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March 21, 2006

Who Are the AL-Kings?

A Look Inside the New Baseball Prospectus Celebrity Scoresheet League

by Jonah Keri

The growth of experts fantasy leagues has given roto players a chance to see, evaluate and occasionally even ridicule the picks of those who write about and cover baseball for a living. From USA Today/Sports Weekly's long-running Leagues of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) to the power-packed Tout Wars ensemble and beyond, these experts leagues have become a hotly-contested source for bragging rights in the industry.

Even the most die-hard Rotisserie player would stop short of calling the game a perfect proxy for the real thing, though. Roto's focus on statistics such as RBI, stolen bases, saves and wins are enough to make any card-carrying stathead scurry for the soothing comfort of his VORP tables. Luckily there are games that do a better job of replicating real-life baseball. Strat-O-Matic incorporates such elements as defense and strategic decisions (taking the extra base, bunting, hit-and-run plays) into its game. Strat does fall short in one element though, as it relies on the previous season's stats to generate the action. "What, Derrek Lee hit another three-run homer? Shocking!"

Scoresheet Baseball, on the other hand, combines realistic game results with current-year statistics. If Eric Chavez goes 11-for-24 in a given week, you get the benefit of that offensive outburst and Chavez's Gold Glove defense during the corresponding week on the Scoresheet schedule. Scoresheet has a few flaws too. It doesn't account for park effects for one, making Rockies hitters and Nationals pitchers appear more valuable than they are in reality. Still, it's a challenging, fun-to-play game that's a departure from traditional rotoball.

There's also never been a true experts Scoresheet league, with the possible exception of the famed Dwayne Murphy circuit. With that in mind, we realized it was time to put together just such a league. Given Scoresheet's slower proliferation, though, finding 12 suitable experts proved an impossible task. So we did the next best thing, inviting six BP staffers to compete against six of our favorite media members and test-driving BP's new Scoresheet rankings at the same time. You'd be hard-pressed to call all 12 of us "celebrities," so we'll just tip our collective cap to our esteemed leaguemates and say "close enough."

The ground rules for the league are simple. The 12 combatants assemble rosters consisting of 35 players each, American League only. We conduct the draft over two weeks (or so we hoped, more on that later). The winner claims Scoresheet bragging rights. Instead of a lame Yoo-Hoo shower, the victor gets doused by the official beverage of Baseball Prospectus. Best of all, the Scoresheet king gets $1,000 donated by BP to the charity of his choice, whether the winner is a Baseball Prospectus author or an esteemed friend o' BP.

Each league contestant was asked to answer four questions: 1) Name and media organization, 2) Chosen charity, 3) Draft strategy, and 4) Memorable draft moment. The answers are listed below. You can find the league rosters here. You'll notice that the draft isn't over yet, even though we hit the two-week mark Monday night. This has caused some errr…colorful moments on the league mailing list. But we will get this done soon, since we're down to the dregs as of this writing. There was a near riot when Hayden Penn got nabbed in the 26th round, so that gives you some idea.

Oh and AL-Kings? That's our league moniker, in honor of two of our contestants, New York City playground basketball legends and NBA stars Bernard and Albert King. (OK, it's actually Peter King of Sports Illustrated and King Kaufman of Salon.com.) Consider this the 1st edition of the league, which will hopefully become an annual event.

Over the course of the season, we hope to run articles on the BP site from various league participants. You'll hear about the triumphs, regrets, the league's sharks and its guppies. Until then, here's the AL-Kings lineup, in draft order:

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Contestant: King Kaufman, Salon.com

Charity: Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health

Draft Strategy: My draft strategy is being hashed out on the fly with my partner, my co-owner as it were, Rob Granick, who is my cousin and a long-time fantasy player and winner. We had the first pick. We took A-Rod. Since then we've been winging it. Follow that plan, kids, and you too could be in charge of a team that features John Buck behind the dish and Alex "It's OK, Cubs Fans, I'm the Other One" Gonzalez at short.

I've never played a fantasy or roto game in my life, never been interested. Actively disliked the whole idea. I refuse to care if Player X hits a home run or gets a save today. I took Nate up on this invitation because I liked the idea of Scoresheet, with the more interesting concept of simulated games, and also because I write about sports fandom, and feel like I'm missing out on a huge part of that by ignoring the world of fantasy and roto. I thought this would be a good way to experience that side of being a fan.

Memorable Draft Moment: Well, a few days into the draft, I was fascinated, addicted--and horrified. I was spending way too much time talking about this, thinking about it, worrying about it. My wife has suggested that I've gone crazy, and it may be nothing more than my imagination but it seems to me the "attorneys" section of the yellow pages is suddenly well-thumbed. Also, I slipped up and referred to my son as "Magglio" the other day. Yes, horrified covers it.

Contestant: Ben Murphy, Baseball Prospectus

Charity: National Multiple Sclerosis Society. MS is a disease that has hit close to home for the BP family. Keith Woolner's wife, Kathy, has been dealing with the effects of MS for a decade. The Woolners are active in fundraising for MS research, including participating in the MS Walk in RTP, North Carolina. I'd encourage everyone to consider pledging a few dollars by clicking here.

Draft Strategy: I wanted to try to draft the undervalued commodity where possible, with an emphasis on pitching. I figured that pitching would (hopefully) be undervalued a bit. I might have gone a bit overboard with that strategy, having to draft Emil Brown to try to fill my starting OF. I still think that the pitching depth will be valuable and tradable, though. I did use mostly PECOTA, but I have a few consultants that have been helping me with a lot of my picks, so I'd like to, at least anonymously, give them their due credit.

Memorable Draft Moment: I already referenced my sweet third OF, Emil Brown. My draft has otherwise been pretty tame, save for having a few guys snuck out from under me. (Ed Note: Ben has served as the draft coordinator, and created plenty of inadvertent--and nearly violent--hilarity when weekend travel brought the draft to a halt for a day-and-a-half. Ben gets a mulligan thanks to his excellent work in hosting the draft at his blog, but the next misstep could prove costly given this group's fierce competitiveness.)

Contestant: Peter King, Sports Illustrated

Charity: Sofia's Gift Foundation, to aid pediatric heart patients at a Manhattan hospital.

Draft Strategy: My strategy is simple: Not to get blown away by people who know baseball a lot better than I do. Since I'm new to Scoresheet Baseball, I'll use this season to get to know the ins and outs of the game. I'll be happy if I don't finish 12th in the standings.

Memorable Draft Moment: Anecdotes? I don't know. I haven't gotten a shave-cream pie in the face yet as the rookie of the group, but the season is young. (Ed Note: The hazing rituals are much worse than shave-cream pie.)

Contestant: Dave Cokin, ESPN920, Las Vegas

Charity: Lied Animal Shelter

Draft Strategy: A strategy that is probably all wrong for Scoresheet. I'm a roto-terror (nine titles, three seconds in my last dozen leagues) but I have a growing suspicion that drafting big offense early, a good idea in roto, might prove disastrous here. Why do I have the feeling I'm about to do a spot-on impression of Casey Stengel managing the '62 Mets? Of course, that was an expansion entry, so I guess I have my excuse all set...and I'll be sure to use it as frequently as possible.

Memorable Draft Moment: No one ever wants to deal with me in roto. Supposedly, they're doomed to bottom-dweller status (not to mention nasty comments on message boards) after I rip them off. Of course, I'm the guy who dealt away Chris Capuano early last season for Justin Morneau-for-four. In any event, I'm confident that I'm finally going to get some great offers and accompanying sound advice when I'm sitting at 19-42 in this league. I just know Coach Sheehan is going to be especially helpful!

Contestant: Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

Charity: Planned Parenthood

Draft Strategy: With the first pick, I took the best player available. For the next 6-8 rounds, I tried to identify 3-4 guys I would consider taking at that point, and take not necessarily the one I thought was going to have the best season, but the one I thought had the best chance of having a season that exceeded his projections. After that I filled holes. Now we're at the point where I'm focusing primarily on bipedal carbon-based life forms.

Memorable Draft Moment: I had the exact player I wanted to take selected with the pick just before me six times (or one out of every four picks as of this writing, after Round 24). This has greatly altered my friendship with Nate Silver, who has done it four times (Johnny Damon, Justin Verlander, Brian Anderson and Fernando Cabrera) and forced me to bring in a private investigator to search my home for secretly planted espionage devices.

Contestant: Nate Silver, Baseball Prospectus

Charity: Union of Concerned Scientists

Draft Strategy: My strategy could have gone in one of several different directions depending on which players were available with my first several picks. That said, there was certainly some intention to avoid getting stuck with sub-premium players at premium defensive positions, since the dregs at positions like SS and C are really brutal when you're drafting 12 teams from a 14-team league. The consequence was being somewhat weak in the corner OF and DH slots, but I was able to grab a couple of decent platoons in Stairs/Cuddyer and the "natural" platoon of Broussard/Perez.

In terms of pitching, I went for a depth approach and played some hunches (e.g. ignored PECOTA beyond a certain extent). I'm trying to use the uncertainty associated with pitchers to my advantage: If guys like Jose Contreras, Kelvim Escobar and Justin Verlander pan out, my team is going to be very, very good. If they don't, I could finish at 65-97. But I'd rather finish in first place half the time and last place half the time than 3rd place 100% of the time. I really like my team. The positional backups are going to leave something to be desired, and I'm screwed if there are any major injuries, but that's true for pretty much all of us.

Memorable Draft Moment: There were at least two occasions during the draft when I heard my phone ring but failed to pick it up on time. I didn't bother to check the voicemail, or even to see who had called. I knew that it was Jonah, yelling at me because my pick had been up for a full seven minutes or something. I dutifully made my pick, and went right back to what I was doing.

Contestant: Joe Sheehan, Baseball Prospectus

Charity: American Lung Association

Draft Strategy: Get defense and playing time, the latter of which has been a real problem for me in past Scoresheet leagues. Grab some personal favorites along the way, which I did with Corey Patterson. Be on the wrong end of a massive starting pitching run after taking Patterson.

Memorable Draft Moment: I swear, nothing funny or interesting has happened to me during the draft. No wait, I take that back...I forgot which team Kevin Millwood signed with. In my head, he was with the Mariners, so I picked him thinking he'd be in a good pitcher's park. Millwood, of course, signed with the Metroplex Rangers of Texas, who play in HomerDouble Field.

The lesson, of course, is that Kevin Millwood made a mistake.

Contestant: Rany Jazayerli, Baseball Prospectus

Charity: Camp Discovery, which provides a unique summer camp experience for children with serious dermatologic conditions.

Draft Strategy: My first thought when the league was finalized was, "Wow, 12 teams drafting out of the American League only?" That amount of depth is unusual for a Scoresheet League, and makes the appearance of the dreaded "Player-AAA" an inevitability for a lot of teams this season. So my first goal was to amass playing time--lots and lots of playing time--particularly on the mound and behind the plate, the two positions where you can't simply move a player from another position to fill in. Very few of my first 15-20 players have significant injury risks, and I largely eschewed young players with upside in favor of guys who had guaranteed full-time jobs. My second priority was to draft premium players at up-the-middle positions, leading to...

Memorable Draft Moment: ...my decision to draft shortstops with my first two picks. I had trouble deciding between Jhonny Peralta and Derek Jeter with my first pick, so when Jeter was still available in the second round, I couldn't resist grabbing him, knowing I was going to annoy everyone in the league. Worst-case scenario, I figured I could move Jeter to second or third base, but the goal was to wait until the game of Shortstop Musical Chairs left some poor owner with Angel Berroa or Alex Gonzalez--and then pounce. Unfortunately, this strategy has been extremely unsuccessful so far, as no one has made an acceptable offer, and I'm beginning to regret not taking Grady Sizemore with that pick. There's still time for my competitors to realize that their shortstop is better suited for a HACKING MASS team than a Scoresheet one.

Contestant: Jonah Keri, Baseball Prospectus

Charity: Best Friends Animal Society

Draft Strategy: The one time I played Scoresheet before, I targeted pitching and players at premium defensive positions first, figuring they were tougher to find. But with this tough group, I had a feeling they might think the same way (and it turned out that people like Joe Sheehan and Nate Silver did indeed draft that way). So I decided to try to be religious about taking the best player available, even if it meant carrying holes until deep in the draft. I ended up with a ton of power (Travis Hafner, Richie Sexson, Jonny Gomes) and as good a collection of top-three starting pitchers as anyone except Rob (Randy Johnson, Josh Beckett, Jake Westbrook). Even at those weaker positions, Russ Adams and Mark Teahen can be adequate--especially since I can platoon them with the likes of Mark DeRosa and Ty Wigginton--and I've got two of the best potential stretch-run call-ups in B.J. Upton and Andy Marte at those slots too.

Memorable Draft Moment: Needing a lefty reliever with the 269th pick of the draft, I perused the Scoresheet AL-eligible draft list and found Arthur Rhodes available. This was a bit odd, since Rhodes was dealt to the Phillies on Jan. 27, clearly making him an NL player. But the league rules established before the draft held that even if it makes no sense that guys like Jeff Weaver aren't available and Rhodes types are, those are the laws of the land. Naturally the pick caused a Holy War anyway, since Rhodes was at least a decent talent at a point in the draft at which Luis Gonzalez's ABC gum was looking pretty tempting.

Contestant: Rob Neyer, ESPN.com

Charity: The Nature Conservancy

Draft Strategy: I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I've never been particularly successful in fantasy or Rotisserie games, and my one respectable finish--a division title in Bill James Fantasy Baseball: The Winter Game--came roughly a decade ago. My decision to play Scoresheet, for the first time, was made reluctantly (and the truth is that I'm not absolutely sure I ever actually made the decision at all).

Fortunately, after deciding (or not) to play in a league with a bunch of sharks, I discovered that a good friend, David Mlodinoff, is crazy about Scoresheet. He's crazy (or has been crazy) about a lot of games, and his brain works in wonderful ways that mine doesn't. What's more, he was thrilled to be involved. So our draft was essentially a long lesson, pick by pick, in how to build a competitive Scoresheet team. I don't know that there's a lot I can say about our draft strategy that's not painfully obvious. Our first four picks were Roy Halladay, Rich Harden, Dan Haren and Jason Varitek, and we were working off the same lists--BP's Scoresheet rankings, and Ron Shandler's "simulation" rankings--as most of the rest of the owners.

Memorable Draft Moment: I enjoyed quoting the classic line from Patton, but altered in honor of Sam Walker, author of the wonderful new book, Fantasyland. As I e-mailed Sam, "Walker, you magnificent bastard, I read your book!" (And within that same book, my lone appearance, as a "cocky prick," might eventually serve as my literary epitaph).

Contestant: Sam Walker, sports columnist for the Wall Street Journal and author of Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe

Charity: The March of Dimes

Draft Strategy: Uh, right… Since my co-GM, Nando Di Fino, and I are both new to Scoresheet, we have focused most of our efforts on trying to make the other guys in the league look good. Our approach has been to study the rules and then to troll the Scoresheet forums to educate ourselves on all the common mistakes and miscalculations employed by Scoresheet novices. Then we want to be sure to repeat all of them. Early on we focused on power and good ol' Rotisserie goodness without any heed to defense, then flip-flopped to focus on glovework. For pitching, we went with a couple of proven commodities, a solid bullpen (especially in the middle) and speculated on some young arms like Edwin Jackson who have all the makings of serious Scoresheet roadkill. We'll finish with a string of starters, some more solid bullpen performers, and then maybe a backup catcher with staggering upside. All in all, Nando says he thinks we're going for more of a "team" concept here than trying to find value in all the right spots. I'm not sure what the hell he's talking about, but I'm pretty sure that he's convinced himself that he does.

Memorable Draft Moment: After putting my saintly wife through the most extreme two-year period of fantasy baseball absorption on record (while writing my new book, Fantasyland) I promised her I would scale back the fantasy leagues for this season. But while I was on the road recently, I asked her to check my e-mail, forgetting that we were in the middle of this draft. "Who the hell are the AL Kings," was her question, "and why are they sending you six gazillion e-mails this late at night?"

I'm pretty proud of the way I handled this, actually.

Me: "Must be some kind of spam thing."
Her: "Did you join a street gang?"
Me: "Don't be silly."
Her: "I'm deleting them all."
Me: "Uh…"

Contestant: Jeff Erickson, RotoWire.com

Charity: The Brain Aneurysm Foundation

Draft Strategy: Enjoy being able to ignore saves and stolen bases for once this spring. Try to get help from the Scoresheet discussion groups. Remember that defense matters, but at the same time, don't go overboard there. Drafting 12th in a 12-team league of sharks is tough, so just keep my head above water. Finally, make sure to get enough starters, so I don't get the dreaded "AAA-Pitcher" going for me (insert Cincinnati Reds joke here).

Memorable Draft Moment: Two items amused me here. One, the general furor caused by my drafting of Felix Hernandez with one of my first two picks (12 & 13), and the general comments that I reached, followed by others who suggested that they would have drafted him later that round. If I reached, apparently it was only by a handful of picks. I'm using Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster as an alternate resource, paying particular heed to his RAR (Runs Above Replacement) rankings. Using his table, not only was King Felix the logical pick here, it wasn't even close.

The other funny thing was everybody having fun quoting Sam's book back at him when appropriate. Tout Wars should be fun next week.

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

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