Before I get down to business, I just want to let you guys know that this week’s podcast over at baseballhq radio features an interview with me about the quants versus geniuses debate springing from the Cardrunners discussion a few weeks ago. Most of the topics covered are also done so in my column, but if you’re a fan of stammering, “ums,” “likes,” and “you knows,” don’t miss it!
Over the last few weeks I’ve read a lot of commentary that makes claims, either explicitly or implicitly, about what fantasy baseball is or isn’t, or what it should or should not “be about.” Should it be about properly evaluating and projecting this year’s talent? Should it be about sensing the writing on the wall and dumping wisely in order to build for the future? Should it be value savvy evaluation to the exclusion of hustle and incessant tinkering? Everybody seems to have ideas about what fantasy baseball’s existential identity should be and I’d like to take the time to offer my thoughts on some of these questions.
Many of these more philosophical quarrels are known to escalate from seemingly benign, almost administrative league set-up issues. Of course, one of the drums I often beat is that league set-up questions are never really benign; they are the tactics by which an owner consciously or accidentally expresses what the league will and won’t value and encourage.
Here’s an example of an innocent enough question; should you limit roster moves? (This issue is clearly most germane in daily transaction leagues without free-agent bidding. In weekly transaction leagues, the limit is already set by the format and in FAAB leagues; this is also a non-issue because your free-agent budget determines how many moves you can make.)
Ostensibly, this question is asking whether to limit streaming, or preclude serial streaming as an executable strategy. Objections to chronic streaming and incessant roster tweaking come from two different perspectives, the practical and the philosophical. Let me touch first briefly on the practical beef.
Some claim that streaming is almost tantamount to a loophole and gives the owner utilizing this strategy an advantage. I happen to disagree and let me briefly articulate my rationale for this opinion.
First, let me state that a well-constructed league should generally try to establish a balance of counting and rate stats on the pitching side, saves aside. So, in your conventional 5×5 league you have two stats that are conducive to streaming (wins and strikeouts) and two that should not be (ERA and WHIP). It is my belief that the risks of serial streaming are inherent in the strategy, you risk one set of categories for the other. A statement I find myself making often in response to those who complain about the overactive owner is, “Those players are unowned for a reason.”
Beyond the risk of ballooning rate stats, the hidden cost of streaming is the opportunity cost of dropping otherwise roster-worthy players to create the dynamic of musical chairs on your last two or three roster spots. Streamers often begin on their road by dropping either a high potential player who isn’t working out or a veteran with a good track record off to a slow start. Of course, the flip side to this argument is that those who are most active on the wire are also most likely to pick up some of the gems that emerge every year.
I’ll refrain from getting into a very long discussion about the strategic merits of streaming, as most of you likely know the pros and cons. Very quickly, I will say that streaming works best if you are the only one doing it, when it is done in a H2H leagues, and when the league is shallow enough that there are legitimately attractive options on the wire. But none of these things make it anything resembling a loophole. Personally, I consider streaming a tactic and not a strategy. I’m not against using it either in principle or practice, but feel it is most productive when used either opportunistically or to mitigate a bad week.
If we can agree that the risks of streaming are inherent in its execution, that leaves only those who dissent on philosophical grounds. Some claim that aggressive streaming, travel-day bat pickups, etc. undermine the skill and player evaluation of the game by privileging hustle or access to one’s computer. I think this argument is patently absurd, to be honest.
This argument begs the question of what fantasy baseball is supposed to be, what it is supposed to value, and what qualities it should privilege among owners. Well, the simplest way of answering this question in the most agreeable manner is that it should mimic the experience of assembling and running a baseball team and privilege the skills needed to do so, or valued by the business of running an actual baseball team itself.
It is no small commitment to actively peruse the waiver wires daily, to process information nightly, pay attention to schedules and attractive daily match-ups. Sure, sometimes daily transaction leagues devolve into a race to the add button, but what is wrong with that? Doesn’t business itself value agility, attention to detail, dedication and sacrifice? How many culture-changing inventions were really just a race to the patent office all the same? Isn’t he who claims that the daily transaction devalues his skills really just saying that he’s not dedicated enough to exercise them on a daily basis?
In the age of increasing information and technological symmetry, hustle is now more important then ever in terms of differentiating between winners and losers. Information is ubiquitous and inescapable; the question is who can process and earn a profit from it most quickly and efficiently. And, most fundamentally, don’t actual general managers and franchise owners face these same problems daily?
To be fair, I understand that some people just have a circumstantial advantage in relation to these dynamics. Do you work at an office with access to a computer or not? Do you work at an office, but are blocked from visiting sports sites by the IT Gestapo and Orwellian corporate policy? Do you have a family? Do you work a 60-hour week (not including your Wednesday Hardball Times column)? I get all that, I really do.
However, if you think any of those issues are that important to your ability to compete in a daily transaction league, then I have a very practical rebuttal for your philosophical gripe – join a weekly transaction league! Or… account for that on draft day, as I always preach. Pay a little extra for saves, consolidate your roster in favor of core strength as opposed to depth, etc. Either extricate yourself from the problem or proactively address it. What I do not consider a legitimate response is self-righteously whining about it, while advancing the delusion that dedication and hustle are foreign to the recipe for success, generally speaking, and that the owner with the itchy add/drop finger is engaging in something that is antithetical to the fundamental principles of fantasy baseball.
There are many ways to play fantasy baseball, and as the game continues to expand even more variations will arise. The issue is not to argue self-righteously about which is the most pure (though I’d be a hypocrite if I claimed I was never guilty of being self-righteous), but of finding a format that reflects your preferences and values.