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Behavioral Science and Fantasy Baseball: Availability Bias

by Michael Waterloo | @MichaelWaterloo | Featured Writer
Feb 28, 2021

Last month, I started a series here at FantasyPros about behavioral science and thinking, and how we are able to to apply different cognitive biases and ways that our brains work to fantasy baseball.

You can read Part 1 on Anchoring Bias here. It’s the first of 10 different thoughts we’ll talk about in the series.

Before we get into Part 2 today, it’s important to talk about the idea of this, and give credit where credit is due.

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 doing 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.

Now, let’s get into Availability Bias.

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Availability Bias

The second chapter in Law’s book is “Never Judge an Iceberg by Its Tip: How Availability Bias Shapes the Way Commentators Talk About Sports.”

Before we get into the relevancy it has for fantasy, or how Law applies it to baseball in general, let’s look at the term itself.

In “The Inside Game,” Law defines Availability Bias, based on the description of Kahneman and Tversky, as a “phenomenon of illusory correlation.” He goes on to describe it as “a cognitive illusion where you misjudge the frequency of some event or characteristic because of how much you can remember seeing it. It’s a sampling error: you may think that your memory provides an adequate sample for the whole, and sometimes it might, but often it won’t, and you can’t bank on it doing so.”

OK, so a real-life example of this that is used often is continuing to smoke because you know a smoker who lived to be more than 100 years old. If they lived that long, smoking can’t hurt you. 

Another example would be seeing a train derailing on the news. With the coverage of this event playing across news channels, right in front of us, it makes the probability of a train derailment happening seem more likely than it actually is.

How Does Law Apply It?

Law applies it first in his book more closely to the second example above about the train derailment. He references the 1941 season where Joe DiMaggio won the MVP thanks, in part, to the constant media coverage of not only that Yankees but also his 56-game hitting streak. What was overlooked that season, as Law points out, was the absurd line that Ted Williams posted – .406/.553/.755 – to lead the majors in all three categories and still being the last player to hit for .400 over the course of the season.

In his explanation, Law cites multiple articles at the time and more recent ones looking back on the vote. One that stood out was from John Drebinger of the New York Times:

Thus the writers made it clear that they considered DiMaggio’s spectacular 56-game hitting streak, together with Joe’s vastly superior defensive skill and base running ability, had more than offset Williams’ impressive .406 average and 37 homers, though both these figures topped all others in the majors. The Yankee star, who had won the batting crown in 1939 and 1940, last summer hit .357. It was the 56-game hitting streak, all-time high for the major leagues, which doubtless clinched the verdict.”

Law describes the bias in his book as:

“When a specific fact or example comes to mind more readily, we tend to overemphasize that fact or example – maybe we ascribe too much importance to it, or perhaps we extrapolate and assume that that example is representative of the whole.”

Law also touches on how award voting is very susceptible to Availability Bias, as he touches on Rafael Palmiero winning the Gold Glove Award in 1999 even though he spent the majority of the season as a designated hitter. If he won it before, he must be deserving of not just consideration, but winning it again, right? We see it today with the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award. If you’re looking to bet on it for a future’s bet, just look at previous winners.

How Can We Apply it to Fantasy?

The trouble with Availability Bias is that it’s hard to point out when we are actually falling victim to it. It’s our brain doing its job by conjuring up examples that we have learned or heard. If it has a personal connection to you (i.e., the smoking example or divorce history within your family), you’ll look at it differently.

For fantasy, availability bias can come in different forms. The two that stand out are personal experience and what we hear.

Let’s tackle the latter first, as it leads into the former.

When you’re prepping for your season and listening to podcasts, doing your own research, or reading articles, you’re looking to see why Player X is going at a certain point. 

More often than not, the analysis is referencing what the player did in the previous year, which dictates his ADP. They’ll discuss the underlying numbers, why the player over or underperformed, but it’s often just citing the previous year.

We have to evaluate during a season and adjust as we go, but we learn more about a player over the course of three years than we do in one or two years. Simple, right?

Then why don’t we apply it when evaluating players more heading into a season?

It’s because what we have right in front of us, what’s being discussed more than ever, is how a player just performed because it’s in the front of our mind.

We often hear that we shouldn’t overreact to a bad year or a bad stretch, but then we look at how 2020 is being weighed for 2021 analysis, and we throw that advice out the window.

Instead of taking a deeper look at players over the course of a bigger sample, we are looking at 60 games worth of data during a pandemic, where pitchers made at most 12 starts, and players were impacted by COVID-19, to form our full opinion. This is both for pushing players way up based on a great stretch or way down based on a bad stretch.

If you look at a 60-game stretch for any player over the course of three years, the likelihood of finding stretches of success and struggles is pretty high.

As a fantasy player, you can capitalize on players like Pete Alonso, Keston Hiura, Patrick Corbin, and Oscar Mercado falling down draft boards after being players who were highly sought after at this time a year ago. You should, at least, dig deeper into them and see if the reaction is warranted or not, and try to find the reason for it.

The other example is more personal, based on your own experience.

We’ve all done it before. We’ve had a player burn us, and we swear off that player for life.

It tends to happen when chasing hype or streaks, where you draft a player earlier than you should, and he doesn’t perform up to expectations. 

There could be a reason for it. He also just could have been pretty bad. But when he’s sitting there on the waiver wire or in the draft queue the following year, you’ll write him off because he burned you once before instead of seeing what the reasons were or if there were any substantial changes made in their game.

Imagine drafting Mike Trout in fantasy or picking him up during his rookie year when he went – in 40 games, mind you – .220/.281/.390 with five home runs and four steals, and then writing him off because he didn’t perform up to your expectations. 

Fun fact – he went .326/.399/.564 with 30 homers and 49 steals in his second year.

We aren’t wrong for turning to what we know or what we’ve heard. It’s our brain working like it should, so it’s hard to really fault ourselves or others for falling victim to Availability Bias.

But we need to take a step back and gather more information than just what’s happened to us personally or what we’ve consumed to formulate our thoughts and actions. 

It won’t just make you a better fantasy player, but a more informed person, too. 

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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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