Thursday, February 18, 2016

Fantasy Baseball Categories: New School vs. Old School

I've been playing fantasy baseball for something like twenty years. For about half that time, I've pondered the idea of whether or not on-base-percentage is a superior fantasy statistic to batting average. And even after a decade, I'm still not sure.

Obviously, on-base percentage captures a more complete picture of batters' plate appearances. And as Moneyball taught us, reaching base and avoiding an out is almost as valuable as actually making contact and getting a hit. So shouldn't your fantasy team be rewarded for that?

Well, maybe.

The most important factor in determining whether or not you should use a category for your fantasy league is not how well it reflects the level of a player's contribution towards his team's success. While you do generally want the best players in baseball to be the most valuable players in your fantasy league, you don't necessarily need them to line up perfectly. I'm sure that OPS+ and FIP and the dozens of other new statistics offer a new numerical method to determine the effectiveness of players in various circumstances. But that statistical fidelity doesn't satisfy the most crucial factor in competing against friends or co-workers in fantasy baseball.

Far more important is that the game is fun to play.

The best example of this is the use of pitcher wins as a category. I have an owner in my main league who's asked me multiple times if we should swap out wins and replace them with quality starts (not demanded mind you, just asked). His reasoning was that a pitcher could pitch poorly but still pick up a win. In this regard, pitchers on strong offensive teams get a value bump, and pitchers on weak teams leak a little value. Additionally, relief pitchers get completely shut out of the "quality starts" category, while they can vulture a win from time to time. His position was that quality starts would be a better representation of the "essence" of what a win should mean: a strong outing by a starting pitcher.

Only problem is, that's not what a win is. A win is when a pitcher satisfies the rules that dictate when a pitcher gets credit for a win. The nuances of those rules are part of what make fantasy baseball exciting. When you need one win and you've got no starting pitchers left, but Tony Watson just entered a tie game in the 8th, you've got a shot. That win is fucking ALIVE.

Anybody who's a football fan knows that those nuances are what make the game interesting. Every time there's a review on possession, or a question about an out-of-bounds play, or clock management issues, football fans go nuts. They talk and talk and talk about those nuances. Terms like "forward progress" and "football move" come into play, and everybody becomes a review official. Nuances are what make everyone feel like their team's got a chance, and those chances are what you would lose if you switched out wins for quality starts.

In fantasy baseball, the standard 5x5 categories create a lot of varied value from a lot of different players. I have a friend who plays in an 8x8 league that uses hits, batting average, and on-base percentage. Well guess what? The guys who get a lot of hits also have high batting averages and high on-base percentages. So everybody's looking at the same guys, because they register in six of the eight categories.

That's not interesting.

Interesting is making a choice between an AVG + SB guy or a HR + RBI guy, based on other factors like fielding position, injury history, your roster makeup, category depth, etc. The nuances that separate one player from another are what make fantasy baseball exciting and interesting.

If you're hoping to run a simulation, there are plenty of digital options for that. I got a huge kick out of player MLB Front Office Manager (despite its scathing reviews). My cousin and I used to play in simulation leagues using the All-Star Baseball games of the late 90's. And with the current age of PC gaming, there are dozens of well-designed options available.

But if you're playing fantasy baseball, you're looking at a different kind of experience. You want to be able to watch real games happen in real time, hoping for certain outcomes. You want to be able to rejoice at home runs and strikeouts. You want to check your lineup every day to see what happened, and how you might be able to do better tomorrow.

When you're considering what sort of statistical categories to use, I strongly recommend that you focus on those fun moments of watching GameCenter, checking box scores, and exulting or lamenting with each batter. A little simplicity will go a long way.

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