Fantasy benchwarmers

When it comes to fantasy leagues, I am a weathered man. I’ve played in deep leagues, shallow leagues, mixed leagues, keeper leagues, dynasty leagues; leagues with drafts, leagues with auctions, leagues with free agents, waivers, FAABs, and so forth.

With most of these league settings I have a preference on the ones I like and the ones I feel subtract from a league. For example, I have always preferred mixed leagues that are toward the deeper end of the spectrum. There is one league setting, however, that I have always been on the fence about and that is bench depth.

It may seem like a fairly unimportant league setting on the surface, but in fact it is one that can have a large impact on the way you should approach a league. Even in MLB, bench depth plays a big role in the form of the 25 and 40-man rosters. For example Johan Santana might have never been a Twin were it not for the restrictions on bench size that led to the Astros making him Rule 5 eligible.

Impact on fantasy leagues

Generally speaking a league with deeper benches allows for more risky picks to be taken for two reasons. First, since better replacement players are more easily secured, the negative impact of having one of those risky players bust is reduced. And second, since there are more bench spots available, the cost of having one of them occupied by an insurance player is marginalized. It is important to understand that although the replacement level for starting players is unaffected by bench size, the ability to acquire replacement players is impacted.

In a league with deep benches, the players that would replace your starters in the case of injury or ineffectiveness are secured on your bench and can easily step into a starting role at a moment’s notice. In a league with shallow benches, on the other hand, not every starting position can be backed by a bench spot, and in the case of certain starters needing replacing, heading to free agency or waivers is the only option. In two identical leagues save for bench size, the same caliber of player will spell starters, except in the league with deeper benches you will have more control over which players will be your replacement players.

What is considered a long or short bench is subjective, but I will say that the number of bench spots should be proportional to the number of roster spots per team. This implies that a league with more starting players than another can have a greater number of bench spots, yet the two leagues can have the same degree of bench depth. In general, though, I would say that one or two bench spots is shallow, three-to-five is medium sized, and six or more is a deep-benched league.

Transitioning from the theoretical discussion on how replacement level is affected and opportunity cost marginalized, let’s move to the more concrete and list some specific types of players whose value is increased by an increase in bench size. Remember that the reason the following types of players have increased value in leagues with deeper benches is due to one or both of the bolded reasons above.

{exp:list_maker}First and most obvious are the injury risks, the Rich Hardens and Chipper Joneses of the baseball world. You can count on having to delegate one of your bench spots to keeping a backup for these players, a backup you feel reasonably comfortable giving potentially significant amounts of playing time to.

The next type of player whose value is increased by deeper benches is the phenom rookie not yet in the majors that is prematurely owned in fantasy leagues—the paradigm of which was Matt Wieters in 2009. The annoying thing about these players is that you cannot place them on the DL like you can with injured players, instead they suck up a bench spot without offering up any form of production.

Another type of player is the one with the large handedness split, a good example of which is Jack Cust who has averaged an OPS that is .145 points higher against righties over the past three seasons. The argument of whether platoon splits are worth accounting for is one that can be made another time and another place. All I am saying is that deeper benches give you greater value in platooning two players with complementary splits, say Cust and Jonny Gomes. {/exp:list_maker}
The common theme among these players is that they all require you to own two players for one starting spot, something deeper benches allows you to handle more easily.

Conversely, you could say that safer players are given a slight boost in value in leagues with short benches, though I believe the depth of the league itself (as opposed to the benches) dwarfs the impact bench size will have. The players most positively affected by shallower bench leagues are the multi-position eligible players like Mark DeRosa whose positional flexibility counteract the lack of flexibility working with few bench spots offers.

Which do you prefer?

Now that we have covered in-depth the ways bench depth impacts leagues, it is time to ask yourself which one you prefer, and remember, I truly am not sure where I stand.

On one side I like deeper benches because they allow for more roster creativity and flexibility and also seem to strip some of the luck that waiver priority or free agent races contribute to leagues. Instead that luck is replaced with the skill owners need to have in picking the best players to fill out their bench.

On the other side, you could argue that shallower benches force owners to have more roster discipline in selecting the players that can stay and those that can go. Everyone hates making that decision of who to drop when there is no one you feel comfortable allowing to be added by another team for free, but making the correct decision in those instances is certainly a valuable skill in fantasy baseball. You could also make the point that no reasonable amount of bench depth would have led to players such as Ben Zobrist, Garrett Jones, or most of the other great pickups of 2009 being owned on teams before their skills became apparent.

After making cases on both sides of the issue, I suppose my argument for shallow benches is a bit more convincing though I still feel on the fence. Enough of what I have to say though, I am interested to see what others think. What say you?

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  1. 5150bosox said...

    A shallow bench turns your league into fantasy football! This is were the draft is everything and you are stuck with the luck of the draw on the wavier. If your team isn’t very good you are stuck with it. You don’t have enough players to package for a trade. No vets on your bench that might surprise and not enough rookies that might amount to something. No wonder most people quit after 4-6 weeks of playing. You can’t change you fortune. A large bench changes your game of checkers into a game of chess where most people keep playing for the whole year.

  2. Tom B said...

    This comment above, 5150bosox, is completely wrong/backwards.

    Shallow leagues mean that you can turn over your roster with a higher quality level of replacement from the FA/waiver wire. Deep leagues mean you had to have already planned for your replacements because there will be NONE available.

    Deep/Shallow applies for football as well, but football requires better planning for replacements regardless of deep/shallow because of position scarcity.

  3. Jeremy said...

    Good points about the types of players that would be worth more with a shallow bench.

    My league has always had a deep bench. It has allowed me to draft undervalued and high upside players late without having to worry if they don’t pan out.

    With a shallow bench, I suspect value would be found in owners dropping slow-starting proven vets for the hot hand. With a deep bench, you can stash those guys away until they break out of a slump.

    For those who have played with shallow benches, is that your best way of finding value?

  4. Max Mercy said...

    5150bosox and Tom B might both be right, depending on the rules for free agent acquisition.  It sounds like Tom B is in a very loose league where you can dip into the free agent pool whenever you want.  In the leagues I’ve played in, the free agent pool is where you go when a player is injured or sent to the minors.  If he’s just underperforming, you can’t replace him from the free agent pool.  Therefore, the depth of the bench should match the replacement rule.  If you can go to the free agent pool whenever you want, you don’t need a deep bench.  If you can only replace injured or demoted guys from the free agent pool, you need a deeper bench for replacing the underperforming guys.

    I used to be in a league with a shallow bench, salary limits, and you could only go to the free agent pool to replace injured or demoted players.  Then the replacement was linked to the original player and when the original player returned you had to choose between him and the replacement – you couldn’t keep both.  There were so many restrictions to transactions that rosters stagnated and it was no fun.  It didn’t matter how much talent was in the free agent pool because there were so many other rules that prevented the acquisition of that talent in a timely manner.  Oh and they had weekly transactions too.  By the time you manuevered your roster to be able to acquire someone from the free agent list, someone else had already picked him up.  It was very frustrating.

  5. dan said...

    Nice article, Paul.

    Depth is absolutely crucial in Scoresheet, since your blank spots are filled by a generated AAA player that just kills you.  Deep leagues, deep rosters, and ano waiver wire (you supplementary drafts, instead) means you have to be very careful on draft day, or pay for depth in the trade market.

  6. Doug said...

    I vote for a deep bench.  The deep bench encourages trades because the replacement level from FA’s is much lower.

  7. Paul Singman said...

    @Jeremy – In shallow bench leagues you certainly will find more goodies in free agency that were once owned on another team, though you yourself will most likely dump more value into free agency over the course of a season than if benches were bigger.

    @dan – I am unfamiliar with Scoresheet; I’ll have to check it out.

    @Doug – Your point about deeper benches stimulating trade is a good one. If your goal is lower FA replacement level though, you could increase bench size as you say or also increase the number of starting positions, effectively making the entire league deeper. So you could go either shallower league with deep benches or deeper league with shallow benches. Take your pick.

  8. John Miller said...

    Alot depends on league settings and rules. In my primary league we have 19active (weekly)(Specific OF positions). We charge $1 for every roster move.
    Also each pickup must be on following weeks roster to discourage churning.

    With limitations like this I really dont consider 6 a deep bench. Its still hard to find teams that matchup for trades.

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