The Verdict: it’s not illegal unless you say so

As the fantasy baseball season closes, one topic that I have been consistently asked about lately is the concept of having empty lineup and roster slots. There are a few reasons why one would intentionally do this, and most of these reasons seem entirely valid. The question I have been presented with on several occasions is whether it is illegal or against the spirit of competition within a league.

This issue has been litigated before the Supreme Court of Fantasy Judgment in a fantasy football case captioned as Awful Mitigators vs. Skeletors, 4 F.J. 316 (December 2010). That case involved a team that had already clinched a playoff berth not wanting to score additional points, which would have elevated him to a higher playoff seed, and thus create a more difficult playoff match-up. That team benched two players in that week’s Monday Night game, leaving him with two empty slots in his starting lineup. Since no rules were in place preventing such action, the Court denied the league commissioner’s request to override the system and add benched players back into the lineup.

In fantasy baseball leagues, the same scenario could certainly exist. But given the abundance of daily leagues with intricate and customized pitching requirements, the ability to “stream” pitchers has led to a more overt desire to sacrifice certain starting positions to maximize starting pitchers.

On most fantasy platforms, commissioners have the ability to penalize or disqualify teams that have illegal rosters or lineups. They can choose to select that option in the league settings, or they can draft rules in a constitution or charter which specifically prohibit it. But if such action is not prohibited, then it should be permitted… with an exception.

That exception is where a fantasy owner intentionally throws a game by setting an illegal lineup for the purpose of allowing another team to benefit from this action. That would amount to collusive activity and should never be tolerated. If players have obtained enough success to be able to dictate their future match-ups based on seeding or positioning, then they have earned the right to manipulate their lineup as such. But to act accordingly for the benefit or detriment of someone else violates all forms of sportsmanship and the spirit of the league.

Assuming that a league’s rules do not prohibit it and there is no collusion involved, it is a sound strategic decision to leave certain roster slots empty. In roto fantasy baseball leagues, a player’s poor batting average may end up costing a team points in the standings. Toward the end of the season, even hundredths of a percentage could affect the overall standings. So it makes sense to perhaps leave one catcher’s spot empty in a two-catcher league.

Another reason to intentionally leave spots empty in your lineup is to prevent a player from gaining negative points. This relates to the fantasy football case I mentioned, where a team had a lead going into the Monday night game and had players remaining while an opponent does not. Theoretically, those players can accumulate negative points (i.e., interceptions, fumbles lost, incomplete passes) which could change the outcome of the game.

The same thing can happen in fantasy baseball leagues. Examples may be in daily leagues where GMs want to avoid unnecessary spikes in their ERA or WHIP categories, or in points leagues where earned runs, blown saves, or batter strikeouts result in negative points. To ensure that does not happen, a fantasy owner should be afforded the opportunity to take those players out, only as long as the league’s rules and settings permit it.

Going back to the concept of streaming pitchers, teams that have flexibility with their innings limits may be afforded the ability to move pitchers in and out. On a similar note, teams that may be approaching their innings limit can choose to leave some pitchers’ slots empty rather than have mediocre relief pitchers occupy them. Either way, there is justification for doing so.

This topic goes to the very basics of fantasy leagues where rules must be explicitly written and enforced. It is certainly understandable why people would not support such handling of lineups. So to prevent people from even having the ability to do it, there should be express rules prohibiting it. That can be accomplished by either selecting an automatic disqualification for having an illegal lineup or setting it forth in a league constitution.

Another way to accomplish the same goal but perhaps appease other skeptical GMs is for teams to substitute reserve players with little chance of playing in lieu of leaving the roster spots empty. Granted, that is mild compensation. But it technically means all teams are complying with the lineup and roster requirements. It sounds trivial, but keeping the peace and maintaining the integrity of a fantasy league is paramount to anything else.

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