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Behavioral Science & Fantasy Baseball: Anchoring Bias

by Michael Waterloo | @MichaelWaterloo | Featured Writer
Jan 30, 2021

2020 was rough. And no, we aren’t just talking about a shortened – very shortened – baseball season. We are talking about real life.

We won’t dive deep in COVID here, as this is a game. This stupid, beautiful, fun game that we play is an escape from the real world.

But in some form or fashion, we all needed to find a way through the year, and as we begin the second month of 2021, it remains the same.

My big escape in 2020 was reading. I always enjoyed reading books, but I ramped it up in 2020. There were a ton of great books that I read (here are some of my recommendations), and one of them that stood out the most was a baseball book. 

Well, kind of.

It was “The Inside Game” by Keith Law, baseball writer for The Athletic. This is Law’s second book, as he wrote “Smart Baseball” in 2018.

With “The Inside Game,” though, Law combines different areas of behavioral science that are talked heavily in the book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman, which, as Law mentions, is required reading for everyone in a Major League front office.

Law borrows 10 chapters from Kahneman’s book, and he applies the critical thinking and cognitive biases that are a part of everyday life to baseball.

It’s a very fascinating book, and Law does a fantastic job tying the two together to make it easy, relatable reading for baseball fans who aren’t big on behavioral thinking.

It’s a book that I enjoyed so much, I read it twice. I recommend you do the same, too.

When reading it, though, aside from how I could apply the lessons in my personal life, I realized that all 10 applied to fantasy baseball, as well.

Over the next few months, I’ll be covering these different biases in a way that you can apply them to your fantasy baseball managing to help inform your decisions.

I’ll touch on the cognitive bias, touch briefly on how Law applies it to regular baseball (I won’t give away his entire book. You need to buy it and read it!), and how we can apply that thinking to the fantasy game that we love.

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Anchoring Bias

The first chapter in Law’s book is “The Case for Robot Umpires: How Anchoring Bias Influences Strike Zone and Everything Else.”

You can tell one of the directions that Law takes this chapter, but before we go into that and what it means for fantasy, let’s look at the term itself.

Anchoring Bias occurs when people rely too much on pre-existing information or the first information they find when making decisions.

For instance, say you are going out to buy a new TV. You see a new Samsung 4k for $2,199.99. One section over, you see a 4k TV that is $599. Since you saw the Samsung TV, the $599 one seems cheap in your mind, questioning how good it could be. But if you walked down the different aisle and saw the $599 TV first, you wouldn’t look at it as being cheap. 

We hold on to one factor (the anchor) that drives our thought process.

How Does Law Apply It?

Law does a good job of defining the bias and then tying it into a couple of examples – based on deep dives and interviews – on how it relates to baseball. Based on the title of the chapter, you get an idea of where he is headed.

Law discusses the strike zone in an argument for robot umpires by pointing out the difference in ball and strike calls, where the umpire errs on the side of bringing the count back to neutral during close pitches, based on what the count is and what the previous pitch was. Each pitch should be treated as its own without being influenced by prior pitches or outcomes. He dives deep into it, but again, you need to buy the book. We aren’t giving it away here.


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How Can We Apply it to Fantasy?

The strike zone example is great for real-life baseball, but how can we apply it to fantasy? Well, we’ll look at the second example that Law touches on because it will resonate with fantasy managers closely.

Law takes a look at how first-round picks often get more leash and chances to prove themselves than a second-, third-, or fourth-round pick because of the anchor that the first-round player has more talent.

Think about how you think – and play – as a fantasy manager. How long are you willing to hold on to an underperforming first-round pick in fantasy? Throughout the entire season, barring injury, no? 

But when we talk about late-round flyers in drafts, we say that if they struggle the first week or so, which is laughable in terms of the sample, we say it’s OK to cut them without a second thought.

Why is that? It’s because the players going in the first round – the first few rounds, really – are thought to be safer bets because of their talent.

And it’s not a wrong thought at all. There’s a reason they are going that high in drafts because of the results they’ve provided before and the surface and underlying metrics backing up the cost. 

But even if one struggles for an extended period of time (which is a discussion in and of itself, for what a large enough sample is. 25 plate appearances is better than 0, but is 500 more telling than 475?), we hold on to them because of the thought that they have more talent. It correlates some to Endowment Effect (we’ll get into that in this series later) because you roster that player and are more likely to retain them because you already have them, as well as Sunk Cost Fallacy (we’ll also discuss this).

We see this come up in trade talks, too. If you picked up a player off of waivers who is just red hot, and you put them on your trade block, you’ll have people say, “They were just on the wire two weeks ago.” That’s the anchor that’s attached to that player that they weren’t drafted, and you picked them off the waiver wire, so, therefore, they can’t be that good. 

But sometimes it’s the player you pick off the wire that can help you more than your early-round picks, though throughout the season, it’s the early-round picks who will always, always, be looked at as more valuable – fair or not. 

The funny thing is, in the case of someone like, say, Randy Arozarena, who was red-hot to end the 2020 season, is that he becomes one of those earlier-round picks the following year and will have that anchor attached to him for those who take him, giving him a longer leash than he would have had last year.

The Anchoring Bias is the same for dynasty players and highly-touted rookies that you invested in during your first-year player drafts.

This is the clearest correlation between what Law wrote and how fantasy players manage their dynasty team. The players they take early in their rookie drafts are likely to be held on to more closely and be given a larger rope by them because of the perceived value they had as an early-round pick. 

It’s someone like Forrest Whitley for the Astros. 

He’s a former top pitching prospect, who has undeniable ace upside, but whether through struggles or injuries, he hasn’t even pitched in the big leagues or made any difference for dynasty managers. If his name was John Smith, drafted in the fourth round, he’d be on the waiver wire of dynasty leagues by now, long forgotten. But because Whitley has that pedigree attached to him with his upside – which is there! – he’ll get chance after chance after chance.

It’s not wrong to have these thoughts or these approaches in fantasy, but it’s important to be aware of them when you’re managing your roster and understand how the Anchoring Bias influences the decisions that you and others in your league make.

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Michael Waterloo is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Michael, check out his archive and follow him @MichaelWaterloo.

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