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Behavioral Science and Fantasy Baseball: Outcome Bias

by Michael Waterloo | @MichaelWaterloo | Featured Writer
Mar 5, 2021

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

You can read Part 1 on Anchoring Bias here and Part 2 on Availability Bias here. It’s the first two of 10 different thoughts we’ll talk about in the series.

Before we get into Part 3 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 many 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.

Now, let’s get into Outcome Bias.

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Outcome Bias

The third chapter in Law’s book is “Winning Despite Your Best Efforts: Outcome Bias and Why Winning Can Be the Most Misleading Stat of All.”

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.

Harvard Business School defines Outcome Bias as: “An error made in evaluating the quality of a decision when the outcome of that decision is already known. Specifically, the outcome effect occurs when the same “behavior produce[s] more ethical condemnation when it happen[s] to produce bad rather than good outcome, even if the outcome is determined by chance.”

An example of this is if a doctor does a procedure on a patient, but there is a 50 percent chance the procedure works and a 50 percent chance the patient dies. 

If the procedure works, the doctor will be praised for the call and saving the patient’s life. But if the procedure doesn’t work, people will call for the doctor’s job and criticize him or her for their mistake.

How Does the Law Apply It?

Law applies it first in his book by talking about the Arizona Diamondbacks winning the 2001 World Series despite their manager, Bob Brenly, screwing up throughout the series. 

From hitting Luis Gonzalez third to Tony Womack and Craig Counsell first and second, respectively, and misusing Byung-hyun Kim, Brenly made a mistake after mistake in the series against the Yankees, but the mistakes were overlooked because Arizona won.

Behind Randy Johnson and *gulp* Curt Schilling, it was the Arizona players who overcame the Yankees, not Brenly.

If the Diamondbacks lost, Brenly’s ineptitude would have been under the microscope. Instead, he got a contract extension and will be forever looked at as a World Series-winning manager despite actively hurting his team.

Law also touches on what happens when the outcome doesn’t match the process and if the evaluation of the process was sound. The example he uses is the Astros’ trade, sending Hunter Pence to the Phillies for their top two prospects in Jon Singleton and Jarred Cosart. The former Houston signed to a long-term deal buying out his arbitration years, but he had a long-time substance abuse problem, which wasn’t known (publicly)  to the Astros. 

How Can We Apply it to Fantasy?

For fantasy, outcome bias can come in different forms. The three that stand out are:

  • Looking only at the outcome of a player
  • Letting the previous season’s success/failure dictate your plan going forward
  • Dynasty decisions

The first bullet is something that fantasy players have gotten better at in general. If we see a breakout season happened for a player, we are less likely just to accept that’s who the player truly is, but instead, we unpack to see what led to this performance. There was a time, though – and it still happens in casual leagues – where we look at the surface stats (i.e., the 5×5 categories) and draft off of that. 

That’s not accounting for numerous outcomes within the season that skews those numbers in some form or fashion.

We can also apply this to looking strictly at projections. If we see that someone like Jon Berti or Myles Straw are projected to steal a ton of bases in 2021 (26 each, per ATC projections), it may be tempting for drafters to wait until later to grab both guys at their late ADP.

But what we don’t take into account is the likelihood of them achieving this. It means that they A. have to get on base at a reasonable enough clip, and B. have to get the playing time to do so, which not only means games played but high enough in the batting order to register the needed plate appearances.

If neither steals 26 bases, we’ll look at it as a failure instead of looking at the risks ahead of time and wondering if our evaluation process was right for both Berti and Straw.

There was a passage in the book that stood out to me, which led me to the second bullet:

A fault condemned but seldom avoided is the evaluation of the intention of an act in terms of the act’s outcome.” (Jonathan Baron and John C. Hershey, “Outcome Bias in Decision Evaluation”).

Building off this, Law says:

“You can make all the right moves and still lose. You can choose the right players in the draft or make a trade that appears to be a huge win for your side, and yet come out behind because of bad luck, player injuries, or the simple fact that any decision that involves human beings brings in some unpredictable factors. This is the fundamental problem with second-guessing or Monday morning quarterbacking – we are driven, naturally, to judge decisions by their outcomes, instead of asking whether the process that led to that decision was sound, and therefore likely to lead to a good outcome even if, in reality, it did not.”

Now, this is a baseball book by Law – not a fantasy book. However, if you read that passage and didn’t instantly think about fantasy baseball, then read it again.

It’s a game of skill and a game of luck. It’s why Roto players prefer the season-long competition instead of the week-to-week matchup. So much can happen in one week to throw off an entire season of dominance in a head-to-head league. You could be undefeated and lose in the playoffs, and you’ll only look back at the season as a failure.

You could draft players – non-injury risk, if that exists – and have them get hurt in the first week. It doesn’t mean the draft picks were wrong. If you lost in the playoffs, or even if you miss the playoffs, but you have the third-most points scored in the regular season, it doesn’t mean that you were wrong or your process was wrong. It means you ran into some shit luck. The outcome does not define the process.

That leads us to our last point, where we’ll talk a little bit about dynasty. Every dynasty league is built differently, but there are ones with contracts involved, where you have to decide if you’re going to extend a player or not. We can apply the same logic to if you decide to trade for a player.

Let’s say that going into 2019, you had to decide on Miguel Andújar and whether or not to extend him or not. He was, after all, coming off a great rookie season where he finished second behind Shohei Ohtani in Rookie of the Year voting with a 129 wRC+. So it seemed like a safe bet for the then 23-year-old to be a piece of your core. You extend him for five years and move on to your next decision.

Except in 2019, he missed all but 12 games when he was required to undergo season-ending shoulder surgery. Gio Urshela filled in and was one of the Yankees’ best hitters in 2019.

Heading into 2020, there were talks in fantasy circles about which Yankees’ third baseman would be the one to draft. It turns out it was Urshela, as Andújar was limited to 65 plate appearances – just more than one per game on average – over the course of the season.

In 2021, he’s a forgotten man. But in your dynasty league, you’re still on the hook for him for three years. Could he get traded and take off? Yes, of course. But that contract is untradeable. You know it, and your league knows it.

Does it mean you were wrong to extend him? No, not at all, but given the outcome of the past two years, it would be easy to look at it as a mistake.

The same would be said for trading an older rookie with a history of knee injuries and a big strikeout rate heading in 2020. Yes, we are talking about Kyle Lewis.

Lewis was a former top prospect, but he had major knee surgery in 2016 to repair a torn ACL and repair his medial and lateral meniscus. 

His stock sank due to the injury concerns, but also his underperforming minor league numbers.

Go back in your dynasty or keeper leagues and look at the transaction history for Lewis. Given his Rookie of the Year season in 2020, those managers are probably kicking themselves for trading him away, but aside from prospect pedigree from when he was drafted in 2016, there wasn’t a real reason to be super high on Lewis. And no one was expecting him to go on the 58-game tear he did in 2020. 

It’s easy for us to look at what happened and judge off of that. Really easy, in fact. But, the outcome doesn’t always tell the full story.

Just look at Bob Brenly.

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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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