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Friday, March 7, 2014

An Interview with Larry Schechter

A couple of days ago I promised something special for you, Brainiacs.  Today I had the pleasure of speaking to the greatest fantasy baseball player on the planet: Larry Schechter.  Below is how it went down:

Brain:  Hi Larry!  Thanks for joining us for this interview.  Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background... How did you get started in fantasy baseball?

Larry:  Well, way back in 1990 I was driving around one day and heard about something called "World of Sports."  So, I joined and I was hooked.  I then learned about CDM Sports Diamond Challenge, which was affiliated with The Sporting News.  Along the way I was invited to join LABR, and Tout Wars, as well as the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC).  I've been playing in those leagues for about 9 years now, and well over 20 years all told.

Brain:  When you first started, were there any early challenges or struggles or anything you had to learn the hard way?

Larry:  In general, I started off pretty well from the beginning.  What I do know though is that I learned a lot from writing this book.  As I went through talking about all of the things I do I had to explain the validity of each and to do some research into things I didn't know as well.  In doing that research, I was able to realize that some of the things I have been doing are not actually based in fact... I said to myself, "I'm such an idiot."

Brain:  So, just in the process of writing the book you were teaching yourself?

Larry:  Yes, especially on those couple of things that turned out to not be good.  For example, for many years I used a valuation formula that really over-valued a few things like the ERA and WHIP of pitchers that threw a lot of innings.  Back when I first started with LABR and Tout Wars I would go in thinking that someone like Johan Santana was worth something like $45.  I knew that other people would only go to $35, so if I could get him for $35 I would think it was a great deal.  It turns out that it may have been an okay deal but not the bargain I thought I was getting.

Brain:  Break that down for me a bit... How do you formulate these valuations?

Larry:  Commonly used valuations include "Standing Gains Points" which is meant to show you how much a particular player will help you gain points in your standings, and that is really the ultimate goal to win your league.  So for example, it might take five home runs to go from six points to seven points and then another five homers to get to eight points.  Another common one is "Percentage Value Method" where, say, Michael Bourn might steal 50 bases for you and if the total for the league is 1,000 then Bourn will get 5% of that total for you.  There are others that look at standard deviations or replacement level, things like that.  What you want to do is to have an intelligently done value formula for the format in which you are playing, because a lot of people just don't do that.  They may think that Trout is the top player and then Cabrera and maybe after that is McCutcheon and Goldschmidt, but they don't really know how much more Trout is worth than those other guys.  I like to be exact.

Brain:  It's all about getting little edges here and there that amount to a big edge, and the only way to do that is to prepare well because the draft happens quickly, wouldn't you say?

Larry:  Well, yeah, but the key is to prepare smartly.  I've thought about how to prepare for each type of format.  Some principles remain the same, but some will change depending on the format. It's all about coming out with a superior team.  If every team is supposed to have $260 value, I've figured out how to come out with $300 or even $310 value.  If you are using flawed ideas, you can prepare all you want but those flawed ideas will create problems.

Brain:  If you manage to get $300 there are other teams in the league with values of $250, $240, or less.  How do you know that your team really is the one that got the best value?

Larry:  Well, everyone should think they have the best team.  If you don't think you have the best team, something's really wrong.  You should like the guys you took, but even if you project $280 in value chances are... unless your projections are definitely better than everyone else's... chances are that you're really just average.  For example, I just completed the LABR draft and came out with $330 in value.  Now, obviously not everyone will agree with that, but at that level most people would probably agree that Larry's team is pretty good.

Brain:  But how do you pull that off??

Larry:  Well, yeah, that's the second part of the answer...  I don't make ridiculous projections.  It's all about getting the most value at every level of the draft.  There are times when people do things that are the opposite.  I mean, if a player is worth $20 and you get him for $15, that's a good deal.  At $25, that's a bad deal.  Any fifth grader can figure that out.  But people fall into all sorts of things like position scarcity, or paying more for a star, or the belief that you've got to get in on, say, the top five third basemen since the value really drops off...

Brain:  Yes, and if the top five third basemen are really worth dramatically more then it should be reflecting in the valuation, right?

Larry:  Yeah.  If you get a $25 outfielder and a $1 third baseman that's no different than a $1 outfielder and a $25 third baseman.  It's the same thing, but the problem is that a lot of people think they have to spend more on a third baseman.  They say that they are willing to go to $28 for the $25 third baseman, but they're just losing money.

Brain:  I've hear people on podcasts or websites say that they got a good deal on one or two players so they can just put those savings to use in order to over-pay for another player.  That's crazy, right?

Larry:  Well, yeah.  It's just like what I write about in the book, I heard one of the competitors in one of my experts leagues say the same thing.  If you waste your savings by over-paying elsewhere you'll be even, you'll have $260 in value, and you'll be in the middle of the pack.

Brain:  Now, there is something to be said for reliability and predictability, right?  In other words, a $30 player has a higher floor and greater predictability than a $10 player that could deliver anywhere from $1 to $20 in value.  Is there truth in that?

Larry:  That's probably true.  But everything like that you are accounting for in your projections.  If a guy has been in the league for five years you know what you are getting.  But a guy like Jose Abreu or Masahiro Tanaka, it is really hard to know what they will do.  How much better would Tanaka be as a Dodger in that stadium than in Yankee Stadium?  You don't know.  You've got to take your best guess and make your valuation.  It's certainly a lot easier to look at someone like Dustin Pedroia and figure out what they will do.  Personally, I probably won't end up with Abreu or Tanaka because there will usually be someone who values them more than I do.

Brain:  Okay, just a few more questions... From a tactical perspective, is there a habit or process that you use daily or weekly that contributes to your success?

Larry:  It's all about value, knowing specific value for each player.  Doing everything at every step to get values and bargains... at every step along the way.  Like in a snake draft it's similar but a little different, where you aren't buying a $30 player for $25 but you still need to know what the values are so you can make the right combination of choices along the way... thinking about things like position scarcity, but that is something that really only applies to catchers.  So, in a snake draft you've got to make the determination about when do you take the $15 catcher instead of the $18 second baseman.  When is that point?  For other positions, there is rarely any real scarcity and if there is it is just as likely to be in the outfield or at third base than in the middle infield.  Another thing I'll do is to compare my valuations to others.  If I think a guy is worth $20 and most other sites and magazines think he's maybe $15 or so then I will identify that player as a target.  If he is bid up to $19 I may actually pass.  In a snake draft you can use ADP to help you find these targets.  If I identify someone as a 3rd rounder but everyone else seems to think 5th round, he is probably a great target.  And, I can combine that with the players that are available earlier.  For example, I may be looking at Adrian Beltre in round two, but if I have some targeted players in later rounds who are third basemen I may opt for a similarly valued player in round two that plays another position.

Brain:  Let me ask you about managing your team in-season, too.  Obviously, the draft is the bigger impact on your season but what percentage would you say is draft versus in-season and how do you go about managing your team throughout the year?

Larry:  I couldn't put an exact number on it, but obviously the draft or auction is the bigger key.  If you start out with a superior team you'll be in good shape.  As far as in-season management, maybe some years it's 10% and some it is 30%, not sure, but again it's all about the value.  When you are making weekly lineup decisions, most of your choices are obvious.  There are some decisions where you have to seriously examine the likely value.  For example, if one of your starting pitchers has a matchup against Justin Verlander then his chance at a win will be reduced so maybe another choice is a better value.  Things like that.  And with trades, it's not a question of what has the player done so far.  You're trying to get greater value for the remainder of the season.

Brain:  Yeah, the best trades are when you sell high on a guy that is playing over his head and you can buy low on a star that is just starting to heat up, right?

Larry:  Typically, yeah.  Every situation is different though, and if a guy is exceeding expectations you have to determine how likely that is to continue.  Is he going to tail off?  So often, people look at situations like this and vaguely assess them.  I like to be specific and put exact valuations on things.

Brain:  If you could talk to someone just starting in fantasy baseball, what would be the top piece of strategy or maybe the top two things that you would tell them?

Larry:  Obviously, I'd say read the book.  It goes for any level of player from beginning to expert.  One of my goals was to have a book that anyone could pick up, any beginner could pick it up and know what to do.  A lot of people that have read the book have said exactly that, and that they have never seen anything like it.  Some other people have said that beginners have to learn as they go and they can't start out really good, but I don't believe that.  I think that, if you put in some effort and if you know baseball and if you have some sort of understanding of math and logic, then you can read this book and do really well right from the beginning.  Other than that, there are a lot of great resources on the internet from or places where you can get player updates and information that can help you.

Brain:  I completely agree... The book is a tremendous resource for all players, including newcomers.  It's a similar thought to why I started There are tons of places where you can go for player information like rankings, projections, sleepers, and busts but not a lot of places that will actually help you to learn to play the game.  A resource like your book will actually help people to learn a framework of thinking that they can flesh out with statistics and projections.

Larry:  The book is not the same old garbage that you read out there.  A lot of what has been written about fantasy baseball is good, but a lot is garbage.  I've had a lot of book reviews saying that it wasn't the same nonsense you get elsewhere... You get useful information right off the bat.  It's all meat and potatoes.  I'm proud of that.

Brain:  As we wrap up, please let us know how can we follow you, how can we find the book... And then we'll say goodbye.

Larry:  Sure.  I'm @LarrySchechter on Twitter, you can follow me there.  I've got a website with information about the book, including reviews:  The book is on Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, on iTunes and at a lot of local bookstores as well.  Also, in Canada, by the way.

Brain:  Thank you for doing this, Larry!  The book is an amazing resource and highly recommended to everyone interested in fantasy baseball.  Read this book, Brainiacs!!

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