The Roto Grotto: context is king

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:

Totals Roto Points
  R HR RBI Avg. SB R HR RBI Avg. SB Total
Team A 989 245 966 0.272 179 3 3 2 2 3 13
Team B 923 207 1017 0.29 176 2 2 3 3 2 12
Team C 888 190 931 0.268 154 1 1 1 1 1 5

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.

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  1. Jack Weiland said...

    Some good work here.

    One quibble, though: I have never seen a points league where stolen bases were weighted the same as home runs. The entire point of points leagues is that you can appropriately value these things in relation to one another, as opposed to roto leagues where everything actually is valued the same. So, while “all points are created equal” in points leagues, the same logic can almost never be applied to “all outcomes” … or am I an outlier here? The ability to weight things differently is exactly why I prefer points leagues over roto.

  2. Detroit Michael said...

    “More than anything else, pride is what holds us back from making similar trades.”

    Also trading deadlines.  Most fantasy baseball leagues shut off trading at some point before the season’s last week.

  3. Todd said...

    I play in a head-to-head league, which means that ‘banking’ stats doesn’t occur, so some of your issues with roto go away under such a system.

    Even so, I’m very surprised to see the claim that a fantasy football-style points system is more clean or elegant. It might be more accurate if you weight everything correctly, but it’s surely less elegant and more cumbersome. In a roto-type system, you’re always comparing apples to apples. Did I score more runs than you? That’s a pretty easy question to answer, and it’s easy to understand what that answer means.

    But in fantasy football… why is my QB’s 300-yard passing game with 2 TDs worth more (or less) than your RB’s 160 rushing/receiving yards day with a TD and a 2-point conversion? It feels very much like an apples-to-oranges comparison. The only reason that I’m okay with the system for football is that I don’t think football lends itself to the balanced set of categories that baseball does. But if it did, I’d make the change in a heartbeat.

  4. Nick Fleder said...

    Good work here, Scott. Dirty little secret: Never been in a points league. I guess I prefer my fantasy ball flawed all over: categories, weight, performance. It keeps me rooting for those flashy plays and all-or-nothing swings where I’d otherwise root for logical, numbers-crunched strategy; can’t tell which is more fun to watch, though. Either way: let’s start a THT points league next year!

  5. Scott Spratt said...

    Jack: I think you’re touching on a subject that I find super interesting, which is to what extent a fantasy league should attempt to mirror real value in its scoring system.  Honestly, I play in leagues that do both (FanGraphs Ottoneu linear weights is the style that I play that mirrors real value most closely) and enjoy both.

    Michael: That is definitely true, but I was trying to create an example as simple (and obvious) as possible to illustrate a point that I believe applies throughout the season, even if its never so glaring as in the example.

  6. Scott Spratt said...

    Todd: I actually do not find fantasy football more clean or elegant than fantasy baseball, but simply more familiar because of when I was introduced to both games.  I have actually come to prefer roto leagues because of the additional layer of strategy they introduce, which is why I’ve decided to write a weekly column on the subject.

    Nick: I’m in.

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