The Verdict: Roto fantasy leagues do not resemble real baseball.

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 5×5 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 5×5 leagues. There are variations of this as some leagues employ 4×4 or even 6×6 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.

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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.


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Frank
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Frank

why not use OPS instead of OBP?  that way you take into account how good of a contact hitter they are, their batter’s eye, and their power.  with OBP a single is the same as a double or a triple.

Don G
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Don G

Another reason I like H2H better than Roto: Player splits are reflected more realistically. In a Roto league, you can draft Alexei Ramirez hoping that come September, you’ll have 15 HR, 15 SB, and a .280ish average. But that doesn’t reflect what is really happening. In a H2H league, he’s (rightfully) devalued because he’s going to kill you for the first month or two. He’s not helping your fantasy team in April because he’s not helping the White Sox in April.

Michael A. Stein
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Michael A. Stein

@Frank – That is true, but I think the point of using OBP instead of BA was simply to reward the players who do have good plate discipline and find ways to reach base besides putting the bat on the ball.  It was more of an indictment of why batting average is a deceiving statistic and doesn’t truly measure the quality of an at bat or plate appearance.  But all things being equal, using OPS would certainly incorporate a player’s extra base hit ability which is lost in a Roto category league because doubled and triples don’t count for anything.

John
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John

You forgot to measure the biggest point.  H2H sucks.

Chris
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Chris
Michael, I totally agree with 90% of your post. The only issue I have is delineating the OF. I’m in three leagues right now where all OF positions are separate, and I love it. Yes, there is a premium to be paid for CF’s, while LF’s and RF’s lose some love, but, this makes guys like Bourn have value in all three leagues (H2H points, H2H cat, and a Roto). In a H2H points or category league Bourn has diminished value, as one could punt steals and still do well. But when you have to have a CF playing, now… Read more »
Jim G.
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Jim G.

Michael,
I prefer H2H myself, but there’s a reason it’s called FANTASY Baseball. It’s not meant to be realistic. Fantasizers lay the ground rules for their league (however boring or wild they may be), and learn to play within those rules. I have no problem with Roto leagues.The most “realistic” league is not close to reality at all, anyway.

CajoleJuice
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CajoleJuice

I’ve heard this argument before, but framed in an entirely different way. This post is not about H2H vs Roto, but about the stats they use. The way I have always heard this argument is that the randomness from week-to-week is more like real baseball when it comes to facing opponents, and the playoffs in H2H only reinforce that aspect.

The first comment already pointed out that this is really about points leagues vs category leagues.

Dan
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Dan
I like H2H as well. But I have nothing against those who like roto.  I like much of your article. But when you say you don’t think having rf,cf,and lf is needed , that’s where you are so wrong . Your main premise is that roto is not as real.  And with having only one OF as a position , this is not real at all. Baseball has 9 players on the field. They all play a different position. No lumbering outfielders can play CF. Having LF,CF,and RF also brings way more strategy into the draft process. It makes position… Read more »
Mark F
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Mark F

…and for those of us who play replay games (Strat, APBA, Diamond Mind, etc.) we have to interpret all of the Fantasy and H2H articles for our vested interests. Saves, for example, do nothing at all to influence the performance of a replay league player. Since there is little else out there to foster discussions for game-based fans, we follow along with a pitch-fork.

For your debate, I also see that trying to understand that a SB, HR or K accumulated by a player in KC is equivalent to the same stats accumulated by a Red Soc or Yankee player…

Mark

Brian Benson
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Brian Benson

I personally prefer H2H over Roto, but play in each, you just gotta know the rules of your league. We must all remember it is called Fantasy baseball…

Joe
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Joe
“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)” Seems like are referring specifically to a H2H points league, not a H2H league. In fact, most H2H leagues are category leagues like Roto (5×5/6×6 mostly but also 9×9 and higher are becoming more popular). In these leagues you win your week against your single opponent by winning a majority of the categories. Score can either be a single win or loss like a regular… Read more »
Michael A. Stein
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Michael A. Stein

@Joe – You are absolutely correct.  I should have been more specific about the distinction between points and categories.

Pochucker
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Pochucker

I have been playing Fantasy Baseball for well over twenty yrs. H2H is the greatest and having specific OF spots is the cherry on top.
  Two of the biggest arguments I hear in forums when I argue for specific outfield spots are “Thats to much work” (doesent sound like anyone I would want in any kind of league) and “there is no difference in OFs” ( obviously not knowledgeable and to which I respond (why have specific ss and 2b positions then?)

DominicanRepublican
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DominicanRepublican

What, no love for flat out points leagues? Roto is ridiculous, there’s no way that a SB should be more valuable than a HR (which is precisely the case in roto leagues) and the only way to get a fair weight is in a points league.

H2H can be fun, but too much of the strategy is based on streaming pitchers and pitching 7 guys on Sunday for your last allowed start to win points categories. A points league with a maximum innings pitched limit is by far the most realistic way to play fantasy baseball.

Michael A. Stein
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Michael A. Stein

All the points made here are valid and much appreciated.  As I indicated, I should have been more specific by distinguishing the argument between points and categories.  Because Roto leagues are primarily based on categories, I generalized them as being synonymous with each other.  I do realize you can be in a H2H Roto league.  I am most surprised at how much people generally do enjoy the delineated OF positions.  That is interesting and certainly something to be explored further.  But thanks to everyone for your comments and critique.  Keep ‘em coming!

Kevin Wilson
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Kevin Wilson

I am also a proponent of individualized OF positions, and I have no idea how you can not agree Michael. The entire purpose of your article is to have fantasy more closely mirror reality. CF, RF, LF is far closer to reality than OF, OF, OF is. That isn’t even a subjective argument.

If it devalues all OF overall, so what? That’s closer to reality. All infielders have the same basic duty too: field the ball, cover their base, throw the ball. Yet you restrict that argument to those in the outfield. I don’t get that at all.

Michael A. Stein
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Michael A. Stein
@Kevin – Thank you for your comments.  Yes I am a proponent of having fantasy baseball try and be as close to real baseball as possible, but that is in regard to the way players are evaluated for their talents and abilities.  I certainly see the possible hypocrisy in that statement when compared to what my opinion was, but there is a tremendous distinction in what infielders are responsible for as compared to outfielders.  Again, this has nothing to with defensive stats or value being incorporated, but rather is serving as my distinction between them.  Each infielder has very specific… Read more »
scott
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scott
Given the differences in scoring/categories, roster sizes, number of teams in the league and whether you are in a mixed or single league format, there is really no way to legitimately compare leagues regardless of whether they are H2H or roto. That means there are three basic points. The first is that roto is much closer to real baseball if you look at what baseball really is. It is simply a marathon. There are 162 games in a season and the effort is made to find out which team is best over that long (long) period of time. It’s all… Read more »
BobbyRoberto
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BobbyRoberto
I like the article because it sparked debate.  I have never played head-to-head, just roto.  To try to make our league a bit more realistic, we use these categories: Hitters—R, RBI, Net-SB, OBP, SLG Pitchers—QS, SV, ERA, WHIP, K/BB Yes, we got rid of homers but include SLG to make up for it, and it allows a guy who hits doubles and triples to get credit for them.  We love having OBP and SLG as separate categories.  We also use net-steals, which devalues those stolen base guys a bit.  I’d actually like to go to SB-2*CS, setting the break-even point… Read more »
Chris
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Chris
Scott: For individual player’s stat and team stat lines, I can see your point about roto, but in the end MLB is a series of well, series. The teams that win the most series tends to make it to the playoffs more often than not. H2H replicates this process by making teams play series of ‘games’ against one another to find out who makes it to the post season. Roto on the other hand is a series of stat lines from a group of players that get lumped together to form one team stat line, the team with the best… Read more »
Joe
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Joe
Scouts and WAR value C, SS, and CF more than the other 5 positions. Players target C and SS earlier than their comparable offensive players at other positions because of “position scarcity”. So why wouldn’t you extend the same courtesy to CF’s? This is why every league I play in must have LF/CF/RF designations. Also it gives real-life flexible outfielders like CarGo, Torres, and Pagan additional value as very few fantasy relevant starting outfielders qualify at all 3 spots.  On a related note, I always thought it was strange that ESPN standard leagues have 5 outfielders. What is the motivation… Read more »
Kevin Wilson
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Kevin Wilson

Joe-
I agree and I think your ESPN standard point just speaks to the larger point that guys like Bill Simmons have been making- that fantasy hasn’t changed, in large part, since its creation, which is a shame.

It was created in an era when shortcuts were taken to make things easier to track, which is unnecessary since the popularization of online fantasy sports.

Michael A. Stein
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Michael A. Stein
I am glad that this topic has spurred some great debate and conversation.  There have been many compelling arguments made on all sides.  The alternative categories used in some Roto leagues do help quantify a player’s value.  The use of all three OF positions is interesting, and I do see where you are coming from.  There is clearly no one right or wrong way to play fantasy baseball.  It is all up to everyone’s own personal preference and interpretation of realism. If anyone would like to converse or share opinions in social network environments, I invite you to find Fantasy… Read more »
Ed
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Ed
I played in a H2H points league for the first time last year. The league owner is a statshead and has tweaked the point system to as closely approximate real baseball value as possible. It was fun (probably because I won the league), but I have a few observations. 1. Playing for points makes for a much simpler game than playing for categories. With points, you can boil every player’s value down to a single number. Just take the ZIPS projections and tote up the points and you have a good idea of a player’s value for the season. The… Read more »
HuskerSteve
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HuskerSteve

I play in a H2H 27category (like 27 outs of the game;), 13 batting, 12 pitching and 2 defensive categories and yes we do delineate OF’s.  This has been an extremely fun league w/ lots of differing strategies.

W/ all of the rankings being so roto based, has anyone found a good place that takes H2H more into account.  Thanks for any advice.  Love the site.

The Baltimoron
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The Baltimoron

The real question is, why do so many people play roto fantasy baseball, but EVERYONE plays fantasy football H2H?

And not to nitpick, but JP is a career .298 hitter.

Jeffrey Gross
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Jeffrey Gross

For me, it is the fact that 5×5 std roto does not mimick real baseball which makes it fun. 5×5 std is volatile, to say the least. It requires balance, economics, and strategy, but at the end of the day, ERA, WHIP, AVG and other highly volatile stats rule the format—it makes gameplay very random, unpredictable, and accordingly, fun. It’s semi-scientific gambling.

Who wants to play a league where the team with the best talents wins? its about the surprises, luck and random that makes fantasy fun!

Kevin Wilson
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Kevin Wilson
I would greatly disagree with the assertion that any outfield “could” play all three outfield positions. Off the top of my head, guys like Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell, Vlad Guerrero, Raul Ibanez, Alfonso Soriano, and many others that I’m not thinking of could not play center, and several of those also lack the arm to play right. I think someone above mentioned it, but would you equally advocate that we should eschew 2B and SS and just use two “Middle Infield” roster spots instead? (Despite my objections, I liked your article and wholeheartedly agree on your general premise- I feel… Read more »
Clayton Courtney
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Clayton Courtney
I might be a bit late to this article but hopefully Mr. Stein is still keeping an eye on it. The title of this article is “Roto fantasy leagues do not resemble real baseball.” They never claimed to. However, you claim that H2H does but how close does it come? The primary flaws of H2H are 1) Lack of Defense: In real baseball if the Mets are playing the Dodgers there is a direct way for the each to to stop the other from scoring, it is called defense. In H2H there is no such concept. It still boils down… Read more »
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