This is the 172nd installment of The Labyrinthian, a series dedicated to exploring random fields of knowledge 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.
A few weeks ago Peter Jennings (CSURAM88) and I booked a prop bet as to whether I would finish the season as a top-10 ranker at FantasyPros. At the time I was No. 10. Now I’m No. 4. Last week — before disastrously and strategically fading Antonio Brown (toe) on Monday Night Football due to the injury news — I was No. 2, trailing only Sean Koerner, a friend of the Daily Fantasy Flex pod and the Director of Predictive Analytics for STATS.
I’ve already published some of my thoughts on projections and rankings. In this piece I want to touch on a working theory I have about the extent to which NFL matchups matter, especially for particular positions.
But, before that, here’s a short story.
The Scorpion and the Frog
No one’s sure of this story’s origin, but it pops up in pop culture from time to time. And, yes, I went with the ‘double pop’ in that sentence. Here it is (with some Freedmanian flourishes).
A scorpion wants to cross a river, but instead of building a raft or a bridge or at least using a twig or a leaf as a flotation device as any self-respecting predatory arachnid would do it instead asks a frog to transport it across the river on its back. The frog refuses on the grounds that the scorpion might sting it on the voyage, which would cause the frog to drown, to which the scorpion responds: “Why would I sting you? If I did that, we’d both drown.” The frog sees the sense in this logic, and so it agrees to take the scorpion across the river. In the middle of the journey, however, the scorpion — punk that it is — stings the frog, sending it into paralysis. As they’re both drowning, the frog asks the scorpion, “Why did you sting me?” The response: “It’s in my nature to sting you. I guess I’m just a self-destructive *sshole.”
Even though the scorpion had nothing to gain and everything to lose by stinging the frog, it did it anyway. The scorpion was unable to suppress its natural instincts long enough for it to act in an optimal manner in a given situation. Creatures often fail to act optimally. Why? Because they can’t help themselves. Regardless of circumstances, they do what they tend to do instead of what they should do.
NFL Matchups: They Sort of Don’t Matter
Bryan Mears touches on this in his weekly funnel piece: Teams often don’t act optimally. Example: In Week 5, the Steelers were -8.5 home favorites implied for a healthy 26.0 points against the Jaguars, whose defense was the definition of a run-flowing funnel. In Football Outsiders’ Defense-Adjusted Value Over Average, the Jags were first against the pass but dead last against the run. This was a clear spot for the Steelers to ride running back Le’Veon Bell. In fact, Bell had the highest median and ceiling projections in our Models. Instead of relying on their All-Pro workhorse, the Steelers had quarterback Ben Roethlisberger attempt 55 passes. He threw five interceptions, two of which were returned for touchdowns. A game they could’ve won 23-14 they lost 9-30.
Even when NFL teams have circumstances that suggest they should optimally act in one way instead of another, that doesn’t mean the teams will do what they should. Instead, they might just do what they want to do — what comes naturally to them — even if that strategy loses the game. Remember, even though Gandolf tells Bilbo and the dwarves not to stray from the path in Mirkwood Forest, they do it anyway. Translation: NFL coaches and play callers are pretty much the modern-day equivalent of middle-earth dwarves.
All of which brings me to this point: On a position-by-position basis, NFL matchups sort of don’t matter. Or at least they matter less than most people think they do.
Numbers Are Fun and Simple — Except When They’re Not
Here’s an exercise.
Let’s say that a team’s wide receiver unit has averaged 20.0 fantasy points per game (PPG) on the season. It has a matchup against a team that has allowed opposing wide receiver units to score 40.0 PPG. How many points should we expect the wide receiver unit to score in this game?
If your answer is 30.0, and especially if it’s higher than that, you’re probably overvaluing the matchup. In most cases — because most NFL coaches and play callers are scorpions — what matters is not what a team should do based on its matchup but what a team is likely to do based on its history.
Most teams have identities: Those identities, and not matchups, often determine what teams do. Matchup matters to the extent that it’s easier to run through a wooden wall than a brick one, but if a team likes to run the odds are it will try to make its way through that wall no matter what it’s made of. In fact, sometimes the harder a wall is the more times a team will try to run through it in order to impose its will and show the wall who’s boss. There’s a word for this: “Machismo.” There’s another word for this: “Stupidity.” Either way, it has predictive implications for how we should project and rank players.
NFL vs. Other Sports
Last night I had a conversation with Justin Phan because I occasionally like to pretend I care about my coworkers. It’s the positive expected value move. I mean, last year I went through the effort of actually sending people holiday cards, which were amazingly awkward. Here’s (a recreation of) what I wrote to Jonathan Bales.
Did you ever notice that if someone says “Hey Bales” it sounds as if they’re saying “hay bales,” as in, “Howdy, would you like to buy some hay bales for your grazing livestock?” No? I’m originally from Texas, so maybe it’s just me. Anyway, this is a holiday card. I hope you like it. It’s not as fancy as some holiday cards, but it gets the job done. Speaking of job, I should thank you for paying me money to write sh*tty fantasy articles, so . . . thank you for paying me money to write sh*tty fantasy articles. I don’t know why I just wrote “paying me money” right there. I mean, what else are you going to pay me with? Sex? Bitcoin? Titcoin? Anyway, this is just a little holiday card to say . . . thank you for paying me money to write sh*tty fantasy articles. This is where I should pretend to care about you as a person. I should probably say something like, “I hope you have a good holiday season,” but we both know I really don’t care.
I know it might seem like that holiday message was written quickly and haphazardly, but I assure you — it’s not easy to be that awkward. It takes time and a lot of thought. Now that FantasyLabs is a part of The Action Network and is partnered with Sports Insights, Bet Labs, and Sports Action, I’ll probably forgo the exercise of writing holiday cards. I don’t have the energy to pretend to care about that many people.
For NBA, if a team is weak at defending a certain position — the Clippers have been notably generous to opposing shooting guards this year, for instance — then players at that position have a good chance of success in the matchup because there are so many possessions per game. The law of large-ish numbers takes over. Also, because there are fewer players on the court than on the football field, and because NBA matchups are often (though not always) one on one, the matchups in the NBA matter a little more.
Similarly, matchups in MLB are important, especially since the key adversarial moments in the game happen sequentially and predictably. The pitcher faces a series of batters one at a time, and almost all of what happens in the game is determined by those matchups. To state the obvious: The handedness of the pitcher and hitters is extremely important. In some cases even the pitching and hitting tendencies of the players matter: If a ground-ball pitcher faces a lineup filled with ground-ball hitters, that matchup matters, probably more than most fantasy baseball players realize.
In the NFL, though, matchups mean less. Sometimes offensive players don’t or can’t take advantage of their matchups because of game plan, game script, or both. With just 60-70 offensive snaps per game, 22 people on the field at a time, only one ball to go around, and points relatively hard to come by on a per-snap basis, matchups are less predictive for NFL than they are for NBA and MLB.
At least that’s my working theory.
Poor Matchups > Great Matchups
Cross-sport comparisons aside, NFL matchups are difficult for people to weight properly perhaps for this reason: Matchups aren’t created equal. For instance, it’s possible that poor matchups matter more than great matchups, even if the degrees to which one matchup is poor and another matchup is great are identical. If a quarterback has a great matchup, he might take advantage of it, but it’s possible that game script could work against him. If, though, a quarterback has a tough matchup, even with lots of volume he could really struggle.
Let’s return to the example of the Steelers in Week 5. Roethlisberger is the best home quarterback in the league, especially when he’s favored. And yet against the Jags, as a significant home favorite, he had only 10.58 DraftKings points (and an unholy -7.84 Plus/Minus) despite throwing the ball 55 times — the second-highest mark of his career. Even with unreal opportunity, he underperformed. That’s the power of poor matchups. If a defense is great, lots has to go right for a skill position player to be productive. If a defense is bad, even one thing going wrong can prevent a skill position player from reaching his expected enhanced value.
This is unproven. I haven’t run the numbers on it, so what I’m saying is totally anecdotal. Nevertheless, it’s a perspective I’ve used when ranking players, and at a minimum it hasn’t kept me from placing in the top five through 13 weeks.
The Market Share of a Matchup
Here’s another way in which matchups aren’t created equal: Market share. This will seem obvious, but sometimes people undervalue what they already know: Quarterbacks and to a lesser extent tight ends usually get the singular benefit of their matchups, but running backs and wide receivers do not.
Here’s what I mean: However many fantasy points a defense gives up to the quarterback position, in most cases all of those points go to one player. That same concept generally applies to tight ends. Most teams don’t have two viable receiving tight ends. If a defense gives up points to the tight end position, the supermajority of those tend to go to one player. In this way, the benefit of matchups matters more to quarterbacks and tight ends. If a player has an advantageous matchup, he can be assured of capturing most if not all of the fantasy production allowed to the position — if he’s a quarterback or tight end.
Running backs and wide receivers, though, have no such security. If a defense is soft against running backs, the change-of-pace or receiving back might be the one who gets most of the points in any given matchup. If a defense is weak against wide receivers, it might be the slot man or the No. 2 receiver who has a big game instead of the No. 1 alpha stud. Over the last decade, production at running back and wide receiver has increasingly flattened out: On a percentage basis, primary runners and receivers are less productive than they used to be, and secondary and supplementary players are more productive than they used to be. My belief is that projectors and rankers have been slow to make their market share adjustments, especially as it relates to defenses.
Even though they know that defenses allow production in a distributed manner, projectors and rankers still apportion too much production to the top options in offenses with good matchups: They give too much benefit to primary runners and receivers relative to secondary and supplementary runners and receivers. If the Falcons face a team weak against wide receivers, the natural inclination will be to jack up the projection for Julio Jones and then give a little bit of a bump to Mohamed Sanu. It’s within the range of outcomes for those adjustments to be accurate, but in general the distribution of extra expected production from good matchups needs to be distributed more evenly. Julio could have a great game, but it’s also possible he could have a game that’s just slightly above average (for him) with much of the excess production going to Sanu and a little bit going even to Taylor Gabriel.
Wide Receiver and Cornerback Matchups
We talk about wide receiver-cornerback pairings in our breakdowns, and on our NFL Matchups Page you can see the receiver-corner matchups we’re projecting based on where players have historically lined up on the field and been deployed by their teams.
While it’s important to have an awareness of defensive players — and I have no doubt I’ve gotten better as a ranker because I’ve made a concerted effort to learn more about individual defensive players — it’s probable that rankers and fantasy players alike place too much significance on receiver-corner matchups. For one, shadow coverage is relatively rare. Right now we’re 12 games into the 2017 season, and only five corners have shadowed receivers in at least half of their games (Pro Football Focus).
- Patrick Peterson (11 games)
- Darius Slay (eight games)
- Xavier Rhodes (seven games)
- Malcolm Butler (six games)
- Morris Claiborne (six games)
Just last week Browns wide receiver Josh Gordon made his NFL return. He had a tough matchup against the Chargers, who have three top-12 PFF corners and a great pass rush, but before the game people acted as if he were going to run 100 percent of his routes against stud cornerback Casey Hayward even though he had been used in shadow coverage just once since Week 8. Hayward did follow Gordon around on the outside, but Gordon ran 16 of his 48 routes from the slot against rookie cornerback Desmond King. Would all the people who doubted Gordon entering Week 13 have been more enthusiastic if they’d known he’d run one-third of his routes against a first-year player?
This isn’t the ’90s. Nowadays receivers line up all over the formation, and it’s not often that a guy will run even 50 percent of his routes in a game against the same cornerback. On top of that, there are so many different coverage schemes that teams use: Even if a corner covers a receiver at the beginning of his route, that doesn’t mean he’ll be responsible for defending him later in the route.
Again, it’s important to know about defensive players, especially those who most directly impact skill position players, but my sense is that DFS players and rankers put too much weight on one-on-one receiver-corner matchups that come into play on only 30-50 percent of the offensive snaps.
My 2018 Holiday Card
At this all-important time of the year, _________________. I sincerely hope that ________________________________. Anyway, stay cool — or warm — or whatever people say at the end of holiday cards.
The Labyrinthian: 2017.77, 172
Matthew Freedman is the Editor-in-Chief of FantasyLabs. He has a dog and sometimes a British accent. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, he’s known only as The Labyrinthian. Previous installments of the series can be accessed via the series archive.