The Hardball Times

The Roto Grotto: context is king

by Scott Spratt
April 18, 2013

I was introduced to fantasy through fantasy football, which typically has scoring analogous to points leagues in fantasy baseball. In points leagues, all points are created equal. If home runs are worth five points and stolen bases are worth five points, then you have no inherent preference for a player you expect to hit 30 home runs and steal 10 bases over one you expect to hit 10 home runs and steal 30 bases.

Because I learned to play in points leagues, I’ve always found rotisserie scoring to be somewhat alien. Baseball already introduced derivative statistics such as batting average and ERA which have components for both successes and opportunities. Those rate stats complicate matters because not all .270 averages are created equal. A .270 average over 600 at-bats can be more or less valuable than a .270 average over 300 at-bats, depending on the collective average of the rest of your starters and the available alternatives in your league.

Rotisserie scoring creates a derivative statistic out of every relevant statistic. A stolen base is not worth a clean five points. In fact, a stolen base is not worth a clean any amount of points because the importance of the next stolen base you receive depends entirely on the context of your placement in your league.

Context is a dirty word to sabermetrics. So much of the important research from projection systems to player value assessment is built upon the removal of context from individual production. Runs batted in remains a universal fantasy statistic, but most fantasy players would cringe if I asserted one player’s superiority in real baseball because of his advantage in RBI totals.

Fantasy players have learned to accept the dissonance that value in real baseball is not the same as value in fantasy baseball, but I continue to see that mentality falter in extreme situations that call for more radical departures in the valuation of players from the value of their brand names.

Here is a simple scenario to illustrate my point. In a hypothetical rotisserie league with one week left in the season, here are the standings of three teams:

TotalsRoto Points
RHRRBIAvg.SBRHRRBIAvg.SBTotal
Team A9892459660.2721793322313
Team B92320710170.291762233212
Team C8881909310.268154111115

Team A has a one-point lead over Team B, and only the average and stolen base categories are undecided. Team B is secure in first in average and needs only four additional steals to pass Team A. Similarly, Team C can potentially catch Team A in average but is too far behind in the other categories to make up ground in the final week.

With such a simple example, it is clear to see that Team B should trade its players who hit for average to Team C in exchange for players who steal bases. A Billy Butler for Michael Bourn swap would make sense. Butler and Bourn are similarly valued players—they went about two rounds apart in ESPN standard ADP in 2013—who are about as safe as possible in the relevant categories.

But what if Team C does not have Michael Bourn? What if its stolen bases came from players like Alcides Escobar and Cameron Maybin? Given the context, it does not matter at all. Neither Escobar nor Maybin provides the run production that makes Bourn a sixth-rounder, but because runs are already decided, they have no value in context. The only cause for preference of Bourn over either Escobar or Maybin is in the expectation for additional steals.

More than anything else, pride is what holds us back from making similar trades. Draft results are a reflection of expected value of players as of draft day and should be discarded as a rubric as soon as the season starts, but it is difficult to do so. If I drafted Billy Butler in the fourth round, it will feel like a loss to trade him for a player drafted more than a couple of rounds lower, but context can turn a trade of Billy Butler for Alcides Escobar into a fantasy title.

Scott was named Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association for his fantasy football writing at Pro Football Focus. In addition, he contributes to ESPN Insider as a research associate for Baseball Info Solutions. You can reach him on Twitter.