Fantasy MLB: Roto Leagues Don't Resemble Real Baseball

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It is no secret that I personally am not a big fan of Roto leagues for fantasy baseball.

My criticism of Roto leagues is well documented dating back to a Roto vs. H2H article I had written in 2009. This may be considered blasphemy to some in the industry, but I just can’t get excited about standard 5x5 Roto leagues. In my opinion, they do not represent any semblance to real baseball with regard to the valuation and talents of professional baseball players.

That being said, I am not complaining about the popularity of Roto leagues because they represented a majority of the customers who signed up for Fantasy Judgment dispute resolution services in 2010.

For some background, Roto leagues typically are based on five offensive categories (batting average, home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, and stolen bases) and five pitching categories (wins, saves, earned run average, WHIP, and strikeouts) — hence they are called 5x5 leagues. There are variations of this as some leagues employ 4x4 or even 6x6 format, either adding or subtracting certain categories. The gist is that Roto league members accumulate season totals and are ranked based on where they stand in each category. The other type of fantasy baseball played is referred to as head-to-head (H2H), where a point value is associated with a litany of statistics (much more extensive than just the few categories in Roto leagues) and teams play games against a direct opponent each week. The winner is the team who has accumulated more points from his players during a particular scoring period. In my estimation, this format is more representative of real baseball.

Because of my bias and preference towards H2H leagues, I am always frustrated every year when I read the fantasy baseball magazines and website rankings and evaluations for players because they are purely based on Roto league performance. I can’t explain why, but I get so irritated hearing about why Michael Bourn and Juan Pierre are so revered simply because they steal a lot of bases.

I understand there are not a lot of players who amass impressive stolen base totals, so winning the steals category requires a certain amount of strategy. But besides that, what value do they bring to a fantasy team? Neither has any power whatsoever, they are not high on-base percentage players so they do not score a lot of runs, they hit near the top of their respective orders so they don’t drive in runs, and they are not typically hovering near .300 for their batting average. In my personal opinion, Roto leagues do not promote a sophisticated or realistic evaluation of a player's true worth.

Maybe I am making unfounded assumptions that people who play fantasy baseball want to somehow simulate the feeling of being a general manager. Maybe I am overemphasizing the importance or desire to have fantasy baseball resemble real baseball. I am in no means attempting to insult anyone or criticize anyone’s personal preferences. I am merely trying to point out that the old standard way of evaluating players in fantasy baseball needs to evolve because H2H is arguably just as popular.

For those like me who play H2H, there is no reason to rely on magazine’s rankings and analysis because it does not translate to H2H formats—at least not very well. Two more examples of this are Hanley Ramirez and Carl Crawford. Both of them are superb baseball players with loads of talent, and they are also very valuable fantasy assets. Ramirez is especially revered because he is a shortstop, and that is one position with major scarcity and lack of depth beyond the few top-tier options. He is universally considered the No. 1 or No. 2 pick in almost every draft that is conducted and analyzed in fantasy magazines and websites.

After Albert Pujols, is Ramirez really the second best player in baseball? I think most would agree that he is not. But because he plays shortstop and is a 30-30 candidate every year, he shoots up the list to No. 2. In a H2H league, he has a ton of value as well. But I don’t think he would universally be penned the No. 2 pick in a H2H draft because there are plenty of other players who can amass significantly more points than him. Crawford is a more direct example of Roto love. While he is a tremendously talented baseball player who has put up consistently impressive statistics every year, is he really worth a top five pick in a draft? Over his nine-year career, he has averaged .296, 14 home runs, 78 RBI, 100 runs scored, and 54 stolen bases. He has never reached 20 home runs or topped 90 RBIs in a single season. He is revered in Roto leagues because of his speed and his propensity for stolen bases.

As he gets older and enters his 30′s, his legs will not have the same strength or endurance so it is likely his stolen base numbers will continually decrease as he ages. This is perfectly normal. Just watch as the years go on as his value in Roto leagues slowly but surely decreases. That is, unless he takes advantage of his new surroundings and powerful lineup in Boston and amasses 25 home runs and 100+ RBI while also sporting a .300-plus batting average and scoring 100-plus runs. That is certainly possible, but the love of his stolen bases will wane. In sum, if Crawford wasn't stealing 50-plus bases per season, he wouldn't even be a third-round pick.

I am aware that I may be in the minority with my opinions. But when I read an article in Lindy’s 2011 fantasy baseball magazine written by Dave Cameron of Fangraphs, I was pleasantly surprised to see that others felt there were things that needed to be done to improve fantasy baseball so as to make it more representative of real baseball. Without so much as explicitly saying it, Cameron was constructively criticizing Roto leagues. He made several recommendations to make fantasy baseball more enjoyable and similar to real baseball.

In all fairness, these suggestions could be employed by both Roto and H2H leagues, but they are more likely geared towards Roto leagues. First, Cameron suggested that we value statistics that win games as opposed to statistics that are simply scarce. This goes directly to my point regarding stolen bases. Cameron expands this suggestion by also mentioning saves and used Chad Qualls and Juan Gutierrez (both on the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2010) as examples.

Qualls and Gutierrez combined for 27 saves and neither was likely drafted before the season. Teams that acquired them in midseason were rewarded with some saves to help bolster that category in Roto leagues. But when you look at their entire body of work, they also combined for an ERA of over 6.00. In a Roto league, that doesn’t matter. All that counts are the saves. In a H2H league, fantasy teams are likely penalized for giving up earned runs, issuing walks, blowing saves, and any other category that may have a point value associated with it. The most poignant point made by Cameron in this argument is that “this leads to some truly bad baseball players being elite fantasy talents, and a huge disconnect between reality and the way fantasy is scored.” Well said Mr. Cameron.

The next suggestion made by Cameron is directly pointed to Roto leagues and their use and value of batting average as a category. As he points out, batting average only deals with plays that happen when a batter swings the bat. The example Cameron used compared Carlos Gonzalez and Joey Votto. Gonzalez hit 12 points higher than the NL MVP but made 25 more outs than Votto in 12 fewer plate appearances.

Cameron suggests using on-base percentage in lieu of batting average as the measure for a player’s true offensive value. As my father preached to my little league team when I was seven years old, “a walk is as good as a hit.” This is absolutely true. Good offensive players typically have good plate discipline and pitch selection, and this usually translates into high walk totals which helps increase on-base percentage.

Cameron then makes a similar argument for pitchers when he recommends utilizing innings pitched as a category. The example he used was the reigning American League Cy Young Award winner Felix Hernandez. His lack of victories was well documented, and fortunately this was overlooked when he was given the award despite only winning 13 games.

But as we all know, a pitcher’s true value and talent is not based on the number of wins he accumulates. As a way to reap the benefits of pitchers like King Felix who pitch well but are hampered by inept offenses, Cameron thinks that including innings pitched as a category will help offset “an increase in roster strategies that emphasizes relievers and cheap starting pitchers that would just clear league minimums in innings pitched, allowing bullpen arms to drive the ratio stats of ERA and WHIP down even further by taking a larger percentage of a team’s total innings.” Well said Mr. Cameron.

As a way of demonstrating my objectivity, I do not agree with everything that Cameron suggests. He recommends that defense be considered and valued in fantasy leagues. This I wholeheartedly disagree with. While no one would mistake Carl Crawford with Adam Dunn with regard to their defensive capabilities, their talents in the field have no place in a fantasy league.

I am a strong advocate for fantasy baseball being as close to real baseball as possible, but the fact of the matter is that fantasy baseball is not real baseball. The intangibles for which Derek Jeter is so revered mean nothing in a fantasy league. If he rebounds and hits .320 with 20 HR, 85 RBIs, 110 runs scored and 25 stolen bases, no one will care whether he makes 20 errors or dives into the stands to catch a ball.

I also disagree with Cameron’s recommendation to delineate outfielders at a specific position. He argues that having a team with Adam Dunn, Manny Ramirez and Carlos Lee as your three outfielders is something no major league manager would ever do. While that is true, that makes no difference in fantasy baseball.

Each outfield position does take specialized skill and talent. Center field is clearly the most important outfield position and it cannot be played by just anyone. A center fielder needs to have speed, agility, a strong arm, and leadership to cover the gaps and make calls on a ball. But at the end of the day, every outfielder has the same job description: cover the field, catch the ball, throw to the correct base, back up plays in the infield when necessary. These tasks must be completed by left fielders, right fielders and center fielders. To require fantasy baseball players to draft individual outfield positions doesn’t make much sense and would devalue all outfielders overall.

Where I do agree with Cameron regarding positional delineations is to do away with the “corner infielder” and “middle infielder” labels. While these are usually reserve or bench positions, it is completely unrealistic to have Billy Butler, Derrek Lee or Carlos Pena as a backup third basemen. Having specific positional players in the infield is much different than the outfield, and I do agree with Cameron’s point about this.

In summation, I love baseball—both real and fantasy. I love playing fantasy baseball for many reasons, and I do want my leagues to be as close to real baseball as possible. But it can never truly replicate the real thing, and no one should ever expect it to. But there are many ways to simulate leagues to make them as comparable to real baseball as possible. The verdict is that H2H leagues do that more than Roto leagues.

The Court wants to hear your comments on whether you concur or dissent with the verdict by sending an email to michael.stein @, or find us on Facebook and Twitter @FantasyJudgment.

Read more great baseball stuff at The Hardball Times.


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