What should fantasy baseball “be about?” part 2

Last week, I wrote about streaming players within the context of the core values of fantasy baseball. This week I’d like to talk about another controversial practice in a similar context – dumping. Some owners feel that fantasy baseball should be predominantly focused on best projecting what players are going to accomplish in the current season and that teams that dump both skew the balance of power within leagues and operate antithetically to game’s care values by privileging the yet to be realized talent above currently productive and valuable assets.

My take on this issue is fairly simple and boils down to two core points. One, as long as an owner is legitimately attempting to improve his team, in his mind, I find it difficult to oppose what he is doing on any sort of fundamental grounds. Two, once you introduce a keeper element to your league (this is when dumping occurs), you are introducing skills to be valued beyond projecting a player’s performance in the current season. Owners must accept that dumping will exist – must exist to some degree – in a healthy, well-functioning keeper league.

It is certainly frustrating to watch owners engage in fire sales that drastically swing the competitive balance of a league, especially extremely early in the season. But, perspective must be maintained. In order to guard against a league devolving into perennial first- and second-division teams, the opportunity to rebuild must remain fairly open. Further, as Jonathan Sher pointed out in his first column here at THT, it is in a potentially rebuilding owner’s best interest to decide quickly and definitely as to whether to play for this year or next. And, it so follows that the earlier he acts, the better the market will be for the assets he’s going to dump. Dumping, and dumping early, is a wholly rational behavior within the context of a multi-year league. After all, it happens in real baseball all the time, though perhaps less drastically.

Where things get really murky, just as in the streaming issue, is when we get into extremes. One case that is often brought up is that of a league with a fixed maximum number of keepers and a team proceeds to sell off all its usable parts in lopsided deals because anything other than the X best priced assets this team has is worthless going into the following season. This situation begs the question of whether the league should intervene or regulate against such behavior. I say, no – not directly.

This owner is acting in a rational manner within the context of the larger system, so the way I would address this would not be to punish or disallow a perfectly rational approach, but instead to tweak the system in a manner that such behavior becomes slightly less rational. It’s also important to remember that outright disallowing iconoclastic behavior is a recipe for stagnation. Boundaries must be pushed to advance any institution.

I often advocate building a non-negligible penalty into the league structure for the team who finishes in last place (maybe the bottom two finishers depending on the number of teams in the league). Most directly, I support this idea because it helps with the problem of deadbeating, but it can also function as a deterrent to excessive dumping as well. Yes, you may still go all out to rebuild your team, but there is a penalty to not even trying to be competitive. (By the way, if you limit dumping too heavy-handedly, you may wind up unintentionally facilitating deadbeating.)

Generally speaking, I think the best way to protect against exploiting a legitimate and rational tactic (streaming, dumping, etc.) is to disincentive-ze its use at its extreme as opposed to just outlawing it. Often times, if you are tempted to ban something that is rational by the rules of the system, it is the system itself that is flawed.

Above all, think very carefully when setting up the parameters for a league, especially a keeper league. Many of the seemingly innocuous choices you make along the way reflect underlying values or philosophies. In my main keeper league we sign a contract that outlines the terms of the league for a cycle (every fourth or fifth year, we erase all the rosters and redraft). The set-up is fairly simple, but the process is healthy. We meet before each season and anybody who wants to propose a rule change can do so and the group discusses and votes on it.

Well thought out league set-up and healthy governance is probably the most overlooked element of a positive fantasy experience. At the end of the day, we can all have different opinions on what we value in a league, but the reasons we complain usually stem from either joining the wrong league or not giving enough thought to the structure of the league you set up.

The time to address questionable strategies and practices is before a league begins; you can be proactive or you can be “a hater.” Outright bans on practices are cop out fixes, and often unnecessary, not to mention undemocratic. You are creating your league from scratch; it’s only flaws will be those you introduced.

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Comments

  1. Millsy said...

    Derek,

    Definitely agree with you.  It’s all about disincentivizing the behavior and creating a context in which this year is the most valuable, but considering next year still needs to be accounted for.  Over at Fantasy Ball Junkie, I posted a series on how to deal with things in a H2H categories league (and I think I’ve mentioned it here as well).

    http://www.fantasyballjunkie.com/?p=2325

  2. Steve said...

    One thing our league does to help minimize dumping is keeping a large amount of players – even if for only a year or two and setting up our draft order the following year in an interesting way. The first round is set up by the worst record in the 1st half of the season (to the all star break). The 2nd round, however, has the best 2nd half record being the first pick and on down. It encourages teams to try to win in the 2nd half because if they tank the whole year, they won’t have great keepers, might have one of the first picks in the first round, but then have to wait until the end of the 2nd round to pick again. With a lot of keepers, this year, that made the difference of Andrew McCutcheon and Jose Lopez. There is usually a big fall off in the 2nd round as you can tell.

  3. Ragoczy said...

    “I often advocate building a non-negligible penalty into the league structure for the team who finishes in last place”

    >>> Can you give some examples?

  4. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Ragoczy,

    One option is money. You could either institute an extra payment that the last place team must make to the winner, or you could tweak the payment structure of the whole league in a way that causes the bottom-finishing teams to have to pay more money than the top teams.

    If you are in a league with buddies who are fairly local, you can institute a rule that at the end of the season there’s a party for all the owners. The last place owner has to host the party and is responsible for supplying the food, drink and cleaning. Sometimes, designating him as “beer bitch” is even more effective. Some people have money and don’t really care about having to throw a party with it, but nobody likes to be embarrassed.

    But, nothing is guaranteed to work. People are motivated by different things. One thing I will say is that if everybody in the league knows each other, the biggest deterrant to coming in last is the embarassment and ribbing to come. Material penalties work for some but not all.

  5. Yusebio said...

    In our H2H league we give the first pick to the winner of the Consolation Bracket. This gives the owners of the less successful teams the incentive to field a competitive team even when they’re out of the running. It has the added benefit of keeping everyone engaged until the end of the season regardless of their record.

  6. KY said...

    I agree that incentive systems are better in most instances in life.  I agree that MLB allows the trading of players for future improvement.  I do not however agree that the trading of prospects for larger current value has aesthetic value for all people.  I think we can all agree that having everyone start with the same pool of money or picks makes fantasy baseball more enjoyable then being the Marlins trying to beat the Mets and Phillies.

    We have had good success with not allowing traded players to be kept.  Therefore no firesale of any kind can occur, but keepers are still present.  The opposite of an incentive system, but it does work.  Good article.

  7. Tom said...

    Derek your argument is flawed in that you don’t need fire sale trades to have a healthy well functioning league. 

    My league has outlawed fire sale trades over a decade ago and it is still going strong.

    I also don’t think you know what the meaning of the word undemocratic means.  If the league owners vote to outlaw fire sales, how is that undemocratic?

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