Welcome to the first in a series of interviews aimed to give readers some insight into the minds and backgrounds of those fantasy writers and pundits who have reached the level of “expert.” It seems there has been an explosion in the number of people claiming the title in the last few years, but no one seems to know where they come from. These interviews aim to change all that, while also giving aspiring “experts” (such as myself) some advice on both how to break into the industry and ways to improve your fantasy skills.
Our first guest is RC Rizza of Junkyard Jake, a terrific writer who has been involved in the fantasy industry since 1998.
In your opinion, what makes you a fantasy expert? (basically the polite way of asking – why should people listen to you?)
Well, first off, I think the term ‘fantasy expert’ is perhaps a bit of a specious term on par with ‘Grand Dungeon Master’ or ‘Federal Reserve Chairman’, but essentially, to be an ‘expert’ associated with anything requires acute interest supported by diligent research. As it relates to fantasy baseball, I think the most knowledgeable writers/commentators are really just rabid baseball fans with a keen eye for evaluating talent, the ability to absorb scouting information and a modicum of number crunching skills thrown in for good measure.
How many years have you been playing fantasy?
Since about 1994, which was when the hobby first started taking off, but technology had not advanced to the point where stats were computerized. Back in the day of course, statistics needed to be manually recorded by someone crazy enough to be the ‘commissioner’, unless he contracted this task out to Tibetan Monks.
How did you get your start?
The Junkyardjake website started as a modest project back in 1998. The idea was to provide some of the empirical fantasy football projections and matchup information that was difficult to locate. For example, at the time, almost no one was providing specific information on how defensive teams defended specific offensive positions, so we created a report for that. Over the years we have added many more crazy reports, and the proliferation of crazy empirical reports on the internet has mushroomed. In 2005, we added fantasy baseball with future plans to anticipate the next popular fantasy segment (our research shows fantasy midget wrestling is a possibility). 🙂
What made you want to get into the fantasy industry?
As a statistician/econometrician, fantasy sports seemed to be a good way to use advanced numerical techniques for good and not evil. If not for fantasy sports, I may have joined a nefarious street gang that specialized in devising dangerous financial derivatives and credit default swaps.
As a statistician, are the players purely nameless, faceless number generators to you, or do you ever draft on hunches or because you like a guy?
Although the numbers are of course crucial, I think it’s a big mistake to evaluate players based on numbers alone. For one thing, character and work ethic are paramount considerations. Josh Hamilton is a great example of a player whose pedigree and early numbers suggested a successful career, but he chose the ‘Robert Downey Jr.’ career path, and didn’t become a real success until he devoted himself to the game. Another example for me in this regard is Randy Moss. Despite his potential for enormous numbers, I think he has questionable character, and I won’t draft him in fantasy football because he unpredictably vacillates between superstar and lazy punk.
Who is your favorite player?
What advice would you have specific for people who want to break into the industry?
Listen to your parents – stay in school and become an accountant. Just kidding, of course, school is overrated. Really, the advice for breaking into fantasy sports writing, is the same advice for any pursuit. There are no shortcuts, your success will be directly proportional to the effort you expend. Also, it is important to contemplate a marketing plan before you begin, specifically, it’s important to identify a unique ‘niche’ that you are attempting to fill, otherwise it’s difficult to surmount the clutter.
Do you enjoy fantasy sports more or less since you entered the industry (as opposed to when you just played them)?
A bad day for my fantasy sports teams still beats a great day at the office, even if the great day at the office also coincides with ‘Hawaiian shirt day’.
Do you enjoy sports more or less?
Before fantasy sports, I almost myopically followed my favorite New York area teams, the Mets, Jets, Knicks and Islanders. To the extent that fantasy sports has helped to broaden my interest to other teams and players, it has been a welcome distraction from some of the unspeakable horrors and devastating atrocities that my hometown teams are capable of. (i.e. the 2007 Mets historic collapse).
Where does the name “Junkyard Jake” come from?
The name ‘Junkyard Jake’ is a registered trademark that does not refer to a specific real person. The aesthetic features of the character were influenced by an eccentric character from some old Ren and Stimpy comic books. As far as what the fictional persona represents, according to my therapist, ‘Junkyard Jake’ is essentially a metaphor for a cyberplace where you can find unconventional, informal and mostly useful fantasy sports information along with some other assorted oddities banished from other websites.
Who is your single favorite fantasy writer at a site other than your own?
Well of course, Matthew Berry is terrific, and I’d probably get fined by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association if I did not mention him. I know you asked for one, but I also like the guys at Razzball for baseball, and ‘Snake’ from Pigskin Addiction for fantasy football.
What advice would you have for people who are playing in their first season?
The obvious guideline here is never listen to Jim Cramer from CNBC, his fantasy sports advice is worse than his stock market advice, if that is possible. But seriously, probably a good basic tool to use for any draft is a current ‘average draft position’ report, this will show the appropriate draft spot to select players. I would also check current injury reports and spring training stats, and of course make sure you are familiar with your leagues scoring system. Also, avoid going out to party with John Mayer the night before your draft, he is crazier than he looks.
In 2 sentences or less, what’s your Fantasy Baseball tip for 2009?
Pay attention to average draft position, and always try to select the player that represents the best value, regardless of position. Sabermetrics can be useful in moderation, but please don’t attempt to operate heavy machinery after reading a Bill James book.
What is your favorite fantasy sports memory?
My favorite fantasy baseball moment might have been in 2004, when I was in 2nd place in a NL Only league, heading into the last day of the season. Just for the heck of it, I picked up the Marlins AJ Burnett on Oct 2nd, and he happened to pitch 2 innings of 1 hit middle relief on Oct 3rd. Those 2 innings were enough to shave a nano-integer off my Whip number and allow me to win the league. It was the lead story in ‘Fantasy Baseball Turbo-Geek Journal’ the next day. 🙂
Have you ever told that story to someone either not involved in fantasy sports or someone just getting started? How did the react?
No, I can’t recall mentioning this exhilarating victory to someone outside the fantasy sports cult, but I can tell you that the general reaction from many of the other members of the aforementioned league was something like ‘That lucky <bleep>’.
Thanks for your time. For anybody who wants to read more from RC, make sure to check him out on Junkyard Jake.