Avoiding cognitive bias in your fantasy baseball draft

Troy Tulowitzki a fantasy bargain (0:50)

Eric Karabell makes the case for Blue Jays shortstop Troy Tulowitzki as a huge value pick for drafts this season. (0:50)

I've been writing about cognitive biases in fantasy sports for a while now, and one thing people always wonder is why they exist in the first place. It's a good question, because evolution and natural selection tends to get rid of things that don't benefit the species, right? Not surprisingly, then, cognitive biases do serve us in many aspects of our lives. They enable us to make fast decisions and rely on first impressions. They help us avoid pain and fear. These neural shortcuts even (somehow) make us more attractive to members of the opposite sex!

When it comes to making decisions involving value and predicting future performance, however, cognitive biases can hurt us. That applies to things like the stock market, buying a car and, of course, drafting and managing a fantasy team. At the core of it, cognitive bias refers to the brain relying on primitive, emotional and/or habitual processing to make decisions rather than on more advanced neo-cortical regions that use logic, reasoning and sophisticated executive processing.

Those more simply wired primitive areas link sensory inputs to motor outputs very fast, without necessarily forcing us to call on slower circuits that access previous memories and can predict future outcomes, as well as take into account accumulated knowledge or research on the subject. Because the more primitive circuits rely on some of the same chemicals as the gastrointestinal tract, some people feel these rapid, biased decisions as "gut instincts." Make no mistake, however, the brain is firmly in control of them.

I go into a little bit of detail on the brain mechanisms of biases because just being aware of their possibility can help you avoid falling prey to them. Sometimes all you need is a little time to recognize what's really going on and your advanced human forebrain can take over and enable you to call on logic to make your decision. In this article, I'll discuss some of the biases that can plague you during your preseason MLB research and during your draft, as well as tips on how to overcome them.

Information bias

A lot of people think the information bias means using too much information in your decision-making process, but that's not it. The bias is in thinking that using more information gives you the ability to make better decisions.

A classic study on horse-race handicapping suggests it does not. Participants in this experiment, expert handicappers, were given the chance to use increasingly more pieces of information on which to base their valuations. It was found that the more information they had access to, the more confident the handicappers were in their judgments. However, the accuracy was equivalent among the groups. In other words, more information didn't lead to better decisions, just to the belief that the decisions were better.

The scoring in your league should drive the type of statistical data you seek out and rely on in your draft, and as you go through the season. Are strikeouts especially prioritized in your points league? Sort pitchers by their strikeout rate (K/9) rather than by their ERA. Extra-base hits get a bonus in your league? Use wOBA or even OPS rather than batting average to identify hitters.

As a general rule, I also tend to avoid situational stats. By this, I mean things like batting average with runners in scoring position or batting average with two outs or in the ninth inning or when batting third ... you get the idea. These statistics are out there, but they're more likely to cloud than clarify your judgment. For one, they are by definition limiting the available sample of at-bats, which will increase variability and noise. Also by definition, they won't even apply to your player in a significant portion of his at-bats. If you're reaching for situational stats like these to base your fantasy baseball investment on, chances are you're only increasing your confidence in the player, not the actual quality of the player chosen.

Recency bias

What happened in the 2015 season or even in spring training 2016 will have more influence over your player preferences than it perhaps deserves. This is because of the recency effect, the cognitive process that causes us to give more weight to the most recent information. Many times, the recency bias is a good thing. If, as cavemen, we went to the watering hole and found an angry, saber-toothed tiger there growling at us, it would make sense to assume that watering hole isn't safe.

If we see Maikel Franco hit seven home runs in spring training, it makes less sense to assume he's going to average 0.5 HR per game for the entire season. In 2015, my son had a draft the day that Dustin Pedroia hit two home runs in the same game. Guess who owned Pedroia last year (despite his mother's warning)?

Recent events have a profound effect on our behavior for several reasons. At the beginning of a new season, we are eagerly anticipating real baseball, our emotions of hope and excitement are running high; the "fantasy" of fantasy baseball is in full effect. A heightened state of mental arousal sensitizes us to the data we're consuming. If a player, like Pedroia or Franco, is being talked up non-stop in the press or on SportsCenter, it seeps into our consciousness and intermingles with our hopes, our fantasies of success, and when it comes time to consider the draft, that emotionally charged data will win out over any positional cheat sheet.

When is recency a good thing to pay attention to? A player hitting in a new spot in the order, and/or playing for a new team, who is showing deviation from his career numbers might be worth noting. A pitcher who has added a new pitch or is consistently showing 1-2 mph gains on his fastball could be ready to make a step up the ranks -- and may be undervalued. Sorting out whether recent performance is indicative of future performance isn't easy. It requires both an examination of past data and the current contextual information, not to mention a suspension of emotional reaction, to make an educated guess as to what's "real?"

Novelty bias

Whenever I'm asked what biases I still fall prey to -- and oh, yes, I still do -- novelty comes to mind. Animals in nature will choose mates with novel features -- features that are never seen in the wild, due solely to their novelty. New traits might bring new abilities, new abilities that could enhance fitness and be passed on to the next generation. Novelty bias is not unique to us, nor to fantasy baseball.

Yet we humans are a little more complicated. We tend to gravitate toward new players for the possibilities they present, yes, but also for the lack of bad memories we have of them. Tristan H. Cockroft and Eric Karabell discussed something like this on a recent Fantasy Focus podcast, ending with the sentiment "At least he hasn't let me down yet," which was, I believe, in reference to Corey Seager.

We all have those players whom we paid a lot for (in auction or in draft stock) who let us down, due to poor performance or injury. It doesn't even matter. If we're put in a situation of choosing a player who burned us and a new, untested or limited-action player, we'll choose the new guy almost every time.

In full disclosure, I play fantasy for fun. I don't want to re-live the horror of past seasons lost to injury, and I like shiny new toys as much as the next person. Therefore, I often knowingly succumb to novelty bias. For me, this one ultimately comes down to your draft strategy, as discussed in my previous article. If you're taking a high-risk, high-reward approach to your draft, take a chance on a young player who hasn't burned you yet (and who also hasn't proven himself yet). If your approach is more conservative, go with the known talent who has gotten hurt in the past, but who is a strong option when healthy.

Confirmation bias

The confirmation bias is similar to the information bias in that it's how you weigh the information that matters. Confirmation bias is telling yourself that you're doing research to arrive at a decision, but really you're just seeking out information that confirms what you already know you want to do. Maybe what you want to do is in fact the right, logical thing. Then confirmation bias isn't really hurting you at all. If you find an expert opinion or certain statistic that backs you up, you gain confidence in your decision.

One thing to ask yourself: How hard do you have to look for confirmation? For instance, if you're in the market for a big dog that doesn't shed and have to go deep into a reddit thread to find one person claim that her yellow lab doesn't shed at all, chances are that 1) she's a liar, and 2) that you really want a yellow lab.

The point is that finding confirmation for your belief or desire doesn't make that belief or desire more true, or right, necessarily. It just validates your (potentially erroneous) perception.

The bottom line

To sum up, biases can be found everywhere, and many of them are helpful -- adaptive shortcuts to making good life decisions. In a game like fantasy baseball, however, some of our biases can merely be tricking us into thinking we're doing the right thing. Lazy thinking has its place, but draft day isn't it.

Beware of your personal tendencies toward these and other biases to see if there are places in which you could improve your decision-making process. We'll check back in with some biases that can affect your in-season team management in a couple of months. In the meantime, enjoy the start of the 2016 season!