Staking Bales: Projecting Big Games and Thinking Probabilistically in Fantasy Football

Staking Bales: Projecting Big Games and Thinking Probabilistically in Fantasy Football

By Jonathan Bales (Daily Fantasy Expert), last update Nov 22, 2013

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Jonathan Bales is a DraftKings Pro and the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series. His latest book, How to Win at Daily Fantasy Sports, is a data-driven guide to winning on DraftKings. He is also (unofficially) sponsored by GrubHub.

Follow Jonathan Bales on Twitter: @BalesFootball.

Every weekend, my brothers (who play daily fantasy) call me and ask who I think is going to have a big game that week, and I answer the same thing:

“Players X, Y, and Z, but just watch out for their salary. They only have value at a certain price.”

And that’s definitely true. Daily fantasy football—especially a heads-up league—is all about finding value. You want as many projected points as possible for each dollar that you spend.

But there’s also value in, you know, actually getting those points. It doesn’t do you much good if those projected points aren’t realized.

I’ve explained in the past that I think $/point, while useful, is a little misleading because a high-salary player who matches his projection is more valuable to you than a low-salary player doing the same. Same $/point, different worth to your lineup.

Even in head-to-head games, though, I think there’s something to be said for having high-upside players. When you stock your team with high-floor/low-ceiling players, you’re increasing the probability of each one of them individually reaching a certain threshold of points, but are you really doing the same for your entire team? If you need seven players to all score at least 12 points, that’s going to be really difficult, even if they’re all “safe” players who are likely to accomplish the feat on their own.

Further, I think there are true high-floor/high-ceiling players out there. I’ve been touting Antonio Brown as one of them all year, and he’s been in my lineup every week. Brown has at least five catches and 50 yards in every game, but he also has two games with at least 147 yards and two touchdowns. Due to the nature of his game and the Steelers’ offense, Brown is safe with high upside.

Because of that, I think a player like Brown (and there are others) offers value that isn’t reflected in $/point. There’s value in playing a guy like Brown in a head-to-head matchup because you can be relatively certain he’s going to reach a set level of production, but he can also make up for other players not doing the same. And that’s excessively valuable. In effect, Brown acts as a hedge against down performances from others.

But here’s the thing: his salary has risen after last week’s big game, dramatically so on some sites. By the numbers, Brown isn’t a quality $/point option. He’s ranked rather low on both the FanDuel and DraftKings Value Reports. He’s getting near the top of the second tier of receivers in terms of price, and if you’re looking at his mean projection, his value is rapidly disintegrating.

And I’m still going to own Brown this week. I’ll have more than just a little exposure to him because he offers you something outside of the traditional value calculation. When you view Brown as a range of probability—something I’m trying to do more and more as a daily fantasy player—I think his true value is more apparent.

I’ve proposed this idea in the past when analyzing bargain bin players. Yes, they offer $/point value, but what’s the probability that they and a high-priced player both reach a certain threshold? Probably not superior to a pair of second-tier players who have the same total salary and $/point value.

Now, I’m deconstructing (<--- no idea if that’s the right word, but I like it) that argument to apply solely to the individual. You should care about $/point, yes, but think about the range of possibilities surrounding each player in a given week. Consider game flow—how the various courses of the game could affect certain players, and the probability of each occurring. Think about players’ ceiling and floors in all league types, not just one for heads-up and one for tournaments. In effect, consider not only the mean projection for each player relative to his salary, but also ponder the odds that he provides you certain levels of points.

In short, think like a probabilist, not like a determinist. Ask for this book, this book, and this book for the holidays. They’ll help.

With that said, here are four players I consider to have great “probabilistic value,” regardless of their $/point.


QB Matthew Stafford

Five games with at least 350 passing yards. 21 touchdowns to only eight picks. 35 attempts in every game, including seven with 40-plus. His salary is high, but you’re getting an insanely high floor and ceiling. Love this mo’fo.


RB Zac Stacy

A probabilistic approach to fantasy football typically favors pass-catching running backs because they aren’t situation-dependent. Stacy has at least 26 carries in each of the last three games, but he’s also giving you production as a receiver with 15 catches in his last five games. He’s no Reggie Bush, but that’s still the pace for a 48-catch season. Plus, the Rams are stubborn enough to keep giving Stacy the ball, regardless of the score.


WR Brandon Marshall

Dez Bryant is a player who is typically priced around the same as Marshall (or more), but he’s a much worse option if you’re looking for sustainable production. Defenses have been able to take Bryant out of games and the Cowboys just look to go elsewhere with the ball. Bryant has six games with fewer than 10 targets this year. Marshall has one-third that number. We know the Bears receiver has a ridiculously high ceiling and is always a good bet to score, but he’s also a very safe player.


TE Rob Gronkowski

Tight end is a tricky position because there are really just two elite options and then everybody else. There are other players (like Vernon Davis) with high ceilings, but no one that can match that of Gronk and Jimmy Graham. When you throw in their high floors, it makes sense to pay up. Gronkowski often costs just a percentage point or two of salary cap more than Davis, yet he’s a significantly superior option.

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