Why head-to-head?by Derek Ambrosino
January 12, 2011
A belated Happy New Year, folks. I was off last week fulfilling my New Year’s resolution to miss more article deadlines. Let’s start 2011 with something nice and potentially incendiary.
I’m just going to come out and say it – I don’t fully understand why most high stakes, competitive, and expert leagues are conducted in the head-to-head (H2H) format. There, I said it. I’m not trying to be a contrarian or an iconoclast; I just don’t see any fundamental superiority of the H2H set-up compared to the rotisserie (roto). To be fair, I understand how some of the H2H dynamics are entertaining and motivating, but, frankly, I think it’s plainly obvious that such a system is inferior for determining a league winner.
The most important thing to understand about the H2H and roto set-ups is that there is no fundamental difference between the two in terms of measuring player production. The head-to-head dynamic of a H2H league is artificial and contrived. There is no meaningful, direct, competition between two teams who are matched up with one another in any dueling sense. The competition aspect exists solely as a contrived binary, and is achieved by limiting the more fundamental and omnipresent rotisserie scoring dynamic. That is to say, the H2H format is is a roto league divided into several incomplete competitive universes and time periods, that's all. You are still playing a roto league, but only competing with a sliver of the league. From such limited comparisons, the system then extrapolates and awards wins. It turns raw production into victories and ensures that there will always be the same number of wins and losses to go around, and necessitates they get distributed in a certain way.
Essentially, all the H2H format is doing to the game is increasing the likelihood of “bad beats” and decreasing the likelihood that the best owner with the best team emerges victorious. This is done both by forcing teams to compete only against a single team at a time and by slicing the season randomly into chunks of small sample sizes, increasing the likelihood of random variation.
In fantasy football, the frustration of outscoring most of the teams in your league in a given week only to have lost to the best performing team in the league is well known. Given the general nature and schedule of fantasy football, it seems inevitable that the game overwhelmingly embrace this league structure dynamic almost as a necessary evil. But, it doesn’t seem as logical for fantasy baseball—the stats geeky fantasy underbelly of the already stats-obsessed real sport—to embrace such a probabilistically-flawed model. Why are the same folks who read in-depth articles about the mathematical chops behind xFIP voluntarily injecting additional randomness into their fantasy experience?
Some folks claim to like the H2H scoring style because it mimics the one-team-versus-another aspect of actual baseball games. But I don’t think it embraces much of the mano-y-mano aspect real sports do at all. Granted, one can argue the outcomes of actual games aren’t always reflective of which team is actually superior, any more than a weekly fantasy match-up does, but the dynamic of a real game consists of physical players reacting to the actions of those on the other team. There’s a seamless back-and-forth, a cause and effect, a chess match. In what ways does H2H fantasy baseball allow a manager to square off against a competing manager in ways that don’t exist in roto-style fantasy baseball? I guess you can play the two-start pitchers over stronger one-start pitchers, but just about every other strategic decision exists in roto leagues as well. Yes, H2H makes more of the nuanced microtrend—pick up waiver wire hitter on Colorado road trip, add lopsided handedness split player in your line-up when the match-up is in his favor. But such strategies are there for the taking in roto leagues as well, and within the H2H paradigm, their outcome is just that much more prone to randomness that doesn’t jibe with a larger statistically-significant truth. It seems that anything that can be done on a strategic level in H2H can be done on a macro scale in roto.
Why create worthless production and preclude the stockpiling of value? The second homer beyond your opponent’s total, and all subsequent homers in a scoring period, are valueless in a H2H league.
Why submit to a playoff system that lets 20 weeks of dominance ride at full value over 5% of the trial length?
Why take the care to select wise, sensible, and balanced categories only to see that punting one or more of them is a viable strategy? Punting categories in H2H leagues can work, while winning roto league with a “1” in any category is a tall order.
I’m not trying to be overly judgmental here; I truly don’t understand why one would prefer H2H to roto in any high stakes, highly competitive, or expert league. The H2H structure is an equalizer of opportunity that forces sharps to give away a considerable portion of their edge.
As I mentioned earlier, I understand the non-structural appeal of the H2H league. Roto leagues may lead to more deadbeating, as deficits can become insurmountable, or at least seemingly so, early on. I understand that the trash-talking dynamic of a league may be enhanced by the H2H format. But, these points underscore the reason I distinguish expert, highly competitive, and high stakes leagues throughout this article. Such leagues shouldn’t require what is essentially a gimmick to artificially restrain competition and embroil passions and attentiveness.
As previously mentioned, some will defend H2H on the basis that it more accurately mimics a sport. But, fantasy baseball is not the simulation of a sport. Round-robin H2H is a perfectly logical to organize a baseball simulation game, like Strat-o-matic. Fantasy baseball, however, is a puzzle-solving challenge that plays out in real-time based on real-life events. The most just way to determine who is best at it is to allow players to set themselves up into different universes of competition and to compete openly, completely against all others in the universes they construct.
The issues of true skill versus performance and the maddening and mysterious cloud of sample size never sets; such is the fascinating, yet infuriating cellular level of the most beautiful pastime of all. Amid the ever-frustrating, perpetual motion machine that is uncertainty of baseball and our never-ending quest for the game’s Rosetta Stone, why willfully infuse external variables into the experience if you don’t need to do so a motivational tactic? Simply, what is to gain?
Obviously, I was being facetious about my resolution up-top. But, I did slip a bit toward the end of 2010 in keeping up with comments, so I will try to be better at that in 2011. I have a feeling the article should generate its share and I’m truly curious as to everybody’s opinion on this matter.
Derek Ambrosino aspires to one day, like Dan Quisenberry, find a delivery in his flaw, you can send him questions, comments, or suggestions at digglahhh AT yahoo DOT com.
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