In the last installment of The Labyrinthian, I wrote about Harold Bloom and his theory of the anxiety of influence, noting that Bloom is opposed to feminist, Marxist, and New Historicist interpretations of literature. You probably have some awareness of what feminism and Marxism are: The first (and I say this generally) is embodied by Hillary Clinton and the second by Bernie Sanders. But what is New Historicism? Get ready to pretend that you actually care about the answer to that question!

This is the 37th 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.

Editor’s Disclaimer: This writer is prone to exaggeration.

You Can Never Have Too Many Greenblatts

In talking about value investing and Price-to-Earnings Ratio, I’ve mentioned Joel Greenblatt, who made a name for himself as an investor at Gotham Capital, averaging an annualized return of 50 percent per year for much of the 1980s and 1990s. During that period of time, another Greenblatt rose to prominence in his chosen field — Stephen Greenblatt, a professor of Renaissance literature and culture and a Shakespearean by training.

At the time, the scholarly Greenblatt (who had studied as an undergraduate and graduate student at Yale with Bloom) was a professor at the University of California-Berkeley and the cofounder of the influential literary-cultural journal Representations. Eventually, once his method of analyzing literature had gained widespread acceptance, Greenblatt was offered a full-time position at Harvard.

In 1982, Greenblatt was the first person to use the phrase “New Historicism,” a school of literary theory that explores, in his words, “the mutual permeability of the literary and the historical.” By the way, that phrase — “the mutual permeability of the literary and the historical” — simultaneously illustrative and ambiguous, is very representative of the type of thing that a New Historicist would say. In that phrase so much is said and left unspoken.

The Tangential Swerve: Marriage, Death, and Laughter

If you’ve read The Labyrinthian for any period of time, you might sense that my style is very much informed by New Historicism. That was kind of bound to happen. By the time I was in grad school at Boston College, many of my peers considered Greenblatt to be a god and New Historicism his religion.

Greenblatt once gave a public lecture at BC. It looked quite a bit like this:


I’m not exaggerating — at least not on this point. Watching the audience watch him was more entertaining than watching him.

As an undergrad, I left Texas Christian University for a year to study at Harvard as a visiting student, and I took a Shakespeare class with Greenblatt when I was there. During that time, I got very used to both his style and influence.

One of my greatest undergraduate moments occurred in his course. He asked the class what happened after marriage. We were discussing The Winter’s Tale, and I think the answer that he was looking for was something along the lines of sex and pregnancy. With a straight face and my standard monotone, I raised my hand and said one syllable: “Death.”

Greenblatt and about 150 Harvard students all burst out laughing. In my version of this story — and, per New Historicism, history is nothing if not a version of a story — Greenblatt wiped his eyes and dismissed class right then and there. When we were all leaving the lecture hall, several guys nonironically wearing vests and bowties actually took the time to tell me, “Well done.”

For the rest of the semester, I was known as the guy who had made Greenblatt laugh.

Of course, I had been making a joke — but it just so happens that, within a Shakespearean context, death often is what follows marriage. Just ask Claudius and Gertrude or Othello and Desdemona. In a way, I was very much not joking. That two-sided gesture — saying something that can be both avowed and disavowed — is a classic New Historicist rhetorical tactic.

The “Delicious” Anecdote

In Greenblatt’s class, I became attuned to his linguistic habits. For instance, he overuses the word “delicious” — a word that consequently I now find unappetizing. That’s what happens when an older man with undeniable charisma and magnetism uses a word as loaded as that one and multiple undergraduate women in your class seem to become aroused.

How many times is too many times to use the word “delicious”? Two. If you use it once, you can play it off, as if you are being self-aware and humorous. If you use it twice, you might be self-aware — maybe even unintentionally humorous — but you’re also something else. And Greenblatt used that word more than twice.

Also, if you don’t like my constant use of anecdotes, blame Greenblatt. In academic writing, New Historicists often open with extended anecdotes, moving from the particular to the general. According to Greenblatt, the anecdote provides a “touch of the real” — which, again, is the type of thing that a New Historicist would say.

By the way, while at Harvard I learned that Greenblatt drove a scooter — and I’m definitely not the one who stole it. And I say that with(out) irony.

What is “New Historicism”?

If you were a grad student in English literature in the 1980s and 1990s and you wanted to seem intriguing enough for someone to have sex with you, New Historicism is what you talked about. Hell, some people were using New Historicism in this way even in the 2000s. I’m not sure how successful they were — but they were definitely trying.

New Historicism is sort of the academic version of grunge. It exists as a convention merely because someone invented the phrase “New Historicism” and enough people started using it. As is the case with grunge, the roots of the New Historicist movement can be traced to the mid ’80s and its best work had already been done by the late ’90s. Sometimes it’s hard to say what New Historicism is, but when an article starts out with the opening, soft-loud, four-chord progression of the anecdote, you know immediately what you’re hearing.

On the one hand, New Historicism is relatively straightforward. Its practitioners seek to understand literature and culture by reading them alongside each other, treating everything as if it were a text. On the other hand, the practice (like a virus) is adaptive. The tools that one uses in analyzing texts change. They are applied on a text-by-text basis. Per Greenblatt, “how art and society are interrelated cannot be answered by appealing to a single theoretical stance.” (Of course.)

Whereas generations of scholars often sought to understand literature by focusing solely on literature or by looking at works as they relate to the authors, New Historicists read in order to understand the social forces that conspire to create texts and how those texts in turn exert themselves on and are received by society.

For New Historicists, the key to a text is its context.

DFS Context: Not Everything, But Still THE Thing

Let’s bring this to DFS. Context matters. It probably matters more than most people think. In fact, because of how often it’s ignored, it might be one of the greatest edges that we as DFS players currently have.

For instance, in MLB DFS most people pay attention to metrics like slugging percentage, Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA), and Isolated Power (ISO). We all know that they are important. Not everyone knows the degree to which they are important or how to quantify their importance — at FantasyLabs, the importance of these metrics can be easily discovered with our Trends tool and Plus/Minus and Consistency metrics — but in general MLB DFSers know to prioritize these and other similar metrics.

People even know that Advanced Data is important. Of course, relatively few people have access to it, but they intuitively grasp that average distance of ball batted, exit velocity, fly-ball percentage, ground-ball percentage, line-drive percentage, and hard-hit percentage are worth knowing.

What all of these metrics have in common is that they deal specifically with players and their performances. They are concerned directly with “authors” and “texts.” They without question contain within them the subtleties of context, but they do not distinguish between what is attributable to the player and what is the consequence of circumstances.

Everyone who plays MLB DFS should certainly be looking at performance data. These numbers are invaluable. And yet, if you want to be accurate and precise, you need to understand the influence of context on what we see.

MLB Trends: Quantifying Context

For this analysis, I am considering as “context” everything that is outside of a player’s control. Let’s take batters, for instance. They have direct influence on how they hit the ball and the handedness of pitchers against whom they perform best. And with their performances they even have influence on their salaries on any given DFS platform.

But they have no control over who will be the home-plate umpire in a game, what the weather will be, or the ballpark in which that game will be played. They have no control over whether any given game is the first or the last contest of a series. And, even though their performances impact their DFS salaries, players really have no impact on the ways in which platforms (relative to other platforms) will value them.

These contextual factors can be quite important. Just yesterday, Brandon Hopper outlined why umpires deserve our DFS love. And this morning, Mitchell Block noted the extent to which a pitcher’s ballpark can neutralize a hot hitter. Sometimes the things that player can’t control end up controlling them.

Let’s create a very basic “context trend” for batters (on DraftKings):

  • Trends > Home Plate Ump > Any umpire with a positive (green) Plus/Minus
  • Trends > Bargain Rating > 50 to 99
  • Trends > Park Factor (Beta) > 50 to 100
  • Weather Details > Weather > 50 to 100

And here’s the resulting trend:

Context for Batters-1
Without even searching for batters who are playing well, we’ve been able to identify a specific context that is not especially rare and that elevates the potential of players. (Note that because this article is published on a Friday, no players will appear under this trend’s “Current Matches” til later in the day, as home-plate umpires are generally not announced until shortly before the first game of series.)

This is an incredibly simple and relatively non-restrictive trend. What would happen if we were more exacting in the umpires and ranges we select?

  • Trends > Home Plate Ump > Any umpire with a Plus/Minus of at least +0.3
  • Trends > Bargain Rating > 70 to 99
  • Trends > Park Factor (Beta) > 70 to 100
  • Weather Details > Weather > 70 to 100

Here’s the new trend:

Context for Batters-2
Naturally, players do not match for this trend all that often — how often would you expect a discounted batter to have a hitter-friendly ump behind the plate in a good-weather game taking place in a park that suits him? — but the larger point is highlighted by this enhanced trend: Context can be inordinately important.

On July 21 of last year, when Shin-Soo Choo (salaried at $3,900), had 43 DraftKings points, it probably wasn’t just because he had an outstanding game. Rather, Choo’s performance might’ve been the direct result of Tom Hallion, Coors Field, and near-perfect weather. At least that’s what a New Historicist would suggest . . . or at least imply.

I’m not saying that you should use these exact trends — I imagine that plenty of strong context trends can be created involving other factors — but I am saying that, if you aren’t at least thinking of context when you create trends, then you’re not using the Trends tool in an optimal fashion.

In the words of William Adama, “Context matters.”

Context is What Academics Call “Luck”

Context, which I have within this article defined as everything that is outside of a player’s control, is really just luck.

In DFS, we should focus on context in order to find players positioned to benefit from luck — from the alignment of the stars of umpire, price, park, and weather.

I am reminded of Woody Allen’s 2005 film, Match Point, and in particular the opening words, which are spoken in a voiceover by protagonist Chris Wilton (played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers), a former tennis player who becomes a tennis instructor-turned-financier (and worse things than financier):

The man who said, “I’d rather be lucky than good” saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a match when the balls hits the top of the net, and for a split second it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck, it goes forward and you win, or maybe it doesn’t, and you lose.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should just hope to get lucky. As Chris says later in the film, “hard work is mandatory.” In fact, it’s the hard work that puts you in a position to be lucky. And hard work that is geared toward luck is even better.

Luck doesn’t come to those who hope for it. Luck finds those who seek it out and plan for it.

Or, as the ancients say, “fortune favors the bold.”


The Labyrinthian: 2016, 37

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.