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FOMO and the Hype Machine

We’ve officially entered one of my favorite parts of the fantasy baseball season, the cavalcade of articles on sleepers, upcoming prospects, and breakout players. It’s a time of fresh starts, opportunity, and hope, but I’ve also come to wonder if it isn’t potentially distortive and misleading.

Case in point: When Luis Robert signed a long-term contract with Chicago, he jumped up ADP charts in redraft leagues. The contract and recent analysis have amplified the buzz surrounding the 22-year-old who slugged 31 HR and stole 36 bases while hitting .328 across three MiLB levels in 2019. How could fantasy analysts and owners not get excited?

Over the last three weeks, Robert’s ADP has risen to 80 on NFBC draft boards, ahead of Nelson Cruz (82), Eddie Rosario (93), and Marcell Ozuna (96). By sheer projections, that’s difficult to reconcile. Yes, Robert has had an excellent minor-league career, and he is a strong candidate to be this season’s Fernando Tatis Jr. In fact, you could argue that the major difference between Tatis Jr. and Robert is simply when their contracts were announced. Regardless, Robert’s ADP begs the question, why would baseball managers, especially a crew as data-savvy as NFBC players, overinvest in a player whose projections are already below those of players available later?

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The Three Forces of Fantasy FOMO

There are a few key reasons. The first is that we have watched others win leagues on the backs of two or three breakout players. For instance, Yordan Alvarez and Tatis Jr. last year, Ronald Acuna and Juan Soto in 2018, and Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger in 2017. We do not want to be left behind, so we find ourselves scouring the web for articles and chasing players who could emerge as “league winners.”

The second is the simple reality that hope is indivisible. Baseball, gambling, and fantasy sports trade on our faith that this year will be our year. Fantasy sports (and the relative gambling inherent to the game) require a positive belief that things will work out. We are predisposed to believe the promise of the good news offered by preseason articles. We covet hidden-gem, undervalued, secret-talent, get-rich-quick players.

The third is that Twitter, YouTube, Reddit, podcasts, even Facebook bombard us with new, breaking valuations of players. The democratization of information and the myriad of sources have done the same thing to fantasy managers that they have done to many social media users: Given us an unhealthy dose of the Fear Of Missing Out.

If optimism is the carrot for this pattern, social media, with its ability to induce the Fear Of Missing Out (FOMO), is the stick.

 

When The Hype Machine Booms, You Dance (The Cool Kids are Drafting Nick Pivetta)

The various platforms and content creators have so dramatically expanded the content that it’s impossible to take stock of that information. That’s not a complaint: I believe there is more good content than ever before. I love finding new writers and getting their perspective. However, in the last three years, I’ve had an absolute sense of being unable to keep up. To be clear, there has always been too much information to process, but we didn’t use to have the constant flow of content beamed to us directly in a way that induces phantom notifications.

The result is that too often we take the conclusions and ideas of articles, podcasts, videos, and tweets for granted: Zac Gallen is undervalued. Mid-tier speed guys are more valuable than ever. Astros’ hitters are destined to underperform. Mitch Keller’s bad luck in 2019 makes him a great pick for 2020. Any single one or all of those things could be true, but we hear so many of them that we lose the how and why behind the claims.

Once we lose that how and why, we lose clarity on a player’s real value, and we see guys arguing in a forum that Mitch Keller is definitely going to be a top-30 starter this season. Do you know who had a great K-BB% and bad luck in 2018? Nick Pivetta.

We see a player praised in one source. Then we see him referenced again in another. By the time we get a player alert on our platform app, we’re taking Nick Pivetta’s ascent for granted, and we find ourselves thinking that if we don't draft a 25-year-old pitcher with a career 5.33 ERA in the 10th round, then we’re going to lose out on this year’s breakout ace. For those of you trying to remember, Pivetta's ADP was 151 last year.

Full disclosure, my body is 100% ready to pick up Nick Pivetta at the first sign of even one good start in April. 

In fantasy baseball, the pattern is easy to understand. I‘d go so far as to say that it’s a natural outcome. Fantasy analysts write about players we like or believe in. We write about these players with enthusiasm, and we share that enthusiasm with readers and one another. Fantasy sports retain the raw energy of traditional fandom. Social media and contemporary platforms distribute those ideas, often to other writers who pick up the idea or player.

On a certain level, social media has made the fantasy biosphere smaller. Ideas permeate the community faster. As with politics, we’re overwhelmed by the amount of information, often condensed to a tweet or an article that can be read in five minutes.

Whatever you have to say, it had better be quick. I’ve already missed 12 player updates while I’ve been reading this.

 

Dialing Back the Hype Machine

The solution isn’t to delete Twitter or to stop reading analysis, but to keep perspective. When the Hype Machine goes to 11, it’s time to start asking, “What’s the cost?” or “What are we missing?”

Over the years, I’ve learned a few ways to do that. Maybe they will help you.

Firstly, consider getting out of FA unlimited add/drop leagues. I used to love the rush to pick up the most recent callups or fill-in closers, but it only makes this phenomenon worse. Encourage your commissioners to adopt FAAB or at least an overnight waivers process. It adds a level of strategy to the game, and it makes it less essential to be on constant alert for fantasy news. By all means, track the games all day long, just don’t put yourself in a position where you’re trying to add a player while you’re driving home from work.

A clear understanding of the numbers is essential. If a player is in the midst of a production hot streak, but they’d need a major increase OBP jump to maintain that pace, it gives me clarity about their true performance range.  If a player’s run production spikes, the first thing I’m going to look for is a difference in his OBP or player context. If that's not there, I’ve got an immediate reason to be skeptical. Likewise, I’m always wary of a pitcher whose strikeout rate spikes at way more than twice his Swinging-Strike rate.

Remember that most fantasy “profit” is made on lower-cost players. Owners need value and base from earlier rounds. With early round (rounds 1-8) players, there has to be some assurance of production. There are always season-ending injuries and guys who collapse, but the earlier in a draft, the more confidence a manager should have in a player’s floor.

Be mindful of when you’re starting to feel about a player rather than think about a player. I’m a Red Sox fan, and when I was younger, I used to overdraft Boston players like it was a roto category. Now, I hardly ever draft one because I struggle to separate my own personal feelings from my evaluation of them.

I’ve also adopted two or three analysts whose opinions I value over others. I use them as touchstones to guide my sentiment. They’re analysts who tend to be precise and avoid hyperbole. They write measured, thoughtful things like, “I like him, but not at that price point because…”

 

Conclusion

This article is not designed to discourage owners from drafting for upside. Ignoring upside and potential breakouts is a ruinous strategy. The profit lies in finding players whose draft prices aren’t being inflated by the sentiment around them.

While my example with Luis Robert focuses on rookies, the larger point is about unproven players with sensational hype surrounding them. If owners are looking for upside, they’re better off focusing on it later in the draft. Consider those league winners from above. Here are their ADPs in their breakout seasons:

Player ADP in Breakout Season
Yordan Alvarez 730
Fernando Tatis Jr. 253
Ronald Acuna 114
Juan Soto Undrafted
Aaron Judge 264
Cody Bellinger 404

With the exception of Acuna, the players above were drafted as lottery tickets. Rookie-status and unproven players can be productive players, but they’re erratic and difficult to project. As a result, the real value for high-variance players comes in late rounds or on the waiver wire.

I’ve been excited to see Robert since he belted a home run in his Spring Training debut in 2018, but I can’t imagine I’ll be able to draft him this season. If he were going closer to Kyle Tucker (144 ADP), I could maybe do it. Tucker at least has an MLB track record. Robert has played 47 games at AAA, where he had a 4.9 BB% and a 24.7 K%.

Truthfully, I think Robert’s likely floor (his 25th percentile outcome) is the 2018 version of Tim Anderson: a 20-20 player with a .240 BA. After all, that's been the White Sox type for a few seasons. However, the real floor is a player who gets demoted to AAA while he works on his approach. By comparison, isn’t Marcell Ozuna, who is entering his most offensive-friendly context, just as likely to match the value of the 75th percentile version of Luis Robert?

Robert is just a single example, but the coming weeks are going to give us many others. I’m already anxious to read an article telling me just how excited I should be about Wander Franco’s impending callup.

I want you to get excited for draft season and opening day. Read, listen, and draft with enthusiasm. Keep your player news feed on. Just make sure the hype machine doesn’t drown out good sense.

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