Tacit knowledge and fantasy football

A pitch for why you should subscribe to Stealing Signals

I got a question on my recent premium post titled Something I’m calling “situation regression” that made me think a bit about the value I try to add here. And I’m pretty terrible at the marketing side of things, which I think is evident as I talk through plans and try to plug podcasts and those things, but I think I have a decent way to summarize what the value in subscribing is. The comment on that post included this question:

My apologies if this is common knowledge to your long time subscribers…but how are you able to identify specific players where “situation regression” jumps off the paper compared to other players?

This is a very natural question, and I — and every fantasy analyst — get many forms of it. Fantasy football is a hobby for nearly everyone who plays it, and naturally people only have so much time to devote to it, so the goal is something that simplifies the time it takes to figure out which player to select. Maybe it’s wanting rankings, or sleepers, or some type of list of player targets.

I’m going to give you guys all those things, the conclusions I’ve drawn from my research that simplify things. But those aren’t the value add here — anyone can write a list of their favorite players without explanation or consideration for things like cost to acquire.

Last October, Jonathan Bales in a post on his Lucky Maverick Substack touched on a concept he referred to as tacit knowledge and linked to a separate piece written by Cedric Chin titled “Why Tacit Knowledge is More Important Than Deliberate Practice” that I more or less haven’t stopped thinking about since. I’ve been struck by how applicable the concept is to fantasy football.

If you’re not familiar with the word “tacit,” and to be honest for me it was totally one of those words I’d heard a million times but extremely ironically couldn’t quite define, it literally means “understood or implied without being stated.” Tacit knowledge is, more or less, something you know but can’t explain.

Chin’s post is fantastic, one of the best things I’ve read in the past year. But it’s this passage that stuck with me most:

People with expertise in any sufficiently complicated domain will always explain their expertise with things like: “Well, do X. Except when you see Y, then do Z, because A. And if you see B, then do P. But if you see A and C but not B, then do Q, because reason D. And then there are weird situations where you do Z but then see thing C emerge, then you should switch to Q.”

And if you push further, eventually they might say “Ahh, it just feels right. Do it long enough and it’ll feel right to you too.”

Chin then says he eventually realized the way to learn the techniques he was after was to copy that expert, and that he also realized “if you ever hear someone explaining things in terms of a long list of caveats, the odds are good that you’re looking at tacit knowledge in action.”

One of my favorite things about this switch to doing content through a newsletter is the more informal feel, both in my writing and in that it’s seemingly empowered you guys to reach out to me more. And one of the very cool things I keep hearing and enjoying is that I’m making you better. I don’t much care about whether I was right about A.J. Brown or Stefon Diggs or Jonathan Taylor or any of these guys last year specifically; I do very much care that so many of you have written me messages that you really understand fantasy football better specifically because you’ve been reading stuff here.

I think that’s probably because my approach is and has always been right in line with this concept of tacit knowledge. I can’t always explain why I’m on a guy, but damned if I won’t try. If the real reason is A and C are present, so I’m doing B, but that if F was also present I’d instead do E, then I’m going to say all of that. That doesn’t make me an expert, and that’s one thing from the above quote I feel uneasy about attributing to my own process, but it does explain why I’m thinking the way I am, and give you the choice to agree or disagree with it.

Basically all of the best fantasy analysts approach things exactly this way, too. To get back to the initial question from the comment section, there is no easy way to identify why I’m doing what I’m doing. My buddy Rich Hribar sometimes uses this analogy of a tool belt, where we have lots of tools at our disposal, and often we’re adding more. It’s somewhat hilarious to read the above passage from Chin that starts with “…in any sufficiently complicated domain…” and think it applies to fantasy football, because I’ve definitely read Twitter replies before that say, in no uncertain terms, “Get over yourself, this is fantasy football, not rocket science.” And as far as Twitter shots go, that one is hilariously accurate.

But it is a highly competitive domain, right? There are a ton of people playing, and a ton of people analyzing, and that means Wisdom Of The Crowds is a huge element, because Average Draft Positions reflect the collective opinions of tons and tons of people who are all looking at either the same things or at least very similar ones. The market adjusts to changing trends and the game changes; if someone can’t explain their reasoning behind a play beyond something very superficial probably already captured in ADP, it’s likely they will not be long-term better than the WOTC element that ADP provides us. This ties in with a concept that I always play around with in my head and may have mentioned before — a whole lot of fantasy analysis is just realizing trends after it’s too late. It’s not helpful to tell you that a good player the market is already buying into is good; at that point we need to know whether he’s worth the cost to acquire in our leagues.

So like I said, I will provide the rankings and the easy answers if that’s what you’re looking for. But I will also write about every situation, every week, so that I’m challenging myself to explain the reasoning behind my opinions — from detailing the specific points I think matter for an individual player all the way to extremely broad thoughts about how to be adjusting to changing macro trends. Sometimes that process changes my mind! And I’ll be honest about that, too. Regardless, the result is a lot of content — and I know for some it becomes too much — but it’s all there for you to not only understand but also copy if you desire. Ideally, much like the example Chin gave, you’d start to learn my process through the consistent repetition of real-world examples, such that the answer to the question at the beginning of this post would be clearer. And that’s in part why I keep referencing the many thoughtful responses I get from my readers, because they all seem to say something along those lines. It’s funny, there are people I am close with who I know used to consume my content religiously that don’t even read it as much anymore. I know it’s a lot! But more importantly, they already know what I’m going to say. It’s really a terrible business plan, because it’s both inefficient for me to be writing as much as I am relative to just giving you names to draft, and that latter option that is the route many analysts go also keeps a reader coming back in perpetuity for This Year’s Breakout Player that only that one expert can provide, while I’m instead graduating people out of my content.

But that’s not entirely fair, either. One other thing I will add as a huge badge of honor is I’m lucky enough to count dozens and dozens of other content producers as readers and subscribers here, as well as high stakes players both in the seasonal and DFS spaces. I’ve talked with many of them, and it’s very cool to hear the same sorts of responses I hear from people who describe themselves more on the novice side of the equation. To quote one of my all-time favorite emails, “You meet others at their level of understanding.” That’s the ultimate compliment in my book, and look, if you’re a long-time reader it’s no secret I considered leaving the fantasy industry entirely over the past few years, but this idea that my work could influence even who I consider the most knowledgeable people in this field is obviously alluring. It may not be rocket science, and there are far, far more pressing things in this world, but there’s no denying my stupid brain is passionate about this stupid sport.

So that’s the pitch. Tacit knowledge, and something about rocket science and my stupid brain. It’s why I’m doing an offseason version of Stealing Signals, which I kicked off with the AFC South and NFC South, so you can read through how I’m considering every situation in the entire league and decide on your own whether my analysis holds water. I mistakenly only sent that email out to premium subscribers initially, but if you’re on the free plan, you can click the link and should be able to read it in its entirety. I’ll have the other divisions for premium subscribers in the next week or two, as well as the other content I laid out when detailing my August plans for this newsletter here and also a few fun surprises I have on top of those plans. Looking forward to another great year with you all.