04/07/2014 12:52PM

Fantasy baseball can teach a lot about handicapping a contest

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This past weekend was the traditional start of the rotisserie (now called fantasy) baseball season. The in-person auction on the season’s first weekend is a chance to see old friends, sit around, and say the names of baseball players out loud. For many baseball geeks such as myself, it represents one of the social high points of the year. What does fantasy baseball have to do with handicapping contests? More than you might think. There are a few lessons that apply to both endeavors.

One idea common to both is that you really can’t have too much knowledge. Going into your fantasy baseball draft, it’s a good idea to have some idea about every single player who is roster-able. That might mean a piece of paper with positions, names, and dollar amounts or a computer file or program containing the same. Depending on what happens in the market of your particular league, you may have to reach down below where you’d ideally want in order to fill your roster. Maybe the market in your league went a little catcher crazy. You might not be able to fit the top 10 guys into your budget. If that’s the case, you better know who Devin Mesoraco is. It’s not a bad idea to have a full list of own-able players, organized by position, with a dollar amount next to their name.

This is also true for contests. Let’s take an example of a 10-race all-mandatory contest. It’s a good idea to have some idea about every single horse running in the contest because you don’t know exactly what’s going to happen as the day progresses. How often does that 10-1-plus on the morning line you love on paper open at 5-2? Rather than scramble for plan B, it’s better to already have plans B, C, and D lined up. Perhaps the easiest way of doing this is to use Steven Crist’s idea of marking every horse in a race as an A, B, C, or X. If you want to do a little more work, you can come up with a real value line for the races in the contest. You can make a line where you try to assess every horse’s chance up to 100 percent, or it can be a more intuitive line where you mark each horse with a price at which the animal in question would make an appealing bet. At a certain price, every horse in every race would make an appealing bet (of course price caps make this last point less relevant in most contests, but the idea remains true).

This may sound counterintuitive, but in both fantasy baseball and handicapping contests, it is possible to get too attached to the concept of value, as opposed to just going with whom you like. In both realms, the way most of us play, you will win or lose based on your own opinion more than on your full objective assessment of the probabilities.

In a fantasy auction, it’s better to end up with players you have a particular affinity for than it is to try to eke out a couple of dollars of theoretical value. This season, I’d rather pay $23 for Gerrit Cole than $25 on Justin Verlander, even though most market analysis would suggest the opposite (15-team mixed league, if other fantasy geeks are reading). I’m happy to go with the guy I like over the more proven guy I have questions about. If you switch those prices around, I’d switch my opinion, but a certain amount of subjectivity is only going to help you.

And so it is in racing. If you look at a card in the morning and a certain horse at 6-1 strikes you as your bet of the day, you should probably stick with that opinion even if he is 7-2 at post time. If he’s 5-2, depending on where you are in the contest, maybe it makes sense to go another way, but you should definitely consider giving extra credit to your own opinion. It’s a lousy feeling watching a top pick win when you’ve gotten off for a whiff of value.

The last similarity between baseball and racing to discuss is what’s happened in terms of how players play: What was once an exclusively in-person pursuit has migrated online in a big way. Online is a fantastic option – for both baseball and racing – but let’s not forget that for what we gain in convenience, we lose something as well. In this case, it’s the chance to connect with actual people. I definitely recommend trying to play in at least two in-person contests this year. It’s a camaraderie you don’t get to feel very often – at least not outside of a fantasy baseball draft.

**If you haven’t yet signed up for the contest email series, it’s not too late. The series offers a basic primer on contests and contest strategy largely derived from my book, “The Winning Contest Player.” You can sign up at http://drf.com/tournament-education.

**Last announcement for today: As many of you know, there was a technology issue with the March 30 DRF Bets contest. The contest was supposed to be decided by net winnings, but the scoreboard was displaying the leaders by gross winnings, i.e., who made the most collections, inclusive of stakes. DRF Bets has decided to award prizes to both sets of leaders, gross and net. Follow this link for information: http://drf.com/contest-results.

danmulvihill_IV More than 1 year ago
Not sure I follow you on the Cole/Verlander example. When two players/horses are near equal in cost, but one has a lot of risk (e.g., 2nd year pitcher) and one is proven, isn't the small extra cost worth it?
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
That's a really good point, and I think that's why the market priced up those player in general (across all fantasy leagues) the way it did. But for me, this is where my own subjective opinion came into play. Cole is a guy I just like and feel like could anchor a fantasy rotation in a keeper league for years. As for Verlander, with all the miles on his arm, I was worrying that maybe 2013's down year (by his own lofty standards) was more than a blip, and perhaps represented a new normal, or worse yet, the precipice of a decline. That doesn't mean I crossed him off draft lifts, I just downgraded him to a point where someone was going to pay more for a player I had doubts about. Granted, Verlander's perfect spring and hot start suggest that the conventional way of thinking about this is probably more right than my subjective take -- and that's OK. We're going to be wrong. In racing, we're going to be wrong a lot more than we're right. But if we want to succeed in the long run, we need the courage to say, "the heck with what everybody else thinks, I'm going to stick to my own opinion."
Starks43 More than 1 year ago
John, it was an alternate selection and like you said only one cause of dq. Wouldn't spend 10 seconds on. You will experience many worse beats if you play contests- and I very much encourage you to play more, I have missed qualifying by twenty cents. Have finished 4th at two major live on contests when top three qualify. But have also been fortunate to qualify several times for nhc and cash at some of these contests most recently orleans. If you are near leaderboard on any of these there are definitely stories of one winner away from possibly winning hundreds of thousands of dollars. These are going to be like multi win wagers. More heartbreak then glory. But just enjoy the good moments when they come. Focus on your process and what you can control and live with results. Good luck
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
That's sound advice, Starks. It's very diffuclt -- and critically important -- to master the art of letting go. And I ain't talkin' 'bout Idina Menzel.
mikey More than 1 year ago
The best thing about the pick and pray is that you can see what the other's have.That will also give you a line on how some of the handicappers play.This might help you in future contests that are not p&p.Good luck and keep pocking and praying.I love this format.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Great point, Mikey -- and it doesn't just hold for Pick and Prays. Take for example our pal Bill Shurman -- who incredibly qualified AGAIN for the NHC the week AFTER I profiled him in this column. How cool is it that you can look on a site like NHCQualify and see all his picks (once the races are off)? How can you not learn something by walking in his shoes, seeing what types of horses he plays, what types of prices at what point in the contest etc? These comments would be a fun place to discuss such matters if anyone is interested.
Jon More than 1 year ago
john, would have you finnished 3rd? im sure a lot of players had that horse as an alternate.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
A cool thing about a lot of online contests, including those on NHCQualify and BCQualify, is that you can see what the people ahead of you played. I was assuming that John had looked at this and done the math but I suppose it's fair to ask the question. A lot of people just look at raw points and assume they'd have won/moneyed/qualified without actually looking at the big picture.
John Herzberg More than 1 year ago
I played in Sundays pick and pray contest. I finished 93rd, My alternate selection won on a dq at Pimlico and paid almost limit prices. Had I chosen him as my first choice I would have finished 3rd and won an NHC spot, This was my first Pick and Pray contest and I found it more of a Hcp. skills contest rather than chasing longshots at the end of a contest. How shouldI feel about that almost win. It was my first Pick and Pray and I did not sleep well last night.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
There is definitely a purity to Pick-and-Prays that I appreciate. I wouldn't lose any sleep over a close call -- there's always another contest tomorrow. . .
John Herzberg More than 1 year ago
Thanks for the advice .On to this weekends free pick and pray and many more. Thanks again