What are the odds of finishing in the money after a slow start?

Over the past week, I have been asked that question twice. “What are the odds of finishing in the money after a slow start? I recall you mentioning the odds in an article at one point, and they weren’t real good.”

No, the odds are not good. But this seems like a good time to re-post an excerpt of the article I wrote back in 2013:

Of the teams that will eventually go on to win their full-season league, 80% of them will finish the month of April in 1st, 2nd, 3rd or 4th place. Expressed otherwise, 80% percent of the time, a league’s eventual winner will already be sitting in a money spot after one month.

This research is from a 2003 article by Scott Wilderman (who now runs OnRoto.com) and Matt Watson in the now-defunct Sports Weekly Fantasy Hot Sheet entitled, “Do I Still Have a Chance? Recovering from a Slow Start.” Within the piece is a table labeled, “% of time eventual winner was in each actual standings place.” Using their commissioner service archives, it charted where the league winners were in the standings on the 1st and 15th of each month during the season.

And they showed that, on average, your league’s eventual winner will already be in a money spot after one month 80% of the time.

A few weeks ago, I received the following email from one of my monthly league participants:

“I have been wondering about your 1-month statistics about winners. I wonder what it would be for two months. The reason I ask is that I also believe one month is too short. It seems that three 2-month leagues per year might be a good compromise. It seems that, in the leagues I was involved in this year, there was a very strong team that emerged after two months.”

Intuitively, the two month time period has always made sense to me too. In fact, I wrote a piece a few years ago that proposed that the major league season (and hence, the fantasy season) should be split into 50-game chunks. We’d take one week off in between each period that would be dedicated to intense analysis (similar to pre-Super Bowl week) and conducting new fantasy drafts.

Fifty games was a time period that made sense to me. As it turns out, after one month those extra games don’t have as much impact as you might think. Here are the stats for the entire season, by month:

          % eventual winner
ON DATE   is in top 4 spots
=======   =================
May 1         80%
June 1        88%
July 1        89%
Aug 1         98%
Sept 1        99.9%

The incremental improvement month-to-month after April is tiny, relatively speaking. A good portion of the season is already determined after one month.

In fact, this phenomenon mostly holds even if we look only at the top two spots in the standings:

          % eventual winner
ON DATE   is in top 2 spots
=======   =================
May 1         60%
June 1        64%
July 1        78%
Aug 1         85%
Sept 1        94%

To reinforce the dramatic implications of these results, let’s flip the analysis and look at how tough it is to come back from a bad start. Here are your odds of winning your league if you are in the bottom third of the standings at the beginning of each month:

          % chance of winning
ON DATE   if in bottom third
=======   ==================
May 1           9%
June 1          5%
July 1          3%
Aug 1       Less than 1%
Sept 1      Football time

Over the years, I’ve heard about and experienced many anecdotal incidences of teams coming back from huge deficits to take league titles. Admittedly, these are isolated outliers. You always remember the one team that storms back. That’s the guy who gets an article written about him. That’s the story we tell to our grandkids.

Nobody remembers the other half dozen stragglers in the same league that failed.

11 thoughts on “What are the odds of finishing in the money after a slow start?

  1. martin mcgrath

    yes, I totally believe that kind of info to be accurate. and of course, that presents a problem if it is a redraft league.

    i am a commish of only one league…but we actually have a lot of the money won in the playoffs. and for years we allow the top 8 to be in the playoffs.

    this year someone complained that they did not think it was right to let people with less than .500 to be in the playoffs, so after a discussion, I agreed to change the constitution to read top 6 in the playoff, the bottom 6 have a consolation playoff.

    i am sure there are a lot of good replies to why this isn’t all right, but as far as the commish is concerned, I want as many people having fun, and keeping interest for as many as possible.

    a couple of years back, we had a guy fight hard from 12th place to make 8th place, and he ended up winning first place in the playoffs. he was a very good player, just a lot of early bad luck.

    some were not happy, but I basically told them if they really want to gamble try another league. this league is set up to keep interest and fun for everyone, and it has lasted for years. none of the early complainers have ever left this league.


    1. shandler Post author

      I agree with you. Whenever you have playoffs, there is always a chance that a low seed will win, and that’s okay. It’s more important to keep people engaged and that’s a way to do it (frankly, even if it means letting a sub-.500 team in). You can always split the pot – half to the regular season winner, half to the playoff winner.

      1. martin mcgrath

        this year 2012016 8 teams make the playoffs.
        payoff below
        75 to join
        150 to league first place team regular season
        450 to playoff winner
        225 to playoff second place
        75 to playoff third place

        next year 2017
        100 join

        200 winner of reg season

        top 6 in playoff
        500 winner of playoff
        300 2nd in the playoff
        100 3rd in playoff

        bottom 6 in consolatiion
        100 winner of consolation.

        noone has quit other than they just did not have the time to play.


  2. Andrew

    Speaking of slow starts (sorry BABS… you let me down in a big way in my 10-team NL-only 5×5 league with suspensions to Dee Gordon and Hector Olivera and injuries to Lucas Duda and Tyson Ross), it’s time to think about next year.

    My question for BABS (still sticking with you even after a rough beginning) is how does she handle potential keepers for next season? For instance, I can acquire Trevor Story ($10) and Adam Duval ($2) who are outperforming their salaries and their initial BABS ratings but haven’t shown the ability to do it over a full season at the major league level, or alternatively, do I go after even more unproven, but more highly touted, prospects such as Trea Turner ($8) and Julio Urias ($2)?

    Time to start making things right again BABS. What say you?

    1. shandler Post author

      You can’t fault BABS for Gordon, Olivera, Duda or Ross. You can’t predict injuries or suspensions, and Olivera had EX risk. As for your keeper question, more experience is always better, but until ANY of these players has 2 years under their belt, they will come with risk.

      1. Andrew

        Not faulting BABS. More bad luck than anything else. Just venting!

        Prospects are a craps shoot. Even the most highly regarded prospects can struggle — see, e.g., Urias. Rhe strategy at this point is to acquire as many as possible and see who rises to the top while taking them off of other rosters to lower next year’s draft inflation.

        Thanks for your response.

  3. Perry Van Hook

    Ron – In those standings snapshots is there any reference to the type of leagues they are measuring? While I think the ranges are somewhat valid that may only be for redraft, non-trading leagues – changing either element would IMO change the figures on winning teams.

    1. shandler Post author

      The original research did not make any distinction about the type of league. We can make an education assumption that it included mostly redraft leagues, and mostly trading leagues, as those were the more prevalent formats in 2002.

  4. Richard J. Murphy

    My keeper league (now in its 29th season) added trading of next season’s draft picks to the equation many seasons back, and I do believe that it has bought time and stretched-out efforts by teams that ordinarily would’ve packed it in, to at least another month or so simply by swinging a pick-enriched deal or two.

    Right now we’re down to nine owners, but the cash prizes are still worth the grind, as we pay from 1st down to 4th place. We discourage “dumping”, but have found that adding picks to the trading process has definitely encouraged owners to hang in for periods of time that ordinarily would have seen them pack it in and quietly sit out the balance of the season. Slow starts are inevitable, but the odds of being buried and having no shot of competing for a $ slot are mitigated by trades with picks that offer a greater opportunity for one party to benefit in the near term, while the other loads up for the following season’s draft.

  5. Jack Kohler

    Our league eliminated dumping trades 15 years ago or more and every year it is a dog fight down to the wire, with most of the teams in the hunt on September 1. Before that, a slow start was a self fulfilling prophesy.

  6. tcmitssr

    If anyone in the league’s above has an opening for next season, please consider this my application! All,of you have the type of leagues that I would enjoy competing and making new fantasy friends in. Thanks!

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