reset and move on.
Fantasy baseball managers can manage randomness in an optimal way in tournaments by choosing late-round draft players with upside. Rephrased: you are going to lose anyway, so take as much risk as possible. Or, as the crypto bros would have you think the Romans said, “Fortune favors the bold.” You cannot win a tournament if your roster looks identical to 100 other rosters; the most you can do is tie. If your roster is unique, you can pull out a bit of variance that can give you that minuscule edge to win.
Often, the upside is easily apparent: would you rather have Seiya Suzuki or Tony Kemp in your outfield? Kemp has 1,000 major league at-bats with 23 homers and 27 steals to his name. Sure, he might have more guaranteed playing time because he has a starting job with the Athletics, but Seiya Suzuki has a vastly higher upside. Last year alone, Suzuki hit more homers in the NPB than Kemp has hit in 5 years of MLB service.
So after your optimized start, it’s worthwhile to take risks on players like Seiya Suzuki, Carlos Rodon, Michael Conforto, Mitch Garver, and so on. Ask yourself, “what are the conditions for this player to exceed their at-bats or innings pitched expectation?” Are there players who line up against awful team pitching more often than not? Are there players on “prove it” contracts that fantasy managers are avoiding? Are there special insights that you have in your baseball fandom that let you know which teams to target and which teams to avoid?
As Jonathan Bales phrases it, “it’s not what you know, it’s what you know that others don’t know.” This is why so many lauded fantasy sports players have non-intuitive strategies — they’re using factors that only they understand (or believe in) and purposefully operating in extremely risky ways.
This is also why — generally speaking — fantasy sports players need to understand the audience that a tout writes for. The advice needed to win a standard Yahoo league is vastly different than the advice needed to win The Dinger. Similarly, speed-running Super Mario Bros needs an entirely different set of skills than speed-running Earthbound: the former is 5 minutes long and contains almost no randomness, while the latter is nearly 4 hours long with significant randomness. The need for risk and variance is massively different between the types of fantasy sports one can play, and you should always be thinking about a player’s utility for the size of the league and the amount of risk necessary to win.
Pitchers that Could Win a Tournament
I’ve talked a ton about pitchers that have come out of nowhere to win leagues: from R.A. Dickey to Robbie Ray, there are plenty of pitchers who had an off-year followed by a top-tier fantasy performance. Here’s a quick list of pitchers that could be drafted late that would provide enough variance to a team looking to separate themselves from the pack of a tournament.
Dylan Bundy (NFBC ADP: 409): As a Twins fan, I’m pretty appalled that Bundy has become our SP1. But the Twins have a knack for finding veterans who need a change of scenery and then trading them off for prospects. Bundy had a breakthrough year in 2020 before crashing on the Angels in 2021, ultimately pitching only 90 innings due to injury. Bundy’s only 29 and lining up as the “prove-it” starter in Minnesota, where he’ll get plenty of opportunity for 160IP, a plateau he reached 3 times in his career. With his FIP/xFIP/SIERA nearly 1.50 points lower than his ERA in 2021 coupled with a near-elite 30% CSW, he could thrive in the weak-AL Central. This former top 10 pitcher could easily return fantasy value.
Andrew Heaney (NFBC ADP: 300): Another 30-year old, his K/9 was at 10.5 and his xFIP and xERA barely above 4.00 while his ERA soared to nearly 6.00. His SIERA — one of the best predictors for success at his level of IP evidence — was a nice 3.84. In other words, all of these advanced stats that gave us the modern game of baseball absolutely love Heaney, and it explains why a marquis team like the Dodgers went out and grabbed him before the CBA was finalized. He’s got the peripherals for a top 20 finish, and if he can figure out his propensity for the long-ball, we could see an immense return on value.
Carlos Carrasco (NFBC ADP: 320): I went over Carrasco earlier in the pre-season, but the takeaway is that Cookie had better advanced numbers than Jack Flaherty — who’s being drafted 250 spots higher– and got caught up in the disaster that was the Mets training room in 2021. Carrasco is getting older but should have enough life left in his arm, and should face off against the weak-hitting Pirates and Marlins a lot in 2022. At basically zero cost, Cookie has top 50 SP upside.
Logan Gilbert (NFBC ADP: 190): The entire Mariners’ staff is valuable to be honest, but Gilbert had a solid 20 K-BB% in his rookie year, coupled with FIP/SIERA that were nearly 1 point lower than his ERA. Wins could be flukey but the Athletics, Rangers, and Angels are all wonky teams right now, and Seattle clearly sees an opportunity for at least a wild card run behind the Astros. Gilbert with 160+ IP could be a top 20 pitcher, which is all the upside I want.
Ranger Suarez (NFBC ADP: 220): Small sample size ahoy! Suarez demolished batters in 12 starts in 2021 after a fair performance as a reliever to start the year. Problem is, his xERA and FIP were nearly 1.50 points higher than his ERA. That said, his expected numbers were still sub-4.00 (and even sub 3.00!) while also adding elite CSW% and K-BB%, which are the common stat components of top starters. The Phillies will have win upside in a division featuring the Pirates, Nationals, and Marlins, and Suarez will likely return far better value than his current ADP.
OK, your turn! Who’s your favorite tournament-winning pitcher for 2022? What are your strategies for navigating the home league vs the 1,000 person tournament? What’s your favorite Nintendo game? Drop me a line in the comments and have an awesome week!