As incredible (read: impossible) as this sounds, I believe that a disproportionate number of the people connected to me are born in April. For starters, I’m born in April. Some close friends in college were born in April. My father-in-law was. (I forgot to call him to wish him a happy birthday this year.) I’m pretty sure that my brother-in-law’s birthday is a couple of days away. (By the time it’s his birthday, I will have forgotten that it’s his birthday.) And yesterday was my mother’s birthday. (Note to self: Remember to call mother . . . d*mn, one day late.) Birthdays are really special to a lot of people. Here’s the thing: I don’t really care about birthdays.
This is the 39th installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge in order to give you unordinary theoretical, philosophical, strategic, and/or often rambling guidance on daily fantasy sports. Consult the introductory piece to the series for further explanation.
T.S. Eliot Got Some Things Right
The only line of The Waste Land that I can remember is the first one: “April is the cruellest month.” Yes, T.S. Eliot intentionally used two Ls in the word “cruellest.” I don’t know why. Anyway, “Elliot’s” words about “Aprill” have stuck with me ever since I was forced to read them in Honors Literature and Civilization II during the spring semester of my freshman year in college.
It’s not that I even think that Eliot was right. I don’t find April to be an especially hard month. (Although taxes do suck.) It’s just that, in comparison to how people might expect me to feel about my “birthday month,” I kind of don’t care about it, because I don’t really care all that much about my birthday. And if I don’t really care about my birthday . . . why would I care about the birthdays of other people?
Side note: We’ve already established that I’m an *sshole. My seemingly misanthropic perspective on celebratory days probably shouldn’t surprise you.
Perhaps my views on birthdays are represented best by this clip from the Seinfeld episode, “The Visa”:
It might be a little heavy, but it’s somewhat accurate. On my 21st birthday, I didn’t go out and get drunk. I was in my dormitory room, writing a paper for my course on William Faulkner. When I turned 27, I celebrated by ordering a pizza, eating it, and then getting back to work. A few weeks ago, I celebrated my birthday . . . by not celebrating my birthday.
Why is it that I don’t care about birthdays?
Birthdays Are Relatively Meaningless
I don’t care about birthdays because I don’t think that they’re actually significant. They strike me as a really arbitrary way of measuring . . . actually, what are birthdays meant to measure? I have no idea.
They signify the amount of time people have been alive.
I suppose that they can also be used as a rough means of identification. A birthdate is sort of nature’s version of a social security number (except shared with millions of people).
For the people who believe in astrology, birthdays (or birth months) determine who we are.
And for healthcare professionals and actuaries, the number of years we have lived (as marked by birthdays) reveal where we are in the life cycle.
But let’s be honest: Birthdays are really inexact ways of measuring what we think they might measure.
Walking is Probably More Significant Than Living
It’s probably true that in the general population the people who are 90 are likelier to die than the people who are 89, who in turn are likelier to die than those who are 88. That’s a point that few people would dispute.
And, I suppose, if you wanted to get a sense of how long someone might live, it would make some sense to take into account how long that person has lived so far. As a comparison, when analyzing MLB some people look at past batting average as a means of attempting to predict future batting average. The logical move made in both analytical processes is pretty similar: “I want to know what X will be in the future. I should see what X has been in the past.”
Of course, the trend that we are accepting as fact — that older people are likelier to die — doesn’t mean that age is the reason older people are likelier to die.
(Also, I should just say that a few people I know have died within the last few weeks. And Prince died today. And the doves cried. These recent departures have doubtlessly impacted my current thoughts on birthdays, life, and death.)
It might be possible that age in general is correlated to other factors that collectively are the real cause of death. For instance, if we asked a bunch of people over the age of 80 to walk a quarter of a mile, we might find that — regardless of age — the people who completed the walk in five minutes have a greater chance of surviving longer than the people who finished in six minutes, who in turns have better survival odds than those who finished in seven minutes.
And because walking is an active endeavor, whereas living is more of a passive habit, it would not at all be surprising if dynamic measurements based on physical activity were more representative and predictive of future existence than static measurements based merely on the fact that someone hasn’t died yet.
If you want to know how long a man will live, it’s probably better to know how far he can walk than how many birthdays he has endured.
Some numbers simply mean more than others.
4/20 — Happy Birthday, Mother! (One Day Late!)
In high school and college, my sister used to joke about how my mother’s birthday was “Pot Day.” She also used to joke about how mom shared a birthday with Adolf Hitler. My older sister clearly gets her sense of humor from me.
I personally find the whole “Let’s smoke pot on 4/20” thing a smidgen annoying, not because I find cannabis consumption annoying but because “4/20” means nothing. As a date, as a number, it’s meaningless. Its connection to marijuana is a convention, but there’s nothing inherently tying that particular day — or, in the case of “4:20,” that particular time of day — to that particular plant.
A lot of people who consume cannabis on 4/20 don’t even know why “4/20” means what it means. All they know is how they have been told to interpret it — and then they spend the rest of their pot-smoking days interpreting and acting upon it in accordance with what they’ve been told.
Even though many people in the cannabis culture are anti-establishment, in following the convention of 4/20 without first knowing why they do so they are actually proving themselves to be a part of an establishment.
This might seem really obvious (and/or really douchey) for me to say — but if you are going to make decisions because of numbers, you also might want to know if those numbers are actually significant.
By the way, we hope that you had a happy 4/20.
Numbers That Mean Nothing
In sports, fantasy sports, and DFS, a lot of people assign significance to numbers that mean nothing. OK, they mean “something” — but they don’t mean what a lot of people think that they mean. They don’t signify accurately.
For instance, there are people who believe that an NFL team needs to run the ball a lot to win a game. Such people confuse correlation for causation. It’s true that, as a trend, teams that win tend to run the ball more than teams that lose. Of course, it’s also true that, in many case, the teams that win run the ball primarily once they are ahead. They run because they are winning, not because they need to win.
Likewise, many people assign significance to 100-yard games for running backs and wide receivers and 300-yard passing games for quarterbacks. On the one hand, on a platform like DraftKings, which awards bonus points when a player hits those statistical thresholds, paying attention to those accomplishments isn’t entirely useless. On the other hand, on sites like FanDuel that don’t award bonus points, those thresholds are just about as meaningless as birthdays.
And, on the third hand, even if you are playing on DK and even if you are looking for players who might hit those thresholds, looking at players who have hit those thresholds in the past probably isn’t the best way to find players who will do so in the future. There are better, more predictive statistics.
In looking at the NBA, some people put a lot of significance in double-doubles. They like players who can produce in a variety of ways. I like double-doubles as much as the next guy who hates Tim Duncan — but I don’t think that they are predictive of future double-doubles in a substantial way. Rather, they are descriptive. They are a consequence, not a cause.
MLB and PGA: Get Used to This Til September
I know that postseason NBA is underway, but from now til September the in-season sports that we are going to be focused on most are MLB and PGA. Get used to it.
If you use our MLB Trends and MLB Player Models tools, you will notice that missing from these tools are relatively simple, traditional, and straightforward statistics, such as batting average, on-base percentage, and on-base plus slugging. We have omitted these statistics because their predictive value is both limited and overestimated.
It’s not that we don’t entirely care about those stats. We care about them to the extent that they are correlated to fantasy production, hits, and getting on base. It’s just that we care more about other metrics that are more correlated to what’s actually important.
For instance, the Advanced MLB Data housed at FantasyLabs is much more predictive. Why? Because it’s tied to the physical nature of the sport. Batted-ball metrics, such as Average Distance, Exit Velocity, Hard-Hit Percentage, and Airtime all quantify the physics of the game in a way that other numbers simply cannot.
Which will be more predictive of a batter’s 2016 statistical production: His 2015 production? — or how he actually hit the ball last year?
In this scenario, the 2015 production is the result of a process, whereas hitting the ball is the process itself. The numbers that reveal the process are the most important.
Basically, I’m saying something very similar to what Colin Davy said in his first FL piece: The numbers that some people think are useful aren’t especially useful.
Partying Like It’s 1999
For a variety of reasons, in the 1990s a lot of people thought that the years 1999 and 2000 would be significant. They weren’t — or at least not in the ways that people had imagined.
All around us are numbers that people believe have significance. Don’t be one of those people. Instead, be like Prince — exploit the random beliefs that people have about those numbers.
While people believe that 1999 is actually important, write a song about 1999 that leverages those beliefs — and then make a lot of money.
And party like it’s 1517. Because that actually was a significant year.
Prince: Rest in Purple
The Labyrinthian: 2016, 39
Previous installments of The Labyrinthian can be accessed via my author page. If you have suggestions on material I should know about or even write about in a future Labyrinthian, please contact me via email, [email protected], or Twitter @MattFtheOracle.