Jonathan is the author of the Fantasy Football for Smart People book series (most recently “Daily Fantasy Pros Reveal Their Money-Making Secrets”), and a member of Team DraftKings.
Do you like that title? Positive thinking. Look it up.
So will a RotoViz reader really win this weekend’s DraftKings Millionaire Maker? Probably, because everything you read on the internet is true—there are laws about that stuff—and I published this article with that title so…I think the universe will take care of the rest.
Really though, I do believe that RotoViz readers are in as advantageous of a position as anyone to walk out of the Millionaire Maker with the $1,000,000 prize in Week 6, due primarily to all of the awesome tools you have at your disposal. From the DraftKings Lineup Dominator to the Game Splits app to all of the outstanding GLSP Projections, you’re equipped to outperform the competition when it comes to finding value.
But value is just one piece of the puzzle in daily fantasy tournaments. And when you’re dealing with a field of 92,400 people, it might even be one of the smaller pieces. In tournaments, there’s immense value in finding production where others overlook it (and, similarly, side-stepping unproductive players when lots of others are interested in them).
Going Against the Grain
Imagine that a player is such an incredible value that everyone uses him—no really, all 92,400 lineups have this player. If that were the case, the player might have theoretical value in that his price is too cheap for his expected production, but his usable value would be zero; no matter how well he performs, it wouldn’t help or hurt anyone. Now consider the opposite—a player in just one lineup (yours)—that has a monster game. In that scenario, the player’s usable value would be at its peak; you benefit when no one else does.
It follows that the lower a player’s usage, the better the odds of him increasing your lineup’s win probability if he performs well. Of course, the Catch-22 is that the least popular players are typically among the least valuable, too. So we’re forced into this conundrum of either emphasizing value or going contrarian on players who offer less value but will be in fewer lineups. Value-based strategies provide the greatest potential for a high-scoring lineup, while contrarian-based lineups trade in some of that expected production for lower anticipated usage rates.
In my latest book Daily Fantasy Pros Reveal Their Money-Making Secrets, I spoke with fellow DraftKings Pro Al_Smizzle about his thoughts on seeking value versus identifying under-the-radar plays in tournaments.
Talk about a contrarian tournament strategy and how much you use it.
I don’t mind going contrarian, but only if there’s value there. I played Marvin Jones all over the place during his four-touchdown week in 2013, and he was like two percent owned (and I probably accounted for about half of that two percent in some tournaments). I didn’t just play him because I thought others wouldn’t, though; he had been getting more and more snaps and targets in the prior week, and I wanted to go high-priced at running back that week, so he just worked.
My strategy also changes a lot throughout the season. In the beginning of the year, I’m much more likely to be contrarian because everyone is basically picking players based off of season-long ADP, which is mostly based off of the prior season’s stats. Football is such a unique sport in that the data from the previous year isn’t really that meaningful, though; situations change, coaches change, personnel changes, so there aren’t necessarily great numbers to use to determine team or player strength.
For that reason, I’m not as value-based early in the year just because it’s more difficult to determine value. Then, I think there’s a lot more value in going against the grain. As the season progresses, we get more and more data and we can see how certain players perform together or how coaches are calling things. By the end of the year, I care less about projected ownership because I think I can create more accurate values.
Do you normally go against the grain on low-priced options like Jones?
No, not necessarily. One thing I really like to do is pay up for high-priced studs who maybe don’t have an ideal matchup. When you have a player like Calvin Johnson, it really doesn’t matter who he’s facing; he can go for 200 yards against anyone. But if he has a bad matchup, you’ll see his usage plummet.
Sometimes you’ll have studs who are in only five percent of lineups because of the matchup, and that’s a great situation. You get an elite player and you get to be contrarian at the same time. With those guys, the price and value don’t matter as much because they have so much upside no matter what.
In my head-to-head games, I’m searching for the players who have the most access to a realistic outcome—an attainable threshold of production. In tournaments, I want players who have the most access to elite outcomes, and players like Johnson, Jamaal Charles, and so on can have those games against any opponent.
Daily fantasy pros understand the value in going against the grain, especially early in the year. Thanks to DraftKings, I have some evidence of the importance of hitting on those low-usage players. Here’s some data on usage rates and an excerpt from my daily fantasy book Fantasy Football (and Baseball) for Smart People:
This graph shows the percentage of winning GPP lineups with top-scoring players in specific usage brackets (represented with the percentages at the bottom). For example, the two bars all the way to the left show the percentage of winning GPP lineups in both NFL (12.9 percent) and MLB (23.3 percent) with a high-scoring player who was owned on anywhere between one and five percent of all lineups.
The data on this graph is extremely interesting and should make us think about how we structure our tournament lineups. Namely, look at how important it is to have a low-usage player who erupts for a huge game. Of all winning GPP lineups, 45.2 percent of daily fantasy football teams and 41.4 percent of daily fantasy baseball teams hit on the top-scoring player who was in 10 percent or fewer lineups. That’s pretty remarkable.
At the other end of the spectrum, you can see there’s a jump in the frequency of lineups with the best player who was 51-plus percent owned. That might be due to a larger player pool, but since not many players are ever in more than half of lineups, it could also be evidence to not forgo elite values. When a player stands out as the clear-cut top value, use him, regardless of the league type. It’s the second-tier values you might want to fade in favor of less-utilized players.
A Millionaire Maker Game Plan
So this is how we are going to win the million this weekend (and by ‘we,’ I mean ‘me,’ with you finishing second…$100,000 isn’t bad, right?). Note that this is for a single entry; if you’re going to enter multiple lineups, you can and should diversify and use different approaches.
We’re going to make sure we have exposure to the very obvious values of the week—the players who might have high utilization, but are simply too underpriced to pass up, giving us flexibility elsewhere.
Then we’re going to fill in the rest of the lineup with under-the-radar players whose usage could be down—maybe a couple studs in perceived poor matchups or some cheaper players whose potential breakouts aren’t gaining widespread attention.
The first question we need to ask ourselves is “Who are the obvious values?” To me, all of these players are candidates for high usage:
QB: Peyton Manning, Nick Foles
RB: Andre Ellington, LeSean McCoy, Ronnie Hillman, Andre Williams
WR: Julio Jones, Demaryius Thomas, Brandon Marshall, Rueben Randle
TE: Larry Donnell, Julius Thomas, Rob Gronkowski
And what about some contrarian plays?
QB: Tony Romo
RB: Gio Bernard, Branden Oliver, Joique Bell
WR: Eric Decker, Randall Cobb, Keenan Allen
TE: Martellus Bennett, Zach Ertz
With this group of players (and certainly your group of contrarian options could be much different), I think we can create a team that combines both value and a contrarian lineup strategy. Here’s an example of that:
QB: Peyton Manning
RB: Branden Oliver, Joique Bell
WR: Demaryius Thomas, Rueben Randle, Keenan Allen
TE: Julius Thomas
FLEX: Zach Ertz
Some thoughts on this particular lineup:
- I know that Manning, Thomas & Thomas are going to be high-usage (Manning and Demaryius, especially), but I also think that they’re sensational values and provide all kinds of upside this week. Playing them against the Jets is a risk if the game gets out of hand, but we aren’t trying to build a cash-game lineup here.
- Branden Oliver is all over people’s radar, but I think his cost is going to scare some people away. At $5,500, he’s the 12th-most expensive running back—more than Andre Ellington and just $500 cheaper than LeSean McCoy. I’m not entirely sure what his usage will be, to be honest, but I don’t think it will be through the roof.
- Joique Bell obviously needs to be cleared to play, and we need to monitor the health of the other Detroit running backs, too. He’s a pure value whose usage I think might be too low with recency bias infecting the minds of a lot of daily fantasy players.
- Rueben Randle is a pure value, while Keenan Allen could see lowered usage because he has struggled mightily this year and now faces a Raiders defense ranked 10th against opposing receivers. That ranking is listed next to Allen’s name on DraftKings, and you can bet your ass that users pay attention to those numbers.
- Playing two tight ends is not only unique—most users play a running back or receiver in the flex—but it also gives me 1) lots of touchdown upside relative to the cost and 2) room to fit other studs into my lineup. I don’t think Ertz is going to be a popular pick.
*NOTE: Don’t actually play this lineup. If even one other person does the same, you just went from winning $1 million to $550,000. What in the H-E-Double-Hockey-Sticks can you even do with $550k nowadays?