An introduction to daily fantasy baseball contests

When I started writing for The Hardball Times, the plan was for me to write about Rotohog, since that was the game where I had experienced the most success and to which was devoting the most time. That plan went out the window when Rotohog eliminated most of the prizes for its contests. Fantasy baseball is always fun, but it’s a lot more fun when there’s some money on the line, and without substantial prizes, I wasn’t as interested in Rotohog. Since then I’ve been writing on topics related to a wide variety formats using daily transactions. However, I’ve been looking to introduce a more consistent focus to my articles. It’s been decided that going forward I’ll be writing about the fantasy baseball topic nearest and dearest to my heart—daily contests.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with them, here’s how daily fantasy baseball contests work. You pick a team today. You win (or lose) tonight. That’s it, more or less. Most sites run the contests as “salary cap” games, where each player has an assigned cost, and you have to pick a full lineup without exceeding the salary cap. Scoring is based on a points system. In addition, some sites offer “live draft” format contests, where you actually do a quick draft with one or more opponents. Games are run with anywhere from 2 up to 100 (or more) contestants, and for stakes ranging from play money to $200 or more per contest.

Close to a dozen sites offer these contests, including Draftbug (which is my site), Snapdraft (the most heavily marketed site so far), and Fantasysportslive (the earliest site to offer these games). While they share many features, there are some differences in the sites’ look and feel, contests, scoring, roster configurations, and other features. However, they have enough in common that the strategic issues players face will be similar on all of them, and most of what I talk about should be relevant no matter which you play on.

So why do I think these games are so great? There are two reasons.

Daily fantasy baseball contests allow a lot more room for use of Sabermetrics to gain an edge over your opponents. In a traditional league, the most important skills include performance projection for the season, player valuation for your format, and ongoing game strategy. For the first two, commercially available forecasts and ratings have made it very hard to gain any kind of substantial edge over opponents. Game strategy can provide an edge but isn’t especially dependent on understanding or using sabermetrics. By contrast, success at daily fantasy contests is almost entirely about who has the best “sabermetric-fu.” While the results of any one contest can appear to be almost entirely luck, the cumulative results of multiple contests per day over the course of the season have an extremely high degree of skill. And that skill encompasses forecasting player performance each day based on a host of factors including skill, park factors, home field advantage, opposing starting pitcher, opposing bullpen, health, weather, opposing lineup and more. Each of those offers the opportunity for a wide range of approaches, which will impact your success or failure. For numbers geeks, these games are like a sabermetric playground, where we can profit based on the success of our ideas.

On the other hand, as obsessed as I am (and many of you are) with baseball in general, and fantasy baseball in particular, one of the drawbacks of traditional (full season) leagues is that they’re a grind. Particularly the daily transaction leagues can feel like a chore after a while. If you take a day off it can really hurt your team, and a summer vacation can ruin your entire fantasy baseball season. Daily contests solve that problem. You play them when you have the time, and don’t play when you don’t have the time. For those of us with families and other responsibilities, that’s a real blessing. I may spend hours each day thinking about and working on fantasy baseball, but every once in a while there’s a day when it’s really hard to find even a few minutes for it. Daily contests eliminate the burden of having to check my lineup on those days.

I hope in the coming weeks and months I can not only show you how terrific these games are, but provide you with many of the ideas and tools that will help you succeed in them!

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  1. Mike Podhorzer said...

    I’ve quickly looked over these types of games and every time have decided to pass on playing because it seems to be 99% luck. Could you convince me it’s worth doing all this research to select your lineup for one day’s worth of games and that it isn’t decided by luck as much as I think?

    I understand that over the long run, using all the stats for daily matchups should give you the edge. But I feel like it’s just way too much work to be worth it for an edge you wouldn’t experience until you play many, many games. Even one full season of roto baseball is influenced a lot by luck, and we complain that weekly H2H leagues have too much luck involved in any single week. So a daily league is taking this to the extreme!

  2. Jason said...

    I’ve played SnapDraft this season but gave up when I lost three days in a row due to rainouts – my players did not accumulate stats as a result.

  3. Jason said...

    @ Alex Zelvin.  Yeah, fair call.  I live in Australia so I have to set my lineup the day before.  If you were in a timezone that gave you the luxury of submitting your lineup moments before the deadline, you could actually maximise your chances (taking advantage of early lineup setters like me)…

  4. Alex Zelvin said...

    Mike – The results of one day’s contests obviously include a lot of luck.  However, over an extended period there is FAR less luck in daily salary cap games than in standard roto.  Not only are there more decision points where the better players can gain an edge, but each decision point has more viable options, so the edge gained from each decision is slightly greater.  I may write an article trying to quantify this at some point in the future, but a month of daily contests (playing only one per day) has more skill and less luck than a standard full-season roto league.

  5. Alex Zelvin said...

    Jason – I’ve had that happen several times as well.  However, I’d argue that its less of a problem in one day contests than in some full season daily transactions leagues.  At least in the daily contests the maximum damage is that you lose that day’s contests, rather than having your whole season sabotaged.  Also, in the daily contests, you can check the weather report and just skip a day if you don’t like what you see.  Typically rainouts seem to be most frequent in April, so it should be less of an issue in all formats as the season progresses.

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