Underdog Best Ball Strategy: The Guide to Drafting in 2022 – Part 1

by Jakob Sanderson · Best Ball Plays & Strategy

There is an overwhelming urge whenever someone produces strategic best ball content to fall into what I call; “Fantasy Nihilism.” This is the will-diminishing belief that edges are so small, so indiscernible, and so steeped with randomness our process is nearly irrelevant.

“Nihilism is…not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one shoulder to the plough; one destroys.” – Friedrich Nietzche

I am a proponent of humility-based drafting. I discussed this approach in my first edition of Thinking About Thinking. Humility-based drafting relies on the understanding we have limited control over which outcomes manifest in a given season. But there is a fine line between weaponizing uncertainty to our advantage and allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by the unknown.

Strategic Levers

The Calendar has swung to June, and rookie discussion is largely in the rearview mirror. Thus, I have pivoted my Thinking about Thinking Column into the best ball streets. Today begins part 1 of my best ball tournament strategy guide.

Note: This guide is solely for TOURNAMENT play. Not for regular 12-player leagues.

I will discuss the evolution of strategic levers in best ball tournaments. I will also outline the principles undergirding my 2022 draft plan. To be clear, this is not a guide in which I tell you what the best construction is, who the best players are, or any other definitive solution to unknowable questions befitting a ‘Here’s How’ thread. I wish to discuss an inexhaustive variety of strategic levers you may wish to pull. How much force you choose to apply to each is entirely up to you. However, when the series is complete, I hope together we can build a broader, humility-based strategy applicable to nearly every structure of team or player stance.

STOP! More Best Ball Content

Before we get deep into the fray, I want to share two more introductory best ball strategy articles I wrote last year. This two-part series outlines ways to apply probability principles and DFS-style strategies to gain an edge in best ball tournaments. I will be writing the remainder of this piece referencing terms defined in those articles, and presenting concepts explored deeply in those pieces as fact.

Part 1:

Lessons from DFS to Learn Playing Best Ball

Part 2:

Lessons to (Un)Learn from DFS in Best Ball

You will Probably Lose – So Play to Win

Best Ball Mania III (and all other similarly-formatted best ball tournaments) are minefields of uncertainty. Even beyond our (in)ability to predict fantasy production at ADP over the course of a season, the inclusion of tournament rounds increases the imprecision of even the best projections.

Best Ball Mania III – and each Underdog tournament follows a four round structure. Each team ‘advances’ past round one by finishing top two among their 12 person pool in weeks 1-14. However, those teams have a steep remaining climb. The top team of a 10 person pool advances in week 15, followed by the top team among a pool of 16 in week 16. Only 0.6-percent of advancing teams will make the final, where you face, essentially, a 470-person DFS tournament with over half the pot awarded to the top 10 teams.

In order to access the majority of the prize pool, you need to be the top two percent … of the top six-percent … of the top 10-percent .. of the top 17-percent !!!!

This is where nihilism sets in. Even if you max-enter 150 teams built with optimal structure and high-performing players, the odds you realize your edge are minimal. It is integral to acknowledge the likelihood of your loss in order to play to win.

Everything we do in our portfolio must be optimized around ceiling outcomes. How do we do that beyond simply ‘picking the best players?’

The Levers of Best Ball Tournaments

We cannot control our outcomes. Unlike DFS, we don’t even have control of the lineups we build – 11 other people have a say in that. However, we have complete control over the following levers.

  • Player Selection
  • Cost of Acquisition
  • Exposure
  • Lineup Construction
  • Correlation

In plain language, we control who we take. We control when we take them. We control how often we do it, and who we take them with. Let’s dive into the first today.

Player Selection

The basis of any best ball portfolio is who we put in it. It’s the most contributory factor to your success – especially over the first 14 weeks. However, how can we garner a projectable edge from player selection against an ADP consensus of the sharpest players on the planet? More interestingly, can we build general heuristics for player selection to guide us beyond our individual preferences?

Baking an ADP Pie

How often have you heard the term “baked into their cost?”

Today we will take this colloquialism literally. Each player’s ADP is an aggregation, or recipe, of several considerations the market is taking into account and weighing resulting in a consensus price.

Our ADP Pie recipe (in-exhaustively) includes:

  • Median Season-long Projection: the backbone of any ADP. This is the most accurately projectable scenario for each player.
  • .Weekly Band: Because it is best ball, between two players at the same median projection, we want the player with the widest weekly band, maximizing their utility when making our lineup
    • Example: High-ADOT wide receivers being perceived as “better in best ball”
  • Season-Long Band: Because of the impetus to chase ceiling outcomes, players with a higher variance in their projection are more attractive if all else is equal.
    • Example: the perceived upside of Kadarius Toney and Christian Watson is baked into their draft cost in the same tier as Robert Woods and Tyler Lockett who undoubtedly project for a higher median.
      • I discuss the reasons to prefer ‘wide band’ players at length in the linked columns earlier in the article.

In addition to their isolated projections we have to consider:

  • Contingent Value: What is the value of this player should favorable circumstances befall them? Contingent on X outcome, what is the new median projection?
  • Correlation: Players who commonly correlate with other popular players – season-long or in the final week – may have ADPs boosted past their median projection
    • Example: Gabriel Davis‘ ADP is likely influenced by the number of teams who have already drafted Josh Allen ,or Ja’Marr Chase or Tee Higgins from Davis’ Week 17 opponent.
    • Example #2: Because the Seahawks, Falcons, Steelers and Panthers often have no Quarterback drafted, their pass catchers are less likely to be prioritized by stack-seeking drafters
  • Additional Considerations: Does this player have an injury, legal matter or non-numerical consideration affecting him or a teammate?

You’ll notice this recipe did not have directions for amounts. Ultimately this is the weighing each player must endeavor upon. It is my belief most of our sharp disagreements in player takes come from opposing allocations of weight rather than disagreements on the most likely outcome.

The Perfect Pie for the Occasion

When deciding what type of pie to make – the most important factor is the preferences of whoever is eating it. Baking for Thanksgiving? Likely pumpkin. Baking for my mother? Gluten-Free crust. Baking for my french in-laws? Sugar Pie it is.

You get the point.

Bake according to your desired outcome – in this case winning $2 Million dollars. At each level of this recipe I am asking myself whether each given lever is more impactful in optimizing your season-long projection or your playoff week ceiling – specifically week 17. That is because as outlined above, the vast majority of your expected value relies upon your week 17 result.

We Care Too Much About Advance Rate

A high degree of best ball content uses “advance rate” – the percentage of teams advanced after week 14 – as a barometer of success. This makes less sense than you’d intuitively think.

If you max-enter the tournament with a 10-point edge in advance rate over the field, you have an expected 0.09 additional teams in the finals. In other words, there is less than a 10-percent chance of realizing a 10-point advance rate edge.

Advancing out of Week 14 is just one of three steps necessary to clear before the final week – yet is vastly over-weighted in our conscious because of the length of time it takes to manifest. If the tournament’s advancement stages were designed in equal time periods, how much would our season-long style of content change?

I hypothesize week 1-14 centered analysis is over-weighted primarily because;

A) it has less variance than each one week stage,

B) it more closely resembles the dominant fantasy football format (redraft), and

C) it’s fun to root for more teams.

None of these however is a good reason to actually care about it. Because our brains are hardwired to assume we are making prudent choices, it is hard to reconcile the notion that a +EV strategy will likely result in a loss of money. We are more inclined to focus on advance rate as a measure of our proficiency despite its minimal impact on our expected value.

It is more convenient to say I was a sharp player because I advanced 25-percent of teams, than admit I’m firing blindly at 99th-percentile outcome based on an edge I cannot truly demonstrate.

Archetypal Drafting

The solution to this aforementioned cognitive dissonance is not Nietzschean despair. Rather, it is building a set of player selection heuristics which weaponizes our acknowledgment of these biases.

Median, season-long projection absolutely must be weighted down in your recipe. I would go so far as to say that if the primary driver of a player’s price is their median, season long projection, you should rarely draft them.

However, we should also acknowledge that a season-long projection is not entirely divorced from a week 15, 16, or 17 projection. This is where the synergies between wide-band archetypes come into play from a season-long and weekly perspective.

I try to think about ‘wide-bands’ in two ways.

  1. Does this player have a wide band in weekly output centered around any given median?
  2. Does this player have a wide band in season-long outcomes such that the median in their future weekly projection is highly variant?

If you wish to go through the use of stretches and shifts in distribution curves to fantasy I recommend this edition in the series.

As explained in the below twitter thread, a perfect example of this combination is Garrett Wilson and Marquez Valdes-Scantling.

The Wind-Sprinter in the Hand vs. the Rookie in the Bush

We know far less about Wilson as an NFL-player than Valdes-Scantling. As a rookie with top-10 pedigree, he has elite outcomes within his season-long range Valdes-Scantling simply does not possess. However, being a rookie on a plausibly poor offense makes him a low-floor option on all accounts. Wilson is the perfect example of a wide-band season long option. Regardless of his week-to-week variance, we should accept a wide range in terms of what his median projection will become week 17.

In the plainest terms, It is plausible by week 17 we are projecting Wilson for 15 points per week, or five.

Garrett Wilson Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile

Valdes-Scantling has played four NFL seasons and has yet to post a 15-percent target share. He has also posted three consecutive seasons with a top-five ADOT in the league. We should have a higher degree of certainty regarding Valdes-Scantling’s season-long, and subsequent weekly median projections. However, his sporadic but downfield usage pattern creates a wide range of outcomes for each of his weekly performances.

‘MVS’ is always liable for a zero, and always in play for to go for 20.

Marquez Valdes-Scantling Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile

In general, I want to target archetypes such as Valdes-Scantling compared to other players with comparable median projections. However, I am even more compelled by a player like Wilson who has the ability to not only stretch their outcome distribution curve each week but shift it entirely over the course of the year.

Tenets of Archetypal Drafting

The key tenet of archetypal drafting is focusing more on the systemic factors of a player’s profile than their individual profiles.

Consider the elements of ADP we baked into our pie:

  • does the player have a wide band in their weekly range of outcomes? (see M. Valdes-Scantling)
  • does the player have a wide band in their season-long range of outcomes? (see G. Wilson)
  • does the player have substantial contingent value? (see T. Pollard, A. Mattison)

All three of these factors share in common degrees of maximizing the pay-off of ceiling outcomes.

The natural question becomes; however, what if these factors are already “baked-in” to their cost and thus not presenting values for our teams?

The Answer

My answer: when we reduce the window of our concentration from a season-long game to a weekly game, the increased variance reduces our need to emphasize cost.

The reasons why I argue the advancement of teams in the first 14 weeks is an overstated consideration and are the same reasons I am dubious of fretting over cost. A player who is “over-priced” for their projection is most likely to damage your team over the larger sample-size stage – weeks 1-14 – than the smallest one – week 17. Luckily, the smallest-sample event is where a vast majority of the money is allocated.

Note: by saying that cost is an overvalued consideration, I am NOT saying ADP is an overvalued consideration. As I will cover in part two, I do not recommend reaching for players often. However, I give you full permission to pay an unappealing sticker price for players of our preferred archetype.

DFS With a Prologue

There are counter-intuitive benefits from selecting poorly-priced players.

In the forthcoming parts of this guide I will discuss correlation at length, especially Week 17 game-wide correlations. But for now, just consider at a base-level that pairing teammates and their opponents in a high-scoring game increases the projectable upside of your lineup in a given week.

As I mentioned above, players in the most attractive stacking environments are being pushed past their projection as a result. When those players are also ‘wide-band’ players as described above, you are likely looking at a player whose ADP out-paces their median projection considerably.

One such example is Gabriel Davis, who I recently profiled:

Polarizing Players in Fantasy: Gabriel Davis

I’m willing to argue the elements which may make Davis a poorly-projecting player at his cost have the potential to make him an elite pick ahead of week 17. Stay with me…

Salary and Ownership vs. ADP and Ownership

The primary driver of ownership in DFS is salary vs. projection. The players with the best projection at the lowest salary are typically the most owned. However, in this case, there is an additional step. The proxy for salary in best ball is ADP. But all players drafted are owned equally in the entire tournament. Ownership in the finals is determined not by salary or ADP or projection but by the rate of advancement for each player in the preceding three stages. For that reason, we have very little ability to discern now who will or will not be highly owned in the final week.

The other key factor to consider however is that DFS projections are only weekly in nature. In a best ball tournament, the ‘efficient’ ownership for the week 17 final would be set by weekly projections. But the ‘ownership’ is set by season-long results. Therefore, we can intuit that if projections are directionally accurate, players with the greatest delta between a favorable weekly ceiling projection and a season-long projection, will have the most advantageously projected ownership in the field come Week 17.

Let’s put this another way

Imagine you are playing in a regular DFS tournament in Week 17. How highly rostered do you expect Bills-Bengals, 49ers-Raiders, and Chargers-Rams players to be? If these offenses play to our expectation, it is likely each game is the ‘chalk’ that week. However, in best ball, that is no such guarantee because the ownership is set based on Week 1-16’s foregone results.

If we believe a player to be over-priced for their median projection, it stands to reason they will be at lower ownership than expectation. And the fascination with stacking these elite games are influencing the cost of players upward for reasons inapplicable to their week 1-16 schedule. The exact same elements which would make the players in Week 17’s best games ‘chalk’ in DFS have the potential to make them sparsely rostered in week 17 best ball. When such players also have a wide weekly band, this makes them remarkably attractive bets for this specific format.

When you Lose, you Win

As with DFS, there is no better player to roster in your best ball final than a low-owned player who hits a ceiling outcome. The less teams able to match your ceiling performance, the less pressure it puts on the remaining pieces of your roster to hit a ceiling in order to win.

Consider last year. Ja’Marr Chase was the most impactful player in the final week. However, because he had poor showings in the first two playoff weeks, he was not highly owned. Therefore, Chase managers were able to post top-one percent finishes without ceiling performances from each of their other seven players. Had Cooper Kupp or Mark Andrews posted a 50-point performance however, the vast number of entries including these players would have raised the bar on the remaining members of your lineup.

There is no way to predict who will be a low-owned player with an elite week 17 performance. But selecting wide-band players can increase our odds of that ceiling week, and the trade off is heightened risk of disappointing season-long or in preceding weeks to the finals. However, due to the way in which the tournament is structured, such an outcome could actually set you up in a favorable position for the final week.

The Reverse Barbell

I want to be very clear. The goal is not to assemble lineups full of disappointing players. You do need to advance your team. However, even among the top finishing teams in last year’s tournament, there is room for a few major duds alongside key studs. This is the basis of my reverse-engineered bar bell building strategy.

Barbell is a term from Nasim Taleb which suggests the optimal portfolio is one mixed between primarily extremely safe assets, with a minority segment of extremely risky assets.

In my view, the most +EV strategy for week 17 results is to ‘reverse bar bell’ your teams, preserving a major swath of your roster spots for max-volatility assets. The ideal result of this approach is a portfolio mixed between low advance rate players, with a smattering of elite ‘league winners.’ On mass, this should provide your portfolio with a mixed texture of low-owned options with reasonable weekly ceilings to pair with the players who brought you to the championship.

A Note on Portfolios

Do note: our conceptions of projection both season-long and weekly locks several weeks before the final. For that reason, we should keep in mind a mix between wide-band season-long profiles, (A la Kadarius Toney) and relatively stable season-long options with wide weekly bands (A la Valdes-Scantling). We should take care that players who disappoint week 1-14 are – in general – more likely to project lower than expected in the final. But as we saw with D.K. Metcalf last year, it is not a perfect rule.

For that reason, I wish to emphasize once more; the best case scenario with each pick is a huge win season long and in the playoffs. In the performance of archetypal drafting, I am chasing that season long upside above all else, and still have preferred options at a cost in search of it. Next article I will discuss how my priors on each player informs my exposure across and between archetypes.

The Final Word – Part 1

This is just the first part in a (three? four? We’re not sure yet) part guide to my best-ball strategy this year. I say “my” strategy because that’s purely what it is. There are less than a dozen winners of major best ball tournaments each year. We have not nearly enough data to make definitive statements on how to optimize for that result. However, by the time this series wraps, I hope to ask an array of thought-provoking questions, and present one plausible set of principles with which to attack best ball tournaments in 2022.