April 16, 2015
The Price of Context
It's Thursday, which means that teams are traveling, the schedule is light (there are only six games on the slate), and that it's time to take a break from the standard format at Fantasy Rounders to reflect on the DFS game at large.
The player market has been shaken over at Draft Kings this season, with wild price fluctuations for individual hitters on a day-to-day basis. Perhaps these changes were in effect during the first few days of the season and I failed to notice due to the lack of a pricing anchor, but it became apparent over the weekend that day-to-day context – such as ballpark and strength of opponent – had become a much larger determinant of each day's player prices. It was hard to ignore that something had changed when virtually every player on the Cubs or Rockies (who were scheduled to play in Coors) cleared the typically-exclusive $5000 threshold, topped by the $6600 price tag of Anthony Rizzo versus Kyle Kendrick on Saturday. I don't recall any batter having cracked $6k last season, even for a day (though Trout may have hit it), so there was an apparent premium on context that was cooked into the market.
Prices calmed down after the weekend, which was at least peripherally related to the Rockies going back on the road, but the day-to-day variation of player prices at Draft Kings has been noticeably different this season. Some people loathe change, so there is bound to be some pushback, but I look at the new structure as a big improvement in the competitiveness and strategy of the DFS game.
When player prices are relatively static then managers can do a modicum of homework (e.g. look at the day's matchups) to make obvious value adjustments, avoiding aces and pitcher's parks while stacking against low-end starters playing in bandboxes. It takes minimal research and time to get a significant edge, and savvy players exploited this by (among other things) stuffing as many Coors Field hitters as possible into their lineups and dodging the marine layer in San Diego.
Draft Kings has changed all of that for 2015, taking an approach that was popularized at DraftStreet last season (before Draft Kings purchased Draft Street), with player prices being very sensitive to the changing conditions of each day. I don't know if the degree of change will hold, but expect to pay more for hitters in Coors or pitchers in Petco, and expect a batter's cost to go down when facing an ace on the mound.
The new approach essentially kills the Coors-stack strategy (which had become disturbingly common), because it's now impossible to squeeze in all those players under budget while fielding any sort of a pitching staff. The general increase of hitter prices – especially at the top end – has also resulted in a different shape to various lineups. It wasn't that hard to come up with an All-Star roster on any given day last season, and the affordable prices of the superstars resulted in considerable player overlap between teams. A higher top-end means that managers have to reach a bit deeper to fill out the lineup card, particularly if one wants to splurge on an elite player or two.
Draft Kings has done some of the homework for you by building the context into the player prices, but there is still a considerable advantage to be realized for those with an informational edge; it's just that DFS players need to dig a bit deeper to find the hidden gems.
It's just the beginning of the year and high volatility is a natural aspect of April baseball, but all things considered, I'm currently on a pretty brutal run in DFS. It's rougher than I had at any stretch of last season, and most glaring is the number of times that I have been shutout (missed the money in all contests) this season, coming up empty seven times in the first ten gamedays of the year. To add a little perspective, I didn't hit my seventh shutout of last season until my 27th day of competition. Shutouts aren't entirely uncommon, as one bad score is likely to fall short across the board, but the frequent inability to recoup at least some of the investment can quickly drain a bankroll.
Self-analysis is an important part of any learning experience, and the evolving market at Draft Kings has changed the shape of the learning curve. I see this as an adjustment opportunity, and even though I want to avoid the trap of over-analyzing a small sample - like a hitter tweaking his swing after an 0-for-20 – there are a combination of factors that might be worth putting under the microscope. We will be exploring some of these elements in future Thursday editions of Fantasy Rounders, but the first item up for bid is the dynamic of Opening Week.
Understandably excited for real baseball and games that count, I jumped right into the 2015 season with a daily investment in DFS that was on par with last summer, ranging between $40 and $65 while averaging about $50 per day. After watching a train of pitcher blow-ups – especially those by high-risk pitchers with limited track records – I realized that my primary asset (pitcher evaluation) was short-circuited during the first couple of turns through the rotation, given that these guys hadn't pitched competitively in six months. Pitchers have a tendency to change dramatically from season-to-season and spring training performance has all sorts of caveats, so I'm flying blind into the regular season. In hindsight, I could have lowered my daily investment to start the season so that I could first get some bearing.
The actionable corollary to this lesson is a more gradual adaptation to the new market, investing smaller amounts while these pitchers get a couple of starts behind them and I become more familiar with the early-2015 version of their skill sets. DK's new approach to day-to-day pricing adjustments could bury hidden treasures that are ready to be unlocked, and any competitive advantage incurred from one's sofa-scouting acumen should carry greater weight as context is integrated into the market – it's no longer whether you like a player's situation (because Draft Kings has already accounted for it), but whether you see value in the price listed relative to other players. That perceived value gap might still be based on contextual factors (platoon splits, matchup history), or it could be rooted in disagreement with the listed price, so in that sense nothing has changed. But gamers might want to pull back another layer of the onion in order to realize a sustainable advantage – I know mine has copious layers left to peel.