No! Wait! Don’t leave! I know that the last thing anyone wants to talk about when it comes to fantasy baseball are rules. Many, many years ago, I was in a home league where at least half of the league was populated by attorneys, and we would spend at least an hour before each auction discussing the league’s constitution. This is as gut-wrenchingly awful as it sounds. There were a few years where we held our auctions in metropolitan high rises and I would keep wistfully looking at the window, wondering if there was any way at all to unbolt it and fly away to sweet, sweet freedom.
Now that I write for Baseball Prospectus, I play in many more expert leagues than I used to and have been exposed to more combinations of rules and formats than I would have ever imagined possible. Tout Wars, the expert league formed by Peter Kreutzer, Lawr Michaels, Ron Shandler, and Jeff Erickson in 1998, is particularly innovative, offering several twists on the “traditional” Rotisserie rulebook that in some cases have been adopted by the fantasy industry at large.
I am not a rules/format warrior. My philosophy when it comes to fantasy baseball is “follow your bliss.” I’m not particularly interested in dynasty leagues, but if your idea of fun is drafting players until you’re driving past local high schools yelling, “is that kid in left field any good?” then by all means, you do you. The only kinds of rules I don’t like are rules that reward luck/randomness over skill to such a degree that skill is rendered irrelevant. Obviously, luck is always going to play a factor in fantasy baseball (and is a large part of what makes the game so much fun), but when the game shifts too far from skill to luck it takes away the reward of months of draft preparation and hard work.
In particular, there are the types of two rules I’ve noticed in expert leagues that tend to tilt the scales far too much toward luck over skill.
First Come/First Serve
The shallower the league, the more owners love to tinker with their rosters. The appeal of doing this is understandable. Additionally, the reward of the “hard work” of spending time on the Internet researching players, finding out if someone has a new pitch, if a job situation has changed, or if a slump is more than just small sample size noise is one of the challenges of leagues with daily moves. I used to dislike leagues with daily roster moves, but I have grown to appreciate the reward of grabbing a guy in the minors who is raking and subsequently reaping the rewards of my due diligence.
However, there should still be some kind of mechanism that prevents owners from simply benefiting from seeing breaking news and being the first person to get to his computer. In 2015, the Braves traded Craig Kimbrel on Easter Sunday, which instantly made Jason Grilli the new Braves closer. I was eating dinner when I heard the news, and didn’t want to break away from my family to try and pick up a player in multiple fantasy leagues. OK, that’s not quite true; I did want to pull out my phone and try to pick Grilli up in as many leagues as possible, but I made the mental calculation that annoying my relatives by using my smartphone during Easter dinner was not worth the benefit of Grilli. Sure enough, an hour later when I was able to break away from the family, Grilli was long gone in all of my leagues that use instant moves. Thanks for nothing, people who I love dearly.
Part of the rationale for getting rid of first come, first serve moves is that in examples like the one above, in the social media age there is absolutely zero skill in finding out that Grilli is about to become the closer. Nearly every owner in your league will obtain this information simultaneously, so the main factor determining who will get Grilli is who can race to the computer the fastest. If you really want to reward a fantasy skill, institute a FAAB system in your league over waivers, and force owners to decide how much to bid in situations like this. This is a skill that transcends the idea of first come, first serve. With a daily FAAB mechanism, the active owner can still be rewarded over the passive one.
To Limit or Not to Limit Injured Reserve. Wait, this is a question?
For many years, I played in leagues where you could feasibly keep an unlimited number of players on your disabled list. You couldn’t stash players who were free agents on your DL, but if an active player on your team was hurt, there was no limit to how many players you could disable. I typically played in AL or NL-only leagues, so the thinking was that there really was no advantage to stashing an unlimited number of players since if you had six or more significant injuries your team was screwed anyway.
Once I started playing in standard mixed leagues thanks to my “expert” status, I was exposed to the rule that limited your DL slots to two or three players. These leagues also have benches – so you can use your bench to stash additional DL guys – but with limited reserve slots as well, this maneuver can quickly put you at a strategic disadvantage, particularly if you are allowed to stream players on a daily basis.
The arguments for limiting DL slots are twofold. First, allowing teams to have unlimited DL slots hampers the free agent pool considerably. This is more relevant in deeper mixed leagues—where the number of available everyday players and starting pitchers available can fall off rather quickly—but it can also apply in standard mixed leagues as well. The other argument for limiting an injured reserve is that allowing teams to carry an unlimited number of disabled players allows them to use their DL as a crutch and prevents them from flexing their strategic muscle.
I buy the first argument. I’d apply a different rule to navigate this… but more on that in a minute. I want to start by addressing the second point. While I can see how allowing teams to stash unlimited injured players could create a situation where they do not try to grab additional talent from the free agent pool, I could only see this happening in a passive non-expert leagues. Experts tend to try and work all of the angles in an attempt to gain an advantage, and even if the DL slots were unlimited, I couldn’t see this working to limit expert league transactions. A limited DL rule seems to be more of an attempt to protect bad owners from themselves, not an attempt to level the playing field. I’m all for strong leagues, but weeding out bad owners through rules isn’t my preferred method of dealing with bad owners.
The second problem with the limited DL rule is typically there is no mechanism in place to prevent owners with open DL slots to pick injured players up off of the waiver wire. This creates a situation where owners without injuries are being given a built in advantage simply due to the injury luck-of-the-draw. To be sure, some players are more likely to get injured than others and have more risk built into their profiles, but sometimes injuries just happen (A.J. Pollock, for example). Penalizing a team because of injuries is one thing; rewarding another team for the non-injury luck-of-the-draw is untenable.
My rule change would allow for injured players to be reserved but end the entire concept of stashing anyone at all on reserve. Do you want to stream starting pitchers? Fine, but then you have to release a pitcher first. Want to sit on Trea Turner? Tough luck; if you believe allowing for injury stashes is a “crutch”, what do you think allowing a team to sit on Turner for two months is? In redraft leagues, I would extend this logic to the draft or auction. If you wanted to draft Jose Berrios, fine, but if he started the year in the minors you have to replace him with an active major league player and cut Berrios. Once again, this would create a more robust FAAB market and lend itself to strategy in terms of deciding how much you want to bid on certain players as opposed to simply holding onto someone like Berrios. Additionally, it would really force you to think through your speculative picks or buys in February if you knew you had to throw them back if they didn’t make it.
As I mentioned above, I am not a rules fanatic, and am not particularly concerned about how people do or do not manage their leagues. But in terms of expert formats, there are some leagues looking at what we do and modeling their leagues after our formats. Creating scenarios that are as fair minded as possible and reward luck as little as possible are a best case scenario for everyone, both in terms of how these expert leagues play out as well as the opportunities it provides for the non-experts watching our leagues and hoping to learn something from them.
Thank you for reading
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