At the request of several, the following is a rather rudimentary description of fantasy baseball, some history of the game, a couple of variations of play styles that we could try, and some tips on scouting and player evaluation.
Some of this will be very elementary for folks that have played the game before, but I hope some of the newbies will find it helpful and a starting point for enjoying the competition.
It's all in in the spirit of friendly competition. And will give meaning to a 10:05 pm San Diego-Milwaukee game in mid-September when the Nats are 25 games out of first place.
Fantasy baseball is simple and complicated at the same time. Essentially, fantasy owners take turns selecting real players in certain pre-set positions to accumulate various statistics to be compared to the other teams in the league over a set time period to determine a champion. Sounds easy, right?
Well, there are endless possibilities when it comes to how players are acquired, what positions and roster limitations to use, which statistics to track, how the teams are organized and what time periods teams will battle over.
There were several baseball card-based games popular through the 60's, including Strat-o-Matic (tm) that based their games off what players had done up to that point in their careers, but playing based on projected stats didn't become popular until 1980, when Daniel Okrent developed what became known as "Rotisserie" ("Roto") Baseball, the name based on the restaurant in New York City where the team owners would gather to compile their statistics out of the newspapers for the previous week's play.
This early form of the game was very limited in player acquisition, roster limitation and scoring, principally because the stats had to be compiled out of the previous week's box scores by hand. Eventually, the game moved onto the internet, opening up limitless flexibility in scoring categories and roster manipulation.
For a more complex description of the history of the game, this wikipedia page is fairly comprehensive.
VARIATIONS OF THE GAME
The two most popular variations of game play are Roto-style and Head-to-head.
In Roto-style, teams compile statistics over the course of the entire season and are ranked by accumulated statistics in whatever categories are chosen to follow. For example, if you are in a 12 team league and finish first in home runs, you are awarded 12 points. Second place gets 11 points and on down the line.
Whichever team has the most points in all the combined categories wins for the season.
In head-to-head, teams "play" another team for a certain time period (usually one week), and you win or lose the week based on how many categories each team wins. After a set number of "games", head-to-head playoffs are played and the winner is determined in that manner.
Both styles have their benefits. Roto scoring is a test of stamina as much as baseball acumen as there are no winners until the season reaches its final day. Head-to-head gives the satisfaction of beating other owners over a shorter time period.
Also, leagues can either be single year formats or a "keeper" leagues, where the same owners play against each other year after year and are allowed to keep certain players from year-to-year, based on pre-determined value and restrictions.
ROSTERS, DRAFTING AND SCORING
The possibilities here are limitless. The original game was comprised of 23-man teams (14 hitters, nine pitchers) and eight categories: Average, HRs, RBIs, SBs, Wins, ERA, WHIP (walks + hits per inning), Saves. Also, the original game only drafted their teams out of one or the other leagues.
If we set up a novice league, we can make the rosters smaller and draft out of both leagues (a "mixed" league) so that only the best players in MLB are drafted. For a more challenging game, or for more experienced players, we can have a deeper roster and limit play to AL on NL only (or have one of each).
There are two ways to draft players: auction format, where owners can bid on any player they like and win them at auction (using a salary cap and roster limitations are their only restrictions), or a straight draft, where each team gets to pick in a pre-determined order.
Trading, picking up free agents and waiving dead weight, reserving injured players: it's all part of roster management.
FANTASY STATS EVALUATION
There are a lot of products on the market offering fantasy stats projections and evaluation. Lots of them are crap. Predicting statistics on more than a general basis from one year to the next is a very difficult job to do with any shred of accuracy.
If you buy a fantasy baseball magazine off the rack, expect to see predicted statistics, player bios and a paragraph blurb about expectations for the coming season. You'll also see a cheat sheet or two, giving you a list to work off of when you are participating in your draft (or setting your own draft list). The big caveat with most fantasy magazines is that they are usually published around December, so any analysis is done way before the next season starts, and in many cases before free agents sign with their new teams.
Publications that come out later in the winter, such as The Bill James' Handbook, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and Baseball Prospectus are not only fantasy tools, but are also very popular within the Sabrmetric community and modern front office executives. They are becoming evaluative tools for the pros in the game. These publications do a much better job at evaluating the skills involved in producing the statistics instead of dwelling on just projecting numbers. But they all still do projections.
FEDERAL BASEBALL FANTASY LEAGUES
In the coming weeks, I will set up several leagues using a free stat service (probably Yahoo) of varying degrees of difficulty, roster size and format. Owners can join whatever league they want to.
Primary word of caution: if you sign up for a league, please maintain your team for the entire season. Believe me, I understand the time restrictions on the modern baseball fan, let alone if you have a family, career, other hobbies, habits or addictions. But there's nothing more frustrating than to have people sign up for a free fantasy league all gung-ho about it in April only to have them stop managing their team part-way through the season. It skews the comeptitive balance of the league, and makes it less enjoyable for those that are really trying.
If you think you want to play but are limited on time, play in a head-to-head league. You have to set your roster just once a week and let the game play. But please remember to check and set your lineups.
If you are going to be a "hands-on" manager, play in a roto league with daily transactions. It's like being the GM of your very own team!
Let the games begin!