How does your league stack up?

While gathering some info for an upcoming mini-project, some THT Fantasy writers began kicking around the concept of evaluating—really, self-evaluating—the level of difficulty of the leagues in which they play. No matter how one attempts to do this, there will be a considerable dose of subjectivity driving each diagnosis, but I wanted to share my thoughts on some of the characteristics I consider material to an analysis of this nature. I have a feeling many people wonder how their leagues stack up on the “expert” index, or whatever you’d call it, so I’d like to get your input as well.

First, let’s get some syntactical issues out of the way. I’m attempting to judge the degree of difficulty of a league and not other attributes, which may sound similar. For example, I’m not judging the competitiveness of the league, per se. Competitiveness is a precondition of a league of high difficulty, but it is not an indication in and of itself. What I’m trying to identify is what makes a league hard for a good player to win. A league full of inept participants can be highly competitive. Also, I’m not evaluating the league’s features so much as the dynamics within it. I’ll touch more on these topics throughout. But, now here’s a list of characteristics that help establish a high degree of difficulty for a fantasy league.

Attentiveness of participants
Durability is the most fundamental and unsung element of talent, though it is also most often ignored. The same dynamic holds true in fantasy sports. The single dynamic that most heavily drives the difficulty of a league is the level of engagement and responsiveness of the participants. In very good leagues, the window of opportunity made available by actionable information is very short. News with fantasy league implications is consumed quickly and acted upon quickly. In daily roster move leagues, for example, this means that a newly anointed closer is added in near real time to the announcement of such decision. If the depth of the league rosters and other dynamics allow, perhaps such news is anticipated and therefore not even actionable when announced, as savvy owners have planned for such shifts in advance.

Independent decision-making
I’ve mused before about what constitutes an expert player from an individual standpoint, but Patrick DiCaprio laid out a pretty thorough blueprint and extrapolating from that, a high quality league will have players who take reasonable risks and are confident in their own assessments of players. This dynamic means that you can’t necessarily draft straight from a cheat sheet because a player’s listed price may not jibe with the opinion of others. Therefore, you too have to be opinionated. You must identify the players you like and go out hard to get them while being flexible and attentive to the dynamics of a fluid player pool. Sometimes, entire leagues react to collective impulses or strategies and develop their own unique dynamics. While this can verge on a group think scenario, leagues that develop their own senses of value, nuance, and character are generally of a high level. After all, the standard league in which everybody drafts off the provider’s pre-ranks is the epitome of group think.

Fair trading
A difficult league may have a lot of trading or it may have little trading. While trading is a way to increase the efficiency of the supply and demand sides of commodities, that does not mean that good leagues trade more than poor ones. Engaging in trading is also an individual managerial decision, and some players are more prone to trade than others. What is important is that there are active trade discussions and that the deals that do go through are seen as fair by the third parties.

The one blanket statement I’ll make in this regard is leagues in which mega blockbuster trades are consummated with multiple top 50 players changing hands on each side are unlikely to be high quality leagues. In one of my leagues last year, my key deadline move was an Alex Avila for Angel Pagan swap that required considerable negotiation. The existence of trades that involve non-superstar players is an indicator of high quality owners because it means they see the value of players deeper in the talent pool.

Logical design
Another topic I’ve previously written on is the notion that a more complex league design does not inherently make for a better or more difficult league. Keeper systems, auction formats, deeper rosters, minor league ownership, and shallow player pools can just as easily function to widen the competitive gap in an already mismatched league. The reason such features are often included in “expert leagues” is to give well studied players the opportunity to use and benefit from the full gamut of their baseball and fantasy baseball knowledge. I have a friend who developed a beautifully constructed league with all kinds of nuanced and in-depth features, but it fell apart very quickly because there weren’t enough players who sufficiently understood all its aspects. Quickly, the league was left with a few super teams and several exploited have-nots.

In a high quality league, most, if not all, the participants have a robust understanding of how roster construction, management and point scoring works. These systems are sensible and balanced. I always ask to see league design info whenever anybody asks me to join a league and if I see loopholes that would allow me to coast to victory, I either decline or suggest changes. The ability to exploit scoring dynamics is an essential skill of an expert player, but an expert player in a subpar league is of no use to either party. The best leagues balance pitching and offense, rate stats and counting stats, etc. A well-designed league is also an indicator of commitment and care by the league’s participants, and a difficult league is one that doesn’t confer significant advantage on some players based on its essential design.

After somewhat dismissing parity in the introduction to this column, I will now give it its due. If these other fundamental characteristics are met, chances are parity will occur. Parity is a dynamic created by high quality, difficult-to-win leagues—it’s the natural outgrowth, not a foundational element. As a quick indicator, if you’re winning a league over and over again, it’s not a high-level league. It doesn’t matter if it’s 10-team, draft, mixed, or 14-team, auction, NL-only with minor league slots. Bad leagues come in all shapes and sizes.

Are there owners you know who are not threats to place every year? Are there teams you can count out immediately following the draft? Are there owners who are known to be exploitable trading partners? The fewer owners you can answer yes to in regard to these questions, the higher above average the quality of your league is.

Repeat participation
Like parity, the consistent return of participants in a league is really just an indicator of the underlying engagement of those who constitute the league. Still, I feel it is worth a small mention. A league that returns its members indicates engaged participants who don’t feel exploited and who think they have a chance at winning. Returning is a behavior that indicates the individuals in the league perceive the inherently important factors to exist within the league. One of my better quality leagues even has a waiting list. At the end of each keeper cycle, we consider replacements or expansion.

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  1. Brad Johnson said...

    Derek, thanks for putting together your thoughts on the subject. Any suggestions on how to turn these thoughts into a Likert scale for self-assessment purposes?

    Personally, I think 1, 2, and 4 are the strongest indicators of a high difficulty league. For instance, my home league has some creative and attentive participants, but owners have flaked out or initiated fire sales sometime around mid-season the last two years. This season, I actually had to replace 4 owners total, I brought in a guy from the waiting list, Jeff Gross, and 2 THTF readers in the hopes of improving the difficulty level. I ultimately ranked the league a 6 out of 10 (just .5 above average) because I was effectively competing against only the 5 best owners.

  2. Jacob Rolling Rothberg said...

    Man, I was just hoping this article would include an objective way for me to say that my league is better than yours.

  3. Mark said...

    For this first time this year, I played in a league I found to be of a high difficulty.  It was the league for Tim Dierkes’s fantasy site (RotoAuthority, though apparently near-defunct he is supposedly attempting to reestablish it).  He adds an element to the league that I think really helps sustain and perhaps even increase the difficulty—each year, the bottom three finishers are booted from the league.  One spot is filled by the top finisher in a secondary “Silver” league and the other two by individual application.  This serves two purposes:

    1.  Filters out players who don’t meet the standards of the competition level.  Yes, some of the players who are elimated are viable competitors, and less adept players will occasionally luck into a respectable finish, but the latter are far more likely to get eliminated in any given year than the former. 

    2.  Forces players who are invested in returning to continue fighting even if they’re placed out of the money by the stretch run.  In fact, this year there was actually more competition in the final few weeks of the season for the bubble spot (which two people tied for, eliminating one of the available seats next year) than the title (I actually finished 2nd, pretty far behind the title winner, and only one other owner had a competitive shot at 2nd by mid-September either).

  4. Brad Johnson said...

    Tim benefits from having a large pool of options as well as (ostensibly) no personal ties to the owners. There is a generally inactive owner in my home league that I’d like to eventually replace, but he’s a nice guy, is one of the few owners never to bitch about something trivial, and is usually the only guy I can count on to pay/vote on league topics without harassment.

  5. David said...

    The article is solid but I do disagree on top 50 players being traded indicating a lack of quality.  I am in a 16 team dynasty league (30 players per roster).  The only way to get elite talent is to trade for it.  We have had several blockbuster trades and never had a veto.  Guys are willing to give up the future stars to have a ready made one for the playoffs.  To be objective about the league quality about 10 of the owners have won their respective redraft leagues over the last 2 seasons. The final positions of the dynasty teams varied considerably this year from last which shows the difficulty to stay at the top.  Guys are from all over the US and several are abroad.  They exploit local media information and timezones to make roster moves sometimes before the news even goes national.  But the blockbuster trades happen once a month.

  6. Kevin Wilson said...

    @David- I hate the exploitation of time and don’t understand why leagues still tolerate it. It’s such an arbitrary advantage to give to some owners.

    My league allows transactions twice weekly, via FAAB (Sunday and Thursday, late evening). Unless something happens between 10-11 eastern, everyone knows about it and files an appropriate FAAB.

  7. Kevin Wilson said...

    A very difficult idea to truly assess and I can’t wait to read where you go with this.

    League construction is probably my favorite thing about fantasy sports. I have created several leagues with different takes on how each sport is played and they have really excited my friends. I won’t bore you with the self-indulgent details though.

    To me, the key is your first bolded phrase: attentiveness of participants, and it is tied directly to interest level both in the sport and the league you play in. My leagues are all for money, but the biggest compliment I can give to them is that winning the money is secondary to the pride of winning the league (we also have a cool trophy and create a yearly championship tshirt with the winning roster on the back).

    But this is why I try to create leagues that are a little off the ESPN Standard League, leagues that are not cookie-cutter. Giving people nuances to figure out has made the leagues more interesting, and kept me on my toes as commissioner in assuring that there are no loopholes to be exploited.

  8. Benjamin H said...

    If you have a good system to convert MLB player stats into fantasy rankings, then you could use that to help measure your league’s activity level.

    1. Using the end-of-season MLB player stats, create fantasy rankings.

    2. Using the rankings, figure out the optimal player pool for your league.  For example, a 12 team league using Yahoo public league settings, you would include 12 C, 12 1B, 12 2B, 12 3B, 12 SS, 36 OF, 24 UTIL (next 24 most valuable w/o regards to position), and enough pitchers to hit the total maximum innings for the league.  This would be the player pool.

    3. Total the stats for all players in the player pool.

    4. Compare this to your league’s actual accumulated stats in your league standings.  Calculate what percentage of the ‘optimal’ total stats that your league accumulated.

    This percentage could be over 100% because of players used during hot streaks and benched/dropped during cold streaks/injuries/job loss.

  9. Marver said...

    Re: Blockbuster trades:

    You’re much more likely to see these in roto leagues, where the prize can only be won if you end up in first.  In H2H, however, you’re up to the mercy of luck, so having the absolute best roster does not guarantee a victory.  Not only are teams less likely to build up a stacked roster in that format in exchange for future value, but other teams are less likely to give up, since a shot at the last playoff spot is, in essence, a shot at the title.

  10. Benjamin H said...

    I was thinking over my suggestion above and I think this method would not only be a barometer for league activity, but it would even be a good measure of your league’s overall difficulty all by itself.

    The more overall stats your league accumulates vs some benchmark is a pretty accurate measure of its difficulty, is it not?

    Increased owner activity raises the stats accrued.

    A higher level owner knowledge/player evaluations increases league stats.

    Proper day-to-day management of teams improves the total stats accumulated.

    When the league gets out of balance (super-teams vs. dregs) then overall league stats go down because some bench players on the super-teams will go to waste and the dregs will be starting sub-par players.

  11. David said...

    Hi Kevin,

    The timezones work for and against.  We are in a daily change league so transactions are allowed any time before a player’s MLB game begins.  None of us want to limit that as taking chances on matchups is part of the strategy.  Where someone gains an advantage by making a pickup at 3am EST, he loses an advantage as he is typically not around when news is breaking in the evening.  And we do place great emphasis on waiver picks thru which all players go as they are dropped off rosters or promoted to the majors for the first time – therefore relatively few quality free agents are affected by timezone advantages/disadvantages.

    Honestly having some guys abroad has added a new challenge to the league and we like it

    Take care,

  12. Derek Ambrosino said...


    I specifically meant the type of trades where two owners will essentially swap a third of their respective rosters including several of their first five picks in the same deal.


    I don’t really know how to make this into a scale. I was mainly trying to give people things to think about. If you can pick up a newly annointed closer more than 24 hours after the news breaks, that’s a demerit. If you know there’s a guy who always gets hosed in trades, that’s a demerit. …Exactly how you weight those demerits to determine a final score is a bit tougher. Like, what if you have 10 owners who are A+s and 2 who are C-s, how does that compare to having 12 solid Bs?

    Perhaps, what you’d really have to do is rate each owner individually across a few categories and then come up with a composite score based on the quality of each owner.

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