1. Play with your friends/people you know
Do you enjoy baseball? Do you enjoy making your friends feel bad about their failures? Exploiting them in times of need? Holding past shortcomings over their heads? Man, you're going to love playing fantasy baseball with friends. Look, you don't really care who your teammates are when you're winning a league, because you're either going to get money, which you can use to buy friends, or bragging rights, which will shortly force you to acquire new friends. But what if you have a middling team, or a bad one in a redraft league? You need something to keep you going when you realize there are 52 games left and you have zero shot at competing. That thing is the ability to mock friends who are in a worse spot than you are, haunt your friends who make bad decisions long after it matters for you and plan the demise of friends who lord their success over you. (No, I don't have many healthy relationships in my life, why do you ask?)Making trades with friends is way more fun than with strangers. Plus, playing in a league with friends also makes for great Twitter fodder, gives you something to talk about at work/at a bar and will lead to even more inside jokes that outsiders will find insufferable. Hey, maybe someone will even pay you to podcast about it! —Ben Carsley
2. Division of front-office labor
Caveat emptor: I haven’t played fantasy sports in about eight years. Several little reasons led to my phasing out of this in favor of the traditional Root For The Players On My Favorite Team. Maybe it was too easy to have total control over a fake team. Perhaps I was too meddlesome, or at times just too apathetic. Big deal if I screwed up, it didn’t affect anyone else.
But it might keep me honest if I was part of a front office and had a specialized role. Imagine a team where you had a
- General Manager: in charge of the draft, roster moves, and trades
- Manager: responsible for inserting daily starting lineups
Of course, this would force both the manager and GM to, get this, work with one another toward making a successful team. You could additionally have a minor league scout if it’s a keeper league, whose job would be to sign minor league players or prospects. Then, of course, an analytics guy to render the scout obsolete. —Matt Sussman
3. Have your auction or draft in person
I know, most leagues cannot make the logistics work for a live draft. If your leagues are like this, then I highly recommend starting or joining a league that allows you to do so. There are many great parts of live drafts, but the greatest parts are noted below:
Sure, you could cater your online draft for yourself, but that often comes with a sense of guilt. But if a bunch of people are gathering for several hours, then you all are going to have to eat something at some point and bam, we now have a socially justifiable excuse to procure and consume delicious, unhealthy foods.
Jeff’s Tip: Pizza, wings, and subs are the classics, but you can do just as well during a late-morning auction or draft—my personal favorite being a sesame bagel with whitefish and a cup of coffee (maybe some coffee cake for dessert).
Maybe you haven’t blown out your right knee twice and still get to play pickup sports, affording you the opportunity to talk trash at events other than your alumni golf tournament. However, if you are like me, draft and auction days are some of the few days a year you can truly heckle, rib, and poke fun at will. Nuance and tone can get lost in online draft chat boxes, but at a live draft, we are in full capacity to trash talk, pretending like we know anything about anything.
Jeff’s Tip: Joining a league with your fiancée’s dad can be fun and can get you into fantasy baseball, but it is not a plus in the trash talking department. That said, it can be great trash talking for your leaguemates.
A live draft or auction is not inherently more competitive, but it certainly feels more like a game or competition. The little added adrenaline of having your decisions observed in person by your friends is terrifying and awesome.
Jeff’s Tip: Be as prepared as possible heading into the draft; this way, you are not scrambling to do last-minute analysis at the draft or auction. This also leaves more time for food and trash talking.
Plus, there is the side benefit of getting to see your friends. Enjoy your drafts and be safe. —Jeff Quinton
4. Keep the scores and standings secret
The downside to this is that you lose one strategic opportunity–in head-to-head leagues, the ability to manage the hell out of the weekend; in roto leagues, the ability to make second-half gambles based on specific categories you're strong or weak in. That's the downside. The upside, though, is tremendous: Rather than having two-thirds of your league lose interest by July, and having the far-bottom-dwellers totally disappear into screw-this oblivion, everybody might plausibly delude themselves into thinking they're still in the race. They'll be managing every game like it matters, treating every single and stolen base like it might be the one that wins the war. Indeed, to that last point: Even if you're in a competitive position and fully engaged in the season, you're usually aware of many pointless events. The home run your 3B hits on Sunday doesn't really matter when you're six home runs up (or down). The saves your pitcher gets in late August don't matter when you're 20 saves ahead and 20 saves behind your nearest competitors. Keeping score is fun. Watching the scoreboard is fun. But what the scoreboard really does is take the 2,430 games in a major-league season, the 183,929 individual batter/pitcher matchups, and it makes roughly half of it all totally meaningless. What's really fun is getting the significance of that lost half back. —Sam Miller
5. League losers treat the champion to a game
A friend of mine from graduate school had the best baseball bet with his friends I've ever heard of. Upon graduating college, he and three friends concocted a competition. Over the next ten years, the one who saw a game at the most MLB stadia would win. The winner would get to choose any MLB city and the friends would all meet there and take in a game, with the winner getting his way paid by the other three. It wasn't much of a competition, because often they'd all make road trips together to cross different stadiums off the list, but as my friend said, that was the whole point to begin with. They had ten years where they could guarantee that they would be able to stay in touch and talk about baseball.
So, here's the takeaway. There are those of you out there who play in crazy competitive leagues, and that's great. You listen to fantasy podcasts. You legitimately stay up at night worrying when someone new gets a save opportunity. And then there are the normal people. This is for you. If you're playing in a league with some friends because you all love baseball, and don't like the whole vibe of trying to screw your friends over to get a few extra RBIs, then here's the best thing you can do. The prize for winning the league is that either in late September or next April, everyone in the league goes to a game together at whatever local nine is closest. The league winner gets her/his ticket and any other refreshments covered by everyone else. That means that everyone has something to play for, but that even in consummating the prize (gloating is totally permitted until the sixth inning, by the way), it's still an act of friendship. That means that all summer, you can sit around and talk baseball, pretend to be a real GM, obsess a bit over Christian Yelich, despite the fact that you had never really had any feelings about Christian Yelich before, and not have it devolve into a relationship-killing slugfest. And you get to see a baseball game. —Russell A. Carleton
6. Prop categories
So here you are, deep into another disappointing fantasy season. Half of your position players are injured, your pitching staff's ERA is in the upper 4s and the waiver wire's barren as Turner Field after the seventh inning.
Wouldn't your fantasy experience be much better if success wasn't based on things like hits and home runs and strikeouts and steals; you know, the kind of stats that actually play a significant role in determining the skill of a team or player?
Introducing Prop Categories! Functioning on similar principles employed with prop bets, these completely meaningless yet measurable statistics will help shift the balance in your league away from those who actually understand the qualities of a successful baseball player and have annoying tendencies like preparing for the draft and making smart trades.
Who's hitting into the most 4-3 ground outs? Which pitcher has the most five-pitch strikeouts? Who seems to be leading off a lot of innings? How many Twitter followers, by percentage of their current total, did a player gain during a certain week?
Yes, this could add some extra legwork (Read: Baseball Prospectus Play Index searches) to your league that the computer would normally take care of. But it would be worth it to see a cellar dweller jump into contention based on Dee Gordon's swing getting long and making him roll over on everything.
Maybe, with all these newfangled stats and measurements, the game's gotten a bit too facts-based. What's wrong with a bit of irrationality? —Ian Frazer
7. Add unique wrinkles
The first is an AL-only draft league with the added wrinkle that each team may select three players from the National League at any time during the draft, the only stipulation being that each team must select at least one hitter and one pitcher from the NL. This, of course, adds another element to the overall draft strategy. Owners must determine if the elite players in the NL are worth going after and when. It’s not as simple as just taking Clayton Kershaw in the first round when it means spending one of your only NL picks and passing on an American League first-rounder. Owners have to account for the replacement level value as there will still be top 40 NL players available at the end of the draft when other teams will be taking their reserves. It’s just another element that you have to consider and the best fantasy leagues push owners to make more decisions.
An added benefit from this wrinkle is that it gives the owners a reason to reconvene at a bar during the All-Star break as we draft another NL player using the reverse first half standings as the draft order. That pick can be either a hitter or a pitcher and as soon as the preseason draft is over owners are allowed to trade their All-Star break pick.
In another AL-only league, this one an auction, we play with a $130 budget instead of the traditional $260 and also with smaller rosters. Teams start just one catcher, two middle infielders, two corner infielders, three outfielders, one utility, and six pitchers (Teams may purchase two reserves at the auction, although it’s not required, and each team may add a third reserve starting in the third week of the season). Every auction is unique, but this one is tons of fun because despite the $130 budget the top players still command close to what they would in a $260 league, which leads to plenty of bargains as the auction goes along.
Another quirk about this league is that instead of using the common FAAB system for free agents, they’re first come first serve. Each team can make up to 17 additions during the season, but each pickup costs $10 in real money. There are also bonuses of $10 each awarded to owners should a player on their team throw a no-hitter, hit for the cycle, or hit four home runs in a game. If you feel like your league has become too monotonous or just want to try something different, consider adding an interesting wrinkle to the rules. —Nick Shlain
8. Small touch-ups
Once, when the internet was young and #hottakes had yet to infiltrate the landscape, there was a young and intrepid fantasy baseball commissioner who tended to his or her league every day. The commissioner thought the league was unique and showed it off to his friends, and it attracted many a player. As the internet aged, it became clear to the commissioner that the league was more mundane than they had previously thought. The commissioner saw a variety of leagues spring up with all sorts of fancy ideas and stats. There were auction leagues, dynasty leagues, OBP leagues, leagues that used defense stats, and so many more. The commissioner became disenchanted with his regular old league, and one day banished the once-prized possession, instructing it to never come back.
The commissioner would spend the next few months ignoring his league-mates and family members alike as the commissioner sought to construct The Perfect League. They added sprinkles of wRC+ and dashes of Pitcher WARP. They found some spare wOBA and attached them post haste. Before long they had constructed a fanciful league with 16 appendages and showed it off to the internet. The new league attracted many an owner and the commissioner was pleased. Before long, however, it became apparent that the league was far too cumbersome as the new owners began to complain about the complexity. Soon the commissioner was left alone with the complex husk of their new league.
As they were tending to their Farmville, the commissioner saw a familiar shape in the background. Their former league-mates returned and had made a few minor adjustments to the old league. An OBP here and a QS there, and presto! The commissioner saw this and was pleased, and the league played together for many a year.
Sometimes “boring” leagues just need a small touch-up. —Mauricio Rubio
9. Call an owner to talk trade
The internet is both a wonderful and terrible place–and what it gives us in fantasy leagues is a dehumanization that leads to leagues falling apart at a much higher rate than even five years ago. Of course, some of that is the growth of the game, but that's a topic for another day. The functionality of fantasy websites and fantasy apps make it so that the easiest way to communicate with your fellow owners is by sending them a trade offer or posting a general comment on the message board. And while both of those things have their place, we've lost the joys of talking directly with a competitor. Starting off a conversation with an offer and a flip comment to follow is no way either build camaraderie or get trades done. Back in the "old days", trades were routinely negotiated by phone–and while this may seem like a very novel concept to some younger players, it's still the most effective way of doing business. When you talk to people, you build relationships, and the more relationships your league has, the healthier it is and the longer it will last. —Bret Sayre
Thank you for reading
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I'm always amazed at how many sabermetric enthusiasts still play vanilla 5x5 and suffer its old-timey scoring constructs. Quality touch-ups are one thing, but this format actually combines baseball realities with a still-easy-to-understand format. Me and my nerd friends can play it while not losing sleep thinking about how silly it is to track RBI, but my old school dad can play it too because it doesn't employ any non-traditional stats. (A point system based on The Book's linear weights are a nice way to bury the nerdery beneath the surface so he doesn't react with horror.)
Everyone I've dragged into it has loved it and never gone back to 5x5. The only downside is that it renders a lot of fantasy writing out there irrelevant to you. But don't you secretly loathe RBI and pitcher wins anyway? Be honest with yourself.
Personally, I feel like if you're going to nerd out and lose an entire weekend to your spreadsheets (one of my favorite pastimes! yes, I am single) then by all means, play the most complex format available. But if you don't want to sink a ton of hours into it, yes, I agree Ottoneu has its drawbacks.
My take is that if you're going to nerd out and lose weekends/work hours to fantasy baseball, you should at least come out of it with a sense of a player's actual value, undistorted by 5x5's overvaluation of RBI/SB/AVG.
It really changes the dynamic of the top picks in your draft, especially in keeper leagues.