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Twitter has its pros and cons, but you can still learn from it if you know what to look for. That happened to me last week. Looking back, it wasn’t anything revolutionary, but the extremity of the conclusion surprised me. It started because I posted this:
If you just play redraft, this article is still going to be relevant, but I’m going to go over how it relates to Underdog’s Best Ball Mania II tournament first (so you can just skim the rest of the intro since it mostly pertains to best ball).
For the most part, I stand by that tweet, but I probably didn’t word it clearly enough. If I could rephrase, I’d try to convey that it’s optimal to maximize the number of teams you get out of the group stage, but there are still steps you should take to increase the probability of your team going off during the tournament phase. Adam Harstad (of Footballguys) used a hypothetical to demonstrate how expected value multiplies throughout the regular season and playoffs.
Anyone could tell you the playoffs are more important than the regular season. However, Harstad’s example illustrates just how quickly expected value increases come crunch time. If you want to dig deeper into it, he wrote an entire article on the subject.
And the top-heavy payout structure of best ball tournaments makes this even more important. This part I didn't fully process previously.
Week 15 is more valuable than Weeks 1-14 combined (6.6 EV multiplier vs. 6.0). And it only snowballs from there, with Week 17 featuring a ridiculous multiplier – which isn't surprising given the million-dollar prize up top.
It’s also really easy to take that mindset too far. Reaching for players based on their playoff schedule, stacking a particular Week 17 game, stuff like that – probably not worth it because we’re so bad at predicting events months in advance. It’s not useless, but it’s important not to give those data points too much weight.
However, there are certain steps we can take to make sure our teams are at their strongest come December. In particular, there's one group of players that should become more productive as the year progresses: rookies. Pat Kerrane recently wrote about why rookie WRs have league-winning upside in best ball leagues. It's a fantastic article that explains rooks have been undervalued over the last few seasons and pinpoints commonalities among the success stories.
Kerrane also touched on how rookie wideouts improve throughout the season. And that's the idea we're going to focus on today. If rookies (Pat talked about WRs, but we'll look at RBs too) are already good value in normal leagues, they must be incredibly undervalued in large-field tournaments and redraft leagues with playoffs because their expected value is at a maximum during the most important part of the season.
Rookies in Regular Best Ball Leagues
First, we have to establish that rookies are at least adequately valued in regular best ball leagues. Pat hit on this for WRs, noting that 18 rookie pass-catchers have finished top-20 at their position in best ball win rate over the last four years, the most of any age group. Even just looking at average win rate makes it abundantly clear these guys smashed over the last few seasons. Between 2018-20, rookie wideouts averaged a 9.4% win rate, while veterans won at an 8.1% clip. Considering the data Pat showed, we can probably say rookie WRs are undervalued even in regular best ball leagues – which would make them an unbelievable value in large-field tournaments and leagues with playoffs if we can prove rookie WR scoring improves throughout the season (more on that in a moment!).
Rookie RBs averaged an 8.5% win rate over the last three seasons. Vets were at 8.2%. It's not clear whether rookie runners are as much of a screaming value as WRs – and we don't have Pat to break everything down for us in an easy-to-understand manner – but we at least know that rookie RBs are fair value, if not undervalued. For the purpose of this article, that's all we need.
Does Rookie Production Increase Throughout the Season?
Remember, the thesis here is really simple. We know Weeks 15-17 carry outsized importance relative to the regular season in large-field tournaments and leagues with playoffs (probably to a greater extent than most fantasy players realize). We know rookies already provide good value in regular best ball leagues where all weeks are worth the same amount, especially at WR. With that in mind, in formats where the final few weeks are worth exponentially more, it tracks that rookies must be extremely undervalued if their production increases throughout the season.
Over the last three years, first-year RBs have seen a spike around midseason. Veteran backs have their ups and downs, but there's no clear increase like there is for rookies.
This is more apparent when looking at a linear model, which is what we'll mostly use the rest of the way for the sake of simplicity.
There's a definite uptick in points per game throughout the season. It's always nice when these things are intuitive because the relationship is more likely to be causal if we can explain the why. In other words, it makes sense that rookies aren't always productive from the get-go and instead have to earn more usage during the season. Because of that, we can be more confident there's actually some signal here rather than just variance over a three-year sample.
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We might only be seeing this effect because of late-round rookies, in which case it wouldn't apply to first-year players with an early ADP. It's difficult to say if this is the case for sure because there are only 37 players in the sample, but splitting them into two equal groups by ADP makes no difference. Anecdotally, the only four rookie RBs with an ADP within the first 48 picks – Saquon Barkley, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jonathan Taylor, and Josh Jacobs – were productive in Week 1. For someone like Najee Harris this season, we can probably be confident he'll be a workhorse right away, but even guys like Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams are likely to increase in production throughout the season. For reference, the ADP cutoff for the two groups was 117.3.
There was a much more robust sample size for veterans, so I split them into four groups. The main takeaway here is that categorizing by ADP doesn't make much of a difference, as all buckets had a fairly flat (or even slightly negative) slope.
At this point, it's safe to conclude rookie RBs are strong investments in large-field tournaments and leagues with playoffs because their expectation is at its peak when the games matter most. Let's see if it's the same for WRs.
Similar to RBs, rookie wideouts broadly experience a hike in production as the season progresses. On the other hand, veteran WRs experience a slight downtick.
This is clear from a linear model as well.
It's worth noting that this doesn't mean every first-year WR gets better as the year goes on. It probably just means rookies are more likely to experience a dramatic jump in production during the second half of the season. For example, look at AJ Brown's game log from 2019.
Interestingly, it's mostly late-round rookie WRs causing this effect. Unlike at RB, highly drafted rookie WRs usually don't walk into Week 1 as the alpha, so it's unclear why we're seeing this trend. The highest-ADP rookie over the last three years was CeeDee Lamb at 104.1, followed by Jerry Jeudy (104.5) and DK Metcalf (123.3). It doesn't make sense why their scoring would be stagnant, so I wonder whether that would change if we had a larger sample (three years and 38 players leaves room for noise). Especially since late-round WRs actually overtake the earlier group in Week 13 in the plot below, you have to think that would be different if we redid this exercise in 10 years with more data points.
As was the case with running backs, veteran WR production was either stable or slightly negative throughout the season after stratifying based on ADP.
Putting It All Together
The importance of the last few weeks is likely underestimated by the majority of fantasy players. This usually doesn't matter because there aren't that many ways to accurately maximize expected value in Weeks 15-17 when you're drafting in the summer; for example, trying to stack a Week 17 game is easier said than done because so much can change between now and then. However, it's now apparent that rookie RBs and WRs experience an uptick in scoring as the year progresses. Considering they are already at least adequate value in regular best ball leagues – where all weeks are worth the same amount – they become even more appealing in large-field tournaments and leagues with playoffs because they will be at their best during the most important part of the season.