Designing a better league

A 162-game baseball season is a marathon. Unfortunately, among the millions who participate in fantasy baseball, a good portion are sprinters who run out of steam at midseason and tend to limp toward the finish line.

Can we blame them? By August, fantasy leagues are populated with team owners who have no hope of finishing first. Meanwhile, there’s more important things to attend to—like watching crazy YouTube videos or the start of the football season.

Unfortunately, orphaned fantasy teams create havoc. In Head-to-Head leagues, some teams may get into the playoffs and others may miss out on the basis of scheduling luck. In rotisserie leagues, a non-competitive team is liable to give away free points and influence the final standings.

The advent of keeper leagues was supposed to offer some salvation to the sin of negligence by promoting ongoing attention to one’s team. Sleep in September and potentially miss out on a call-up who might help a team rebound the following season. But most keeper leagues tend to exacerbate the problem with so-called “dump deals,” whereby out-of-competition teams trade their superstars for better keeper prospects. Once a team has forfeited their best players, they become even more unlikely to pay attention during the final weeks of the season.

Last week on THT Fantasy, Jonathan Halket covered the controversies surrounding dump trades, but for all the acrimony these trades inspire, I believe the larger issue was missed. Dealing with issues like fairness and free markets is all good and fine, but are we sure that fantasy baseball has set up the right kinds of incentives to drive market participants toward the finish line?

In the last couple of years, I’ve advocated change in the leagues in which I participate. My goal has been to minimize the controversies entailing the fairness of trades, to create a system that isn’t too rulebook onerous, and most importantly, to approach the problem as any good economist would—by focusing squarely on incentives.

Right now, in most leagues, there’s no incentive to compete for many teams. Right now, in many keeper leagues, there’s no incentive for those who find themselves out of competition to hold onto star athletes. That’s the target for improvement.

Here are examples of changes we’ve made in my leagues.

I participate in a 20-team H2H keeper league. Each team has a 30-man roster and an additional reserve list of minor league players. With approximately 760 players on rosters, you wouldn’t expect to find any singular team in this league fielding All-Stars at every position, but thanks to the emergence of “dump deals,” that’s exactly what’s happened in past years.

So we decided to change things this past offseason by instituting a new incentive system. Every team that misses out on the playoffs competes in a consolation tournament. The winner of this tournament gets an extra keeper. In addition, similar to real-life Major League Baseball’s Elias Rankings on free agents, teams in my fantasy league are allowed to cash in superstars at the end of the season for picks in the league’s minor league draft. Of course, in order to have a good shot in the consolation tournament and in order to take advantage of consolation draft picks, teams need to hold onto superstars—not dump them in any trade.

I also participate in a 16-team roto keeper auction league. Similarly, dump deals used to bedevil this league and many teams lost interest.

So we decided to offer any “out of money” team that improves its standing after the All-Star break a discount on a player’s keeper price. For example, Team X buys Albert Pujols for $33. Team X is in last place at the All-Star break. Instead of trading Pujols for Jason Heyward, Team X keeps Pujols and has better luck in the second half, improving his points total by 33 percent. As a result, Team X gets to take 33 percent off the price of any of his keepers. So if Team X wants to keep Pujols, the salary is only $22, making the Cardinals All-Star a phenomenally attractive keeper. This also mirrors real-life baseball, as many free agents become more likely to sign contracts with teams showing competitive fight.

So far, the discount keeper rule has been a wild success. The consolation tournament and draft pick exchange rules have only had moderate impact. We’re still tinkering around the edges to get things right.

If there’s a takeaway here, it’s this: If a dispute comes up in your league, make sure you examine the root causes of the dispute. There are too many legislators and lawyers in leagues, but not enough economists. Considering fantasy baseball is a stats-obsessed endeavor, that’s ironic.


On another note, I’m holding the first mock draft of the 2010 season. I’m doing this in order to help teams sort through prospective values as they look to trade this year with next year in mind. I’m even giving away a prize. If you are interested in participating, find details on my Website.

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  1. Joel H said...

    So what’s wrong with the “dump deal”?  I’m not sure if you follow MLB, but that makes keeper leagues all that more “realistic”.  Studs go to contenders for prospects every year. 

    Here’s my situation and we’ve never had problems.
    10 team NL only auction league, 8 keepers, and a $280 draft limit which your keepers eat into, with a $100 for FA claims and a team limit of $380 once the season starts.

    No player can be carried over more than twice with out going back into the auction pool.

    So why not let the basement teams dump their overpriced non-carryover players for some guy with a dollar contract. 

    I’ll give a recent example. 

    Josh Johnson $3 for
    K-Rod $42 and Brandon Phillips $38. 

    I know that if I’m out of the playoffs before the trade deadline, I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure my carryovers for next year are as cheap as possible. 

    One of my strategies every year is to study the minors, take risks on potential call ups and pick up a half dozen guys for a buck.  First if I’m out of the playoff picture, I’m looking good for the following year.  (nothing like going into a draft with 8 decent guys and 270 to spend when you have other teams starting with 180 to spend. 

    And if I sacrificed a roster slot last year on Tommy Hanson for $1, shouldn’t I be able to get rewarded for that this year by trading him to a dumper for let’s say Pujols who isn’t going to carry him over at $62 next year? 

    And sorry, I take no pride winning a consolation bracket.  I can’t brag how I moved from last to 8th in the last month of season.  But I’ll talk about how I built my team up from a bunch of prospects and trades and snagged some guy who was injured last season and eventually took my team to a championship.

  2. Joel H said...

    I can see your point, but there are other things that can be done to mitigate some of those issues.  For example in my league we have the auction where you can spend 280 and additional 100 for FA claims.  Chances are, if you’re dumping, your not dumping people worth protecting compared to their salary.  Therefore a single team isn’t going to be able to get that many studs because it will put them over the $380 roster limit that our league has set. (any empty roster spots cost $50, so you can’t get around it by dropping bench players) Not to mention our playoffs run 5 weeks.  So your probably going to need a decent bench to win it all or risk an injury and lose control over pitching matchups.

    As for someone only having 3 pitchers, we have league minimums.  You have to have 9 starting hitters and 5 bench spots, 7 starting pitchers and 3 bench spots, and one floating bench.  We can only carryover a max of 4 pitchers, even if they have 4 minor leaguers in mind, they still should have at least 6 guys that are pitching each week.

    And if you have someone in your league who would only start 3 pitchers, it’s about time to find a replacement.

    As for strenght of schedule, the same happens in MLB.  How many people are complaing that the Cards or the Cubs have an easier chance of the Wild Card because they are in the same division as the Pirates. I’ve also seen leagues set a dump date, usually a week or 2 before the trade deadline.

    I don’t like the consolation prizes either.  You could easily have a team that’s just bad and in the basement because they took Jose Reyes, Brett Myers, Rickie Weeks…you get the point. 

    The league could be played out by all players exactly how you think it should…and then the guy who finishes 7th gets the advantage over the guy who finished last the next season.  And unless you are in a draft league where the winner picks last and last picks first…I don’t really think you should reward people with extra keepers for missing the playoffs but winning a losers bracket or because the moved up a few spots in the standings.

    Being on the receiving end of a dump takes strategy.  Most these guys worth carrying over aren’t obvious, are in the minors, or maybe coming off an injury.  Like my example with Josh Johnson…I picked him up last year before it was mainstream that his rehab was going well and he was coming back strong.  If I had waited a week or 2 to pick him up, I probably wouldn’t have gotten him for $3…He probably would have gone a lot higher and then he probably wouldn’t have been carried over. 

    Plus if you have teams that are in it for the long haul, that’s a decision for them to make, do I go for it all this year or set myself up good for next year…If I’m going to make the playoffs but don’t think I have a better than average shot at winning it all, I’m not going to sacrifice possibly my next 2 seasons by “dumping” my hot prospects.

  3. Joel H said...

    The capping works great, especially being an NL only league. Our trade deadline is about 2 weeks before the MLB deadline and there are always a couple of big names that come over.  So most people leave a little cap room to pick up someone like Holliday or Lee that comes over.  It evens things up a little bit for the contenders made out trading with the “dumpers” because they have less room to make a bid on the waiver wire.

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