In his new book, How Fantasy Sports Explains the World , ESPN analyst AJ Mass draws from job experiences as varied as an Atlantic City casino dealer and member of an off-Broadway improvisational troupe, and influences as diverse as Star Wars’ Galactic Empire, Ghost Hunters, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and pareidolia (look it up!). In addition to insights into real and fantasy scenarios -- from replacing an irreplaceable, injured player to “drafting” for the perfect relationship -- you’ll enjoy such detours as the “dumbest sport ever invented” (Quidditch) and suggestions for Dan Brown’s next symbology thriller plot.
The erudite, wittily opinionated Mr. Mass chatted with Fantasy Gameday about reality TV, loyalty to hometown teams, trade ethics and strategy, the unreliability of BABIP, IDP leagues, and more. We also posted a review of his book as well.
JS: When, how and why did you start playing fantasy sports?
AJM: It was something I had seen though maybe not in the original rotisserie format. I got into computers in college. Found Davey Johnson’s baseball game on Prodigy. My first exposure was via Strat-O-Matic, AllStar baseball, recreational of historical stuff as a kid. I thought it would be great way to stay in touch with college friends... One of my friends put on a bow tie and seersucker suit and said I’m Frank Cashen. Another poor guy got stuck with Marquis Grissom at $54.
JS: When people find out what you do, what’s the greatest misconception they have about fantasy sports and the people who play them?
AJM: That we have no lives! Same stigma as Dungeons and Dragons, a bunch of nerds sitting in the basement. It’s not that anymore -- if it ever was. It can be social, a way to keep in touch with friends. There’s interaction. In the old days mailing stats to your leaguemates, or faxing, that was labor- and time-intensive. You had to be that sort of geeky person. But it’s not that kind of obsession these days.
JS: Unless you have 30 teams.
AJM: 30? Uh, yeahhh, wellll… It’s become enough of a legitimate culture, because fantasy sports provides active participation and a sense of control. Like voting for contestants on Dancing with the Stars. You can be involved without it dominating your life.
JS: You have quite the resume, including a stint as the Mets mascot. What was your most memorable experience, good or bad, as Mr. Met?
AJM: Sending your mascot to the Upper Deck on Bat Day when his head is a giant baseball -- and you’ve armed 8-year old children with things to hit a baseball -- is not a wise decision.
JS: You mentioned that your Mr. Met days could form a sequel of sorts. Is there a chapter you deleted for space during the editorial process, or some material that you liked but didn't make the final cut?
AJM: No, I have always wanted to write a Mr. Met book, encompassing my whole time in the suit, and simply didn't want to include it in this project. Hopefully, if this does well enough, that memoir can be next on the docket.
JS: Your degree is in broadcast journalism. What would you be doing if you weren’t a fantasy analyst? Sportswriter? Any interest in following statheads like Bill James and Voros McCracken into a team’s front office?
AJM: At least for now this is where I’m supposed to be, where I want to be. It’s great to be able to write for a living. That’s what I always wanted to do... When I was a kid I wanted to be a baseball player. Then it thought, maybe I’ll announce the games, be the broadcaster. Now years later I’m hanging with Howie Rose, eating at the press level. I made the major leagues but just took a very different route.
JS: What’s the biggest change to fantasy sports other than advent of internet?
AJM: Proliferation of satellite TV, access to the games that you didn’t always get a chance to see. As much as we can look at statistics, pore over the box scores, that element hasn’t changed. There’s no substitute for seeing with your own eyes… We’re able to watch a lot more games… Like Jordan Walden, I think it was, imploding a few days ago. We can appreciate that a performance that looks awful in the box score really wasn’t: a seeing eye single, an error, but no doubt the pitcher had his game on.
JS: What do you think of The League?
AJM: Very funny show, accurate. It depicts many aspects of what I talk about in the book… It’s entertaining and captures a lot of the personalities…. (Yes, get her in the league, fresh meat). Matt Berry has a cameo in the upcoming season.
JS: Is it a flawed analogy to compare real-world clubs to fantasy keeper leagues? For example, do I say to myself, Atlanta held onto its elite prospects and even got an additional year of Michael Bourn, so why I should I sacrifice a premium prospect for a two-month rental – or do I think like Cleveland, San Francisco, to a lesser degree Philadelphia? (Full disclosure: I’ve been offered pitchers like Jered Weaver in the FGD Keeper League for Desmond Jennings).
AJM: Granted, even in auction leagues with assigned values, salary dumps aren't quite the same considerations. The stakes are different: You’re not running a multi-million dollar operation, you’re free to make the wrong call. But in general, people put too much emphasis on the future. Hey, you wanna win this year, right? The point of keepers is to ensure that teams in last place don’t just quit… Everything is a risk/reward analysis. Either way you could kick yourself. It’s like tossing a coin, I can root for ‘heads’ all the time but it won’t affect the outcome.
JS: You root for the New York Mets and Syracuse Orange. Do you feel that playing fantasy baseball detracts from the experience of watching your favorite team? How does it affect your allegiances? Would you root against your favorite team if players from the opposition were on your fantasy team? Or can you have divided loyalties, like a great morally complex drama?
AJM: It doesn’t really decrease enjoyment because I do this professionally. You need to take your fandom out of it, can’t take personal biases into account.
JS: Like the Allen Iverson anecdote you recount in your book.
AJM: Oh yeah. And as Mr. Met, I got to meet some of the players. Some were nice like Carl Everett, some weren’t. But I couldn’t let that affect my fantasy evaluation. For example, I don’t like the Cowboys but Tony Romo is still a top-ten QB. I think in order to play the game well you have to put aside those biases as best you can…. I think it’s a benefit to fandom, even enhances the experience, otherwise why would I be watching the Mets play Seattle or Texas?
JS: And you can exploit someone else’s fandom in trades.
AJM: You pick Matt Holliday right before a Cards fan does and you can use that no end! …The experience like the game has evolved as time has gone on. The reason it caught on in the first place was free agency. Before that, if you followed a team, you watched these players, the core unit. Today the Colts keeping their core unit together is unusual... You can keep that loyalty even when teams themselves aren’t. Or the players themselves… You’re just trying to do the same thing they’re doing.
JS: Just out of curiosity, is there any way for a franchise like the Yankees to win that kind of damned-if-they-sign-him/damned-if-they-don’t Jeter contractual scenario?
AJM: Sure, if Jeter hits .350 next year! Loyalty to the player is commendable. The Orioles weren’t going to trade Cal Ripken at the end either. If the Yankees had wanted to get rid of him, they could have spun the PR machine. As a baseball fan I’m happy that he gets to finish his career with the team, even forgetting the milestones, so it isn’t like Brett Favre or Roger Clemens and their many retirements.
JS: You do address this indirectly throughout the book, but if you had one major pet peeve about the fantasy-verse, what would it be? How would you change it?
AJM: I wouldn't really change anything since we can all choose to play in leagues with people who want to play “our way” -- there is a freedom that exists in that regard. The changes I would make, as I point out in the book, are more about the openness of other people to embrace alternative points of view.
JS: Roto doesn’t seem as popular as it once was. The head-to-head format is more accessible with the instant win-loss reward. What do you say to those who claim H2H involves more sheer luck?
AJM: It all has some aspect of luck because you don’t control what the players do on the field. All you can do is start the players you think will do best. Getting the sample size down to such a small level. You’re not talking about drafting a team from scratch at the beginning of fantasy season... Some of the best players may be playing 5 games not 7, my starters going twice not once, resting guys for the [real] playoffs---you’re not testing skill to the same degree… Football is different because the matchups are different and have such an immediate impact…. Peyton versus the Steelers rather than Eli versus the Texans is still more of a guess, but you have some data to process… Everyone’s on the same playing field... Rotisserie and head-to-head are two completely different animals, apples and oranges… What makes more sense---who did it best the entire season or in the playoffs? But if you enjoy the format, that’s what counts.
JS: I don't read as much sabermetric-style analysis on fantasy football. Or golf, hockey, basketball. Do these sports lend themselves to greater number-crunching?
AJM: We’ve come a long way in predictive performance. Targets rather than just receptions, yards per carry, yards after the first hit. Problem is, say you like IDP leagues. I don’t play them because take a guy like Nnamdi Asomugha. No question he’s valuable, but how do you really measure that? His effectiveness is measured by not throwing in his direction, so he doesn’t have as many chances to break up passes. It’s counter-intuitive to say he’s great because he has zero. That’s the difficulty of translating real-life into fantasy… I was a Math minor. As much as I love math, the formula’s gotta be fun not work. You wanna throw WHIP or OPS my way, I’m with you. I get the sabermetric stuff. But sometimes the number doesn’t mean anything… I have to know the whole story. Whether in fantasy sports or life, people see what they want to see, they use confirmation bias to look for things that support their world view… Part of my job is to write Daily Notes, but how can you possibly put [pitcher] so-and-so as the 10th-best option, when he’s 2-10 against that team? I’m cherry-picking data, because I have to write something.
JS: I think Ron Shandler (founder of Baseball HQ) speculated that playing by the numbers still only provides a 70% success rate at best. What could increase that, or rather decrease the element of sheer luck?
AJM: To predict future order out of the randomness that is the human condition? As Dr. Tyson [director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium] said, there are no uncertainties in the universe… Even Albert Pujols can have a bad year---comparatively. There are millions of different factors. You educate yourself as best you can for where you are now… All we’re trying to do is gain an illusion of control in a world without control.
JS: With so many fantasy owners hopping on the sabr-rattling bandwagon, is there a formula (beyond the obvious like BABIP, FIP, xFIP, K:BB) you think is still useful yet under-utilized in terms of gauging expected performance?
AJM: There are things out there that can give you a better window. But there are no absolutes. A guy who consistently bats .300 isn’t going to regress to the mean. You can’t use BABIP for knuckleballers like R.A. Dickey. After Jason Kipnis homered in four straight games, I noticed most of his ABs resulted either in a homer or strikeout. I wasn’t jumping on his bandwagon yet. A reader lit into me for not recommending him and to prove my small sample size wrong, he used an even smaller sample size. Even the stats that do work don’t work in every case. No stat proves consistency.
JS: What un-represented sport do you think could do well in the fantasy firmament and why?
AJM: The thing you need for fantasy purposes is statistics, which is why hockey will never catch on. Plus-minus just isn’t cutting it for me, it’s a defensive not offensive game… Basketball could get bigger. And as a function of the college sport, which is where huge growth could take place. It’s got to be the perfect marriage of intuitive and get-the-score. Golf fantasy I don’t get because I can’t watch a golf event and think, ahhhh, that helps his putts per GiR.
JS: Let’s play a game of association: the phrase ‘integrity of the league.’
AJM: How about integrity of the league where you’re all trying to screw each other with deals?
JS: Okay. Is there any situation other than blatant dumping or collusion, which is difficult to prove, when you’d countenance vetoing a trade?
AJM: The only other aspect is when a newbie makes a trade. I do get the argument, “Oh we have to protect him.” But if you veto he’s not going to bother to learn, assuming everyone will veto.
JS: Sounds like you’d like to ban the veto entirely. After all, you use the great analogy of Seward’s Folly (and the Guano Islands Act) to demonstrate how a deal can defy popular opinion.
AJM: You can’t predict future performance, or variables like injury... And you think there’s no peer pressure? Blind allegiance to group mentality?
JS: Pushing cigarettes in the boys’ toilet.
AJM: Exactly. If you’re going to agree there’s trading you cannot, from that point forward, object. But as [Survivor’s] Yau-Man Chan points out in the book, it’s uncooperative game theory. There are no rules establishing fair and unfair. Ideally you have an impartial commissioner step in to evaluate trades. But where does it stop? If you’re policing, why not say, “You shouldn’t start him. I’m gonna set your lineup for you.” Everyone’s gonna have different opinions on the value of players, that’s the point. If you have problems, you shouldn’t be playing in a league with strangers.
JS: As a corollary to your discussion of fantasy sports and relationships, is there a unique parallel to sports widowhood in fantasy? If so, any suggestions to keep the peace?
AJM: I think any relationship needs for both parties to respect the interests of the other… as I mentioned in Chapter 2, adding wives and girlfriends into the fantasy sports mix doesn't diminish the enjoyment -- it actually can allow you more freedom to watch games without ending up in the doghouse. Just be prepared to immerse yourself in some activities that you initially might not be gung ho about in return.
JS: Discussing the trading process you extrapolate from the unwritten rules of Improv: always make your partner look good. You counsel readers never to respond, “No!” (especially in a withering tone), even when they offer Thabo Selofosha for LeBron. Do you believe in total honesty during negotiations? eg, let's say you're willing to “lose” a trade to help take points from your nearest opponents. Should you mention that up front?
AJM: Every negotiation is different. But though I'd never try and sneak a deal through where I just heard that a player was injured and my trade partner might not have gotten that news yet, if I can get a deal done without revealing all my cards in terms of strategy, then I will. What works best, I've found, is to tell the other guy why the trade makes sense for him -- and to really try and come with trade offers in the first place that you can pitch sincerely that way -- rather than having to explain why you want to do it… But if the deal is falling apart and I really want it? Then I have a decision to make, don't I?
JS: Speaking of decisions and public opinion… Anyone you feel was jobbed on Survivor, American Idol, Dancing with the Stars?
AJM: American Idol and DwTS are not talent competitions, they are popularity contests. Therefore, whoever ends up winning "deserves" it. On shows like Survivor and Big Brother, as Yau-Man Chan explains in the book, the contestants themselves determine the merits of each season's winner, so again, no major complaints. However shows like Project Runway and Top Chef, where a panel of judges will often arbitrarily change the rules of what merits advancement versus elimination -- that's where people like Mondo (Runway) or Annie Duke (and most Apprentice contestants) can seemingly get “jobbed” because they're losing on somebody's ever-changing whim.
JS: If recasting the original Star Wars trilogy, whom would you select as the three leads?
AJM: You'd have to give Seth Green the part of Luke, and I'd want Nathan Fillion to be Han. And since, I've kept it in the Whedonverse so far, let's put in Eliza Dushku as Leia, and let the cameras roll. Get Joss on the phone!
(JS -- aside to readers): One of the incidental pleasures of the book is reading AJ’s takes on popular sci-fi franchises, many of which are spiced by anecdotes involving actors such as Green and interviews with writers/showrunners like Jane Espenson. I heartily second Filion, Green is inspired though perhaps a bit long in the tooth, and Dushku…. How many red-blooded American males would love to see her sporting that Come-On-I-Wanna-Leia bikini around Jabba’s hut?
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