Brackets, Underdogs, and the Value of Information

It’s that time of year.

If you haven’t filled out an NCAA bracket yet, stop reading this and do it now. Peer pressure! (or something…)

Anyway, I filled out mine a couple of days ago.

I don’t know much about NCAA basketball. My dad went to grad school at UNC during the Jordan years, so he follows them, so I tend to have a rudimentary knowledge of UNC and Duke, and that’s about it.

Still, when it comes time to fill out my bracket, I do my research. Whatever inside me that drives me to know about over 1,000 minor leaguers at a time also won’t let me just fill out a bracket on pure “gut feel” (which, since I don’t know anything other than that UNC and my own school, JMU, are poor this year, isn’t too much of a “gut feel,” is it? It’s more like “Oooh, this school has a cool name!”).

So, while my friends filled out their brackets in under ten minutes (and most of them know less about NCAA basketball than I do), I spent two to three hours poring over scouting reports and looking at stats, trying to figure out how the matchups play out.

I do this every year, and without fail, my well-researched brackets perform much more poorly than my friends’ slapped-together ones.

It would be intuitive to think that someone with more information would be able to make predictions better than someone with less information, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.

I’m sure a lot of you can relate to this with March Madness. It also applies in fantasy sports; you’d think I’d be good at fantasy baseball, but I’m not.

The downside to being loaded with information for brackets and fantasy sports is that everything starts to invert itself.

Seriously, read a scouting report of the first-round Syracuse-Vermont game. After a while, you start to look at Syracuse’s weaknesses and they look very fallible. Vermont’s strengths, if you read them enough, will start to make the team look underrated.

And then you’re thinking “You know, I think Vermont has a real chance of pulling this off.”

Now, I had the sense to not pick Vermont (watch, they’ll win now), but I had to fight the urge to pick underdogs on 80% of the games. I was entranced by 15-seed Morgan State, as they have a player who scores 22 points per game, and literally had to wipe that from my mind and pick West Virginia.

Even with all my mental powers trying to keep me somewhat within the realm of possibility, I still picked nine upsets: two 9’s (Northern Iowa and Wake Forest), three 10’s (Florida, Missouri, and St. Mary’s), two 12’s (UTEP and Cornell), and two 13’s (Murray State and Siena).

The same things happen to me with analysis sometimes. There’s nothing like latching onto some obscure minor leaguer, predicting he’ll rise up to major league stardom (or, at least, major league solid-dom), and being right. I’ve got quite a few guys like that.

The flip side of this is that we trivialize how difficult it is to actually be a quality MLB baseball player, just like we can trivialize how difficult it is for a 15 seed to beat a 2 seed. Go back and read a list of say, the top 50 prospects from a pre-2008 year. All the reports are going to be littered with positive attributes, and yet, many of the players just didn’t make it.

Yesterday, I wrote a fairly superficial piece saying Cory Luebke, a near-consensus top-10 prospect for the Padres, isn’t likely to be more than an extra arm in the majors. That might seem harsh (and maybe it is; I’ve been wrong before), but the odds of any top-10 prospect reaching the majors are lower than you think. Just look at Matt Antonelli and Kellen Kulbacki for recent examples.

Every so often, I see amateur prospects guys on the Internet, posting how great their team is going to be in four years because all the team’s prospects are going to come up to the bigs. These sorts of depth charts are ridiculous–if even a third of a team’s top 30 prospects make it to the majors for a significant amount of time, that’s huge.

I’d be shocked if the Padres ever have Simon Castro, Jaff Decker, James Darnell, Logan Forsythe, and Donavan Tate all wind up becoming good major leaguers. There’s simply too many things that can go wrong with each one for that to have a high chance of occurring.

So yes, major league players, just like top NCAA basketball teams, have flaws. Prospects, just like lower seeds, have some things going for them. But that doesn’t mean prospects and lower seeds are a better/safer bet. Sometimes, it’s important to disregard some of the finer information, step back, and just think historically. History will tell you that the underdogs often have a shot, but aren’t the favorites for a reason.

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