An entertaining, interactive, baseball
-related subgroup of fantasy sports
enjoyed by millions of devotees worldwide each year.
What is Fantasy Baseball?
In fantasy baseball, you are the coach, general manager, and owner of your own brand-new baseball team. After meeting up with several other fantastically inclined fans to form a 'league', you draft players from the current Major League Baseball roster and create a lineup (and pitching squad) comprised of these selections.
Once the actual MLB season gets underway, you follow the performance of these players in their actual games, and add their statistics (in batting average, home runs, strikeouts, etc.) to your own team. Scoring methods differ widely, as we will see soon, but in short, the team with the best players (usually) wins. Of course, you can trade with other teams, pick players held by no other team in your league off of the 'waiver wire', and have a glorious time trash-talking and detailing exactly how the sports team from your area will thrash the sports team from your opponent's area.
Fans of fantasy baseball are of all ages, genders, and social groups, though the majority of participants seem to be males in their 20s and 30s. Some people pay ridiculous sums of money to join leagues where they play for even more ridiculous sums, spend hours a day managing their teams and agonize over the merits of trading Kerry Wood for Sammy Sosa for days. Other people join a free league on the Internet and put five hours into their team over the course of six months.
Groups of friends can be driven apart by the game (during the pennant races, at least), and complete strangers can be thrown into a fantasy league and become lifelong pals. In short, fantasy baseball is a game where, pardon the cliché, anything can happen, and anyone can play.
Fantasy Baseball- A History
The concept has been around as long as fantasy sports have existed; in fact, fantasy baseball is the game that led to the pan-sport idea as a whole. On November 17, 1979, publishing consultant Daniel Okrent pitched the idea of creating an imaginary league of real players, for fun, to a group of acquaintances at Manhattan's La Rotisserie Francaise restaurant. (This gave rise to the plethora of fantasy baseball options titled 'Rotisserie', many still popular; it is less known that Okrent had brought up the same idea to a group of friends at The Pit restaurant a few weeks before. If they had not turned down Okrent's idea, 'Pit League' baseball would likely be all the rage to this day.) They called some friends, who called some friends, and eventually 11 people sat down to conduct the first fantasy baseball draft in the winter of 1980.
They found it a delightful success, and word-of-mouth started popularizing the game, especially among sports columnists. When they began to write about their own fantasy endeavors in the early 1980s, the game took off. (The proto-fantasy baseball card and box games of the 1960s and 1970s likely provided the foundations for such a trend in the American public, but I'm somewhat less familiar with these. People who were actually alive back then are more than welcome to fill me in on the specifics.)
The mushrooming of the Internet in the mid-1990s only spread fantasy baseball all the more; today it is estimated that over 6 million people play each season. The members of Okrent's original Rotisserie Baseball League have become, to name a few, a senior editior for ESPN The Magazine (Glen Waggoner), the executive editor of Sports Illustrated (Rob Fleder), the vice-president and publisher of Esquire magazine (Valerie Salembier), and an editor-at-large for Time, Inc. (Okrent himself, who 'retired' from fantasy baseball after the 1996 season).
How To Run Your Own League
For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to cover the finer details and variants of fantasy baseball from the perspective of a how-to guide for running your own fantasy baseball league. Kill two birds and whatnot. It's still obscenely long anyway, so feel free to skim as necessary.
To start with, I'll note that there are two chief ways to run a league; your choice will have a significant impact on your role as a 'commissioner'. Running a league online makes you little more than an arbiter and figurehead, but leaves you much freer to concentrate on your own team's trials and tribulations. I'll describe online procedures using the Yahoo leagues as my frame of reference; other online sites have fairly similar setups and a few will be referenced later on. Offline leagues give you much more power, both over the customizability of your league and its actual day-to-day happenings. However, be prepared for a lot of dirty work if you go this route, once we get into the season proper.
That said, it's fairly easy in either format to set up most of the basic settings for your league. You have to decide on issues such as how many players each team can have at a single time, what positions each team will be required to start (Want four outfielders? Hate the DH? Do 'em both--you're making the rules!), who gets to approve owner-to-owner trades, if you'll be using players from the National League, the American League, or both, the deadline to make all trades, and so on.
Online commissioners will find these options available to them upon their league's creation; offline heads can just announce these settings to their participants whenever they come up with them. But there are two big items besides these that positively have to be set in stone before the season's first pitch: the draft type and the scoring method.
There are two different ways to do this: the Rotisserie method and the, for lack of a better term, classic method. In the former, each owner is given 260 hypothetical dollars, and MLB players are called off, one-by-one. Each player is auctioned off to the highest bidder; this continues until everybody has a full roster (with this method, typically set to 22 players). Top-shelf baseball stars can often go for $40 or even more in these leagues, and late-round steals are quite fun when you're the only person at the table with more than a pittance left. I have little experience with this method, but I would suppose it could be a fun, if not quite just, way of conducting a draft.
The classic method works like any regular sport-related draft, with the exception that, for fairness, the draft order is often reversed each round, so that the team who picks last in a round is given the first pick in the next round, and so on. This is often called a 'wraparound draft'. Players draft until everybody's roster is full.
Online, these are usually pretty easy to do as well. Though you'll be hard-pressed to find many online Rotisserie drafts, I'm sure they're out there somewhere. Yahoo lets you do both online 'classic' drafts--just set a time and herd everybody into the Java draft room (replete with roster lists and chat boxes) when it comes up--and offline drafts, where the commissioner inputs the results into Yahoo's server by hand. This would allow you to do a Rotisserie draft on somewhere besides Yahoo and then type in the rosters, or do whatever type of draft selection you please for that matter.
Offline, though, it's a bit more difficult. Offline drafts, so I hear, are bounds more fun, due to the fact that everybody drafting is sitting there face-to-face, debating over their picks and having to endure the scorn and derision of others. But the commissioner might find it a bit hard to collect a roster with Major League Baseball's players (for drafting purposes), yet with any luck the owners will know who they'll want to draft or bid on in advance. But just who they pick might be influenced by...
There are two major factors to worry about when deciding scoring methods (something you should do, by the way, well before the draft): the categories which will be scored and the methods of scoring these categories. The first of these has several different options. However, the most common is the '5x5' classification, which measures the following categories:
Other popular scoring methods omit the 'Runs Scored' and 'Strikeouts' categories; some do this and replace 'Stolen Bases' with slugging percentage. If you want, you can add categories such as the number of walks, fielding percentage, or shutouts pitched--though the latter would be ill-advised, as all categories are usually tabulated on a weekly basis.
To this end, the Rotisserie scoring type, arguably the most popular, ranks how well each team does in each of the categories. The team that has the best totals for each category gets an amount of points equal to the number of teams in the league; the team with the second-highest total gets one less point, and so on. For example, if Joe Smith's 'The Village Smithies' team was in a 12-owner league and placed 1st in home runs, 3rd in stolen bases, and 11th in strikeouts one week, he would get 12 points for his HR total, 10 for his SB total, and 2 for his Ks. This was the original system used by Okrent, and has the strongest correlation to actual MLB team performance, but can, as a noder mentioned elsewhere, get quite boring once the top teams assert their utter dominance.
A second popular system, the 'head-to-head' system, creates a mock schedule before the season where each player's team faces off against a different opponent team each week. (I would suggest avoiding this option in an offline league, considering that the baseball season is several months long.) At the end of the week, each player gets a point for each category they outperformed their opponent in. This is probably one of the less 'just' methods around, but it keeps many more teams in contention as the season wears on, and gives the competition a more personal and intimate feel.
In the third system (the 'points' system), each team simply gets an assigned number of... well, points for each of a statistic they have--two points for a win, a half-point for a hit, and so on. This is the easiest of the three to run for an offline league, but all three nevertheless require a good deal of poring through Internet boxscores to find results--for 150+ players. Every day.
Have fun with that.
Online, of course, any self-respecting fantasy baseball site calculates all of that fun stuff for you. Your scoring method options may be somewhat limited, though.
Other things to watch out for include free agency and the waiver wire. Teams can pick up players that no other team holds, as long as they drop a player of their own. This dropped player goes on the 'waiver wire'--if more than one team wants to pick him up, priority goes to the person who has last taken somebody off the free agent list or waiver wire. After a couple days, waived players usually automatically become free agents, in which case they can be picked up with delay at all. This, of course, is up to the commissioner's discretion.
Trading is also allowed: owners can contact each other and agree to swap certain players for others, as long as a team doesn't get more players than their roster allows in the deal. (Owners can drop players from their team as a part of the trade, of course.) These trades, though, must first be approved by the commissioner: firstly so that he keeps a constant bead on everybody's roster, and secondly to make sure that all trades are on the up-and-up. Most leagues give the commissioner veto power over any trade (something that you should not use for... inethical purposes, lest your league abandon you the following season), but certain online leagues give the option of letting the owners vote on the passage or abortion of any pending trade.
If a team's set roster size is larger than the amount of people they have to start (that is, the people whose statistics are counted for scoring purposes), owners are allowed to bench various members of their team in favor of starting other players. Most offline leagues, to keep their commissioners sane, allow owners to do this no more than once a week, and to notify the commissioner when they do so; online leagues just require you to click a few buttons and you're good. They generally let people bench and start players whenever they wish, even daily.
After The Season
Rotisserie and points leagues will usually run up until the end of baseball's regular season: at the end, the team with the most points wins. Hurrah! If everybody put money into this confounded arrangement, now's the time to start awarding it to the highest-scoring owners. (It's easy to see why fantasy baseball is such an easy source of small-scale gambling.) However, head-to-head leagues also get the thrill of holding fantasy league playoffs!
About a month or so before the end of MLB's regular season, the fantasy 'regular season' ends, and a certain number of teams (generally the best 4 or 8) make the fantasy playoffs. Playoffs are scored the same way as the regular season, but here, the #1 team plays the #8 team, and so on in traditional tournament form, and each week is single elimination. When one team is left standing, he is crowned the league champion. The traditional form of celebration is delivering a Yoo-Hoo shower (exactly what it sounds like), gratis, to the winner. This would probably be easier to do in an offline league, or at least one where every owner is in close physical proximity.
A system that has been gaining prominence in recent years is the inception of the 'keeper' league. In this league, the teams are drafted in the first season, and at the end of a year, the rosters are retained, intact, for next year's fantasy fun. Some teams allow you to put the franchise tag on a select few of your stars, and toss the rest back into next year's draft pool. Either would be a fascinating possiblity, if you could get a devoted enough group to weather several consecutive years with the game.
...Whew, I'm glad that's done with. Now some quick notes on
- Come prepared for your draft: Most fantasy drafts only last a couple of hours, but this short time can do more for (or against) your team than the next three months of the season. It seems obvious, but you would be surprised how many people come in gung-ho to their drafts and pick players on slumps, sluggers out for the season, or, worst of all, Ken Griffey Jr. ESPN The Magazine usually has fantasy baseball rankings in one of their spring issues, and Sports Illustrated puts out "player value rankings" in their baseball preview issue. More draft information can also be found at fantasy websites, partially listed below.
- Scour the free agent list: Patience is a virtue here; read your sports pages and websites devoutly to get the newest information on midseason hot prospects. If nobody else has taken someone useful, snatch him up by all means. The season Mark Prior made his awe-inspiring debut for the Cubs, I managed to get my hands on him in my league before anybody else. With some other additions, he saved my season from falling into ignonimy (caused by my rigorously not following Rule #1).
Where To Find Out More
If there is anything that I possibly did not cover in excruciating detail in this behemoth of a writeup, or if you just want to join some leagues of your own, here are some websites to visit with more information concerning fantasy baseball.
Yahoo! Fantasy Baseball (http://baseball.fantasysports.yahoo.com/b1): Probably the most popular free fantasy baseball center on the Internet, with hundreds of thousands of leagues formed each year. Not only is it a good place to create private leagues for your friends or join public ones with total strangers, Yahoo also has a small bevy of submissions from fantasy sportswriters to supplement the wires they have coming in from various sites. I personally run virtually all of my leagues on Yahoo.
Fanball (http://fanball.com/): One of the best sites for fantasy baseball news that I've found. In addition to keeping an active tab on the perils and pitfalls of virtually every Major League player alive, Fanball also has exclusive commentary content which is available for a nominal fee and which I hear is fairly good. Fanball offers baseball leagues to play in as well, but most tend to require money, either to purchase a league position or to play in an award-based league.
The Sporting News (http://fantasygames.sportingnews.com/baseball/home.html): Though it may take some digging around sometimes, this site has more copious amounts of news and statistics for fantasy owners than nearly any other. It also holds 'mock drafts', that is to say, leagues where teams are drafted and then discarded. These drafts are only to help aid in determining where certain people that you may have your eye on in your real draft are likely to go.
This last site also has a fantasy baseball variant: the "pick'em" league, where you choose a certain group of players, given restrictions (for example, a salary cap) and compete against other people who may have teams with lineups highly similar to yours. But that is material for a different writeup altogether.