Sep 1,2014

Preseason Spotlight: Shawn Siegele has zero problem being a contrarian

In mere days the 2014 regular season will be underway and fantasy lineups will be officially set. From what I’ve observed in draft rooms, a lot of squads will be stacked at receiver and perhaps a bit thin at running back. Part of this is due to the Zero RB theory, which is one of the most popular and polarizing draft strategies currently being both discussed and employed.

Shawn Siegele, who appropriately refers to himself as the FF Contrarian, devised this new approach to drafting. In order to receive more clarity on the theory and the man, I asked Shawn for his digits and dialed him up. After a thirty minute conversation – that covered everything from Kyle Rudolph to The Fault in Our Stars – I knew I had to share his incredible intellect and passion with my readers. A person as generous as he is genius, Shawn let me pick his brain about the below topics.

Before we start getting all metaphysical can you please explain Zero RB theory?

Zero RB is a method of abstaining at the running back position in order to build a powerful lineup at the other positions, especially at wide receiver. It relies on misconceptions about positional value and the fragility of specific player projections to create rosters that get stronger as the season progresses – the very time most opponent rosters are getting weaker.

Having played in hundreds of fantasy leagues did your theory evolve over time or come to you in a big bang moment?

I began playing high stakes because it looked like systematic flaws in the way players were evaluated would make it possible to consistently win. In the beginning my approach was still based on the tenets of value-based drafting, just with different notions of replacement baselines. I’ve experimented with RB-heavy strategies and less aggressive WR-heavy approaches like upside-down drafting, and, at least for me, they resulted in a lower win rate than my Zero RB squads (those approaches may work very well for other drafters or in standard formats). It wasn’t until a couple of years ago when I moved away from concrete projections and toward similarity score type evaluations that I began to think of it purely in terms of contingency-based drafting. Of course, the advent of RotoViz made it much easier to work with Sim Scores and similar methods.

Julio making plays for the Falcons and dough for Shawn

When you find yourself with one of the first three picks of a draft how do you find the resolve to resist snatching up Jamaal Charles? Or would that situation be an exception to your theory? Are you ALWAYS going to draft an elite WR or TE no matter your draft position?

It depends on the season. Last year was the first time since the peaks for Priest Holmes and LaDainian Tomlinson that I thought a RB might be a big enough fantasy weapon to justify drafting in the same range as the top WRs. I probably just got lucky, but I thought that player was Jamaal Charles, not Adrian Peterson. On the other hand, Zero RB teams make up most of my playoffs teams from the last several years. I’m not overly concerned with ADP even at the very beginning of drafts. I selected Julio Jones No. 2 overall in a $1,500, 14-team league two years ago.

Zero RB theory is currently the hottest trend in fantasy drafting. How does that make you feel?

I like that it’s resonated with readers, that it offers a compelling defense for what many drafters probably feel to be true in their bones but may have been convinced wasn’t a mathematically viable approach. Ideally, it will become a league-winning idea for its adherents and not become so popular that some of the value is lost.

How do you defend your theory to the naysayers? Does your record speak to it?

I love that there’s honest dissent and discussion. I’m very comfortable with Zero RB personally because of the success I’ve had with it in my own leagues, but readers need to be able to look at it and become comfortable with it on the merits, not as a part of some appeal to authority. If Zero RB becomes a permanent part of the fantasy landscape, it will be because of the inherent strength of the concept.

Who are some of your fantasy heroes? Which analysts do you trust the most?

A lot of credit should go to the trailblazers in the high stakes business, both the players and the handful of honest game providers. I’d love to overtake Chad Schroeder for first place in NFFC career earnings (of course, that would still leave me hundreds of thousands of dollars back overall as Chad has dominated the other major contests as well).

In terms of analysis, I’m always shocked at just how much groundbreaking material is being created by Frank DuPont and Mike Clay, the men behind RotoViz and PFF Fantasy respectively. I also think Jonathan Bales is really developing the field with his RotoAcademy, and you can’t help liking a guy like Denny Carter who turns out some of the top books about fantasy football and yet is perhaps best known for being a zombie enthusiast.

What was the inspiration behind Money in the Banana Stand? What kind of readers are you hoping to attract?

Ideally, the Banana Stand is a place where ideas from different genres – sports, economics, psychology, literature – can collide and overlap and inform each other. I generally conceive of the Banana Stand as being more free form than some of the other places I contribute, but the underlying theory of the site is still Content with Content.

You’re an avid reader. What’s currently on your nightstand?

I just finished Alena Graedon’s extraordinary debut novel, The Word Exchange. I’m currently reading Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. On a slightly separate note, The Art of Fielding is not only the best sports book I’ve ever read but one of the best overall.

If you could make a living doing anything outside of sports what would it be?

Fantasy football was supposed to be only a small diversion on my way to becoming a best-selling novelist, so I guess that would be my personal best case scenario. Assuming multiple universes exist, I hope there’s one in which I’m doing just about everything.

If you could have 10 minutes of face time with anyone – living or dead – who would it be and why?

I’d love to have 10 minutes with Kurt Vonnegut or David Deutsch, the physicist who developed the theory behind quantum computing. The most compelling sports figure right now is probably Chip Kelly. I’d love to get his take on a few things, and my guess is he’d go up tempo and expound upon quite a few topics before the 10 minutes expired.

How do you see fantasy sports evolving? Any thoughts on what could be the next big thing?

Ideas about fantasy and reality football are a lot like ideas in business, government, education, etc. Most of us have a personal Theory of Everything, and we advocate that theory regardless of how well it fits reality. With the explosion of fantasy content, we’ve reached a point where these ideas are going to come into conflict and clear winners will emerge. A lot of our ideas about player evaluation are still rooted in myth and spurious appeals to authority. These shrines are about to be toppled. It’s just not possible for an evidence-based approach to be ignored for much longer.

But that doesn’t mean it will become merely a game for bean counters. You can see that when you look at the tension between Zero RB and VBD. One of the arguments lobbed at the analytics crowd is a lack of creativity – a silly claim just on its face. Both the scouting approach and the box score approach require creativity to go anywhere interesting. But the starting point does matter. You end up in very different places depending on how information-rich or information-poor the beginning.

Shawn Siegele is a writer for RotoViz and PFF Fantasy. He also owns and operates Money In the Banana Stand. For more information follow Shawn on Twitter.