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.
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.
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.
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.
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.