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.