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Should fantasy leagues mimic real-life baseball?

Posted by Derek Carty at 1:02am

There was a comment on Jonathan Halket's "Points vs rotisserie" article that reminded me of a question I always seem to get from readers around this time of year. I was going to post a comment to Jonathan's article, but it seemed a little too far removed from the discussion, so I'm giving it its own post.

The e-mails I get usually go something like this:

I'm the commissioner of a roto league and would like to make it more representative of real baseball (or use stats that are more reflective of true talent). What categories would you recommend using to achieve this goal?

My answer always comes back, "why?" Why would we, as fantasy owners, want to replace, say, ERA with LIPS ERA as a category? Isn't the whole purpose of using a stat like LIPS ERA to gain an advantage over the competition? While there are many more followers of sabermetrics than there were even a few years ago, it is still easy to find owners who know nothing about these more advanced statistics and simply go by hunches or surface numbers from past years.

The whole point of LIPS is to estimate ERA while eliminating the luck factor, something our competitors can't do by looking at ERA itself. We gain a relative advantage by looking at stats like LIPS when our competitors don't know to look at them. If we make these stats their own category, though, then our simple-minded competition also will be looking at them because that's what they do. They focus solely on the categories that matter and little on the underlying numbers. How do you predict ERA? With LIPS ERA. How do you predict LIPS ERA? With LIPS ERA (essentially).

Looking at the underlying numbers is what gives us our advantage; if we make those underlying numbers the actual categories, that advantage disappears.

Derek Carty, 23, has also been published by NBC's Rotoworld, Sports Illustrated, FOX Sports, and USA Today. This season, he'll be contributing to FanDuel and will be linking to all of his work at DerekCarty.com. In his three years competing in expert leagues, he has won 2 titles with 4 top three finishes, including a LABR NL title in 2009, making him the youngest person to ever win a major expert league title. Derek is a proud graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program and is a firm believer in the importance of combining stats and scouting. He welcomes questions via e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter.

alskor said...

Youve missed the most important point: Fantasy Baseball is a game. It is important for it to remain a fun, well functioning game. You should never sacrifice fun for realism.

Choosing certain options over others in the interest of fairness is admirable… BUT not everything needs to be made fair. It is okay for fantasy sports to be in part determined by luck. No matter what categories you choose luck will always be a factor.

Posted 12/19  at  02:44 AM
BobbyRoberto said...

In the league I’ve run for the last 9 years, we’ve gradually morphed into a league with some traditional and some new categories.  We feel like we have a good mix at this point.

We started with the traditional 5x5 but now use:

R, RBI, Net-Steals, OBP, SLG

W, ERA, WHIP, K/BB, SVS

It makes for a good valuation of players.  Guys like Juan Pierre or Willie Taveras are far over-rated when using traditional categories.  When we toss in SLG as a category and Net-Steals, they lose some value.  An owner can still take them for their steals, OBP, and Runs, but they get hurt in other areas.  We feel it’s more realistic.

Posted 12/19  at  03:34 AM
James Cole said...

LIPS ERA would be a stupid category, anyway, because it isn’t really a measurement-statistic, it’s a prediction-statistic.  It measures a few categories and combines them into an index that is supposed to predict ERA.  It would be like deciding the playoff picture by run differential.  Or using PECOTA projections instead of R, RBI, AVG, ETC.

That said, I don’t buy the argument that since not everyone knows about it, we shouldn’t play with it to give us a competitive advantage.  What if you’re playing in a good enough league that everyone knows about it, or at least the underlying principles?  Why not use VORP?  or FRAR?

I’ve always thought a league with only one category, WPA, would be pretty fun.  If anyone knows how to make that happen, shoot me an email.

Posted 12/19  at  08:21 AM
Mike Podhorzer said...

The other point in favor of using ERA vs LIPS ERA is that ERA is much more variable on a year-to-year basis than LIPS ERA. Projecting next year’s LIPS ERA is far easier than actual ERA since I would guess skills don’t change as much as luck and noise that ERA incorporates.

So if we switched our league to LIPS ERA, then besides our advantage diminishing by knowing to use LIPS ERA as the basis for projecting ERA, we also lose the advantage of being able to better project a statistic that could vary wildly each year. Obviously the more a stat varies each year, the tougher it is to project. So you want that as part of a fantasy league to give the more knowledgeable owners a leg up.

Posted 12/19  at  09:57 AM
Andrew said...

Fantasy is a game. Keep it old school. It doesn’t get better than 5 X 5 Roto.

We can still use sabermetrics, though, to gain an edge on the competition.

Posted 12/19  at  11:35 AM
APBA Guy said...

I think if you want to get like real baseball, do a simulation league. The guys in our league often play both roto and APBA, because each is fun in their own way, and each brings additional richness to being a baseball fan.

Our APBA league is a keeper league also, so the guys get to be owner, GM, and manager all in one.

Turnover runs less than 10% annually, with 5 of us having stayed in the league over 15 years.

Posted 12/19  at  12:47 PM
lookatthosetwins said...

I don’t like using lips era or a stat like that, but there are stats that could be used that would be more representative of value, if not as representative of talent.  The big one I think of is WPA.  You honestly wouldn’t need to use another stat, you are directly measuring how much the player added to your team in terms of wins.  Just for fun, you could add UZR and really have a realistic fantasy league.
Obviously defensive statistics vary too much to use in fantasy leagues, and WPA also can vary a lot and maybe wouldn’t be as fun.  I still would like to try it just to see what it would be like.

Posted 12/19  at  02:52 PM
Dave said...

Not to beat a dead horse, but if you want something closer to baseball while still being fun, try a points league. In real baseball, it’s basically analogous to WARP or VORP - get the most players that add the most value to your team, regardless of what stats that value comes from, and you win!

Posted 12/19  at  04:56 PM
Derek Carty said...

Great comments guys.  I have to agree with most of them.  I think if someone is looking for a league to emulate real baseball, either a simulation or a points league is the way to go.  Or a roto league with something like WPA and UZR as categories (scaled appropriately), as lookatthosetwins said.

Overall, I think the questions I get asking about replacement categories aren’t so much looking to emulate real baseball as just looking to add a more sabermetric twist to their leagues.

As James said, though, some people do have leagues where everyone is familiar with advanced statistics.  There can still be disagreement in these type of leagues, however, about which stat to use to predict something like ERA.  Check out this article from a couple weeks ago to see what I mean.

Posted 12/19  at  05:17 PM
Tony said...

If you are the commissioner of a private league and want to implement a stat like LIPS ERA chances are your contemporaries already know about LIPS ERA since their views would probably be similar to yours. But if the opposite is true, and only I know something on sabermetrics then I obviously would keep it simple.

Posted 12/19  at  09:59 PM
Ryan Jorgens said...

Derek’s position irks me. I’ve played in a league with a commish who thought like that—“Hm, what kind of fancy rules can I make up that will give me an advantage because I know something?”—and it was horrible.

You can use any categories you like, whether LIPS ERA or Curtain Calls (fun), as long as the rules and scoring is clear and on the table.

Trying to win by gaming the system stinks for all.

Posted 12/19  at  10:30 PM
Derek Carty said...

Ryan,
Thanks for the comment.  The purpose of this post was definitely to spur conversation and promote opposing opinions.  Everyone seems to be breaking in this new commenting system nicely.

I certainly didn’t mean to imply that I create ‘fancy rules’ to give myself an advantage.  My stance is simply that I prefer the standard 5x5 format that fantasy players have always used as opposed to trying to force the fantasy game to evolve with new thoughts and analysis.  These kinds of stats were brought into the realm of fantasy (and many created in the realm of fantasy) to help owners with the traditional format, not to try and completely change the way the game is played (at least in my opinion).  Some people could certainly go that way with them, it’s just not something I would be a fan of.

When I create a stat like, say, True Home Runs, my intention is not for it to become a fantasy category.  It’s to help fantasy owners gain an advantage in a pre-existing category - in this case HR.  For me, part of the fun is using these cool new stats to gain an advantage.  I don’t think there’s anything dishonest or conniving about that.

I certainly would never create a rule simply because I think it would give me an advantage.  I love winning, but if I think I’m doing something that’s even remotely close to cheating or dishonesty, I couldn’t consider it a win.  It feels tarnished, and I would never want to play that way.

Hopefully that clarifies my position.  Dissenting views are, of course, welcome.

Posted 12/20  at  02:10 AM
Dan Rosenheck said...

I run a points league with actual run estimator values, so the number of points your lineup compiles is the number of runs they would have scored (and the number of points your pitching staff generates is the number of runs they saved over a baseline of twice the league average runs per team).  It works like a charm, and it’s cool to be able to determine actual won-lost records.

Posted 12/20  at  09:28 AM
Graham said...

I can understand the objection to using things like FIP or VORP as stats, as they may be a bit complicated. But one of my keeper leagues switched from AVG to OBP (pre-emptive trade for Adam Dunn FTW!) and I’ve been very happy with it, don’t see why many people would have a problem with that switch (besides Willy Taveras)

Posted 12/22  at  03:25 AM
Pete Schneidler said...

I made the comment on the other article that inspired this one.  While I appreciate your response to my question, I have to say your response is totally unpersuasive for me.  I’ve been playing with more or less the same group of guys since around ‘97 or so, sometimes points and sometimes roto.  However, I’m the only one of the group who is very into sabrmetrics.  And you’re right, this does give me an advantage.  Maybe its because I’m a teacher, but it just bugs me and makes me want to teach them so they’ll understand the game on a deeper level too.  And maybe because I’m competitive, it feels like a hollow victory when I place highly every year.  I know you don’t feel this way, but the logic and tone of your response could lead the reader to think you would be happy to play 8-year olds every season and win because it would give you another advantage.  Here is my hyper-competitive mindset:  Let me give my opponents every advantage, every favor, every marginal call (I coach high school sports too), and I’LL STILL BEAT THEM, and I’ll know I earned it and it wasn’t by accident.  The idea of clinging to my secret tools that allow me to more accurately project performance is not attractive.  I’m always bugging my buddies with links from different sites like BP or whatever, but for the most part they’re not interested in learning.  And when I tried to suggest a more complex scoring system people just found it way too complicated and didn’t want to change.  Oh well.  I’m stuck with them as they’re mostly family and old friends.

And finally, I guess I’ve always just found it annoying that a SB is traditionally worth the same as a double or whatever.  Some of the comments here seem to indicate that people don’t care how real it is and let’s just keep it a game and totally separate from the real game.  OK, then why not make your 10 categories totally arbitrary, like:  WP, pickoff attempts, CS, fielders choice, passed ball, balks, etc?  It’s just a game totally divorced from the real game, after all.

To sum up, I want to (1) educate the other fantasy players out there as to the real value of baseball events.  And (2) I want to level the playing field within my league as much as possible to maximize competition.  And (3) I want the things that are valued in fantasy to generally mirror what is valuable in the real game.  I don’t want to be disappointed as an M’s fan when Ichiro walks because it didn’t get my fantasy team a hit.

Posted 12/22  at  05:01 AM
Ed Schwehm said...

alskor said it best in the first comment: we play fantasy sports for fun. If your league decides they want to play with sabrmetric stats, great, let them. If they want traditional, do that.

I’m sure most of us are in a variety of leagues. I’ve got one that uses more “true value” stats (net steals, K/BB, OBP, total bases, etc) and one that’s classic. I enjoy both.

Derek, I think your argument relies on the assumption that your opponents are not using sabrmetric analysis to try to manage better. Many leagues are full of guys that read Hardball Times and Baseball HQ and Rotoworld and the like. I do use sabrmetrics to try to play better, but I don’t discourage my leaguemates from doing the same.

Posted 12/22  at  11:53 AM
Derek Carty said...

Hey guys,
Everyone’s got a different opinion on scoring and how to run a league, which is one of the reasons why I made this post.  I was expecting to get people who disagree with me, and the kind of passion you guys seem to have is one of the great things about fantasy baseball.

I think to clarify my feelings, though, I am super competitive.  I used to be the kid in gym class diving for balls hit up the middle in softball, without wearing a glove.

I do disagree to a point, though, Pete about giving your opponent every advantage you can.  Fantasy baseball is largely a game of luck, as few people are willing to admit it, and narrowing the gap between you and your opponent only promotes more randomness and makes it more likely you’ll win (or lose) by accident.  If one of my opponents uses these kinds of stats (as many do), I don’t harbor any ill feelings or try to talk them out of it or anything, but I’m not going to go out of my way to educate them.  Many don’t want to, so it’s not worth the trouble.  I can definitely see where you’re coming from, but that’s just not for me.  I handle my own business and let my opponents handle theirs.  I certainly don’t try to discourage anyone, Ed, but I’m not going to go out of my way to educate them either.

As far as fantasy mirroring real baseball, that’s for each individual person to decide, and I have no problem with either side.  As I said in the other thread, I’d actually love to try a points league one year where stats are given their appropriate weights.  I think I’d conclude that I prefer roto, but it would definitely be interesting.

Ed, you’re right in that my point relies on the assumption that my opponents aren’t using sabermetric analysis, to a degree.  I’ve never played in a league that is entirely filled by sabermetric followers.  Maybe half or three-quarters, but never full.  I’m sure leagues like this are out there, in which case my point really isn’t relevant.  I think most have a few owners who aren’t into it though.  Even if a league was full of sabermetric followers, I would still prefer traditional roto, though, partially because of the point Mike makes and partially because even if you’re using advanced stats, there are different ones to look at.  To predict ERA, I prefer LIPS ERA.  A guy like Ron Shandler, however, prefers his xERA.  They have similar predictive value but can differ widely on certain players.  If you choose one as a category, it forces all owners to use that and that only and eliminates differing but equally (or near equally) valid views.

Keeping things as they are, at the core of my view, keeps things competitive.  It gives people lots of room to do as they please, to strategize, and to look at whatever stats they deem acceptable.  I understand that a lot of people see things differently, and that’s perfectly okay.

Posted 12/22  at  12:40 PM
Ed Schwehm said...

I would agree to drawing the line at predictive stats. Generally I prefer more “true value” stats (e.g. net steals instead of steals) because they’re closer to the real game than traditional stats but more indicative of actual skill. This actually makes expert players stand out more (since we’re usually able to pick the better players more reliably) and removes some luck from the game. Best of both worlds!

Posted 12/22  at  12:51 PM
Pete Schneidler said...

Ed & Derek, I agree too, as far as not using the predictive stats.  I’m fine with using the classic 10 categories.  But I’d like to see them weighted what they’re actually worth, is all.  It sounds like commenter Dan Rosenheck, above, is in a league that does exactly that.

And now to totally change the subject, how about scoring using win shares??  : - )

Posted 12/22  at  04:56 PM
rob said...

I think that if you want to make fantasy baseball more realistic, you have REAL games with your fellow managers… and you keep track of your own batting and/or pitching stats, making yourself one of the members of your fantasy squad.

Now, that is hardcore.

Posted 12/22  at  08:39 PM
mike in brooklyn said...

I have been trying to come up with a “more realistic” system for awhile now.  As for keeping score, I have looked into WPA.  However, WPA can vary extremely from season to season.  (A-Rod, e.g. over the past 2 years goes from 6.85 to 0.47—I am sure you could start a scrub who can beat 0.47.  Maybe +WPA?)

Personally, I do like the idea of 1 stat that can be used for both pitchers and hitters—similar to WPA.  Why not Runs Created and Pitching Runs Created?

However, I think to get “more realistic”, there are so many more issues to consider.  In real baseball, you can start a 1B in LF.  How about keeping fielding stats, too, that can be a small addendum to the RC?  Penalizing for playing people out of position?

Other issues: the “benching” of a starter for just a game or 2; the replacement of an injured player with anotehr quality player; worrying about a bullpen rather than just closers; teams that don’t pay attention after July.

I think trying to make fantasy baseball “perfect” is an exercise in frustration.

Much like other types of fantasies.

Posted 12/26  at  12:01 PM
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