I probably spend four to six hours commuting to work each week, so I’ve become a huge fan of podcasts as a medium to keep up-to-date on my MLB and fantasy news. Then I recently came across the OverDrive Media Console app which allows me to check out audio books from my local library for free.
After browsing the selection of available books, I was unable to find anything sabermetrically inclined. Nothing by Bill James. Nothing even baseball-related.
What It’s About
Turns out there were a lot of connections I could draw to this silly game we play. Our brains have two main thought patterns; fast and slow. Or an instinctual center (System #1) that makes fast assessments and decisions, and a more powerful and deliberate thought center (System #2) capable of in-depth analysis. This video does a great job of explaining the differences between the two systems and even illustrates, if we’re not aware, how the fast thinking system can make incorrect decisions and assessments.
Lesson #1 – We Often Make Very Important Decisions Using Only System #1
One of the anecdotes Kahneman offers is that of a CEO of a large investment company that explained his investment in Ford Motor Company because he, “liked the cars”. Nothing about company earnings, the cost of the stock, quality of leadership, or competitive advantage.
That doesn’t sound like a thorough decision-making process if you were just buying a car for yourself, let alone investing millions of dollars.
We do this in fantasy baseball. We might pick up a player based only on surface stats, without looking at underlying stats like strike out rates, HR/FB, or BABIP.
Or we might drop a valuable player for just the opposite reasons. Making only snap judgements using system #1 and not thoroughly analyzing factors that could make a player’s current stats deceiving or without looking at what a future projection looks like in spite of past performance.
Lesson #2 – System #1 Cannot Be Shut Off. But You Can Control It With Awareness.
But you’ve seen it before. So YOU KNOW it’s the same length as the others.
Likewise, we can’t stop instincts and natural inclinations from affecting our thoughts about fantasy baseball. Seemingly every April, Emilio Bonifacio gets off to a hot start and System #1 is screaming at you to PICK HIM UP!!! He’s a new player! But you’ve seen the illusion before. So YOU KNOW he’ll be hitting .260 and be lucky to hit 5 HR by season’s end.
We can’t stop System #1 from screaming at us. But we need to KNOW that these instincts are there and that they may be deceiving us so we can invoke System #2 as a balancing mechanism.
When we have a suspicion that system #1 is overly influencing a decision, take a step back and use system #2 to take a closer look. Run the decision through an objective spreadsheet valuation model. Use projections. Take a closer look.
You might think that player A is more valuable than player B. But perhaps there’s a bias or illusion that’s causing you to think that. The first time you saw the illusion above you probably had to measure it to make sure all the lines are the same length. Likewise, whenever you’re making a decision about two players, your best bet is to measure them using a metric like calculated dollar values or standings gain points.
Lesson #3 – System #1 Does Not Comprehend Probability Well
Kahneman makes this point several times. And it’s not just “normal people” that fall victim to this. In the book, he tells a story of a study he conducted on actual scientists. The study clearly found that even scientists, who regularly perform their own studies and need to calculate their findings on sound statistical bases, were very bad at understanding and making judgments about sample sizes and other statistical measures.
These scientists frequently chose insufficient sample sizes for the bases of their studies. When they chose sample sizes based on intuition or gut feel (system #1), sample sizes were often so bad that the entire results of their studies had to be thrown away as being unreliable.
We suffer from similar difficulty with evaluating players. We often assume that a month of playing time is sufficient to make conclusions about a player. But the truth is that it’s often not.
If professional scientists are bad at using intuition to judge the effect of small sample sizes, then the typical fantasy player is likely AWFUL. Do the research and make sure you can rely upon samples before making significant decisions.
Lesson #4 – Our Brains Are Lazy
Take the example from the video:
A bat and a ball cost $1.10. The bat costs $1.00 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?
Simple question, right? Did you hear your System #1 (quick thinking, intuition) screaming, “10 cents!”…. It only takes about five seconds to test that ten cents plus $1.00 means the bat would then cost $1.10, and the combination would then be $1.20.
But many don’t take those 5 seconds to check the answer. Our brains are lazy.
We trust our intuition to a fault and don’t trigger System #2 (thorough, detailed thinking part of the brain) to verify things as often as we should when making important decisions.
Kahneman has asked simple questions like that from the bat and ball example at prestigious universities like Harvard and Princeton, and over 50% of students there get the answers wrong. Think about that!
Applying this to baseball, perhaps you read a detailed article online quoting K-rates, contact rate, and other advanced metrics. You skim the article and say, “Sounds good to me”, and then rush out and spend a bunch of FAAB on the player.
Be careful in situations like this. Take another minute to think more carefully about what was said. Were the sample sizes on those metrics sufficient to judge from? Does the player face a battle for playing time? Is he in the lineup because of injury? What are the player’s career baselines for those metrics?
Taking a few minutes to validate and think more critically could save you a lot of trouble.
Lesson #5 – Everyone, Even Experts, Are Subject To These Pitfalls
A huge pet peeve of mine is the amount of fantasy advice solicited on Twitter. There’s no such thing as a “standard” league any more, so I find it comical to think you can get an accurate answer about a trade offer when limited to 140 characters. It’s impossible to include important details like league format, league size, starting lineup positions, number of bench players, or keeper ramifications. Let alone the effect of opportunity cost, other players that might be available, etc.
But forget that for a minute.
Even assuming the person you are asking for advice has appropriate information to make a decision… They’re going to be using System #1 to formulate their conclusion.
They won’t be objectively comparing projections and calculating player values to make the decision. And in my mind that means you will get an inferior result.
Thinking, Fast and Slow was not written with fantasy baseball in mind, but I couldn’t help but think of these lessons above as I was listening to it.
It seems so clear now that we have two competing (or complementary?) thought centers in our brains. But it took this book to make me realize it.
My approach to fantasy baseball has long been to use System #2 to make decisions. Hopefully this pays off with more accurate and more correct decisions over time.
Have You Read Any “Non-Baseball” Books You’ve Found Useful?
Let me know in the comments below. I’m always looking to think outside the box at ways to improve.
Thanks for reading. Stay smart.