CanonFootball

Zero RB, Antifragility, and the Myth of Value-Based Drafting

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Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, has a new book out, and, if anything, it’s probably even more potent (if also self-contradictory in many places).

The book is called Antifragile and this is his definition of the term:

Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure. Yet in spite of the ubiquity of the phenomenon, there is no word for the exact opposite of fragile. Let us call it antifragile. Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.

Although Taleb is adamant that the real world is nothing like the world of games – that game theory works fine to address the contrived experience of the game – I was still struck by the way his theory of antifragility seemed to dovetail with my fantasy football philosophy.

In just the past four years I’ve played well over 200 leagues, many of them for substantial amounts of money. And here’s the thing: value-based drafting, the default method used by almost all supposed fantasy “experts,” does not work.

I’ve spent much of the last two offseasons working on a book explaining why this is the case. It includes graphs and formulas and long-winded explanations and will hopefully be out next summer. In the meantime, Taleb’s simple framework may be enough to grasp the crux of the issue.

Taleb divides things into three groups: fragile, resilient/robust, and antifragile. While plenty of potential nuance exists in how you might approach a fantasy draft, let’s take a look at three simplified strategies using the matrix suggested by Taleb.

Fragile Robust/Resilient Antifragile
Fantasy Strategy Value-based drafting Triple RB or RBx5 Zero RB

 

One of the key issues in VBD focuses on creating replacement baselines. In his groundbreaking 2012 Rotoworld article, RotoViz creator Frank DuPont demonstrates how most analyses generate inaccurate and misleading baselines. The essential issue in fantasy football deals with running backs and their relative scarcity. FD demonstrates how the injury problem with running backs pushes their baseline even lower than traditionally understood and demonstrates the necessity for having even more redundancy at the position than you might otherwise think.

This need for redundancy was one of the reasons behind my suggestion that RB-RB-RB should be the default strategy for 2013. Or at least the default strategy in many formats. I wrote a separate column specifically to detail where it would work and why, but I’m starting to think I may have included too many formats in a desire to advocate resiliency when I should have stuck to my guns and just recommended antifragility.

Before the season, I explained some of the reasons why a RB-heavy approach may not yield positive results in Flex Wins Championships, the article I consider to be my most valuable RotoViz contribution so far. But the Flex-based argument may be fairly tangential to the real issue. And perhaps I was wrong to recommend RB-RB-RB in any format other than the most basic standard league.

The Fragility of VBD Lineups

VBD lineups are fragile for two main reasons.

1) They are overwhelmingly fragile in the face of prediction errors. If the prediction you are using to generate your VBD number is wrong, you’ll end up targeting both the wrong players and wrong positions. Since specific predictions – instead of the range of potential outcomes we provide with the Sim Scores – are almost always wrong, a VBD team is incredibly fragile. The most obvious way these prediction errors cause problems is in the way they can trick you into drafting a mediocre running back over an elite wide receiver simply because you’re projecting the RB to score more points above replacement.

2) They are overwhelmingly fragile in the face of injuries. Since VBD teams tend to end up fairly balanced and with an emphasis on the starting lineup, they have nowhere to go but down when injuries strike. This point can be easily overlooked because humans are incredible narrative-generators. When injuries inevitably occur, the most obvious conclusion to the VBDer is that “I was unlucky.”

The Resilience of RB-heavy Lineups

The types of lineups that Frank recommended in his article, I recommended in RB-RB-RB, and Matthew Freedman recommended in the stylishly hilarious RBx5 are very resilient in the face of both the uncertainty of predictions and the certainty of injuries. The RB position has undergone a ridiculous amount of upheaval since the beginning of the season, but if you began RB-RB-RB, there’s an excellent chance you are now in position to weather the storm. Many RotoViz favorites have experienced injury, underperformance, or both – C.J. Spiller, Doug Martin, Trent Richardson, for example – but many other players we praised have excelled. Jamaal Charles, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Reggie Bush, and DeMarco Murray were all among our preferred targets.

The central idea behind Triple RB is that not all of your predictions will come true and some players will sustain injury. That’s been very much the case this year. Unfortunately, the Triple RB approach is merely resilient. It gives you redundancy in the face of both injuries and bad predictions, but your team will not benefit from those injuries or bad predictions.

The Antifragility of Zero RB

Zero RB is basically what it sounds like. You simply don’t draft running backs in the high leverage rounds. Depending on how a draft is progressing, I will draft either one high upside running back in Round 4 or 5, or I will draft none at all. My preferred lineup after five rounds is to own one tight end (Graham/Gronk) and four wide receivers. I then focus on selecting potential breakout players, the receiving back in timeshares, and backups in good offenses.

You can see fairly easily how Zero RB benefits from randomness. Whenever a starting RB gets hurt, my lineup gets better. It gets better in relation to my opponents because I didn’t have the player in question, and it gets better in the sense that I either own the backup or I have a shot to acquire the backup in free agency.

A quick note about ethics: It’s easy to see the above paragraph as parasitic, but I don’t believe it is. I’m not causing anyone to get injured, and in fact I’m expressly not rooting for it. I own Kendall Hunter in a lot of leagues and believe he would immediately be a Top 10 back if Frank Gore were injured. I am not rooting for this. I’m a big believer in karma. (I believe it’s a good concept whether or not it’s a true concept.) I tend to think of this in the following terms: if I root for someone to get injured, it’s more likely one of my foundational players will be injured instead. These are real people with real careers that are far more important than my fantasy results. I’m rooting for Adrian Peterson and Marshawn Lynch to get stuffed at the goal line each week, but I am not rooting for them to get hurt.

The historical results suggest running backs get hurt at a higher rate than other positions. The decision to structure rosters to take advantage of this fact doesn’t cause it to happen and is ethically neutral. When it naturally occurs, my roster gets better and everyone else’s gets worse. Right now on many of my teams I own Andre Ellington or Zac Stacy. A lot of my high stakes teams have both players. Without having spent any draft capital at RB, I’m actually stronger at the position than many of my opponents.

It’s also important to simply remember the power of wide receivers in ppr formats. I used a Zero RB approach in this year’s PFF Draft Guide Mock even though it’s essentially a draft champions format with no free agent pickups. My team was the leading scorer in Week 8 despite getting only 1 point from the running back position. Update: FD has an excellent follow-up piece that examines this crucial point in more detail: Winning the Flex; aka: Score Points, What’s Your Plan?

In Part 2 I’ll look at some examples of this strategy in action: I use this approach in the leagues where I have large sums of money on the line. In one of these leagues, I was heckled relentlessly during the draft itself for the decision to eschew running backs. The results in that league so far have been surprising, counterintuitive, and perhaps antifragile.

Author’s Note: Part 2 – Antifragile Rosters in Real Events has been updated to provide season-long results for those Zero RB squads. Part 3 – Zero RB, Breakout Stars, and Having More Fun Drafting was penned this spring and looks at a variety of strategies for consistently hitting on breakout running backs. 

 

Shawn Siegele is the creator of the contrarian sports website Money in the Banana Stand and a Lead Writer for Pro Football Focus Fantasy. A few months after penning this original Zero RB piece, he finished 1st and 2nd in the National Fantasy Football Championship Primetime Main Event and cashed for over $200,000.

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By Shawn Siegele | @ff_contrarian | Archive

32 Comments

  1. jyachcik
    November 2, 2013 at 3:10 pm —

    Tremendously well written article.

    • Shawn Siegele
      November 2, 2013 at 7:40 pm —

      jyachcik 
      Thanks, I really appreciate it.

  2. bartholomewbrent
    August 13, 2014 at 4:01 pm —

    I have the 2 pick in one of my favorite leagues and I love your article and strategy.  Should I go Megatron with the 2 pick or am I crazy to pass up McCoy or Charles?

  3. Shawn Siegele
    August 13, 2014 at 9:34 pm —

    bartholomewbrent If it’s a PPR league, I don’t think you could go wrong with any of those guys. I’m often taking Charles and McCoy when I land a draft spot in the Top 2 just to have some exposure to them. But if I’m only playing one serious league, Megatron would be my guy

  4. bartholomewbrent
    August 13, 2014 at 9:39 pm —

    Shawn Siegele bartholomewbrent Thanks!  The league is 1-QB 2-RB 2-WR 1-TE no flex, 1 PPR.  It is my Fantasy Sharks league and my most serious league! :)

  5. thelawyerboy
    August 15, 2014 at 5:58 pm —

    This was definitely worth revisiting today.  Will probably be reading it each August for some time.

  6. bartholomewbrent
    August 15, 2014 at 7:08 pm —

    Shawn Siegele bartholomewbrent Hi Shawn, in my second FantasySharks league I draft in the 10 slot (All the same rules apply).  I went D. Thomas in the 1st and Julio in the 2nd.  Now I’m coming back around to my 3.10 pick and I am unsure if I get my first backup WR (We only start 2 and no flex) or if I go ahead and take a RB.  TEs Gronk, Thomas, and Graham are gone already.  Spiller is there now but 3 people still need to draft before my turn.

  7. Shawn Siegele
    August 15, 2014 at 7:12 pm —

    bartholomewbrent Shawn Siegele This format is balanced enough to be more of a best player available situation. I’d take the highest rated guy on your board regardless of position.

  8. bartholomewbrent
    August 15, 2014 at 7:16 pm —

    Shawn Siegele bartholomewbrent Thanks!

  9. HellAtlantic
    August 16, 2014 at 12:12 am —

    Hi S2, *huge* fan. I don’t ever do this but I feel I’m in prime position to have a monster team and before I consider doing a huge trade I wanted your feedback (I reserve the right to not follow your answer but your input is certainly desired). Ppr keeper auction league. $175 cap. Current starting roster before next week’s draft: Stafford $24, forte $50, spiller $14.75, Megatron $51, Alshon $9, Julius Thomas $5.50, FLX Cobb $6.50. Looking to do Jimmy Graham $31, Terrance Williams $1.75 and a #7 overall pick and #11 overall pick for Spiller, Julius Thomas and filler as needed. If I do it I can’t fit stafford under my cap so I would be forced to trade him (or lose him as this league doesn’t have heavy traders). I would take vereen from my bench and he’d be my RB2. The thought of forte, vereen, Megatron, alshon, graham and Cobb is sexy, and since this is a 10 team league i feel these names are substantial enough to justify going from stafford to like joe flacco or Eli or I’d try my balls off to move stafford for cutler $5.75. Is this worth it? I bring it up only because my putting vereen in at RB2 brought up thoughts of this zero RB strategy. Thanks for any input.

  10. Shawn Siegele
    August 16, 2014 at 5:07 am —

    HellAtlantic I normally will do anything possible to add the very top players in keeper formats, so I definitely like the general idea here. I wonder with the big gap in salary between Graham and Thomas if it might make the most sense to stay put in this particular case. The difference in ages and the nagging injuries for Graham might also play a small role. I don’t worry too much about my QB in most situations, but I do really like Stafford for 2014. If your league really differentiates between top QBs and second tier guys in terms of its scoring format, I’d be reluctant to go down to an Eli/Flacco level player.
    Hope that helps!

  11. Nortdort
    August 17, 2014 at 8:45 am —

    Would this be a viable strategy in a 14 man STANDARD league?  I could definitely understand its merits for PPR but I am a little confused on how this would fit into standard. 

    We start 9 : QB/ 2RB/ 2WR/ TE/ Flex(WR/RB)/ K/ Def

    Thoughts?

    Thanks in advance!

  12. Shawn Siegele
    August 17, 2014 at 4:44 pm —

    Nortdort I’d still consider selecting WRs, but it’s a lot dicier in standard. Make sure you read FD’s article on winning the Flex in standard. 

    http://rotoviz.com/2014/08/winning-the-flex-standard-scoring-edition/

  13. tjlangley13
    August 17, 2014 at 11:11 pm —

    This article is 10 years late to the party.  Back in 2003, the “Do the Opposite” strategy was proposed by ex-Fanball, current League Safe and FantasyVictory leader Paul Charchian.  Of course, it has been against the grain and dismissed by the masses, but it is now showing up in various locations as a “new” strategy.

    Now I just hope ESPN and Yahoo don’t find out about it, or I’ll have to find a different strategy to swindle my friends!

  14. CommanderShepard
    August 18, 2014 at 12:53 am —

    What do you think of this strategy in general for a 0.5 PPR league (two of my leagues use this; 1QB, 2RB, 3WR, 1FLEX, 1TE, DST)?

    Specifically, I pick 10th in a 12 team league.  In a perfect world I’d go Graham then Julio Jones or Brandon Marshall at 15 after the turn.  But if Graham, Megatron, and Demaryius are all gone at 10, and then Marshall/Jones are both gone at 15, I’m struggling a bit with my backup plan as I don’t like anybody else quite to that degree.  There are only 5 RBs I REALLY fell good about in round 1, and they’ll all be gone too.

    Love the theory here.  I’ve always at least sort of employed it without even knowing it had a name (“zero RB”), but paying more attention to it this year.  Any thoughts would be much appreciated.

  15. Shawn Siegele
    August 18, 2014 at 12:56 am —

    tjlangley13 Cool you mention that as Paul Charchian sent out an email the other day recommending the article and calling it Do the Opposite On Steroids! Glad he liked it. My personal feeling is that the article is specifically about the connection between a Zero RB approach and concepts like antifragility and VBD. But I’m certainly happy for people to read it in any way they choose.
    Not surprised it’s worked well for you in the past. Keep up the good work.

  16. Shawn Siegele
    August 18, 2014 at 1:05 am —

    CommanderShepard I like to use Zero RB in half-ppr, and one of the reasons is exactly what you reference. After the top RBs are gone, it’s really important not to settle for guys in your 2nd tier. I think those WRs are excellent targets. Also A.J. Green is falling in some drafts due to concern about scheme. As another possibility at 15, there are some intriguing late round TEs where you could select Gronk and then pair him with a solid guy to bridge until he’s fully ready.

  17. patrickkeefe
    August 18, 2014 at 1:39 am —

    Shawn Siegele Do you have any experience with this approach in an auction format? I play mostly in auction leagues and inadvertently fell into this model in one of my leagues last year. I stumbled your theory after the fact and have been obsessed with the idea ever since.

    In some recent mocks, I’ve found that I can consistently get two WRs from the DT, Dez, BMarsh, Jordy, Julio cohort and then pair them with two RBs from the Ryan Matthews, CJ Spiller, Ellington, Toby tier. I’ve been able to snag Michael Floyd as my top flex, Cameron at TE and then a value QB.

    I can easily fill out my bench with guys like Reuben, Hopkins, Decker, Andre Williams, Jeremy Hill and the like.

    What are your thoughts on that approach?

  18. Shawn Siegele
    August 18, 2014 at 5:03 am —

    patrickkeefe Shawn Siegele I love auction leagues for that reason. You can follow a variety of approaches and cheaply fill out your bench with guys like Decker, Williams, and Hill. Zero RB is a little easier in auction since you can almost always get mid-level RBs very inexpensively. I like the plan you’ve outlined.

  19. CommanderShepard
    August 18, 2014 at 1:43 pm —

    Shawn Siegele CommanderShepard Thanks for the response.  In my nightmare scenario in which Graham, and the top 5 of each WRs and RBs are gone at 15, I don’t know, I might even prefer one of the elite QBs over going into that next tier I’m not as big on.  In most of the “pro” mock drafts at least one of those guys seem to make it to round 3 if not 4, but from what I’ve typically seen in actuality, they’re long gone by end of round 2 (site preset rankings bias probably a big reason why).

  20. tjlangley13
    August 19, 2014 at 12:42 pm —

    Shawn Siegele patrickkeefe I went that route last year in one of my auction leagues and came in
    2nd.  I had Dez, Green, and Marshall, and I mix-and-matched RB’s the
    whole year (Richardson/Bradshaw, Thomas/Sproles, Bell, Bernard, Vereen,
    Andre Brown, Jordan Todman and Bobby Rainey for their 1 or 2 starting
    gigs).

    If you go this route, get your starting WR’s and
    flex, and don’t bother with backup WR’s.  Let someone else grab Reuben,
    Hopkins, and Decker.  Maybe grab 1 sleeper, but you’re going to want
    six $1 RB’s on your bench that you can cycle though at a moment’s
    notice.
    Bargain targets this year include Toby Gerhart,
    Thomas/Ingram, Trent Richardson, and Chris Johnson, along with throwing
    darts at rookies like Hyde/West/Andre Williams.  In my half point ppr
    league I’m also targeting guys like Lance Dunbar and Roy Helu.

    Check
    out the attached post.  It is a couple of years old, but the principle
    is still the same.  The general trend is that nearly half the
    season-ending RB1’s come from an ADP of lower than the 5th round. 
    Examples of guys from last year include Moreno, FJax, Bell, and Stacy. 
    If you fill your bench with RB’s, you maximize your chance at hitting on
    one, if not two of these types of guys.

    http://post.leaguesafe.com/adp-analysis-rb-success-rates/

    It won’t be pretty, but at least you know you have 2 or 3 stud WR’s that can carry your team when going to battle each week!

  21. Shawn Siegele
    August 19, 2014 at 3:06 pm —

    tjlangley13 Shawn Siegele patrickkeefe I think this perhaps illustrates one of the differences between Zero RB and other WR-early approaches. Zero RB is a lot more WR/TE-heavy with an emphasis on dominating the flex and the bye weeks. I definitely wouldn’t pass on potential Breakout WRs. Losing that exposure just creates a fragile roster of a different type.
    But I’m also not trying to push anybody off of a method that’s been successful for them in the past. Lots of great strategies out there.

  22. August 21, 2014 at 5:43 am —

    Also known as the “upside down draft” or the “Deshaun Foster draft” or the “Julius Jones draft” or any of the other two dozen names this exact strategy has had over the last 10 years.  You know…when it was already being done.

  23. Shawn Siegele
    August 21, 2014 at 7:34 am —

    Vcize Constructing an antifragile roster usually results in a different draft approach than what you get with other WR-early strategies (see Part 2). But I should also note that some of the other WR early gurus have recommended this article to their readers, and I’m very appreciative of that support.

  24. patrickkeefe
    August 21, 2014 at 1:27 pm —

    You know…you could also not act like a dickhead.

  25. Shawn Siegele
    August 21, 2014 at 6:41 pm —

    The response to Zero RB from readers has been overwhelming. Thanks to everyone. 
    I sometimes use it in standard leagues for fun, but make sure you’ve read these other RotoViz pieces before employing it in your serious home league (standard).
    http://rotoviz.com/2014/08/winning-the-flex-standard-scoring-edition/

    http://rotoviz.com/2014/06/zero-wr-and-the-robust-lineup/

  26. bartholomewbrent
    August 27, 2014 at 2:39 pm —

    Shawn Siegele bartholomewbrent 
    Here is how I ended up with the two drafts.  Both 12 team leagues with me in the 2 spot (League 1) and the 10 spot (League 2).  I would really appreciate hearing what you think!  Two comments are that in League 1, I grabbed EJ Manuel and I may swap him for Carson Palmer in waivers and also a kicker, and in League 2, I grabbed CJ Spiller when Doug Martin was still on the board.  Sims hadn’t gotten hurt yet, and now I’m wishing I took Doug.
    League 1:

    1.02 http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=9054 
    2.11 http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=4925 
    3.02 http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=11222
    4.11
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=10048 
    5.02
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=10352 
    6.11
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=9436 
    7.02 http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=11212 
    8.11
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=7942
    9.02
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=11746 
    10.11
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=11229 
    11.02 http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=11244 
    12.11 http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=11194 
    13.02 http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=0512 
    14.11 http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=11154 
    15.02 http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=9450 
    16.11
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=56935&P=11390
    League 2:
    1.10
    10.
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=9884
    2.03
    15.
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=10271
    3.10
    34. http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=9822
    4.03
    39.
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=10352
    5.10
    58. http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=9078http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=9078
    6.03
    63.
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=9441
    7.10
    82. http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=7942
    8.03
    87.
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=5848 
    9.10
    106.
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=11657
    10.03
    111. http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=11212
    11.10
    130.
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=10276
    12.03
    135. http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=11244
    13.10
    154.
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=0528
    14.03
    159.
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=9319

    15.10
    178.
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=6589
    16.03
    183.
    http://football3.myfantasyleague.com/2014/player?L=53548&P=11676

  27. Shawn Siegele
    August 28, 2014 at 5:56 am —

    bartholomewbrent Shawn Siegele Nice. You seemed to get good value late in both drafts. I hope Jordan Cameron pays off for you. He’s definitely the key.

  28. bartholomewbrent
    August 28, 2014 at 2:53 pm —

    Shawn Siegele bartholomewbrent I definitely took a big risk with him in both.  I’m counting on him to secure the million targets he’ll get with no Gordon.

  29. justin_woodruff
    August 30, 2014 at 11:20 pm —

    I’m fascinated by this strategy.  In the piece you talked about having the backup in a high powered offense, making Kendall Hunter your RB 2.  Interested in this idea, and if it changed going to 2014.  Reason why I ask, is I looked at the 12 team Yahoo expert draft (http://sports.yahoo.com/news/live-12-team-ppr-fantasy-184300302–nfl.html) where your first RB picks were Pierce, West and Freeman.  You picked all these and bypassed on Knile Davis, many regard as the best handcuff, and that the Chiefs Offense wouldn’t miss a beat should something happen to Charles.  Does it have to with the fact that Pierce and potentially West (at the time of the draft in early August) were in split duty situations?  Can you elaborate on this decision?  Hunter wasn’t supposed to have too much value on his own last year, was he (If that was the idea)?  

    Also curious if you post more of your drafts.  Trying to see real examples in 2014.  

    Again, great work and looking forward to hearing from you.

  30. Shawn Siegele
    November 2, 2013 at 7:39 pm —

    SEASolicitorCJS 
    That’s one of the reasons I like the NFFC because two of the three playoff spots are determined by points. We also have a points wild card in the RotoViz Dynasty League, and I think including that type of thing in many leagues will be more prevalent in the future.

  31. Shawn Siegele
    November 4, 2013 at 10:38 pm —

    patrickkeefe 
    Thanks, Patrick. We’ll continue to try to provide plenty of unique angles and hopefully value propositions that you won’t find elsewhere. Thanks for subscribing.

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