Playing Devil’s Advocate: Why Two Economic Theories Suggest Auto-Drafting May Be the Optimal Fantasy Football Draft Strategy

By Kurt Bullard

Last season in my high school fantasy football league, the unimaginable happened: the lone player who auto-drafted ended up going on the win the championship. This was a huge blow to fantasy football worldview, and made me ponder why I would even bother preparing for a fantasy draft when someone who was hiking and canoeing through the Canadian wilderness without cell service or WiFi at the time of the draft could take home the throne.

For all of the stigmatization that comes with auto-drafting—the possibility of ending up with multiple kickers and defenses, not being able to distribute cap room or draft picks evenly among different positions, and a demonstrated lack of interest, among others—there is one clear positive: one is protected from his or her own fantasy hubris. Most people entering fantasy drafts come in with targets—that is, players who they want to come out of the draft with, sometimes no matter the cost. Trying to prove that you know more than your friends about fantasy football by picking “sleepers” is part of what makes fantasy fun, but it can also be dangerous. In snake drafts, in order to grab a preferred target, one might might have to reach for a player, thinking that he won’t be available at the next go-around. The same applies for auction drafts—in order to get a player, you have to outbid several other competitors.

To my knowledge, there hasn’t been one fantasy football site that has truly differentiated itself from the rest of the pack when it comes to preseason rankings. Since the so-called experts aren’t able to systematically successfully outsmart the rest of the pack, it’s perhaps a little cocky to think that you—a regular fantasy player—can outsmart the rest of the pack.

Fantasy preseason ranking data is rather wonky and pretty well hidden some fantasy websites, although not to the extent that Chad Ford alters his NBA mock drafts. So, the auto-draft argument that I’ll make will not be based in numbers; rather, it will lie in economic theory. Two quintessential academic ideas support adopting a blind “auto-draft” mindset entering a fantasy draft:

1. The Efficient-Market Hypothesis:

Definition: Asset prices fully reflect all available information.

This theory, while it usually applies to financial assets such as stock prices, can also apply to fantasy football. It suggests that, since all fantasy football rankings sites are using the same, public knowledge, all players should be properly priced headed into a draft, and that one cannot identify players who are over- or undervalued on a systematic basis without insider information.

There’s no reason to believe (to my knowledge, at least) that any of the fantasy experts have continuously provided its readers/subscribers with a systematic advantage. If the people whose livelihoods depend on these projections are having trouble finding inefficiencies in the market for season-long players, it’s unlikely that a random fantasy player can. The efficient-market hypothesis suggests the upside of reaching for a player is much smaller than the downside. Therefore, trusting a consensus of draft picks (i.e. the “average” price of a player) and essentially blindly following that list may be the best strategy. It prevents a player from overpaying for an asset that this theory suggests is already properly priced, which would maximize the value of a player’s draft pick or salary cap money.

2. The Winner’s Curse:

Definition: In auction settings, winners tend to overpay.

Again, this theory usually applies to things that actually cost real money. But, there’s a fantasy football application. The winner’s curse applies more to auction drafts than it does to snake drafts, but the idea has an application in both settings. Essentially, if you “win” an auction and are able to nab your target, you were willing to pay more for an asset than the other 9-plus players in your league. As a result, there’s a good chance that you overpaid because everyone else thought the asset was worth less than you did. Of course, in order to get any player, you need to outbid everyone else—that’s the nature of an auction. There is a way to avoid the “curse” by being cognizant of the bias and “shading” one’s bid. One way to do this is to use the consensus auction value of a player rather than one’s personal value—once a player goes over the consensus value, they can be deemed undraftable.

Auction drafts tend to be more nuanced than this in practice and require some degree of game theory that, in order to investigate properly, would require a very rigorous statistical analysis. For example, it may take the “market” a certain amount of auction picks before the market stabilizes; that is, it’s unlikely that the first player auctioned is correctly valued, which could influence future auctions.  One might want to splurge early or stockpile cash depending on whether the first picks of the auction draft are over- or undervalued compared to the consensus.

Purely auto-drafting is probably not the answer, due to a potential to overload on certain positions and be left lacking in others. A better answer is to adopt a “just go with the consensus” mindset. Doing so is the ultimate anti-fun strategy; but, what’s worse than winning using an “auto-draft” mindset is losing to someone who does. People will not remember your draft strategy. People remember rings and ’ships.

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1 Comment

  • I don’t think auto-drafting is the answer because the sites might be purposely keeping their auto-draft algos terrible in order to keep enthusiasm for drafts high, but I will say that in a 12 team league I hate drafting when there’s 1 team on auto-pick. It will make the random bad kicker/defense pick, but it will also scoop value. So when most drafters just keep leaving a guy on the board for multiple rounds, and you can build a decent team from just targeting those players, an autodrafter will really reduce the number of times that a guy falls 2 rounds past his ADP.

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