It used to be that starting a fantasy league from scratch was an easy undertaking. You got some folks together, picked a league (AL or NL), picked a format (4×4 or 5×5), picked a stats service, and you were off and running. Those traditional formats, however, don’t offer much in the way of realism, trading accuracy in determining whose roster is “best” for simplicity in making the determination. Given the wealth of options now available, there seems to be little reason to stick to those formats other than inertia. We can do better.

So, picking up the ball Ron Shandler left on the mound in a recent series of articles at BaseballHQ, I’m going to offer some suggestions on how to set up a league tailored to the Baseball Prospectus crowd.

1. Select a Player Pool

The first decision you’ll need to make is deciding on a player pool from which you’ll be assembling your rosters. Traditionally, player pools come in three varieties: AL-only, NL-only and mixed. If you have just 10 or 12 owners in the league (or fewer), you’d generally use one league or the other, while if you had a larger group you’d use the mixed format. Optimally you want a player pool only slightly larger than the number of owners, to ensure some degree of difficulty in filling your final roster spots; for instance, if you have 12 owners in your league you might choose to make it an AL-only league, giving you the rosters of 14 AL teams in the player pool. If you want those last roster decisions to be easier, simply add more MLB teams into the pool, up to the full 30.

There’s no reason you need to limit yourself to those traditional choices, however. Many larger online service providers will allow you to choose any MLB teams for your available player pool. If, for instance, all your league’s owners are on Pacific Standard Time, why not use just the AL West and NL West? If you need more teams, add in the westernmost clubs from the Central divisions (Minnesota/Milwaukee, both Chicago teams, St. Louis/Kansas City) as required. Or make it democratic–nominate each major-league team in random order, and have your league’s owners vote on whether it should be in the pool or not.

Whatever you decide should ultimately be aimed at making the league more fun for everyone involved, so don’t get too hung up on this step.

2. Select a Format

This is, arguably, the most important decision you’ll make. You first have to choose an overall format: rotisserie-style, points, or head-to-head:

  • In rotisserie-style leagues, teams accumulate statistics in various categories from their players over the course of the full season. Each team scores points in the standings based on where they rank in each category, and the team with the most standings points at the end of the year is the winner.
  • In points leagues, the players on each team score points for individual baseball events (hits, doubles, saves, complete games…the possibilities are numerous.) The team with the highest total at the end of the year wins.
  • In head-to-head leagues, teams in the league actually schedule games against each other, usually one per week. The players on each team either accumulate stats in categories (as in a rotisserie league) or score points (as in a points league), but those totals are compiled only for each game period and compared only to that game’s opponent. Highest score gets the win; most wins at the end of the season wins the title.

Each format has its advantages and disadvantages. Rotisserie is the most common league type, and probably the easiest to set up, but it’s also fairly abstract and newer owners can lose interest as the season drags on; the points format is the easiest to maintain once you’ve decided what each event is worth, but deciding what each event is worth can be a chore; while head-to-head usually does the best job maintaining owner interest as teams out of playoff contention get to play “spoiler,” the win/loss format also opens up the possibility that the best teams might not rise to the top.

Whichever format you select, your next decision involves choosing which statistics or events you want to use to keep score. (From here on out I assume you’ve decided to use either rotisserie or head-to-head rotisserie format; not that I think points format is inferior, just that the possibilities are so varied this column could stretch to thesis length if I went into them all. Points is the least common of the three.)

3. Select Your Statistics

Now the fun starts. Traditional (4×4) rotisserie uses four hitting categories (batting average, home runs, runs batted in and stolen bases) and four pitching (wins, saves, ERA and WHIP), with many leagues adding in runs (for hitters) and strikeouts (for pitchers) to expand to 5×5. Back when stats came once a week in the sports section of your local newspaper this made some sense–they were pretty much the only stats you could get–but in this, the World of Tomorrow, we should be scoffing at such a quaint arrangement. Batting average? Pitching wins? Stolen bases??? Puh-leez.

A more realistic (in terms of player worth) arrangement might look like this:

Hitting Categories Pitching Categories
On-Base Pct.       BB/9
Slugging Pct.      K/9
Home Runs          HR/9
BB/K               IP
SB-(2*CS)+3B-DP    Appearances

The hitting categories now reward both plate discipline and maximizing the damage a player does with his at-bats, while still including a speed element that more accurately reflects what speed can do for a team than a raw stolen-base total. On the pitching side, the impact (and workloads) of both starters and relievers are accounted for, while their performance is measured without the noise of their teams’ defenses.

4. Find a Host

The main problem with using non-traditional scoring systems is finding someone to tabulate them. Doing an entire league by hand is a painstaking effort, and even if you build your own website, you still either have to enter the numbers by hand, or pay an arm and a leg to STATS Inc. or a similar company for a feed.

By far the simplest solution (and one usually worth the money) is to use a commercial provider. Many of the largest ones, however, offer little flexibility in terms of which categories you can use, which means you may have to shop around to find one that can meet your needs. Don’t be afraid to ask if they can provide a customized stat for you, such as the speed stat above. It’s a competitive marketplace, and a good site should be willing to accommodate anything that isn’t too esoteric. Just find a provider you’re comfortable with, and that can handle your player pool and statistics choices, and you should be OK.

Of course, if you do happen to have a web-savvy league member who wants to build and maintain a league site from scratch, you’re pretty much free to do and use whatever you want. Just make sure to keep them in Red Bull and salty snacks, lest they become surly…

5. Establish a Constitution

From here the rules can be as simple or complex as you like. Traditional rotisserie leagues have 23-man rosters (14 hitters, nine pitchers) for no discernible reason, but a 25-man roster (13 hitters, nine pitchers, three utility spots that can be either) is a little closer to MLB reality. If you want this to be a keeper league, with teams retaining the rights to players from year to year, another 15 roster spots for reserve players and prospects (to give each team a true 40-man roster) is probably a good idea, too.

Transaction rules, contract rules, whether you should divide up the player pool through an auction or a draft…all these questions need to be answered before you can get up and running, but there are plenty of online resources (including undoubtedly some available from your chosen provider) that will get into all the gory details, and allow you to tailor your league’s profile as you see fit. Once you have the basics above figured out, the rest should fall into place.

Erik Siegrist is a beat writer for RotoWire, covering the Marlins, Nationals and White Sox. He can be reached here.

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