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Decision-making in DFS baseball

Mike Trout may be the top player in season-long leagues, but can you trust him in daily leagues? AP Photo

Contrary to what the ad bites about daily fantasy sports (DFS) would have you believe, MLB DFS is not merely a sped-up, more profitable, injury-proof season-long fantasy baseball game. The knowledge and the strategies that serve you well in your season-long leagues won't necessarily lead to the same dominance in DFS without some major tweaking. DFS is its own game, a spectacularly entertaining and potentially profitable game, when you know how to play it. This is the first in a series of articles designed to teach you how to play daily MLB and play it well.

At its core, DFS is a game of decisions. To start off then, let's consider how people make decisions. Most decisions in life come down to the very basic one of whether to approach it or to avoid it (whatever "it" is). The factors that influence us are (A) desiring the potential benefits of a good decision and (B) fearing the potential pain of a bad decision. Cognitive research has shown that people are more likely to act out of fear than desire. Put another way, we are more motivated to minimize losses than to maximize gains.

Inherent biases

Furthermore, many decisions we make are unknowingly biased. One reason that cognitive biases exist is to expedite decision-making. The most automatic responses we have to situations are emotional, and not surprisingly, most biased decisions rely on emotional rather than logical processing. Circuits in our brains that were active when good things happened, presumably because we made the right choice, are positively reinforced. Positive reinforcement leads to an increased likelihood of repeating the decision. If the outcome of a decision is not so good, it will be negatively reinforced. Negative reinforcement leads to a decreased likelihood of repeating the decision. Our brains are wired such that it doesn't take a ton of outcomes for a decision to be catalogued as positive or negative. Often it takes just one time.

One example of this is the primacy bias, in which the first of a series of events is remembered best, and given priority over subsequent events. First kisses, first cars, opening day pitching performances, all stick with us more than they (arguably) deserve to. I'm not suggesting that all "firsts" aren't worth the impression they create, but in fantasy sports the first performance isn't worth any more than the second or sixth, all else being equal. Just because we waited impatiently all winter for them doesn't make opening day stats more relevant to our future player evaluations. Unfortunately for our lazy brains, that conclusion requires the more difficult path through logical thinking. The easy way out is to say, "I've seen this once before, it's good." Or, "It's bad." Evolutionarily, our biased decision-making philosophies have served us well. When it comes to daily fantasy sports, though, we want to be aware of these tendencies and be sure to operate from sound rationale and logical decisions.

Trout or bust?

What types of decisions does a DFS player face? You have to decide which players to use in your lineup, and also which players to not use in your lineup. You have to decide where to allocate your salary dollars: Do you distribute equally to all the positions, or pay more for certain positions at the expense of others? Above all, you have to decide where you're going to compromise, because compromise is essential in DFS. As a baseball fan and season-long fantasy expert, you know who all the best players are every night. They're all technically available to you like the ads say, but thanks to the salary cap, you simply can't have them all in your lineup.

As an example, think of Mike Trout. He's the best hitter in baseball, a huge fantasy asset to your season-long team. Not surprisingly, he's also usually the most expensive hitter available in DFS. (Average draft position and player salary in DFS correlate well, especially in the first month of the season). Every night, therefore, Trout has the possibility of being the highest fantasy point scorer. So given that the goal is to score the most fantasy points each night, do you want Trout in your DFS lineup? I usually don't. On a typical night, about 50 other guys have a chance to be the night's highest scoring player, too. Trout's probability of doing it might be higher than anyone else's, but it's no guarantee.

Consider this: The price difference between Mike Trout and the 15th-most expensive outfielder is usually larger than the difference in their projected range of outcomes. Both will have a floor of 0-for-4 and zero fantasy points, and a ceiling of 4-for-4 with a home run. In future articles, we'll be evaluating the factors that will determine whether it's worth it for you spend nearly 20 percent of your total salary cap on guys like Trout or if you should look for ways to get as many fantasy points for a lot less. The point is that you'll have to compromise. If you pay for Trout, you may have quite a lackluster infield, or be forced to take a pitcher in Coors Field ... just kidding, don't do that!!

Money management

There are "off-field" decisions to make, as well. What category of game do you choose from the endless list of options at the DFS site of your choice? There are GPPs (guaranteed prize pool tournaments with huge first-place payouts), 50/50s (where half of the entrants win roughly twice their buy-in, minus the site's share) and head-to-head contests where it's just you against one other person. Together, 50/50 and head-to-head contests are referred to as cash games, because you start with a 50 percent likelihood of winning money. These games give you the best odds of cashing in DFS. You can expect about 15-20 percent of the field to get paid in GPPs, often with a huge disparity between first place and the other prizes. It's worth checking the structure of each tournament until you're familiar with them, as the pay line can vary a lot between sites and even between contests on the same site.

You'll also want to have a plan for how much money you'll put into play. It's called bankroll management, your bankroll being the total amount of money you've deposited on one or more DFS site, and it's probably the biggest key to long-term success. Most professionals suggest putting just 10-15 percent of your total bankroll in play each night you enter contests. I go with 10 percent and adjust up or down slightly as desired. To break it down further, if you're aiming to play successfully long-term, you should play about 70-80 percent of that 10 percent in cash games, and put the rest in the high-risk, high-reward games. After a few weeks, you'll get a sense of what games you're most successful in and be able to adjust your bankroll strategy to optimize your strengths.

The main reason for adopting a somewhat conservative approach to game selection and bankroll management is that you're still dealing with baseball. Anything can happen any night. Once in a while the San Diego Padres go nuts for 17 runs, or the most potent offense in baseball puts up one run in Coors Field. The inherent variability in baseball is what makes it such a fascinating sport. Over an entire season of traditional fantasy baseball, you can rely on regression to even out the up-and-down nightly performances. However, with DFS, each night is its own mini-season. A single 0-for-4 performance at the plate by one of your top-priced hitters can be the difference between cashing in a GPP or not, while such an outing is easier to withstand in a cash-game format.

Regression game

A DFS player may therefore approach the idea of regression a little differently. A great player in a slump, for example Buster Posey at the beginning of 2014, is unusable at his elite salary while in the slump. As his salary drops over time, and there's no sign of injury, the wise person begins to slot Posey into their lineup here and there. He or she knows that regression is coming and is in position to take advantage, perhaps in a big GPP tournament when Posey finally does go 3-for-4 with a homer off a lefty. It works the other way, too. Paying top dollar for what is clearly unsustainable production is also something to avoid. Think of someone such as Arismendy Alcantara when he first came up to the Chicago Cubs and saw his salary soar after hitting .400 for the first couple of weeks.

While others ride the recency effect, another device of the lazy brain designed to take advantage of the most recent outcomes of a given decision with little thought devoted to context, we want to systematically evaluate the whole big picture. The goal is to use every contextual factor available to make the right decisions more often than everyone else.

The evidence that DFS is a skill game and not merely a game of luck is that players who consistently make logical decisions based on all the relevant facts will win more often than those who don't. The phrase you hear a lot to describe this philosophy is "process over results." Bad decisions that lead to anomalous good results, if repeated, will eventually lead to bad results. Good, sound decisions, even though they may occasionally yield unpredictably bad results, ultimately pay off. That's why we've started out focusing on how we make decisions, and what decisions there are to be made when playing MLB DFS. If you establish a sound process early on and adhere to it, the wins will follow.