Both my most recent column and Paul Singman’s touched obliquely on how league settings affect the dynamic of play. Commenter, Andrew, mentioned his opinion that daily transaction leagues “lose a bit of credibility” as compared to leagues with free-agent auction budgets. I’m not going to use this column to discuss that point in depth, but the comment did get me thinking about the determinants of a competitive and credible league.
Let’s face it: Many of us here at THT are guilty of at least some degree of roto-snobbery; this goes for both writers and commenters. One of the, perhaps shortsighted, assumptions common to us roto snobs is that leagues with more advanced designs are “better,” more “legitimate/credible” or more competitive. I’m not necessarily sure this is the case though.
Let me digress briefly to state for the record that I don’t mean to use the term “roto-snob” as an insult. I think it is important that there are those out there who take fantasy sports seriously and treat it as a discipline worthy of study and analysis. Although fantasy sports comprise an extremely lucrative industry and are undoubtedly good for the corresponding leagues, fantasy sports is still treated as a frivolous and naïve endeavor. This is evidenced by the way the term is used as a de facto pejorative in the mainstream sports lexicon, i.e. “[Player X] put up great numbers, but this isn’t a fantasy league.” Us fantasy snobs represent a voice to refute these misguided ad hominems.
Getting back to the question of fielding a competitive and legitimate league however, I think the most important determinant of such a dynamic is an evenly matched and consistently engaged group of participants. In fact, when considering competitiveness this is even more important than the particular level of skill or knowledge the body of the league shares. To make a simple baseball analogy, the various levels of minor league baseball are not necessarily any less competitive than MLB, in terms of games themselves. And, while the overall quality of play may be inferior, that does not make the sport that is being played any less legitimate than that sport being played at higher levels.
I don’t think the above paragraph is particularly controversial, by any means. But, I’d like to dig a little deeper into the perceived connection between how advanced or difficult a league is, and how “pure,” “legitimate” or “good” it is. This may get a little messy because we’re often dealing with terms that are more value judgments than empirical observations, but it should be a fun, if pedantic, ride.
Theoretically, it is harder to build a high quality team in a (perhaps AL- or NL-only) league that involves auction dollars, keepers, pay-scales and minor league rosters. Such a league requires higher competency in additional skill sets, as compared to a simple mixed league that utilizes a draft. So, depending on the subjective criteria one uses to judge the “quality” of a league, such a league may be “better.” However, that does not mean that your experience participating in such a league will be better or more competitive than in a more simply designed league—and that, I believe, to be a very important point.
It seems that before going any further, it is a good idea to try approximate what is meant when people use terms like “legitimate,” or “credible” when referring to a fantasy league. I think there are two primary meanings of these somewhat subjective terms. The first refers to leagues being designed with characteristics that increase the likelihood of the most knowledgeable and skilled managers triumphing. Of course, even this definition is somewhat existential as it begs the questions of what kinds of knowledge and which particular skills should be privileged. Further, it prompts questions as to whether certain advantageous behaviors are even to be considered “skills” in the first place. Is getting to the wire quickly a skill? Depends on how you define “skill,” I presume.
The second is more straightforward; are the categories representative of the breath of skills baseball players have and are they weighted sensibly? For example, I’ve played in a number of leagues that use both OPS and batting average as categories and that doesn’t make sense to me. Everything that counts toward batting average counts toward OPS as well; OPS is ostensibly a more comprehensive way of measuring offensive prowess. Why not just choose the more accurate metric attempting to measure the same general principle? I’m not as heavily concerned with this second point for the purposes of this article though.
Considering the first principle underlying legitimacy, we arrive at a fundamental question:
Do deeper and more advanced leagues, by virtue of their design, lead to results that more accurately reflect the relative skills and knowledge of the league participants than simpler leagues do?
I think the instinctive answer is yes, but I’m not so sure it’s correct. I think many people may confuse the selection bias of these league designs with a perceived meritocracy inherent in the design of such a league. That is to say, the complexity of the design attracts more seasoned and knowledgeable participants as opposed to the league design itself doing anything tangible to promote meritocratic results.
For the sake of discussion, I would just like to mention a few reasons why a more advanced league may actually be less conducive to meritocracy. Many of these points deal primarily with league depth and one may also be able to argue that some of these dynamics, for reasons not unrelated to those I discuss, indeed help to separate the wheat from the chaff.
- More shallow leagues magnify the smaller differences in production among players. If you play in a 12-team mixed league, having Albert Pujols guarantees you almost nothing; you need to build quality at every single roster spot. In a 10 team NL-only league, having Pujols is a tremendous relative advantage. One player can profoundly swing the outcome of these leagues.
- As a corollary to the above point, injuries to key players can absolutely decimate teams in very deep leagues. We can debate the extent to which injuries can be predicted, and how much of a skill it is to draft a healthy team, but beyond the Chipper Jones-es of the world, injuries are rather difficult, and somewhat unrealistic to be able to account for on draft day.
- Simply getting at-bats often becomes something of high value. Some advanced leagues are deep enough that anybody receiving regular playing time is given value. It’s debatable whether this is in “the spirit” of fantasy baseball. The fantasy snob in me cringes when I see the players available on some shallow league wires, but at the same time one could argue that any league in which the participants rushed to pick up Ronny Cedeno after Jack Wilson was traded is also somewhat ridiculous.
- While the expanded skill sets required to succeed in advanced leagues can potentially even gaps in skills among players (participant A is weaker at budgeting, but more astute at trading, for example), the same dynamic magnifies gaps in overall proficiency among the league. Advanced leagues offer more ways to take advantage of weaker participants, and present more opportunities for participants to expose their weaknesses. While this is a good thing in many respects, large enough gaps in competency even among one or two participants can quickly manifest into a competition of who can most blatantly exploit the lesser players. The strict fantasy Darwinist may not see a problem with this, but I hardly find it far from ideal, and such a dynamic is not conducive to the long-term health of such a league. The bottom line is that the competitive dynamic may be more fragile in advanced leagues. Minor league rostering may be the derivative market of fantasy baseball…or something. Sorry, I just wanted to sound wise and worldly there.
At the end of the day, I think the overall competitive dynamic of a league is largely determined by the relative skill level of the participants. As for a league’s quality, credibility or legitimacy, I might offer an alternative, though still subjective, barometer by which to measure these subjective qualities.
There are different philosophies regarding the overall aim of designing a league. Should it most accurately reflect actually running a baseball team? Is fantasy baseball an entirely different animal from real baseball, with its own rules, dynamics and view of long- and short-term returns? Should the league aim to neutralize individual circumstance of each participant’s life that may lead to advantages or disadvantages?
I think it’s important for the body of a league to discuss these issues from a philosophical perspective and agree on the type of league they want to create. For example, what are the relative merits of using more advanced statistical categories—increased accuracy in terms of reflecting what actually wins baseball games, but an introduction of more esoteric principles, which may further stratify the participants. Perhaps a league’s legitimacy, credibility or overall quality is largely determined by how accurately it mirros its collectively agreed upon vision. In some respects, this is a $10 way of saying that a league’s overall quality can be largely approximated by how much fun the league participants have playing it out.
What does your ideal league look like, and what are your anecdotal experiences regarding the overall “quality” of advanced and simpler leagues?