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How Your Brain is Wired and How it Hurts You on Draft Day (Fantasy Football)

Jul 26, 2020

This is Part I of a three-part series on how cognitive biases lead us astray in draft environments. 

The biggest obstacle standing between you and fantasy football glory in 2020 isn’t some overlooked data point or another league opponent. It’s understanding how your mind works – and recognizing how faulty assumptions wreak havoc with your Draft Day strategy. This is Part I of a three-part series on how cognitive biases lead us astray in draft environments. 

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Part I: Recency Bias

If any statement reverberating around the fantasy universe this offseason is widely accepted as gospel, it’s this: Christian McCaffrey is the (obvious) number one overall selection in 2020. Period. 

At surface level, it’s tough to argue against it; after all, McCaffrey is coming off of a 2019 campaign in which he generated about 30% more fantasy points than any other running back playing professional football. He averaged nearly five yards-per-carry, with 15 rushing touchdowns – not to mention tallying 116 receptions, good for the second-highest total of any receiver in the league last year. Why would anyone waste time offering a contrarian viewpoint? 

But if you take a step back, and look beyond McCaffrey’s historic stat line from yesteryear, a different story emerges: in the past eight seasons, only one running back that finished a season as RB1 went on to rank within the Top-5 fantasy running backs the following year (Todd Gurley, 2017-2018). 

This isn’t a statistic unique to all-pro running backs, either. Lamar Jackson is the near-consensus pick to finish as the QB1 again in 2020. Yet, in the past eight seasons, no quarterback has repeated as the QB1 in back-to-back years. In fact, since 2013 no quarterback that finished a season at the top of the fantasy leaderboard managed a Top-3 finish the following season. Even the great Patrick Mahomes – QB1 in 2018 – finished last season as QB6 on a fantasy-points-per-game basis. 

Yet, again and again, we continue to predict what will happen next based almost exclusively on what just happened. This phenomenon – known as the recency effect, or recency bias – isn’t specific to fantasy football strategy, either. It happens on Wall Street. It allows casinos to take advantage of their patrons. Across virtually every industry, we often envision a near future that is identical to our recent past – even though the data (emphatically) warns us this reasoning is flawed.

How Does Recency Bias Work?

We don’t give our brains enough credit for their miraculous ability to make instantaneous sense of a chaotic, disorganized world. But in order to pull that off – to make sense of all these converging stimuli that we have to process each and every day – our minds take shortcuts (psychologists call them “heuristics“). And our brains do this so well, most of the time they’re cutting corners beneath our conscious thought. The drawback: occasionally, all of this subconscious corner-cutting means we fall prey to faulty assumptions or cognitive biases. And one of the biggies on that (growing) list is recency bias. 

Psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus was among the first social scientists to contribute to the theory of recency bias all the way back in the 1880s. He hypothesized a forgetting curve: said differently, people have a tendency to recall items from the beginning (primacy bias) and end (recency bias) of a list rather than those found in the middle. 

But recency bias does a lot more damage than simply influencing what you’ll remember from the grocery list you left at home. Studies have shown that people might be influenced to vote for certain candidates based on the placement and order of their names on the ballot. And a few years ago, students at Harvard demonstrated that a player’s performance towards the end of a basketball season (e.g. points-per-game in the final twenty or thirty games) was highly associated with whether he would win the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award.

How Recency Bias Affects Fantasy Draft Rankings

I’ve long joked that preseason player projections are merely a cut-and-paste of how each player finished last season. And, yes, I’m being a tad facetious. But I’m not far off. 

The graph below charts the past three years of Top-10 projected players across the positions of quarterback, running back, and wide receiver (using the FantasyPros expert consensus rankings from right before each season began). The first column is how many players experts picked to finish in that season’s Top-10 that finished in the Top-10 the year prior. In other words, six of the ten quarterbacks that experts predicted to finish in the Top-10 in 2017 had finished in the Top-10 in 2016. But the second column is how many players from last season’s Top-10 actually finished in the Top-10 the next season. In this case, only three quarterbacks that finished in the Top-10 in 2017 had also placed in the Top-10 in 2016. 

Take a look.

Number of Prior Years Top-10 Positional Players that Experts Predicted to Repeat as Top-10 Positional Players in the Season Ahead.

The number of Prior Year-Top 10 Positional Players that Actually Repeated as Top-10 Positional Players the Following Season.

Quarterbacks (2017) 6 3
Quarterbacks (2018) 6 5
Quarterbacks (2019) 7 4
Running Backs (2017) 9 4
Running Backs (2018) 7 4
Running Backs (2019) 7 2
Wide Receivers (2017) 6 3
Wide Receivers (2018) 7 6
Wide Receivers (2019) 8 4

Every single season – across every position – experts overestimated how many of last year’s Top-10 players would repeat as Top-10 players in the season ahead. If you took these numbers at aggregate, 70% of all players chosen by experts to finish in the Top-10 at their respective positions had finished the prior year within the Top-10. But only about 38% of players actually ended up finishing in the Top-10 again.

Sports Predictors Fall Victim, Too 

As I mentioned, this isn’t some decision-making quirk that is specific to fantasy football. In fact, anyone in the business of making predictions often falls victim to recency bias. Take a look at ESPN’s 2020 Football Power Index, which assigns a percentage chance that each NFL team will make the playoffs in the upcoming season. Your top ten teams, in order: Kansas City, Baltimore, San Fransisco, New Orleans, Dallas, Philadelphia, Seattle, Tampa, New England, and Buffalo. For those keeping score at home, of the top ten teams predicted by ESPN to make the playoffs in 2020, eight of them were playoff teams in 2019. But, here’s the thing: of the twelve 2019 playoff teams, nearly half of them didn’t make the playoffs in 2018.  

Go back one year earlier, and you’ll see the same trend emerge. Of the top ten teams that ESPN’s 2019 Football Index pegged as having the best chance to make the playoffs in the year ahead, nine of them were playoff teams in 2018 (that’s 90%!). But of those twelve 2018 playoff teams, only five of them also made the playoffs in 2017 (or less than 50%!).

Whether you’re in the business of investing, sports betting, or you’re simply hoping to draft a dominant fantasy team, we all tend to use last year’s numbers (or rankings) as a jumping-off point to predict what will happen next. And the moment we anchor ourselves to those results, we impede our capability of foreseeing a future that will be different from our immediate past.

So, What Can You Do? 

Do you know what frustrates me? Articles spotlighting some social science quirk with no recommendations on how to fix or prevent it. Yes, recency bias can influence everything from NBA MVP voting to preseason fantasy football rankings. But how can you mitigate this bias? How can you turn this knowledge into your advantage? Here are a few ideas:

Don’t Focus on the Floor. Focus on the Ceiling.
Early round draft strategies tend to be loss averse. In other words, experts coerce you into choosing players that finished high atop the leaderboard last year because they somehow feel “safer” than those who didn’t. Force yourself to look past mere risk mitigation. Of the top five fantasy running backs in 2019, three of them (Aaron Jones, Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook) had an average draft position of between 17-45 (Rounds 2-4 in most fantasy drafts). We spend an inordinate amount of time talking about which first-round pick is safest; we also spend an inordinate amount of time discussing mid-to-late-round sleepers, but we don’t spend nearly enough time contemplating early-round players that have the potential to ascend to Top-5 positional value.

Force Yourself Out of the Tough Decision.
Like all bad habits, sometimes the only solution is removing the temptation. If you have the ability to control where you pick in your fantasy draft in 2020, choose a position towards the middle or end of the draft board. Those positions often free you up to get braver with your selections – you’ll be much more likely to, say, pass on Joe Mixon at 1.10 than you would be Christian McCaffrey at 1.01 – and bravery is (almost always) rewarded in this unpredictable game.

Never Assume Anything is a Lock – Ever.
I joked with friends in last year’s fantasy offseason that the moment I knew I wouldn’t touch Patrick Mahomes at his ADP in 2019 was when I couldn’t think of a reason why he would fail. Honestly, there’s some scientific truth to the following statement: when a choice or prediction becomes unanimous – when everyone believes it’s true . . . it actually turns out to be wrong a lot. It’s nonsensical, sure. But that’s the chaos that is fantasy football – and the moment you embrace it, the better off you’ll be.

Complete early mock drafts using our free draft simulator >>

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David Giardino is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from David, check out his archive and follow him @davidgiardino.

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