What should fantasy baseball “be about?” part 1

Before I get down to business, I just want to let you guys know that this week’s podcast over at baseballhq radio features an interview with me about the quants versus geniuses debate springing from the Cardrunners discussion a few weeks ago. Most of the topics covered are also done so in my column, but if you’re a fan of stammering, “ums,” “likes,” and “you knows,” don’t miss it!

Over the last few weeks I’ve read a lot of commentary that makes claims, either explicitly or implicitly, about what fantasy baseball is or isn’t, or what it should or should not “be about.” Should it be about properly evaluating and projecting this year’s talent? Should it be about sensing the writing on the wall and dumping wisely in order to build for the future? Should it be value savvy evaluation to the exclusion of hustle and incessant tinkering? Everybody seems to have ideas about what fantasy baseball’s existential identity should be and I’d like to take the time to offer my thoughts on some of these questions.

Many of these more philosophical quarrels are known to escalate from seemingly benign, almost administrative league set-up issues. Of course, one of the drums I often beat is that league set-up questions are never really benign; they are the tactics by which an owner consciously or accidentally expresses what the league will and won’t value and encourage.

Here’s an example of an innocent enough question; should you limit roster moves? (This issue is clearly most germane in daily transaction leagues without free-agent bidding. In weekly transaction leagues, the limit is already set by the format and in FAAB leagues; this is also a non-issue because your free-agent budget determines how many moves you can make.)

Ostensibly, this question is asking whether to limit streaming, or preclude serial streaming as an executable strategy. Objections to chronic streaming and incessant roster tweaking come from two different perspectives, the practical and the philosophical. Let me touch first briefly on the practical beef.

Some claim that streaming is almost tantamount to a loophole and gives the owner utilizing this strategy an advantage. I happen to disagree and let me briefly articulate my rationale for this opinion.

First, let me state that a well-constructed league should generally try to establish a balance of counting and rate stats on the pitching side, saves aside. So, in your conventional 5×5 league you have two stats that are conducive to streaming (wins and strikeouts) and two that should not be (ERA and WHIP). It is my belief that the risks of serial streaming are inherent in the strategy, you risk one set of categories for the other. A statement I find myself making often in response to those who complain about the overactive owner is, “Those players are unowned for a reason.”

Beyond the risk of ballooning rate stats, the hidden cost of streaming is the opportunity cost of dropping otherwise roster-worthy players to create the dynamic of musical chairs on your last two or three roster spots. Streamers often begin on their road by dropping either a high potential player who isn’t working out or a veteran with a good track record off to a slow start. Of course, the flip side to this argument is that those who are most active on the wire are also most likely to pick up some of the gems that emerge every year.

I’ll refrain from getting into a very long discussion about the strategic merits of streaming, as most of you likely know the pros and cons. Very quickly, I will say that streaming works best if you are the only one doing it, when it is done in a H2H leagues, and when the league is shallow enough that there are legitimately attractive options on the wire. But none of these things make it anything resembling a loophole. Personally, I consider streaming a tactic and not a strategy. I’m not against using it either in principle or practice, but feel it is most productive when used either opportunistically or to mitigate a bad week.

If we can agree that the risks of streaming are inherent in its execution, that leaves only those who dissent on philosophical grounds. Some claim that aggressive streaming, travel-day bat pickups, etc. undermine the skill and player evaluation of the game by privileging hustle or access to one’s computer. I think this argument is patently absurd, to be honest.

This argument begs the question of what fantasy baseball is supposed to be, what it is supposed to value, and what qualities it should privilege among owners. Well, the simplest way of answering this question in the most agreeable manner is that it should mimic the experience of assembling and running a baseball team and privilege the skills needed to do so, or valued by the business of running an actual baseball team itself.

It is no small commitment to actively peruse the waiver wires daily, to process information nightly, pay attention to schedules and attractive daily match-ups. Sure, sometimes daily transaction leagues devolve into a race to the add button, but what is wrong with that? Doesn’t business itself value agility, attention to detail, dedication and sacrifice? How many culture-changing inventions were really just a race to the patent office all the same? Isn’t he who claims that the daily transaction devalues his skills really just saying that he’s not dedicated enough to exercise them on a daily basis?

In the age of increasing information and technological symmetry, hustle is now more important then ever in terms of differentiating between winners and losers. Information is ubiquitous and inescapable; the question is who can process and earn a profit from it most quickly and efficiently. And, most fundamentally, don’t actual general managers and franchise owners face these same problems daily?

To be fair, I understand that some people just have a circumstantial advantage in relation to these dynamics. Do you work at an office with access to a computer or not? Do you work at an office, but are blocked from visiting sports sites by the IT Gestapo and Orwellian corporate policy? Do you have a family? Do you work a 60-hour week (not including your Wednesday Hardball Times column)? I get all that, I really do.

However, if you think any of those issues are that important to your ability to compete in a daily transaction league, then I have a very practical rebuttal for your philosophical gripe – join a weekly transaction league! Or… account for that on draft day, as I always preach. Pay a little extra for saves, consolidate your roster in favor of core strength as opposed to depth, etc. Either extricate yourself from the problem or proactively address it. What I do not consider a legitimate response is self-righteously whining about it, while advancing the delusion that dedication and hustle are foreign to the recipe for success, generally speaking, and that the owner with the itchy add/drop finger is engaging in something that is antithetical to the fundamental principles of fantasy baseball.

There are many ways to play fantasy baseball, and as the game continues to expand even more variations will arise. The issue is not to argue self-righteously about which is the most pure (though I’d be a hypocrite if I claimed I was never guilty of being self-righteous), but of finding a format that reflects your preferences and values.

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

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The A Team
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The A Team
I agree on both points. I’m commishing a 12 team mixed, standard deep rosters roto league. There are no limits to player transactions explicitly because “those players are unowned for a reason”. Still, as the only effective churn and burn manager in the league, I’ve extracted quite a bit of value out of the tactic. I found Chris Snyder just in time for my 2nd catcher slot (which was manned by Jeff Clement), I grabbed Andruw Jones for 6 days over which he bopped 4 bombs, Brennan Boesch spent 3 days on my roster and added a HR and 3… Read more »
this guy
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this guy

This is a good article, but it’s a shame that it is necessary. The fact that this article is required reflects poorly on our society. Our schools suck.

Chris J
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Chris J
“It is no small commitment to actively peruse the waiver wires daily, to process information nightly, pay attention to schedules and attractive daily match-ups. Sure, sometimes daily transaction leagues devolve into a race to the add button, but what is wrong with that?” Theoretically this might seem “survival of the fittest” style fun, but the reality was less than thrilling when I was in a league where this happened several years ago. People were staying up til the 3 AM Eastern “next day transaction” switchover on Yahoo (thankfully everyone was in the same time zone for the sake of fairness)… Read more »
Chris
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Chris
Wow, I can’t believe a fantasy blogger actually supports streaming. Really, in a public league I expect it, but when you’re in a 20 team keeper league it’s not only irritating, but it’s counter productive. With keepers it IS all about player evaluation, not ‘who can click add first!’. And your counter argument of: “well, the simplest way of answering this question in the most agreeable manner is that it should mimic the experience of assembling and running a baseball team and privilege the skills needed to do so” is exactly right. But picking up and dropping players left and… Read more »
The A Team
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The A Team

Chris, if other owners are making rash decisions based on spotty Yahoo analysis, then you should be able to game them rather effectively.

Max
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Max
The belief that streaming pitchers is an acceptable, “fun” practice in a daily league is awful.  It makes me want head lice just to get my mind off of the thought that people will read this and think “yah, whats so bad about streaming?” or “Im having so much fun at Buffalo Wild Wings, that I would like to see my team blow a lead to send it into overtime.” (Youve seen those adds) This is correct: “it is most productive when used either opportunistically or to mitigate a bad week.”  A move limit should not be in place to… Read more »
someone
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someone

Max, can I have your email address?

drew
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drew
here is how i decided to solve the problem of one team streaming pitchers in my league. And let me preface, that I only think streaming pitchers is a problem at its most extreme. The MOST EXTREME example would be when a team assembles a team where every one of the teams starters is a $1 starter. He would then stream every free agent pitcher every night in order to get 1st place in both wins and strikeouts while last place in era and whip. In essence, this team has assembled league average pitching staff with the minimum amount of… Read more »
max
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max

Chris
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Chris
A Team: Here’s an example for you. One of the teams in my leagues was highly inactive so the commish went out and got another guy from another league that he also runs. Now, this is a last place team, so I expect that he’ll probably be making a lot of moves, but since April 28th, one week ago today he’s made 25 transactions! He added Contreras (in a league that counts holds) on the 28th, dropped him on the 1st, added Wellemeyer on the 1st, dropped him on the 2nd, added Fred Lewis on the 3rd, dropped him on… Read more »
Millsy
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Millsy
I’m usually all for putting in rules to limit streaming, but that’s a preference on my part.  I have no problem participating in leagues when I can take advantage of it.  Funny you post this article today, as I recently got this message in my H2H Points league, in which I’ve got a bench full of pitchers and take advantage of Hughes/Lewis/Wilson at the two RP slots (I don’t do a full streaming, maybe 1 pitcher a week): “If I had 65 starts a week I’d be sitting pretty too…instead, I play with some integrity for the sport.  Not that… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Self-righteousness alert! Seriously, Chris, let me address a few things. Here’s one thing I intended to mention but edited out of the final column for the sake of (some semblance of) brevity. What I prefer to do when setting the parameters for pitching is set a cap on innings that is fairly high. Basically, an opportunistic streamer has almost no chance of exceeding this limit and most teams won’t even really approach it. It would, however, be a limiting factor for the most extreme streamer. It would at least force that player to think about the choice he is making.… Read more »
Millsy
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Millsy
Derek, I agree generally with the point that it’s a problem solving exercise.  Certainly, I enjoy those as much as anyone.  But I think a lot of people find problem solving with constraints a much more enjoyable endeavor.  Like you said, that’s a preference.  But I know my preference is to try and emulate the real-life decisions of a general manager (it is a fantasy after all). But it’s always going to be a game of ingenuity.  I believe streaming is a legitimate strategy.  Period.  It’s taking advantage of an inefficiency.  There is an inefficiency in the market when you… Read more »
sean
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sean

The biggest problem that I’ve seen in my leagues over the past couple of seasons (CBS standard probably the most) is that streaming becomes contagious. These are ten-team leagues where there are more viable SP and PP on waivers. Once streaming is practiced by a few teams at the same time, the risk to their ERA/WHIP becomes seriously diminished. They are no longer resigned to 1-2 points in the ratio categories because they can battle each other in a race to the bottom.

GWR
Guest
GWR

Chris,

You are appearing very bitter.
To say ‘streaming’ is for Yahooo ‘bush’ leagues seems to be a ridiculous comment.

If it is bush league then why would you be concerned. It would seem it would make you very happy to have your competitors doing things that are ‘counter-productive’ as you say.

Essentially I just think you are wrong.

Derek Ambrosino
Guest
Derek Ambrosino
Sean, Good point about the race to the bottom, But, at the same time, the dynamic of a league is fluid. The race to the bottom gives the solid rate stats team more of a margin to indulge as well while limiting the ramifications. Ultimately, if you hold down the rate stats and up your usage (through streaming, trading, drafting more SPs, whatever…) then you should be able to compete in the other categories as well and walk out having among the most pitching points in the league. My main point is that if one wants to foreclose the strategy,… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino

Posting from the day job and feeling guilty about spending the extra time to proofread for my loss!

Millsy
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Millsy
I think the innings cap is the best way to do things.  I honestly don’t worry much about streaming unless I’m in a H2H points league.  And, to be honest, I agree with your AL/NL Only constraint (which is one reason I don’t play those leauges, but try to find Mixed leagues just with a lot more teams).  As you say, the constraints on limiting moves could theoretically constrain you to the type of time/money decisions that GMs face.  While it’s artificial with respect to putting it in the rules, it could help to emulate reality in some ways, despite… Read more »
Kevin (Mad Max Scherzer)
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Kevin (Mad Max Scherzer)
Bravo Derek! You’ve highlighted many important facts about streamers instead of villifying them like many other bloggers or fantasy managers do. Streaming is not an art, it is a science; it takes attention to detail, resourcefulness, and high-level processing and decision making skills. Moreso it takes a divergent thinker. A fantasy manager should never be satisfied until they have a winning product to put out on the proverbial field. It is that individual manager’s prerogative to determine how to meet their team’s needs. In many leagues where it is difficult to trade with other managers to fill a team need,… Read more »
Chris
Guest
Chris
Derek: Streaming compromises a league’s integrity as it gives managers a team of 100 players vs the standard 20+ that most leagues give you. GM’s should be allowed to pick up and drop players as they feel fit due to lack of performance and demotions. But what I was trying to illustrate in my example was that no MLB team would recall a guy from AAA for a day, not play him then call up another guy. It essentially turns draft day into a four or five round attempt to get the highest quality players instead of doing analysis and… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Chris, 1)You can’t outlaw fellow owners’ stupidity, and no matter what the format, what rules are in place, that stupidity will shine through anyway. All you can do is graduate to more competitive leagues where nobody ever drops Brian McCann outright unless he’s on the 60-day DL. Therefore, any arguments about it being “dumb” are moot off top. 2)Which is it; stupid or wise? On the one hand you say it confers an advantage, on ther other you say it is stupid, implicitly stating it is a disadvantage. If it’s advantageous it’s not dumb, if it’s dumb it’s not advantageous.… Read more »
Chris
Guest
Chris
Well Derek, my complaints focus around a keeper league (I thought I had stated that previously, perhaps not) so waiver priorities actually matter when you get a high profile rookie getting called up that Yahoo hadn’t added prior to draft day. Streaming can be both advantageous and disadvantageous. It’s advantageous for the moment. You can easily look at match ups according to Yahoo for all players for better odds of having a favorable game and when you have no qualms over drafting league average everything with the intent of having a fluid team then you’re basically throwing the draft after… Read more »
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