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Lost In Translation
I’ve had a hard time learning to speak Portuguese these last 6.5 years. My daughter, she talks like a native. Heather? She’s good, able to converse with anyone about anything. But I understand maybe 30 percent of what’s being said in real time, and while I can string together sentences, my vocabulary and knowledge of common idioms is limited. This is despite my taking classes the last two years, and once for six months in 2019.
The other day I was absent-mindedly listening to the radio in the car, picking up the gist of what was being said, and I had an epiphany: my problem was that I was constantly *trying* to understand what people were saying. Every time I listened to Portuguese I would search out words I understood, translate them into English in my mind and try to piece together the context of the whole. But I was always behind, as not only did I not recognize every word, but there was some latency in the translation process, i.e., my brain couldn’t keep pace with the cadence of the speaker.
I realized what I needed to do was top translating altogether — just listen to the words, pay attention and let them register, whether I understood them fully or not. How do kids learn their first language when they don’t have anything into which to translate it? They learn by listening and letting their brains make the connections naturally. They don’t interfere by translating it into a middleman (so to speak) lanaguage.
Why am I writing this in my Real Man Sports substack and not chrisliss.substack.com? Because as I was walking back from the track today, it dawned on me that I made this exact analogy 13 years ago when we did the Cardrunner’s League. The Cardrunner’s League was a mix of fantasy sports guys like me and Jeff Erickson, some professional poker players and some Wall Street quants. It was high-stakes (I think $4K to buy in, but if I recall correctly they let us relatively poor fantasy guys in for half price.)
Attached to the league was a forum where we’d debate issues and fantasy baseball philosophies, and I got into a beef with one of the Wall St. guys (Bill Phipps), specifically over I can’t remember what, but it probably had something to do with him thinking he knew more than us about our own domain, me taking exception to that and having a bias against Wall Street guys generally after our government had recently bailed out so many banks. (I tried to find a link to the forum, while writing this, but it looks like it’s gone.) To be fair, I was probably overly sensitive and might not have given him a fair shake, though perhaps he was overly arrogant about it too — without looking at the posts, I can’t say for sure, either way — but it did generate some thoughtful content about what’s important in drafting and prepping for drafts.
And wouldn’t you know (I had forgotten) the post I wrote on this was called “Lost in Translation” too! One point Phipps was making, if I recall correctly, was that the quants had an advantage because due to their specific training and line of work, they could build better models than we could, and as such, more accurately value what a 20-100-90-8-.285 season were worth, compared to a 35-115-89-.234-2 one in the context of the 2010 league environment.
The essence of my rebuttal was this:
Speaking for myself, I have no preconceived dollar values in mind, haven't usually made up my mind when to stop bidding on a player, and certainly don't have precise projections for any of them. I try to know the player pool deeply (from historical performance, to health to team context), use past experiences with pricing in the given format and adjust for market conditions on the fly. I translate player knowledge directly into bidding or keeping quiet based on all of these factors and skip the intermediate translation into projected numbers completely.
The argument against this is that surely I'm doing some kind of translation - I'm not just buying players at random. So I must have a sense of Derek Jeter's numbers before I pay $27 for him. That's true, but I think it misses the point. I don't speak French very well, so if I hear someone say something I can understand in French, I translate it to English first, and then I know what it means. But if I really learned to speak it, I would just hear the French, and *know* what it meant. Because I am not well versed, I must include an inefficient translation step. I think the same thing applies in fantasy baseball.
If you know the players well enough, and you see what others are going for and know what similar players have gone for in the past, I believe you can translate facts directly into action. The facts plus the knowledge of the format and attention to the market as it's happening go directly into your ears the way a known language would. You don't have to translate it into the math first. (The only math I'm doing at auction involves my budget - never the players or their projections).
So you might argue that you've created a much better French to English translation program than me, and therefore you have the advantage in understanding the language, but then I tell you - "dude, I don't need one - I already speak French fluently!"
The idea is that while fantasy baseball is a game of numbers, the sport from which it’s derived is a game of players. It is those players, via their skills, who put up the numbers that help you win. But it’s hard to assess the players themselves (in their number-producing capacity), so many people translate that capacity to fictional projected numbers and draft those estimated seasons rather than the players themselves.
If you use a spread sheet with projected stats to order your rankings or guide your picks, you are not drafting Ronald Acuna. You are drafting whatever your projected stats for Acuna are with that pick. The player, Acuna, who could steal 80 bases or 20, hit 50 homers or 20, is gone. Replacing him is some expected-return stat line.
For most people this is necessary! They might know who Acuna is or even Corbin Carroll, but do they know who Rowdy Tellez is, or Chris Bassitt or Reid Detmers, apart from his ADP and projected stats? How are you going to know who to draft first, when to pull the trigger, without arranging these guys via projected stats (or looking at ADP which is heavily influenced by projected stats?)
But isn’t that what most of us used to do in the 1990s when we first started playing? We’d study the players themsleves, their numbers, their skills, their situations, their health, their histories, and we’d put them in a cheat sheet by hand! We were like kids, having to learn the language directly! We didn’t translate their skills into projections and their stats back into ranking order. Or maybe some people did even back then, but most of us — including me — had only a general sense of how many homers we’d get from Sammy Sosa or Mark McGwire (a lot if they stayed on the regimen!) And the truth is even now when our projection for a player’s homers is precise, we still only have the general sense that he will or won’t provide power.
The genie is out of the bottle, of course, and I doubt I’ll ever again put in the time to watch enough baseball, track what’s going on with the teams, ballpark, league and baseball itself to regain fluency in the language. It’s too easy to rely on projected stats, translate them into rankings (or let others do it for you) and just pick the players you like among them, but only after you’ve been irredeemably biased as to who has what value by those rankings and ADP. It’s too easy, and to go back and learn again from scratch would be too much of an effort.
It’s probably what will happen with languages too in the not-too-distant future wherein everyone will have access to a translation app, speak in whatever language they already know and the app will output the translated version to the recipient, obviating the need to be bilingual. And it’ll be good enough in most cases — just not as good as actually learning that language and conversing in it.