A while back, I wrote about some half-baked ideas for alternative leagues designs, one of which was a classic H2H league with a hybrid payout structure using weekly roto totals throughout the season. A couple of readers contacted me, or made comments in that (or subsequent articles), that indicated they found this idea intriguing. Well, it just so happens that this year I actually tried this idea, so I thought I’d give the readers a quick update and offer my thoughts as to how it was working out.
I took advantage of a bad situation to launch this experiment. Shortly before the season, a few people dropped out of a league we thought was organized. We were left with only 10 teams and people were losing interest. I suggested turning the league AL- or NL-only, but some of the owners, due to inexperience with that type of league, were wary. Instead, we decided to offer other wrinkles to keep interest. We expanded the rosters so the player pool was more along the size of a 12- or 14-team league, and we jacked up the weekly innings minimum to 50. We also took the opportunity to move the categories a bit toward more true indicators of production. We kept R, HR, RBI, and SB, but replaced AVG with OBP and added total bases. On the pitching side, we kept saves, ERA and WHIP, and added K/BB, quality starts, and home runs against. Most importantly, we split the league fees almost evenly between weekly roto payouts and the classic style best regular season record playoff winner, and playoff runner-up prize pools.
Every week, in addition to the H2H scoring that determines the standings, I take the weekly team totals, dump them into a spreadsheet, and manually calculate categorical roto totals. We sum the offensive category totals for each team and do the same for pitching, and award weekly prizes for the team with the highest overall offensive and pitching roto totals. The first revelation I had—and I can’t really fathom how this didn’t occur to be right off the bat—was that this would have been easier had I made this a points-based league. But that would have also been a radical departure from the past and might have provoked the ire of some of the league members. I’m happy with the amount of change we ushered in this year and I don’t mind doing the weekly stats. It doesn’t take long and it makes me feel connected to the history of fantasy baseball; a sort of brief simulacrum of the days of combing box scores in the newspapers and tabulating stats with a pen and a marble composition book.
I had a couple of expectations for the league and a few questions that I wanted to see answered, which I’ll discuss here right now.
Would this payout structure provide extra incentive not to deadbeat?
So far, I don’t think the weekly payout incentives are enough. Perhaps if the overall stakes were higher, the sheer financial incentive would be more powerful (absolutely, though not relatively), but right now I don’t feel as if the weekly prizes are high enough to ostensibly buy an owner’s engagement. Further, poor performance is a common cause of dead-beating, and teams that perform poorly enough to tempt an owner to write the whole endeavor off aren’t particularly likely to dominate in offense or pitching for a week either. True, they’re more likely to win a random week or two in this format instead of climbing out of a deep hole in the standings (roto or H2H) with a sustained push over many weeks. Still, it’s a longshot and any success in that vein is most likely a fluke and not the result of added effort. In fact, we have one team who is dead-beating and he won the overall pitching prize last week. I think there’s push in the right direction, but in this particular instance I’m not sensing it’s strong enough to disrupt what would otherwise be the natural order of things.
Would this structure distribute money more equally among a larger number of teams; will everybody win something back?
In a traditional payout structure, at best four teams would win money. Perhaps you award first place regular season, regular season runner-up, and then playoff champ and runner-up. So, yes, at least at a minimal level this design improves the egalitarian quotient of the league. But, what about meaningful money?
We had to delay the draft, so we missed the first week of the season. Through nine weeks of payouts, with two payouts per week, here’s how many times each team, by place in the standings, has won a weekly payout.
1. 4 (Me!)
We still see a top-heavy payout board—which is no surprise—but the payouts don’t exactly correlate to the standings. The payouts are structured such that you would need to win 10 times during the regular season to recoup your league fees through this avenue alone. I don’t see any more than two teams doing that this year. I suppose this structure is making the system of rewards a bit more fair, and I suppose everybody could win something at some point, but the team with best chance of getting something potentially meaningful that they wouldn’t otherwise get is probably the third or fourth place team.
More broadly however, the whole egalitarian idea wasn’t rooted in a hope for such outcome, but rather in the faith that the notion of egalitarian opportunity would function as a driver of engagement and a disincentive for dead-beating. So, in a sense, tracking payouts may be an act of drawing maps and not of surveying territory.
Would anybody try to “game the system” and attempt to build the .500 team that wins half the weekly payout but misses the playoffs?
When I think about these league formation ideas, the first thing I try to do is poke holes in them—find ways to exploit them—which I’m good at because I‘m a conniving little weasel when it comes to trying to outsmart systems. It did occur to me that an owner could skew his team so extremely on the pitching or hitting side that he’d set himself up to win nearly every week’s pot on one side of the ledger, while dooming his team to hover around .500 in the overall standings and likely miss the playoffs. It would be easy enough to realistically conceive of profiting from this strategy. Nobody tried this though—and I wasn’t really too concerned anyone would; the only two owners in the league skeevy enough to really consider the strategy are me and one other guy, and we’re both too cocky to actually go for it; I assume we both figured we’d just win the whole thing if we played straight up. I’m in first (having one of the best H2H seasons I can recall), and he’s in second, 25 games over .500, but still more than a dozen behind me.
The more likely way this strategy would be enacted would be if an owner decided mid-season, like around now, that his team was too flawed to compete on both fronts and already in a fairly deep hole, and went into minimizing losses mode, trading all pitching for hitting or vice versa and adopting this strategy in an attempt to salvage league fees.
Would owners actively chase the weekly payouts, and put their week to week H2H match-ups on the line to do so?
It doesn’t look like people are doing this. On a few occasions, I’ve been faced with the decision of benching my starters on Sunday to protect my H2H leads in the rate categories, or chasing another quality start or two that might help notch me a weekly pitching crown. Sometimes I’ve gone for it, but for the most part I’ve kept my eye on the big prize, treating the weekly payouts as a bonus and as an indicator of whether I’m on the right track.
Would I do this again?
Yes, I think I would. This season has been fun.
Have I noticed any unexpected benefits of this set-up?
Yes. Sometimes in a H2H league it’s hard to get a reading on your team’s actual needs. Sample sizes are small from week to week, and it’s not always fully obvious whether your team has real needs or is just catching some bad breaks and unlucky match-ups. In a category like stolen bases, 20 bags over the course of a full season could be the difference between the 75th and 25th percentile of a league, in roto standings. So, how are you supposed to sense this week to week, if you just so happen to continually lose the category by one or two bases?
In this format, I send the league the season’s spreadsheet with the weekly totals in their own tab every week, so it’s easy to see your team’s strengths relative to the whole league. You may be two-for-seven in the SB category over the course of the season, but if you find you’re usually in the middle of roto standings, you know this isn’t a true weakness for your team and you can just hope distributions fall more in your favor going forward. Or, you can find out that your WHIP really is a problem, not only do you rarely beat the team you’re matched up against, but you rarely beat anybody! Given this format, this info is thrust in your face a little more forcefully, and therefore harder to ignore.