“I like efficiency, but efficiency without volume is meaningless.”
— Matthew Freedman
This is the 72nd 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.
“When I Think About You, I Quote Myself”
Isn’t that how the Divinyls song goes? As you can tell by the title to this article, I don’t really pay attention to quotations — unless I’m quoting myself. And that’s what I’m doing in the introduction for the second Labyrinthian in a row.
My “efficiency schmefficiency” haute take I issued on a podcast last year. While I stand by that statement — efficiency is the mistress and volume is the goddess — I do want to think through the ways in which it’s useful to contextualize the efficiency-volume dichotomy.
I want to emphasize this point: The thoughts herein aren’t final. I’m still theorizing all of this, and DFS is a polymorphous beast. The methods of hunting it that work in one context might not work in another.
Regarding efficiency and volume: Both are important for projecting (or creating ranges for) future production, which in turn directly impacts the DFS potential of players across various sports. So it’s important to understand how and when efficiency and volume are most useful.
Right now, this is what I’m thinking: Efficiency is something, but volume is everything.
Efficiency Without Volume Is Meaningless
Let’s imagine an incredibly efficient NFL player — someone who gets a lot of yards whenever he touches the ball and doesn’t need a lot of touches to score touchdowns. Basically, someone like Antone Smith two years ago.
For the first six games of the 2014 season, Smith was a per-touch force of nature. On 13 carries and 10 receptions he had 346 yards and five touchdowns from scrimmage. That’s an average of 15.04 yards and 0.21 touchdowns for every single touch.
Those numbers are fluke-ish but not entirely fluky. As a senior at Florida State in 2008, Smith scored 16 touchdowns in 13 games, and in his pre-combine workout, he ran his 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds at 5’8″ and 191 lbs. He’s a big play in a small frame.
Here’s how he did from a DFS perspective in the first six weeks of 2014:
That’s amazing, and here’s something to keep in mind. A typical elite runner can have a comparable Plus/Minus value on FanDuel for a decent length of time. But he won’t normally have salary-based expectations lower than five points. As a result, he won’t outperform expectations by 161.48 percent. But during Weeks 1-6, Smith did.
That’s unreal — literally, and I mean that metaphorically. At any rate — get it, rate — Smith’s unreal production was definitely unsustainable. In Weeks 7-10, Smith had 10 rushes and three receptions for 20 yards and no touchdowns. In Week 11, he broke his leg on special teams before even getting a touch. He missed the rest of the season.
Needless to say, Smith — Mr. Efficiency 2014 — was incredibly disappointing in his final four games (per our Trends tool):
Smith went from destroying expectations 83.3 percent of the time to falling short by 87.05 percent . . . 100 percent of the time.
What Are the Lessons?
What can we learn by looking at the example of Antone ‘To the End Zone’ Smith?
— Efficiency can be intensely ephemeral, especially when it’s unaccompanied by volume. Efficiency is basically the Keyser Söze of DFS: “And like that — he’s gone.”
— Not only is efficiency ephemeral. It’s also highly unreliable. In his first season out of college, Smith never even dressed for a game. For the three seasons after that, he had one rush for -3 yards and one target that went incomplete. Then from Week 10 of 2013 to Week 6 of 2014, Smith somehow turned 29 touches into 493 yards and seven touchdowns, becoming one of the most efficient players in the league overnight. And then in his nine career games after that, he had 14 touches for 31 scoreless yards. At no point in his career could anyone have reasonably predicted when Smith would be efficient. And when he was in the middle of his impressive hot streak, no one would have been able to determine how long he’d keep shooting sevens. In many cases, efficiency is the subtle manifestation of randomness.
— Extreme efficiency often (but not always) necessarily occurs in the absence of volume. A guy like Jamaal Charles is rare. Almost no one averages at least five yards per carry each season for the first eight seasons of his career. On 30 career rushes, Smith has averaged 9.9 yards per carry. On 15 receptions, 15.5 yards per reception. That type of efficiency is possible only if a running back is touching the ball almost not at all. Efficiency is the gift of the anti-workhorse.
There are more lessons — and by no means are the lessons here applicable 1) to all players 2) in every sport 3) all the time — but these lessons still get us pretty far along the path to enlightenment.
Tournaments and Cash Games
In case you forgot: Efficiency is something, but volume is everything. The way we should approach efficiency and volume differ depending on the type of game we’re playing. Let’s consider tournaments and cash games in turn.
Volume: As manna fed the Hebrews, so too does volume feed the winners of guaranteed prize pools. Even if a player is inefficient, he can be a solid supplementary piece of a GPP-winning lineup. Whether we’re looking at extra at-bats in MLB, unexpected minutes in NBA, or a high number of goal-line touches in NFL, volume is incredibly important. Earlier this month I said that opportunity is everything for running backs, and ‘opportunity’ is basically just another word for volume.
When Tim Hightower had the opportunity to be the lead back for the Saints at the end of last season, he wasn’t efficient. He was basically just a guy who was able to turn 24 touches per game into unspeakably unreal value as an almost-30-year-old journeyman. He didn’t play poorly in his final four games of 2015, but his production had much more to do with volume than efficiency.
Efficiency: But efficiency still matters in tournaments. It’s not everything, but efficiency is something. It’s a vital component of true GPP upside. The athletes who submit utterly dominant performances usually do so when they partner elite efficiency with sultry volume. D*mn right, I wanted to use ‘sultry’ in that context.
Efficiency often decreases when volume increases — but it’s possible to find players who for short periods of time can remain efficient as they receive more opportunities. These are the players who are the true difference-makers in GPPs. Finding the guys who happen 1) to score a lot of points per opportunity and 2) get a lot of opportunities (perhaps unexpectedly) in a contest is how one positions oneself to win a tournament.
No need to belabor this: When you build lineups for cash games, you’re probably not concerned with efficiency. Maybe you’re interested in efficiency to the tune of eight percent. Otherwise, though, you’re humming the volume song at 92 percent lung capacity. In cash games, chasing a high-efficiency player is how you lose your bankroll. Efficiency is nice, of course — but efficiency without volume is meaningless.
When you play cash games, you are concerned primarily with what is likely to happen. In this scenario, when you can choose to invest in either the relative solidity of volume or the regression-proneness of efficiency, volume is the higher-percentage play. It’s the everything.
The Mystery of No. 8 Batters With Lots of Pro Trends
I’ve been planning for a while to write a piece on efficiency and volume, but the impetus for this particular article was a weird observation that Bryan Mears made in yesterday’s MLB Breakdown: No. 8 batters who have at least 15 Pro Trends on DraftKings have historically had negative Plus/Minus values.
How can that be?
Here’s a theory: Volume . . . or the lack thereof.
A lot of the MLB Pro Trends have to do with efficiency, and they can help to highlight players who are in great spots — but for No. 8 batters, the lack of opportunities they receive at the bottom of the order outweighs even the best of situations.
When placed between the rock of volume and the hard place of efficiency, No. 8 batters get rocked.
Note to Self: That last sentence was horrible. Horrible.
Do We Need a Conclusion?
Did you really expect me to write an article about the primacy of volume without writing more than I needed to write?
Have you even read a Labyrinthian before?
One final thought: In investing, the Hall-of-Famers aren’t the guys who make 25 percent annually on a hundred million dollars. They’re the guys who make 12 percent each year on billions of dollars.
In life, it’s often not the rate of return that matters. It’s the return.
The Labyrinthian: 2016, 72
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.