Crowdsourcing Fantasy Baseball Leagues

March 25, 2016

With MLB Opening Day just over a week away, it’s time for another season of fantasy baseball. If your leagues are anything like mine, that means chains of 200+ emails hashing out every detail of league rules and setup. When are we drafting? Should we change our keeper rules? Wait, what are the keeper rules? What about changing scoring or roster settings? This goes on and on, and we usually end up changing nothing from the previous year. It’s ridiculous, but given that leagues can have a wide variety of configurations, it makes sense that the managers will almost never immediately align on an acceptable setup.

Wisdom in the crowd of fantasy baseball leagues?

There is certainly no best setup for fantasy baseball because leagues and players have a wide range of tastes and preferences. But what if we could see how the fantasy baseball universe in general sets up their leagues? Maybe understanding how “the crowd” plays could provide commissioners and players with some guidance in making these decisions. Fortunately for us, thousands of ESPN’s fantasy baseball leagues are viewable to the public. There are over 100,000 accessible league seasons going back to 2011, so let’s see what we can learn.

If you keep reading, I’m going to give you a quick tour of ESPN’s league configuration data for leagues from 2011-2016. My hope is that this will help reduce squabbling over trivialities so we can all focus on what we really enjoy about fantasy sports—trash talking.

When do fantasy baseball leagues draft?

Fantasy Baseball Draft Dates

The pattern of draft dates is pretty clear year over year. It looks like leagues are generally balancing a couple of factors: proximity to opening day (procrastination) and weekends (convenience). The peaks in the graph above occur on Sundays, and the most common draft date is always the Sunday about a week before Opening Day*. I would have assumed Saturday to be the peaks, but I drafted this past Saturday so I am probably biased. Based on previous years, I bet that this coming Sunday (March 27th) will be the peak fantasy baseball draft day for 2016.

If you miss this weekend, there’s still plenty of time — but you should stop procrastinating now! If you are unfortunate enough to have missed Opening Day, you definitely won’t be the only league drafting late, but get it done before Opening Day, OK?

* Sharp readers might question my definition of Opening Day. I used the Monday on which a vast majority of teams played their first game. Specifically, I ignore the Sunday night games before Opening Day, and I ignored the 2014 Dodgers/Diamondbacks series that was in Sydney, Australia about a week before other teams started playing. I only used data going back to 2013 because in the seasons before that, Opening Day was on a Thursday, and comparing those seasons wouldn’t work nearly as well.

Scoring Types: Many options, no consensus

ESPN offers five different scoring formats for their leagues; the plots above shows how the leagues have been trending over time. Let’s breakdown some overall trends in the league formats.

Are full season leagues on the way out?

No, probably not. Roto is the OG Fantasy Baseball, and there are a loyal contingent of leagues that are not going anywhere. However, don’t let anyone tell you that Total Season Points is a normal way to play. It’s not, and the format is dying a slow death. If you want to embrace the boredom of a full season format, you should go with a Roto league.

I have learned to enjoy the weekly matchups that head-to-head formats provide, and it looks like most players and leagues feel the same way. For novice or casual players especially, the required patience of playing a full season format for 6 months may not be fun — and that would defeat the whole purpose of playing. Only go with a full season system if you have dedicated and experienced players that are up for the monotony; you don’t want a half-dead league in July.

My take: You should go for a Roto league if you want to feel superior to more progressive fantasy baseball players. If you want to maximize trash talking opportunities, you absolutely have to go for one of the head-to-head options.

Points leagues are on the rise

Category-based leagues still outnumber points-based leagues, but the gap is closing quickly. In head-to-head formats, the gap is already closed (H2H Points leagues overtook H2H Categories leagues in 2014 and the gap may continue to widen). I prefer formats that use categories because I like the strategy of managing the balance of accruing stats in different categories, but that is clearly not how many other leagues and players feel.

Explanations for the trends?

My theory is that both head-to-head and points-based leagues are gaining in popularity because of their similarities to fantasy football (and most other fantasy sports formats). I bet that many newer players played fantasy football before fantasy baseball — so points might feel like a more natural and logical scoring system.

Or what about a possible correlation to the rise in popularity of Daily Fantasy Sports (DFS)? Are the immediate results of weekly head-to-head matchups more preferable to this generation of fantasy players for the same reasons that DFS is so popular? Maybe the rise in weekly matchup leagues is just a natural progression towards the instant gratification of daily fantasy games. I'm not sure, but either way I blame millennials.

The Draft Decision

To kick off your season, you need to build your teams with a draft. A snake draft allows fantasy managers to select players to their fantasy teams in a “snaking” order such that the player with the last pick in round n receives the first pick in round n+1. In an auction, players are assigned a budget of fantasy dollars which can be used to buy fantasy players. In a future post, I hope to explore whether or not there is a difference in “fairness” between the draft formats.

Snake or Auction? Please don’t Autopick.

The trends in draft types are remarkably flat over time. Snake drafts are classic and very much the norm, so you can’t go wrong there. If you want to be more adventurous, you could go for an auction (this is also the choice to maximize trash talking since it is a more competitive format). Once you make the switch, you will never go back, and I think that the 10% of leagues using auctions feel the same way. Unless you have a really compelling reason, you should avoid autopick because what’s the fun in that?

The decline of offline drafts? Probably not.

Offline drafts appear to be declining, but I doubt there is really a decrease in leagues getting together to draft in person. It’s more likely that many leagues are still getting together but opting to draft online with the applications that ESPN offers.

One final note: Just because you might have the ability to draft on your phone does not mean you should. Please refrain from being that guy.

Keepers: A great addition for dedicated leagues, but not without overhead

Keepers are players you can keep on your roster for multiple seasons, and about 40% of leagues have decided to make the “Keeper Leap.” If you’ve got a league that you are pretty sure has staying power, I would highly recommend it. I have Bryce Harper as a keeper, and I’m really hoping he makes his historic 2015 a norm for the next decade. We’ll see...

If you’re just starting a keeper system, I think 5-8 keepers is a great number to start with (full disclosure, my auction and snake leagues have 5 and 8 keepers, respectively). If you want to set up a super awesome dynasty league with 40 keepers, go for it — but keep in mind that organizing a keeper system is a non-trivial task to manage for commissioners. You must not only decide on the number of keepers to allow, but also how to set keeper prices. If you want some guidance on setting up a keeper system that works well (including setting keeper pricing rules), I recommend this nifty guide from the The Hardball Times.  

If you adopt a keeper system of any form, I urge you to keep a historic record of all of the keeper decisions and prices over the years (any spreadsheet will do). It will help prevent disputes over keepers in the future, I guarantee it. You’ll thank me later for having such a sweet, sweet spreadsheet.

Roster and scoring settings: Tweak at your own peril

When looking at other league settings, most of the distributions are very centralized, which is most certainly caused by leagues goin with default settings.  Using roster size as an example: there are valid reasons to implement expanded or contracted rosters, but the default 25-player roster is a solid place to start. The same applies for category and points settings. Unless you have a good reason to make changes to the settings (e.g. if you want to play with the classic 4x4 or more modern 6x6 systems), changing the defaults too much could imbalance the game or league in unintended ways.

Messing with settings too much can distort your league to the point where rankings and cheat sheets found online could be pretty inaccurate and unhelpful. This isn’t a big deal for experienced players, but it could make the game a lot less fun for novices, especially if there are a few ringers in the league that know how to adjust valuations and rankings properly.

Tweak with the settings if you must, but if you want to have 10-player rosters or use outfield assists as a category in a Roto league, be prepared for your league to react with insults, and maybe even see some hands in the shape of the histogram above.

Last thoughts

An absolute must for any league that wants to last longer than a year is a league constitution. If you don’t already have one, do it. I’ll once again defer to The Hardball Times for some excellent guidance on drafting fantasy baseball league constitutions.

As a commish, you are granted with the privilege of naming your league. Just so you know, The Sandlot, Field of Dreams, and California Penal League are some of the most common league names. If you think a movie reference is original, well, it’s not.  You can come up with a better name than that, right?

If you haven’t already kicked off your season, it’s time to get in gear. It’s not too late for a Summer of Trash Talking.

contributors to this post

headshot of Michael Moliterno
headshot of Dean Malmgren