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The Dissenting Costanzan #9: Fantasy Football Analytics & Age
image credit to Matt Velazquez
image credit to Matt Velazquez

Seinfeld, Season 6, Episode 10, “The Race”

Duncan: There’s just no way you could’ve beaten me by that much! I’d already beaten you in junior high school three times!
Jerry: I didn’t hit puberty till the ninth grade!—that’s what gave me my speed. 

The Dissenting Costanzan is a semi-regular series in which I as RotoViz’s (un)official ombudsman examine or call into question some of the fantasy football analytics, arguments, assumptions, evidence, logic, methodologies, and pop culture references made recently on our site. In general, we at RotoViz desire for our posts to be as Costanza-proof as possible—for them to be able to withstand the bald pessimistic, caustic, and probingly meta-concerned deconstructionist post-postmodern inspection of the most Costanza-like reader imaginable. Why “The Dissenting Costanzan”?—why not???

By the way, during the regular season, I put out only one Constanzan because most of the content on the site at the time wasn’t really based on explicit argument, and what’s really the point in writing a piece on why I disagree with a player’s projection in any one week? But now that pre-draft hype is picking up and the RotoViz analytical machine is cranking into high gear, I’ll try to be more diligent in putting out the pieces that almost no one wants to read. Every group needs a George.

Age vs. Experience: What are We Adjusting For?

My RotoViz Radio cohost Jon Moore has been one of the leaders of the age-adjusted metrical movement for a while, and I recommend that you listen to Jon talk with RotoWorld’s Josh Norris about his ideas.

One of the criticisms that sometimes is directed toward the metrics crowd is that we create an increasing number of metrics that at best are un-intuitive and at worst un-illuminating. I don’t think that either of those is true of Jon’s work. In fact, I find his work intuitive and illuminating—which means that it sparks my own thoughts . . . and then I write this column: Victim blaming at its finest.

What I want to do here is examine what is implied when one brings the concept of age into an analysis of production. Jon explains clearly what his thoughts are, but I would like to work through some of this and hopefully raise some questions that are intuitive and illuminating on their own.

And, in a quick aside, I just want to say that I’m asking these questions not because I have reservations about the validity of Jon’s ultimate project. Jon is truly one of the reasons that I (pretend to) produce fantasy content today. Rather, I’m asking these questions because I know that, as Jon continues to gather and explore data, he will continue to find answers that provide valuable insight to the production that we see from college prospects. I don’t ask these questions because I doubt the value of age-adjusted analysis. I ask these questions because I believe.

Physical Maturation

It seems that, in thinking about age and the advancement of players as they age, we are thinking about a variety of factors all at once. Clearly, we are thinking of their physical maturation, and this is the point that normally is highlighted the most: As physical specimens, an 18-year-old player and a 21-year-old player are theoretically quite different. This idea applies both when making a positional comparison (for instance, when comparing two wide receivers) and when making an oppositional comparison (when thinking about how an older WR should be able to dominate a younger cornerback physically).

Intuitively, this makes sense. But I also think that, eventually, we’ll want some science to back this up. And I don’t mean fantasy science; I mean sports science, medical science, etc. Eventually, we will need people who professionally analyze and collect data on the human body in a sports setting—and ideally a football setting—to say something like this: “Yes, the difference between an 18-year-old and a 19-year-old, in terms of their physical forms and abilities, is significant.” Lots of questions will need to be explored. Does the physical difference in particular ages matter more for certain positions then for others? At what ages do we typically see stark differences in physical form and ability? How does the physical difference between an 18- and 19-year-old compare to that between a 19- and 20-year old. When it comes to these ages, is the aging process linear or more random? Is there actually a significant bodily difference between a 23- and 24-year-old?

These might seem like nitpicky questions, and they kind of are, but at some point the assumptions regarding physical development will need to be looked at further—not because doing so will disprove the concept of age-adjusted metrics. I think further analysis on this point will make these metrics all the more meaningful.

Mental Maturation

Another point that is caught up in age, but not often articulated, is the mental maturation that typically occurs when one is the age of most college football players. Maybe it’s easier for a 20-year-old WR than a 19-year-old WR to dominate his competition because the older player—thanks to his more advanced cognitive capabilities—has a more nuanced understanding of offensive systems and defensive schemes. Maybe the game, as they say, “slows down” for the older player because his brain is simply more developed. It would be great for us to find out from cognitive science what changes occur to the brain when one is 18 to 24 and whether those changes could potentially have any impact on the way that one processes football both when preparing and playing.

And there’s more—and here’s where I think I can really add something to the way that we think about age-adjusted metrics: 90% of the conversation revolving around age and college production seems to be focused on natural and physical development. I think that more of the conversation should be focused on environmental and mental development. To be clear: I think that a player’s maturation in the space around him is probably just as important as the aging process. And, granted, the older a player is then the longer he has usually been on a college campus, so there’s a correlation, but they’re not the same thing.

In the Words of Jimi, “Are You Experienced?”

Basically, what I’m talking about is experience. It would make sense for an 18-year-old true freshman—or any true freshman of any age—not to be a stud in his first season. He’s in a new environment, taking challenging classes, adjusting to a new practice schedule, learning new and complicated alignments and schemes, etc. I think that the challenges such a player faces—and his usual lack of production—have much more to do with his lack of experience than any physical shortcomings he might have in comparison to the other guys with whom he is competing for playing time and against whom he would compete in a game. Those other guys are probably just more experienced—they’ve been in that environment longer, they know how the coaches like to run practice, they have a better command of the various schemes, etc. Mentally, they know more and are better football players because they’ve simply been in their environment longer. And maybe because they’ve been in a college weight-training program longer, they’re also more physically capable—that’s probable—but I think that the real difference between most 18- and 19-year-old athletes isn’t their physical capabilities. It’s their knowledge bases, and that’s directly linked to experience.

Age and experience are distinct, and to this point they’ve been conflated, but it’s likely that we shouldn’t treat all players of the same age as if they are the same, because they could have a widely varying degree of experience. For instance, Michael Dyer was a 20-year-old true freshman in his 2010 season. To whom, in an “adjusted” mindset, should he be most comparable: An 18-year-old true freshman Todd Gurley? A 20-year-old redshirt freshman Giovani Bernard? Or a 20-year-old true junior Le’Veon Bell? Despite the age difference, I think that it’s possible that he’s most comparable to the guy who has the same amount of experience, not the similarly aged players with significantly more experience.

We almost universally accept that, in the NFL, regardless of age, one’s progress from rookie to second-year veteran is a monumental process. I think that we should start to think similarly about college players. Age is important—but experience might be just as important, and right now, when we adjust for age, what we really might be adjusting for is experience without fully realizing it or doing it in a direct way.

And, of course, I might be wrong.

———

Want to see the previous issue of the Dissenting Costanzan? Of course you do.
Want to see the next issue of the Dissenting Costanzan? Tell the other writers to get writing!

———

Matthew Freedman is a writer for RotoViz and is (not) the inspiration for the character in The League who shares his name. He serves as RotoViz’s (un)official ombudsman in the series The Dissenting Costanzan and cohosts the RotoViz Radio Football Podcast. He is the creator of the Workhorse Metric.

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