Advice on Designing & Running a Successful (Saberish) Fantasy Baseball League

Computernerd_medium This past season, for the first time since ~1999, I (pictured to right in my basement) decided to delve into fantasy baseball.  Since I wanted to play in a very specific type of league, I decided that I might as well act as commissioner of my own Yahoo league.  I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, but it turned out to be a blast.  I learned a lot along the way, too, and thought I'd put some of this down in case it helps other budding would-be commissioners out there.

 

Establishing Your League's Rules

The main goal I had entering this project was to play in a fantasy baseball league that used a specific scoring system (more on that below).  What I didn't realize was the importance of many of the other decisions I made early on.  Here's a smattering of the rules that turned out to have huge consequences on the league:

 

League Size & Depth

I was so green when I set up this league that I didn't know that most leagues were 10-12 managers deep.  But I wanted a league that would have rosters that weren't just full of all-stars, as that's where a lot of the most interesting values are to me.

This wasn't really something to which I gave a ton of thought, but it turned out to be one of the most important decisions I made.  League depth impacts almost every strategic decision a manager will make.  A 20-team league with 22-man (+DL slot) rosters is a pretty deep league.  There are deeper leagues out there, but it's deep enough that there were times when there literally were no players with full time jobs available on the waiver wire at certain positions.  It made for a very rich experience, where hot young prospects could perform significantly above the league replacement level (Logan Morrison was a godsend for my Morneau-less team over the last few months)...and where injuries had me deciding between Yuniesky Betancourt, David Eckstein, and Ronny Cedeno to sure up my middle infield at one point.  It might not be appealing to the most casual of fantasy players, but I loved it.

That said, it also had some unexpected consequences.  The first was that the scoring system, which was designed for a fairly shallow league, wouldn't work: it would often be better to "start" an injured player than let a poor hitter play.  It also had a major effect on strategy: it was difficult to sneak a player through waivers, because much of the time, anyone of any interest--whether they were injured, had a job, etc--would be snagged immediately.  It affected the viability of many strategies, from how you drafted to the use of pitcher streaming.

 

Weekly Lineup Transactions

Another decision I made early on was to opt for weekly lineup transactions.  This means, in our league, you set your lineup for the entire week on Sunday night, and you cannot alter it until the following Sunday evening.  There were two reasons I went this route.  First, I wanted to avoid having to log in every day during the season--I was looking for balance between an active league and one that was a major time commitment.  Second, it seemed a good way to prevent resorting to innings/PA limits to prevent excessive streaming practices.

What I hadn't realized, however, was that this--along with a points-based scoring system--would set up a premium on two-start pitchers.  As the season went on, and especially once the playoffs hit, there was a scramble each week for two-start pitchers on the waiver wire.  Luis Atilano?  Sean O'Sullivan?  If they're two-start pitchers, add & activate them for the week.  Basically, it was streaming, but on a week-by-week basis.  Fortunately, the depth of the league helps mitigate the effect of this strategy to some degree.  In many cases, there were only 3-4 guys available who were on track for two starts in a given week.  And in several cases, the guys I signed ended up losing their jobs by the time the second start arrived (here's looking at you, Luke French and Brian Tallet).

 

To Keep or Not to Keep

Among the first questions I received as managers joined my league was whether this would be a keeper league.  My first response was "Heck yeah!"  Keeper leagues are awesome, of course.  You get a chance to build a dynasty of sorts, maintaining the core of your team from year to year.  The question, however, was how to do it.

First, how many should you keep?  I didn't want the keeper system to prevent teams from being able to move up in the rankings from year to year, which is a risk if you allow excessive numbers of keepers.  We eventually settled on four players per team.  I don't know if that's the right number or not, but it will mean that ~80 players (4 x 20 teams) will be kept next season, which seems like a good number.  

The next question was how to set it all up.  Several managers thought that simply keeping your four best players was a bit too boring and wouldn't reward managers for getting good players for cheap (i.e. in late rounds, or off of waivers) like in auction keeper leagues.  Therefore, we instituted a system in which kept players become your draft pick in the same round in which they were originally drafted.  If you want to keep the player for more than a second year, their draft slot starts to move upwards (you can read the details here).  It's a more complicated system, and is certain to cause some confusion this offseason...but for me, it's worth it because of the additional strategy it involves.  Do I keep Dan Haren (drafted in 3rd round), or do I keep Madison Bumgarner (drafted in 18th round)?  Haren's likely to have a better year in 2011 (I think..?), but Bumgarner's a far better value given his draft position.  We'll see how it all plays out in the draft next spring, but it should introduce some tough decisions.

 

How to Run the Draft

This spring, I was concerned about how much time a real draft would take (we'd be drafting 440 players!), and whether we'd be able to find a time that worked for all 20 managers (fwiw, this is also why I completely ruled out an auction system).  So I opted to instead do an "autodraft."  This was fun for me and some of the other managers, as it rewards managers who really honed their pre-draft rankings.  But for a lot of managers, it either was too daunting of a task (many managers just went with a standard draft list), or resulted in some very poor draft "decisions."  One manager accidentally filled up on closers and shortstops to the detriment of other positions.  My own team drafted Mauer in the 1st round and McCann in the 2nd round (though I was able to parlay McCann into Justin Morneau, which worked out well in the first half).  

Next season, we're going to try an extended draft.  We'll start in early February, and each manager will have up to 24 hours to make their pick (the people at mockdraftcentral.com have assured me that they could accommodate our needs in terms of positions, keepers, etc).  This way, everyone should be able to participate in the draft.  If we get to the final week before the season starts, we'll schedule a time where the pick window will be narrowed to 1 min 30 sec and finish it off.  I think it should work pretty well.  Here's hoping, anyway.


The Scoring System

The thing that prompted me to get interested in playing fantasy baseball again was this post by Tom Tango in which he developed a points system that would mirror WAR in how different events were weighted.  This system made fantasy baseball far more like "real baseball" in terms of how player performances determined how teams ranked, and to me was far preferable to the classic rotisserie categories or standard points systems.  

As it turned out, we needed to modify that system so that it would work in our deep league (Tango's system uses a replacement-level baseline, whereas I ended up having to develop a system that used an absolute runs baseline because many starting players at C or SS produce below replacement--there's no position adjustments).  The result, however, was a neat scoring system that worked remarkably well in its first season of use.  It was even adopted by a few other leagues, including the BtB Saber-slanted league in which I also played.  

There were a few unexpected surprises, however.  First, as is the case in most points leagues, innings pitched by your pitchers was huge.  As a head to head league (see below), we couldn't restrict innings (not sure I'd want to anyway), which meant that the two-start starter was an incredibly valuable asset: a crappy two-start starter would net you ~40 points in a week, whereas a good quality single-start pitcher would net you 25-30.  

Secondly, it also completely altered the RP market.  We did assign points for saves and holds to increase the value of closers and relief men, even though holds and (especially) saves are stupid stats.  But it turned out that, by far, the most valuable relief pitchers were actually starting pitchers with RP eligibility (Shaun Marcum, Justin Masterson, Brandon Morrow, Brett Myers, etc).  Each team had to have three "RP"'s starting, but in many cases a #4 starter with RP eligibility would be more valuable than the best true closer.  We will probably increase the value of saves a bit next season to bump the closer value a bit, but it will always be the case that starters with RP eligibility will be excellent plays.  The alternative might be to rid ourselves of the SP/RP distinction altogether and just require 9 P's, but I'll be happy if closers can generally compete well with starters.


Head to Head vs. Total Points

A decision I made early on was to take advantage of the new Head to Head points league format available via Yahoo this year.  Essentially, we used a points system, but you matched up against an opponent each week (we had 23 "weeks"), and the team that got the most points got a "win" for the week.  I think this was a huge part of what made the league fun.  Head to head leagues require (or, at least, encourage) constant fiddling throughout the season, because you need to do well each week rather than just accumulate the most points over the entire season.  You get to set up divisions and get genuine rivalries among managers, all of which helps keep managers engaged and active...and the playoffs that go along with it are a blast.

The one downside to head to head points leagues is that, like in real baseball, the best team doesn't always win.  Weaker teams can topple better teams on any given week if their players get "hot," and teams will sometimes be upwards of three wins above or below where they "should be" given their point totals at end of season.  When you only have 23 scoring periods, this is a significant difference.  Furthermore, the playoffs can negate an entire year of success.  We let 8 of 20 teams make the playoffs--which might be too much, but I wanted to have wild cards in case the four divisions turned out to be unbalanced in talent.  As it happened, only 1 of the four division winners advanced to the second round of playoffs, with the rest of the teams being wild card teams.  And the best team during the regular season, who accumulated 800 more points than the next best manager (500 pts/week was fairly average, so this was a huge margin), ended up finishing 3rd in the playoffs due to a second-round defeat.  But hey, the 2001 Seattle Mariners didn't go to the World Series either.  


Running Your League and Motivating your Managers

Once you have your rules established and the draft is underway, the job of the commissioner changes from organizer to (as I see it) cheerleader.  The most common, chronic problem that ends up dooming many fantasy leagues is a lack of participation of managers.  Some will draft and then never be seen again.  Some others will play for a few months and then disappear, sometimes showing up again several months later and sometimes never showing up again.  By end of season, in my experience, the number of active managers can be often counted on one hand.  To me, this sucks the fun out of the league.

A key aspect of running a successful league, then, is motivating managers to continue playing--even after their team is out of the hunt.  The structure of the league can play a big role here--as I said, head to head leagues keep managers from running away with the eventual championship, and usually require weekly fiddling to ensure continued success.  But there are a lot of other things that a commissioner can do to keep the managers motivated.  Here are some things that I did.

 

League Website

As we put together our rules, it increasingly became apparent that we needed a separate website to house our league constitution--the little "Commissioner Note" on the Yahoo page just wasn't cutting it.  So I created a simple website as a google site under my gmail account to spell out all of our rules.  

I quickly decided, however, to add some additional features to the website that were designed to help maintain interest in the league.  So I added division race graphs like Hardball Times used to have, which let you track team trends (below, you can see that my team, the Grues, lost their first four match-ups, then played .500 ball for a while before going on a tear throughout most of the rest of the summer).

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I also added other things, including y-t-d point totals for teams (which were eventually shown in the yahoo standings, but at the beginning of the season were not), and graphs comparing team offenses vs. team pitching.  I'm not sure how much people actually used it, but I had fun putting the site together and a few people did seem to check it periodically.  The most important part of it, though, as that it helped me with the next item...

 

Weekly Updates

After the first couple of weeks, I started writing weekly updates profiling happenings in the league and sending it around to all the managers (they are archived here).  I'd talk about key match-ups, movement in the standings, and would typically profile a few of the match-ups each week including players who had particularly good or bad weeks in those series.  They turned out to be surprisingly popular among the managers.  Several managers related to me that it made them feel like people were actually paying attention to what was happening in the league, and I think it was an important part of what helped motivate most of our managers to keep playing all season long.  Look, we all know it's just fantasy.  But I think they helped the league develop a sense of community and excitement within the league, and that makes a big difference.

They probably took between a half-hour and an hour to write up each week, and there were a few weeks that I missed here and there.  But I found them to be a lot of fun to do, and many managers reported that they looked forward to the updates arriving in their inbox each week.  I'd encourage any commissioner to think about doing something like this, as I think they seem to be very helpful in keeping the league going.


Give everyone something to play for

If you find yourself at the bottom of your division at the all-star break without hope of making the playoffs, it's natural to lose interest.  In fact, in many leagues, abandoning one's team may actually be incentivized.  Often, the top picks in the subsequent draft will go to the teams that finish last.  So if you aren't going to win, you're best off losing--and losing big!  To combat this, mid-way through the year we changed our draft order rule such that the teams that just missed the playoffs would pick first.  So, in our league, with 8 playoff slots, our draft order goes like this:

Draft Pos #1 = Team finishing 9th the year before
Draft Pos #2 = Team finishing 10th
...
Draft Pos #12 = Team finishing Last
Draft Pos #13 = Last-ranked playoff team
Draft Pos #14 = Second to last playoff team
...
Draft Pos #20 = League Champion

While I'm scared about the consequences of this, the current plan is to keep this same draft order each round--no snaking.  This sets up a huge incentive to finish as high as you can in the league, even if you end up missing the playoffs.  This really works--several of the teams that ended up finishing #9-#12 were making all kinds of roster moves as they gunned for the top draft slot at the end of the year, even though they were already essentially out of competition for a playoff slot.  

My one concern is that it might be too much of a carrot...as the #7 team this past season, I'd still like to have a shot at the playoffs next year, but I'll be working from a considerable disadvantage in the draft along with the other playoff teams.  But half of my team ended up being waiver wire signings anyway, so I think it will be ok...

 

It's not a democracy, but involve managers in decisions

You ultimately need to be in charge of your own league.  If nothing else, you need to retain the authority to deal with managers who become problematic for the league (fortunately I didn't have to deal with any real conflicts this year).  But one thing that can really help with league involvement is to solicit advice and tips from your managers.  This not only will generally help the quality of the league--more heads will generally result in better ideas and implementation--but it also gives the managers some ownership in the league.  I do generally steer away from holding polls or votes, for example.  But I often will ask for input on rule decisions (e.g. the playoff thing) before implementing them, and use the discussion to inform my decisions.

 

So there you have it

I've only been doing this for a year, so I can't pretend to have all the answers.  But the league went very well this season, and is poised for an even better year next year.  Despite more or less just taking whoever responded to my advertisements for the league, a good 75% of managers were active all season long.  With the inactive managers departing and new active managers joining up for next year, we should have a competitive, active league in 2011.  I'm looking forward to it.  Thanks to all the managers of my league for making it such a fun year.  

I'm obviously still learning about this process, so I'd be happy to hear your own experiences regarding the above topics or others I did not mention.  

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