Be sure to read the interview with Fantasyland’s Sam Walker on Viva El Birdos, which has quickly become one of my favorite baseball blogs on the web. There’s lots of good stuff in this interview, but perhaps the most interesting part is Walker’s contention that the valuation methods brought about by fantasy baseball are partly responsible for the tightening of the market for free agent pitchers:
One of the things you’re seeing now — and Billy Beane has talked about this — the market for free-agent pitchers is much tougher than it used to be, because everyone has now figured out how to value wins and strikeouts properly. Because people weren’t valuing them properly before, and you could still see incredible discrepancies. But now the market’s tightened up. That’s all because — whether they admit it or not — almost every front office has someone back there saying, “Well actually, the numbers say this.” I don’t think you can divorce the fantasy game from that. I think they’re one and the same. When you talk about the free-agency era in baseball, I think the biggest catalyst for change has been fantasy baseball.
I have two or three thoughts here.
Firstly, I think Walker is correct that fantasy baseball is generally not given enough credit for the expanding influence of analytic and sabermetric methods in major league front offices. The sort of uber-condensed Cliff Notes version of the past quarter-century in sabermetrics is basically: “Well, first God created Bill James, and then he forgot about him for awhile, and then he created Billy Beane, and it was Good”. There were a lot of good things going on between the Baseball Abstracts and Moneyball. Sean Forman and David Smith were working their butts off to make data more widely available and easily digestible for a whole generation of fans and analysts; if someone ever builds a Sabermetric Hall of Fame, Forman and Smith are first-ballot selections. The blogosphere was expanding. Geoff Reiss and the folks at ESPN had the good sense to give Rob Neyer a job. There was generational turnover in front offices and newsrooms. Gary Huckabay founded Baseball Prospectus. Processing power was doubling every eighteen months or so, such that tasks that it might have taken James a supercomputer to execute were now getting done on personal computers in a matter of a few seconds.
So you’d need a pretty big table to make room for all the people that played a part in the sabermetric revolution. But there’s no doubt that fantasy baseball was a major influence in bringing many of us to that table, either directly because wanting to crush our fantasy league is what piqued our interest in analytics, or indirectly because it helped us to find an audience for our products. For me personally, it was a bad experience involving drafting Luis Polonia in the second round of a Scoresheet Baseball draft that got me to find the Scoresheet Baseball discussion list, which in turn got me in contact with Gary Huckabay.
My second thought — and I’m shifting gears here — is that if Walker is correct that fantasy baseball has made real baseball more competitive, then surely it follows that fantasy baseball itself has become more competitive too. In 1998, Ron Shandler was able to crush the AL Tout Wars league by employing something called the LIMA Plan, which assigned only a small fraction of his budget to pitching, but made up the difference by focusing on unheralded pitchers with good strikeout, walk, and home run numbers. It was Voros McCracken before any of us had heard of Voros McCracken.
The problem is that something like the LIMA Plan has been too successful for its own good. Any reasonably competent projection system now understands the importance of leading indicators like walk rate and strikeout rate, and the unpredictability of a category like wins. Thus, the pitchers that Shandler might have been able to grab for $1 a few years ago are now going for $10, and Jeremy Bonderman (14 wins and a 4.08 ERA in 2006), is going for nearly twice as much as Chien-Ming Wang (19 wins and a 3.63 ERA, but vastly inferior peripherals).
In fact, I feel comfortable saying the following. In any reasonably competitive fantasy league, there is no gimmicky plan that will make you more likely to win your league than playing it straight based on good, old-fashioned projections, valuations, and intuitions:
Project the players’ underlying statistics properly based on taking into account as much information as possible, and knowing how to filter good information from bad.