This is the 145th 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.

Let’s start this article where my last article ended: FantasyLabs Co-Founder Jonathan Bales was on an episode of Freakonomics Radio in January 2016:

If you don’t want to listen to the episode, here’s (some of) what he says:

A lot of the beat writers in the NFL or across sports, they just can say whatever they want, and there is no incentive for them to be correct, and I do think that for the most part they are very bad at making predictions. People who have something to lose from their opinions or the predictions that they make are incentivized to make sure that they’re right. We question things, and we want to improve, and we ask “why?” a lot. Like, “Why am I making lineups this way? Is this truly the best way?” Just always questioning everything that we do, taking a very, very data-driven approach to fantasy and adapting and evolving.

Since it’s a Thursday and I’m lazy, I want to spend the rest of this article exploring what Bales said and pretending that it’s tangentially connected to whatever I end up writing after this sentence ends.

Nobody Does It Better

We’re proud of our news feeds. We post MLB News very quickly — we’re often the first site on Twitter to call attention to breaking news — and within seconds of a beat report about who will/won’t play we’ve updated our projected lineups. Also, no one — absolutely no one — does NBA News better than Justin Phan . . . and . . .

. . . I just spent about the past half-hour watching various versions of “Nobody Does It Better.” Carly Simon’s original is a classic — and that Marvin Hamlisch sure could write the f*ck out of a song — but the Radiohead, Adam Sandler, Celine Dion, Jennifer Holliday, Atomic Kitten (with Russell Watson) and Bobby Brown (with Whitney Houston) versions of the song are so quintessentially them that I’m thrilled to have now wasted another half-hour watching them on YouTube.

Also, honorable mentions go to Ariana Grande and Nate Dogg (with Warren G) for having songs with the same title as Simon’s easy-listening No. 1 hit. Anytime you can publish a song that sucks, you definitely want it to share a title with a chart-topping James Bond theme song.

Where was I? . . .

Beat Writers Are (Maybe Not?) Horrible

We’re proud of our news feeds. No one does NBA News better than Justin — “baby, you’re the best” — and he gets help from Jay Persson and J.J. Calle. And the legendary Adam Levitan runs our NFL News with help from Ian Hartitz. Our news blurbs are actionable and timely. We leverage the collective knowledge of sports writers and beat reporters as well as any other resource on the internet.

That said, I agree with Bales. Beat writers tend to be bad at making predictions. A few thoughts:

  1. How do we know they suck? We’re monetarily incentivized to know if they’re good. They’re not.
  2. If they suck, then why do we rely on them? Beat writers sometimes provide needed information, and we add value to the industry by presenting the beat information that’s valuable and not disseminating the beat (mis)information that’s valueless.
  3. Why am I asking a third rhetorical question? It’s not called “The Recommendation of Three,” right?

Also, I think there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way most fantasy players read beat writers (and it’s probably representative of a problem most people have with processing information). My belief is that fantasy players read beat reports and follow beat writers on Twitter so that their opinions can be confirmed by whatever bullsh*t the local media happens to circulate on any given day.

So if a beat reporter says something like, “The coaches are optimistic about Player A,” fantasy players can then justify their preexisting bullishness on Player A. And if a beat reporter says something that fantasy players disagree with or don’t care about, then they just ignore what the beat reporter says.

Leonte Carroo and the Miami Herald

Here’s an example about how much beat reporters suck at predicting the future.

On March 28, 2017, Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald published an in-depth piece on Miami Dolphins wide receiver Leonte Carroo, who had just finished his uninspiring rookie campaign. In the piece, Salguero wrote:

Sources say Coach Adam Gase has told his coaching staff that he believes he’s finally figured out how to make Carroo pay dividends. Gase is apparently optimistic Carroo can still be what the Dolphins believed they were getting when they picked him out of Rutgers.

Two months later — after the Dolphins waited till the seventh round of the 2017 NFL draft to ‘address’ the wide receiver position by selecting Isaiah Ford from Virginia Tech — the Miami Herald (the same newspaper!) published a contradictory piece by Barry Jackson saying (of Carroo) that “it is not absolutely certain that he will make the team.”

Per Jackson, even though almost nothing had changed since Salguero’s piece, apparently Carroo’s status on the team had gone from “the coaches now know how to use him” to “he’s at risk of getting cut.” That’s ridiculous. The Miami Herald beat reporters can’t even predict what their takes will be when almost nothing has changed in a time of the offseason when almost nothing is at stake. How can they be trusted to make predictions that actually matter?

They probably can’t. Also . . .

  1. Jackson’s “it is not absolutely certain” phrasing is intellectually puny. It’s a weak hedge. He’s leaving himself an out. He’s saying both something and absolutely nothing, because nothing is ever 100 percent certain — except that Jackson’s phrasing sucks. What’s bad about it isn’t that he’s expressing uncertainty. It’s that through a sleight-of-hand phrase he’s attempting to make readers think that an event that has maybe a one percent chance of happening has more like a 10 percent chance.
  2. I just said that nothing is ever 100 percent certain — but Carroo’s presence on the team at the start of the 2017 regular season is about as certain as anything gets in the NFL, barring some sort of disqualifying non-football event.

Carroo entered the NFL in 2016 as a six-foot, 211-pound prospect with two seasons of strong production in the Big Ten and the ability to run 40 yards in 4.50 seconds. The Dolphins selected him in the third round, and they traded multiple picks to acquire the pick they used to draft him. The team didn’t select in the 2017 draft anyone likely to challenge him on the depth chart. And just two months ago the head coach reportedly expressed enthusiasm about Carroo.

If Jackson wants to make a wager as to whether Carroo will be in the Dolphins organization in Week 1, I’m game.

The Microscopic View vs. the Big Picture

The primary benefit that beat reporters provide to fantasy players is that they are intimately familiar with the franchises they cover. They are able to establish sources that yield information otherwise unavailable, and they are able (hopefully) to interpret organizational processes through a long-term perspective that helps us sort through the bullsh*t.

When a long-time beat writer of an organization says something like “The coaches want to attack the opposing team’s slot cornerback, and they also want to distribute carries more evenly in the backfield,” I pay attention. That statement isn’t predictive per se, but it has predictive weight and is the type of statement a beat reporter is qualified to make.

If, though, a beat reporter says something like “This rookie wide receiver has a good chance of having 1,000 yards,” I’m dubious — because in general beat reporters don’t have the macro perspective required to make production-oriented predictive statements.

The strength of beat reporters is also their weakness. They’re so focused on the franchises they cover that they’re not overly familiar with league-wide trends — even though they probably think they are.

For instance, regardless of the facts that A) the Dolphins invested more in Carroo than just a third-round pick and that B) Gase a couple of months ago expressed optimism about Carroo, the odds are overwhelmingly against the Dolphins cutting Carroo because historically it is rare for a third-round wide receiver to be cut after only one season with a team — especially when he has a physical profile and history of college production comparable to Carroo’s. Is Jackson aware of precisely how rare it is for a third-round receiver of Carroo’s talent to be cut before his second regular season? Probably not. And that’s fine — until he starts making statements requiring knowledge of the big picture.

Skin in the Game

At Labs, we’re fans of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s work. He’s big on the concept of “skin in the game,” so much so that the working title for his next book is actually Skin in the Game. As Bales mentions on Freakonomics Radio, beat reporters don’t have skin in the game. They’re extremely unlikely to lose their jobs if they get predictions wrong. After all, they can always blame their unnamed sources. Beat reporters aren’t incentivized the way that DFS players are.

If I got in contact with Jackson and said, “Hey, let’s bet on whether Carroo is on the Dolphins in 2017” — and then I started suggesting the terms of the bet, he’d probably say that he hadn’t intended to speak definitively: He was just giving his impressions based on what he had observed and heard. He wasn’t speaking with the idea of a bet in mind.

Of course, he’d be right: His comment was likely made without the idea of anything — especially money — being at stake.

And that’s a problem.

“A Very, Very Data-Driven Approach to Fantasy”

If we can rely on beat reporters only intermittently and conditionally, then what are we to do? Something tells me that we should take a very, very data-driven approach to fantasy. Research everything for yourself with our Player Models and Trends tool.

Of course, trust the beat reporters when they talk about stuff about which they truly have authority — trust them when their reports show up in our news feeds. Otherwise, don’t trust beat reporters. Trust yourself.

Nobody does it better.


The Labyrinthian: 2017.50, 145

Previous installments can be accessed via my author page or the series archive.