The Verdict: fantasy baseball league drama

Evaluating trades in a keeper league is quite different than in a non-keeper league. The motivation to build for the future is a justifiable reason to trade away current talent for prospects. But where is the line drawn in terms of what is best for the league? Some people argue that trading established talent unfairly affects the balance of the league for the current season, even if the deal is made for players who will help the other team in the future. That is the first part of the case below. The second part deals with a league commissioner who took matters into his own hands in evaluating the subject trade and changed the rules without providing any notice to the league that he was doing so.

Feel free to leave your thoughts and comments on this case.
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SUPREME COURT OF FANTASY JUDGMENT

Winners v. Seven Shades of Shite

ON PETITION FOR WRIT OF CERTIORARI FROM THE MORITZ LEAGUE

Decided July 30, 2011

Cite as 3 F.J. 97 (July 2011)

Factual Background

A rotisserie fantasy baseball league (hereinafter referred to as “Roto league” or “The Moritz League”) that was formed in 2005 and utilizes Yahoo’s fantasy baseball platform seeks an evaluation of a trade made between two teams within the Roto league. This is a 12-team, mixed, auction keeper league where each team has a $300 salary cap to draft 21 players and can have a maximum of three DL spots on the roster. Each team in the league pays an entry fee of $75.00 in which the total amount of money collected is later distributed to the winning teams. Teams are permitted to retain up to five (5) players during each off-season in perpetuity so long as the team is willing to pay the player’s salary and tax (explained below). Of these five players, a maximum of two players may be kept with a draft value of under $10.00 from the previous season. Any undrafted players added during the course of the season shall be considered to have a draft value of $1.00. Each player that is kept is subject to an inflation tax based on the previous year’s draft value as follows: $1 – $10 = $2 tax; $11 – $25.00 = $6 tax; and $26 or more = $5 tax. Each team is limited to making 45 transactions per season.

The Moritz League is a customized 7×7 roto league using the five standard scoring categories plus two additional categories to determine the standings and prize money. For offensive players, the seven categories are: (1) batting average; (2) homeruns; (3) runs batted in; (4) runs scored; (5) stolen bases; (6) doubles; and (7) on base + slugging percentage (“OPS”). For pitchers, the seven categories are: (1) wins; (2) earned run average; (3) WHIP (walks+hits/innings pitched); (4) strikeouts; (5) saves; (6) innings pitched; and (7) hits surrendered. Statistics are cumulative throughout the course of the season and there are no head to head games contained within the Roto league.

There is no formal league Constitution in place to govern the league. However, the specific rules and guidelines of the league are stated within the league settings on Yahoo, as well as the league’s message boards. The procedure in place for approving or rejecting trades was set by the Commissioner to be a league vote, which has been the custom and practice of the league since its inception in 2005. According to Yahoo’s settings, rejecting a trade requires 1/3 of the league to vote against it (4 out of 12). There is also a 48-hour window for trades to be reviewed and then approved or rejected.

Procedural History

The Seven Shades of Shite (“SSS”), currently in 11th place, have made a trade with the Winners, currently in third place. SSS traded Cliff Lee (SP-PHI) to the Winners in exchange for Stephen Strasburg (SP-WAS). When the Commissioner initially received notice of this trade, he immediately thought it was inequitable due to SSS only receiving an injured pitcher with no current contributions and diminished future value. He also received two emails from other league members protesting the validity of this trade. Without knowing whether the requisite four votes against the trade were made to veto the deal, the Commissioner, without providing notice to anyone, changed the Yahoo settings for trade approvals from “league vote” to “commissioner decides” and subsequently rejected the trade.

The Commissioner emailed both Winners and SSS explaining that he had to reject the trade because it was inequitable. He reasoned that SSS did not obtain sufficient value, and that Cliff Lee’s keeper price ($5) was low enough to negate the argument of future financial obligations. The Commissioner did provide the two teams the options of either consummating the trade after the season was over (which is technically not allowed), or restructuring the trade to make it more even.

After receiving several protests and criticisms for taking such action, the Commissioner then changed the Yahoo settings back to “league vote” for trade reviews. Both SSS and the Winners have challenged the Commissioner’s denial of the trade, irrespective of whether the league would have approved or denied it.

Issues Presented

(1) Should the trade between SSS and the Winners be upheld and approved?

(2) Should the Commissioner have unilaterally changed the settings and procedures for reviewing trades from league vote to commissioner approval?

Decision

I. SHOULD THE TRADE BETWEEN SSS AND THE WINNERS BE UPHELD AND APPROVED?

The Supreme Court of Fantasy Judgment typically favors individual fantasy sports participants and teams’ ability to make moves, transactions, and trades. The standard of review has been that people pay money to purchase a team in a league, draft their team, and manage it accordingly. Whether success is bred from that individual’s decision-making is purely left to some skill, luck, dedication, and savviness. The Court also acknowledges that the analysis for evaluating trades is much different in a keeper league than a non-keeper league. A trade that may look uneven or lopsided on its face may receive a different opinion when it is involved in a keeper league. The reasons for this are obvious, but must be restated. In a keeper league, teams that are having unsuccessful seasons are more likely to continue to pay attention and make moves that will set themselves up for better success in the following season. They can do this by acquiring young talent that is not under contract within the league, or by dumping salary (assuming it is an auction league) and allowing greater financial flexibility to sign key players in the next season’s draft. In non-keeper leagues, there is no rationale for thinking ahead, nor is there any need to stockpile young, inexpensive talent. See Smittydogs v. Moneyball, 1 F.J. 32, 33 (June 2010).

Another factor that the Court must always consider is whether there is any collusion or under-the-table dealings going on between teams. The Commissioner has conceded that there is no suspicion or allegations of collusion between the teams. Given that this is not at issue, the Court will not consider it in its analysis.

At first glance, the trade of Cliff Lee for Stephen Strasburg looks uneven when viewing the deal in a vacuum. On one hand, there is a former Cy Young Award star pitcher on arguably the best team in baseball who contributes significantly in all major pitching categories except saves. On the other hand, there is a former #1 overall draft pick who took the league by storm before suffering an injury and undergoing Tommy John surgery. However, that former #1 pick is already doing rehab and is scheduled to return to the big leagues within the next month. This is a classic case of trading current superstars for future stars in a keeper league. Regardless of Strasburg’s injury and inexperience, he is considered a star player because of his innate talent and tremendous potential. Of course, Cliff Lee is an established star pitcher with a more limited projected upside only because he is nine years older than Strasburg. The Court has no issues with the idea of trading superstar players so long as the package in return is equitable and makes sense given the needs of both teams. See 4 Ponies v. Beaver Hunters, 3 F.J. 26, 29 (June 2011).

While Lee is certainly a valuable fantasy baseball pitcher, his recent playoff domination has overshadowed his pedestrian regular season performances since 2008. Since winning the Cy Young in 2008, Lee has a combined record of 36-29 (including his victory on July 30, 2011) with an ERA of approximately 3.10. In that time frame, he also has 525 strikeouts and a WHIP of 1.12. These numbers are impressive, but they are not deserving of over-evaluation. Furthermore, he is 32 years old and does have a history of back injuries. That is not to say that he won’t be successful for years to come pitching in Philadelphia, but the risk is a reality and age is a factor. As he gets older and naturally loses velocity, some of his pitches will remain in the strike zone and can be planted in the stands instead of being routine outs.

Strasburg certainly lived up to the hype in 2010 when he was called up by the Washington Nationals. He dominated several of his starts and put up impressive fantasy numbers before being shut down with an elbow injury. He, like many other pitchers, underwent Tommy John surgery and seems to be all but recovered within a year. He is scheduled to return to Washington sometime in August 2011, and reports from the organization are that he is being clocked in the mid-90’s on his fastball. When healthy, Strasburg possesses unlimited potential to dominate fantasy categories similar to Roy Halladay and Justin Verlander.
When analyzing the fairness and equity of a trade, the Court will consider each team’s individual needs to assess whether the trade subjectively made sense from each team’s perspective. See Cajon Crawdads vs. Carson City Cocks, 1 F.J. 41, 42 (June 2010) (upholding a trade for Jason Bay because of the Carson City Cocks’ desperate need for a starting outfielder due to the demotion of Cameron Maybin). This trade involves the even exchange of starting pitchers. As a result, there were no specific positional needs by either team. The next part of the analysis centers around the particular categorical needs by each team. Since Strasburg is currently on the DL and rehabbing in the minor leagues, he is not likely to have much of an impact categorically for SSS this season. On the other hand, the Winners will be in a better position to improve its standing in various pitching categories with the addition of Lee.

In terms of keeper league status, this is where the only viable arguments can be made in determining that there is equal value. A trade such as this epitomizes why there is a different standard of review for trades made in keeper leagues as opposed to non-keeper leagues. See Smittydogs v. Moneyball, 1 F.J. 32, 34 (June 2010). The reason teams in keeper leagues trade established stars in exchange for young, cheap talent is to rebuild for the future and sacrifice the present. See Road Runners v. Urban Achievers, 3 F.J. 92, 96 (July 2011). In defense of making this trade, SSS submitted the following arguments to the Court in support of his position:

“I extended a trade offer to the Winners based on what I believe was a good valuation of Strasburg in the context of a keeper league. Strasburg is out for having Tommy John surgery, not a shoulder issue. There is a high success rate for pitchers who undergo Tommy John surgery. Strasburg is throwing simulated games, and is rumored to return to the Nationals’ rotation in late August. A $1 salary would allow me to keep him stashed on my bench for the next 4 years for a $2 tax per year. He has the potential to dominate in ERA, WHIP, W, K and Hits Surrendered. In contrast, Lee, at $5, would be a $7 keeper next year. He has only two years left under the $2 tax after which he jumps to $6 per year. Lee is 32 years old. Lee or Strasburg hold zero value to me in the context of this season since I’m out of the race. The decision was based purely on keeper value in a dynasty context. In my opinion Strasburg for Lee in a keeper league near the trade deadline is a fair trade. I do not think that it makes sense for me to evaluate a player’s contribution to my stats this year.

I did not take this year’s standings into consideration as well. I admit that, but I don’t think I should have to. They’re almost irrelevant to me at this point. I was simply trying to get a pitcher with a lot of upside for a good price. Lee is a good pitcher a good price, but the upside is not there. It is likely he will only decline in value as his price goes up. He is also closer to the $11 tipping point when the $6 keeper tax is initiated.”

The Winners have also made a submission to the Court in support of its position.

“In a keeper scenario, it is difficult to ascertain the value of a particular player because you can’t just evaluate their current in-season performance. Future value has to be taken into account. This is why owners (including Brent, who bought injured Adam Wainwright at auction for $1 and has stashed him in one of his DL spots this year) spend bucks at the end of a draft on players injured or in the minors. It’s why teams do not spend their waiver claims in order to be the first one to have a shot at guys like Jason Heyward, Eric Hosmer, or Mike Trout (players claimed off waivers or free agency carry a keeper value of $1). The league has no limit on how long a player can be kept, so having a $1 player is extremely valuable not just within the current year, but for many years to come.

To me, players on a team that is out of contention in the current year are completely useless to that owner if they no longer intend to keep them—except as trade pieces to acquire future prospects.

Contending teams have to weigh the importance of keeper prospects vs. the desire to try to win now. Strasburg was/is my primary keeper prospect and I viewed him as that type of asset when I drafted him. I have been in contention all year, but I realized that I needed to bolster my offense to win. To that end, during the All-Star break, I sent out an e-mail to the bottom four teams in the league (including SSS) that essentially put Strasburg (a future asset) on the block for an asset that would help me win now. This happens in sports all the time, and I reminded these owners that if they believe they have no chance of winning, their best course of action would be to play for the future at the expense of players that they did not intend to keep (whose stats were useless to them for the remainder of this season). I requested bats, but pretty much said “make me an offer.”

I did not know what Strasburg’s market value was. I had never offered him directly in a trade. That George felt his value was equal to Cliff Lee was surprising, but not when I looked at George’s roster. He already had 2 cheap keepers (Asdrubal Cabrera for $1 and Dan Uggla for $7) and he had just accepted a trade for Colby Rasmus ($5 keeper). He has since picked up Mike Trout and Julio Teheran (who will also be $1 keepers, under our current rules, you can only keep two players under $10, but any other player you have under $10 can have their value “promoted” to $11 so they can be kept at the next tax bracket, so basically any other under-$10 players can be kept for $17, up to the league limit of five total keepers), so he’s clearly trying to build for the future around young, cheap players. This is exactly where Strasburg profiles.

Cliff Lee is 32 years old, so while he does have keeper value in the immediate future (two or three more years?), it’s hard to say how long he will remain an elite pitcher. Strasburg is 23. His prime is still (potentially) years away, yet he led all MLB starters in K/9 in the few starts he made before he hurt his arm last year. He is a potential Cy Young winner and league strikeout leader (a pitcher that can win the strikeout category for a team nearly by himself). ESPN ranks Lee as the #45 player on its list of top 250 keepers. Strasburg is #60, and I think the only reason he’s not higher is because he is not active now.

The notion that Strasburg is out for the year is not completely accurate either. He just threw a simulated game and is on track for a possible rehab start in the minors and potentially some starts at the major league level in September. Until then, SSS would have the option of picking up the No. 1 free agent on the market while he stowed Strasburg in a DL spot (currently full of other injured players, but he could drop one if he needed to).”

The Court has always held that the approval or rejection of a trade is based purely on its fairness, free from collusion, and in the best interests of the league. Whether a trade is intelligent or popular will not be part of the analysis. See 4 Ponies v. Beaver Hunters, 3 F.J. 26, 27 (June 2011). The virtue of a trade is measured in both quantifiable criteria and subjective needs of the teams involved. See Carson City Cocks v. Stud Muffins, 3 F.J. 23, 24 (May 2011). While this trade may have its share of detractors and critics, it is certainly justifiable from both parties based on their respective submissions. It is not up to the Court to make assumptions about what a particular team’s motivations are when making a trade. See Road Runners v. Urban Achievers, 3 F.J. 47, 50 (June 2011) (holding that the main criteria for evaluating a trade is its inherent fairness, not whether it was an intelligent decision by a league member to make the deal). Rather, the Court’s role in this jurisdiction is to evaluate the objective merits of a deal and ensure that the integrity of the league is maintained. See Victoria’s Secret v. C-Train, 2 F.J. 32, 35 (October 2010).

Here, a trade was proposed and agreed to between two teams on the opposite ends of the standings. That in itself does not present an issue. The concern expressed by the Commissioner and several other league members is that the trade itself is not equitable or fair, and that it disrupts the integrity of the league by essentially giving the Winners, currently in third place, a windfall by acquiring an ace pitcher in Cliff Lee for an unknown future asset. However, this goes to the heart of why people opt to do keeper leagues. It is the exact type of roster management that keeper league team owners must consider when faced with the reality that there is no longer any hope for success in the current season. If Cliff Lee was traded for an unknown, obscure prospect with pedestrian statistics, then perhaps these arguments would have merit. It is true that Strasburg is coming back from major elbow surgery. However, several pitchers have made full recoveries from Tommy John surgery over the past few years and have performed even better than before the operation. There is no reason to think that Strasburg will not overcome the injury and fulfill his potential. The Court already knows what he is capable of given his limited body of work in 2010. Given that, the Court sees no problem with the subject trade and recommends that the league approve it. The trade was made without the specter of collusion and a benefit was provided to both teams. Using this criteria to objectively evaluate trades will help maintain the integrity of the league and allow teams the freedom to manage their rosters how they see fit.

II. SHOULD THE COMMISSIONER HAVE UNILATERALLY CHANGED THE SETTINGS AND PROCEDURES FOR REVIEWING TRADES FROM LEAGUE VOTE TO COMMISSIONER APPROVAL?

The Supreme Court of Fantasy Judgment is consistently presented with questions about a league commissioner’s powers to enact, enforce, and modify rules within the league. In most instances, the Court will side with the commissioner assuming the commissioner’s motives are benevolent and it is in the best interests of the league overall. See Afraid of Change v. Fantasy Football League, 1 F.J. 11, 12 (September 2009). It goes without saying that being the commissioner of a fantasy sports league is a thankless job because of the duties and responsibilities that one must take on only to be met with criticism and second-guessing. Commissioners are constantly under more scrutiny than the other members of the league simply because of the power and authority that is granted with such a position. As such, league commissioners should be cognizant of the perception of whatever decisions they make because they will be analyzed under a very thick microscope. See America’s Team v. The 1987 Denver Broncos are Cartman’s Father, 3 F.J. 51, 53 (July 2011).

Because being the commissioner requires an inordinate amount of extra time spent on the league to effectuate rules and handle any administrative issues that arise, the Court advocates for league commissioners to have a certain amount of authority, autonomy and discretion to run and administer their leagues accordingly. See Flemish USA v. League Commissioner, 2 F.J. 35, 36 (October 2010) (holding the league Commissioners are entitled to arbitrarily make decisions that do benefit the league as a whole).

Here, the Commissioner of the Moritz League has run the league since 2005 operating under the same guidelines and procedures with respect to reviewing trades. Despite the fact there is no league Constitution, the rules and guidelines have essentially become common law due to their longevity and consistency. There were no conversations on the league message boards or any other correspondence that the Court is aware of discussing the need to change the trade review process, let alone the Commissioner’s ability to do so. Without providing any advance notice, the Commissioner autonomously went into Yahoo’s settings and changed the manner in which trades were approved. This action was met with stern opposition from several members of the league. When a league commissioner ignores complaints or differences of opinion from a majority of the league members, it is likely he is not considering what is best for the league in general. See America’s Team v. The 1987 Denver Broncos are Cartman’s Father, 3 F.J. 51, 53 (July 2011) (holding that a league commissioner’s credibility is endangered when he steadfastly refuses to consider logical and meritorious complaints). Fortunately for the Commissioner of the Moritz League, he recognized what he had done and changed the settings back.

The Court recommends that the Commissioner issue a written apology to the league simply stating that his actions were benevolent in nature even though he was procedurally improper in his actions. As a protective measure, the Commissioner can offer certain suggestions to ensure such an event does not take place again. One example includes the creation of a league Constitution which would include language encompassing all possible scenarios that require decisions or judgments. Barring extenuating circumstances, such as avoiding a league mutiny or dealing with a real life scenario that somehow affects the league, Commissioners should never change the established rules or procedures of a league in mid-season. League commissioners should enforce all rules and guidelines consistently. If the Commissioner makes an exception for someone, it should be explained thoroughly why such an exception to the rules exist. See Machine v. Fantasy Football League Commissioner, 2 F.J. 1, 3 (September 2010). Here, no explanation was provided before the Commissioner made his decision. As a result, the Commissioner should not have changed the league settings dealing with how trades are reviewed in the middle of the season.

IT IS SO ORDERED.

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Comments

  1. Robert said...

    Just wanted to check in to say that I love this feature.  Absolutely agree with the ruling on this one, too.

  2. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Good decision, Michael.

    Something to think about for those who can’t get over the disparity in present value an the impact such trades can have on the current season’s standings is some sort of trade limbo for deals like this. These deals can be defined by say, a certain degree of disparity in current season ranks, i.e. any 1-for-1 deal, in which the current season ranking of the two players involved is separated by X slots triggers this competitive bid phase once consumated.

    Basically, it would be like a reversal of the waiver process. The team acquiring acquiring the better ranked player and all teams ahead of that team in the standings would be eligible for a competitive bid phase. Say, for 48 hours, the teams ahead of the acquiring team get to issue counter offers for the player in question. After 48 hours, the other team must chose whether it wants to accept a different offer from another team. If that team selects a different offer, the original trading partner has 24 hours to beat THAT offer.

    This would give contending teams an opportunity to block such a move, but at a significant cost, while ensuring the struggling team gets the most possible for his assets, shuttling him back on the road to competitiveness.

    This idea is not without its flaws either, but may be worth considering to some.

  3. Jay said...

    As a league commissioner, I wish to compliment Mr Stein on a well thought out and thorough evaluation.  I will be posting this at our league site for review by league GMs.

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