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August 25, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

Weak Links

by Mike Gianella

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If you are a veteran fantasy player like I am, chances are good that you participate in leagues with strong competition. I have played in “easy” leagues in the past, and while on some level it is fun to watch a powerhouse team roll over the competition, it isn’t very challenging and after a while becomes staid and boring. I’d rather beat strong players as opposed to simply rolling over a group of chumps that is already looking ahead to fantasy football in early August.

While playing against excellent competition is the fantasy baseball ideal, sometimes a “bad” player or two does slip through the cracks and make it into a competitive league. One bad apple won’t necessarily destroy a league, but can have anywhere from a mild to moderate impact on the quality of the league depending on the nature of why the player is weak.

For your sake, I hope that nothing outlined below has happened to your league, but I suspect that many of these circumstances sound way too familiar:

Too Timid To Trade
Of all of the signs of a weak player, this is typically at or near the top of the list. In many cases, this doesn’t even necessarily signify a poor player. In leagues with active trading, I have frequently waited to pull the trigger on a deal to get an idea of what the market is like. This is particularly true in carryover leagues, where the value of a Javier Baez could differ significantly depending upon the market perception.

Eventually, early conservatism should be replaced by a willingness to deal. Some fantasy players are more liberal wheeler-dealers than others, but this isn’t what I mean. No, this applies to the player who simply buys or drafts his team in March and then refuses to even consider a deal. When you reach out to him to make a trade, you get a terse no or no response.

These players aren’t necessarily harmful to the league, but they do take some of the fun out of playing. I don’t expect everyone I play with to make a significant amount of trades every year, but I like to at least have the ability to have a dialogue with every player in the league. It is demoralizing to know that there is one player in your league who simply won’t do anything regardless of how fair your trade offers are.

Only Trades with One Owner
Sometimes, the timid player has a good relationship with one other person in the league. Typically, this is the friend who brought the timid player into the league and they already know one another. In many cases this prior relationship is irrelevant, but sometimes the newbie will only trade with his friend.

In the short term, this is understandable. In new social situations, we tend to gravitate toward the familiar during a transitional period. It is only a more significant issue if over time the new owner continues to trade only with his friend. It is common to have better relationships with some fantasy players than others and to make more trades with some people. However, in an ideal situation, you will at least have the ability to make deals with nearly every other player in your league.

I am not suggesting that this relationship is collusive, but it isn’t uncommon for these types of trades to be lopsided in favor of the friend. Without knowing what other players in the league are or aren’t willing to trade, the timid trader will never have any idea if he could have done better and will never learn. Eventually, even if the trades aren’t collusive by the letter of the law, the spirit of the trades could ultimately have the same impact.

Auction and See You Later
When I was in college, single, had no children, and worked an easy 9-to-5 job, I invested a significant amount of mental energy into my fantasy team(s). I wish I still had the mental bandwidth to do this now, but life is way too busy to spend hours poring over 10 other rosters looking for that ideal trade. However, I always try to put time aside during the season to study my league to ensure that I am optimally managing my team.

There are some players who probably don’t have the time to play in competitive leagues yet still insist on doing so. In my experience, these are generally nice enough people but once the season starts they completely disappear. By early July, their rosters resemble Swiss cheese.

These teams almost always reside in the second division so there is typically not a significant amount of impact on the league pennant races. However, it is often the case that teams at or near the top of a category are punished because a dead team “gives” points to teams in the middle by not participating. Watching a full season of hard work evaporate down the drain because another player isn’t trying is aggravating.

Not Knowledgeable Enough
If you play in deeper formats, you know how difficult it can be to navigate your league’s waters. You probably even remember going through an adjustment period where you weren’t competitive while you learned the finer points of your league. Eventually, though, you got the hang of it and became a better player for your initially difficult experiences.

Not everyone gets to this point, though. Some players love baseball, think that fantasy baseball will be a fun way to translate their love into the game, but don’t understand that the league they are joining is extremely competitive. This often happens when someone tries to join a Roto or dynasty league after playing in a standard, 10-team ESPN or Yahoo! league. You can get away with knowing who the stars are in shallower leagues, but your play will suffer if you venture into mono-format Roto and don’t learn more about the game. Add a keeper element to the mix and it makes this type of fantasy owner an even poorer fit. Dump trades are part and parcel of keeper leagues, but when an ignorant owner flips Lucas Giolito for Cody Asche because he doesn’t know anything about Giolito, it can spell disaster for your league.

Too Many Other Leagues
Because I’m an “expert”, I play in too many leagues. However, I do try to remain active in all of them because it isn’t fair to the people I play with if I disappear or don’t give my maximum effort. This isn’t the case for everyone. You might find yourself in a situation where a player isn’t engaged because he is in seven or eight leagues and isn’t trying as hard in your league. Usually, this lack of effort stems from the idea that the team owner has a poor shot of contending and since he is in so many other leagues there is no reason to waste the energy.

Unfortunately, this malaise can also have an impact on your races. I also find that these owners are usually the first ones out the door when they decide that their jobs and children are making their lives crazy and if they’re going to drop something it is the league that they were barely paying attention to in the first place.

Doesn’t Know the Rules
I don’t expect everyone I play with to memorize the league constitution backward and forward. However, there are some simple things that are the same year in and year out that get asked about over and over and over again. Not being familiar with a league’s complicated free agent acquisition contingency mechanism is one thing, but not being aware that you must have a balanced roster after a trade when this has been the rule for over a decade is quite another. This has little if any impact on the competitive landscape of the league, but if you have ever sat through a dozen “that’s not fair” procedural e-mails, you know that the pain of a weak owner isn’t merely felt due to competitive concerns. Speaking of which…

Major A--hole
This guy is the polar opposite of the rule-ignorant owner. He scans the rules with a magnifying glass looking for loopholes to exploit. If something is worded awkwardly but the intent is clear, this owner will fight the rest of the league endlessly to try to gain an edge. It doesn’t matter if something is obviously intended to work a certain way, this owner will fight everyone on parliamentary procedure. Do you like spending an hour prior to your draft or auction discussing rules? Then this guy is going to be your new best friend! You’ll probably be wearing matching sweaters and exchanging Christmas cards for years to come! Otherwise, no, this is the kind of person who won’t necessarily disrupt your league dynamics but will suck the fun out of your relaxing hobby fairly quickly.

Can Any of This Be Fixed?
The answer to this largely depends on what you want your league to be like. Improving your league so that it has better team ownership is a noble goal. Legislating behavior to come up with an ideal core of owners is probably a rotten idea. In addition to not necessarily fixing the problems that you are trying to address, you might also wind up alienating other owners who don’t want their habits nitpicked with onerous rule changes.

Time is typically the greatest factor in fixing most of these situations. It is easy to forget how awkward your first year in a competitive league was; nearly all of us have been new to an experienced fantasy league. Many of us eventually not only improve but thrive.

The other way that time solves these problems is by weeding weaker owners out. Finishing in the second division isn’t satisfying; some fantasy players eventually quit after losing for three or four years in a row because they recognize that they aren’t as strong as their competitors.

If you do finally get to the point where you want to get rid of a weak link, don’t get bogged down in the idea that you have to keep a fantasy owner just because you want to be civil and/or polite. Tolerating a weak link for a year or maybe two is acceptable, but at some point it has to be recognized that a league owner simply isn’t cutting it. As long as you have a mechanism in your rules for ousting weak owners, you should be able to cut dead weight without feeling like a heel. This should be a last resort, but it does not mean that it should never happen under any circumstances. Sometimes, it’s best for everyone involved to cut the cord.

Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

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