Fantasy 101: A Beginner’s Guide to Fantasy Baseball
Pitcher List has many, many loyal readers who visit our site daily for information and advice regarding their fantasy baseball teams. We love you all but this article is probably not for you. This article is geared towards people who have heard about fantasy baseball but don’t really know what it is or how to get started playing. We here at Pitcher List are always looking to grow the fantasy baseball community so in this article, we will go over all the basics you need as a new player to start your own league: league set-up, league site options, league format, and more. But first, I need to answer the most basic question:
What is Fantasy Baseball?
Fantasy baseball is broken into two main categories: daily fantasy sports (DFS) and season-long.
The Daily Fantasy Sports or DFS format is growing in popularity in the fantasy baseball world and Pitcher List will have a complete section of the site devoted to the DFS format, so check it out if you are interested!
This article is going to focus on the season-long format. The concept of full-season fantasy baseball is really very simple: you draft a roster of major league players that only you own and accumulate points based on their real-life statistics. Your team’s score and performance are measured against the other teams in your league based on the scoring rules to determine the standings and, ultimately, the champion of your league.
How Do You Play Fantasy Baseball?
Hopefully, you are thinking “that sounds like fun but how do I get started?” I’ve gotten this question more than a few times and my answer is usually something along the lines of “that is what makes fantasy baseball the best fantasy sport—there is no one way to play the game and the options are almost endless.” Let’s walk through the various league setup decisions you as commissioner will need to make.
How many owners should your league have?
Finding fantasy baseball owners can be challenging because the baseball season is six months long, seven days a week. Fantasy baseball requires that owners stay committed and active for the entire season in order for the league and their individual teams to experience success.
Leagues can be run with as few as eight teams and as many as 30, which is crazy, I know! In the fantasy baseball industry, the standard number of teams is usually 12 or 15, sometimes 10 in more shallow, less competitive leagues. Head to head leagues will require an even number of teams so a 15 team league becomes a 16 team league in a head to head format (we will discuss this scoring system in a bit).
What league set-up should you use?
You have your league owners all lined up…great! Now, what will your league look like? The set-up of your league involves two primary decisions: what type of league will this be and what will the team rosters look like?
There are three basic league formats to choose from:
- Redraft league – In a redraft league, owners will draft a new team each season. This type of league is the most popular and most published rankings are based on the redraft format.
- Keeper league – In a keeper league, owners will select a predetermined number of players from their roster to carry over to the following season’s roster. Separate minor league rosters are sometimes used in the keeper format and usually held over in their entirety from one year to the next.
- Dynasty league – The dynasty format allows fantasy owners to operate most like real-life MLB GMs. In a dynasty league, owners will keep all but a handful of players from one year to the next, as well as all their minor league players. There are usually separate cut-downs and drafts for minor league and major league players in this format.
All the major sites (Yahoo, CBS, ESPN, Fantrax) have free versions of their game that will accommodate most league types. CBS, ESPN, and Fantrax also have premium versions which allow for more customization and options.
- Roster construction: There is no correct way to configure your rosters in fantasy baseball and I’ve found getting a consensus from the league owners helps here. The standard settings on Yahoo as an example has these positions: C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, 3 OF, 2 UTIL, 2 SP, 2, RP, 4 P, and 5 Bench spots. Some leagues may add MI (middle infield 2B/SS) and CI (corner infield 1B/3B) spots to this setting or increase the number of outfielders to four. Others can decide to use all P slots for pitchers and allow the owners to decide which pitchers they use. As long as the league agrees, there is no wrong way to set up your league.
What league format should you use?
Your owners are in and have agreed to a league set-up, awesome! Now you need to make the most important decision: how will you keep score? There are two primary choices you need to make when deciding how to keep score: league format and league scoring system.
The two most popular formats in fantasy baseball are Rotisserie and Head-to-Head. The primary difference between the two is how and when the league winner is determined.
- Rotisserie: The rotisserie or Roto format was the original league structure used by the people who created fantasy baseball. In this format, teams accumulate stats in categories and, based on their standings in the categories, they are assigned points. Those points are added up to determine an overall score for the standings. The highest overall score over the course of the season wins the league.
- Head-to-head: This has become the more popular fantasy baseball format in recent years as fantasy football players join the fantasy baseball community. In this format, teams will face one opponent each week and their scores are compared and a winner decided. In the head to head format, there are two primary choices that need to be made:
- What is a win? This may seem like an odd question, but in Head-to-Head leagues, it makes a big difference. You can decide to either score a week as a win or a loss, so teams can go 1-0, 0-1, or tie, or you can count the winner of each category. In a 5×5 scoring system, as an example, you can have a wide range of weekly potential outcomes, from 10-0 down to 0-10, for each team. Over the course of the season, this choice has a huge impact on how much movement there can be in the standings, especially later in the season.
- What do the playoffs look like? Unlike in Roto leagues, Head-to-Head league champions are decided in a playoff format very similar to fantasy football. Head-to-head leagues need to decide how deep into the final month of the season their playoffs will run and how many weeks the championship round will be. September in MLB means a lot of roster uncertainty and playing time questions. This needs to be accounted for when scheduling the playoffs to reduce the luck factor as much as possible.
What league scoring system should you use?
Your owners are ready and you have a league set-up and format decided. You are almost there! Now you need to decide on the second piece of the keeping score formula: the league scoring system. There are two primary scoring systems: categories and points.
- Categories: Category scoring is still the most popular scoring system in fantasy baseball. In this system, you choose a number of hitting and pitching categories and teams accumulate stats in order to compete in the standings in each category. If you are in first place in a category, you earn 12 points (assuming a 12-team league); the last place team earns one point. The number of categories can vary from league to league but the “industry standard” remains 5×5 (five hitting, five pitching categories): batting average, HR, RBI, runs, and stolen bases for batters; wins, ERA, WHIP, strikeouts and saves for pitchers. The category scoring system can be used in either Roto or Head-to-Head formats.
- Points: Points scoring converts every primary result from batters and pitchers into points, which results in one point daily total for each player. These totals are added to determine daily team scores and then weekly scores. There is no universally agreed industry standard for this scoring system, as point totals for wins, saves, at-bats, pretty much any statistic, can be customized to your league’s preferences. This scoring system is most commonly used in the Head-to-Head format.
What draft style should you use?
Owners? Check. League format? Yep. League set-up? Done. Scoring system? Got it! Now you need to address what most feel is the best part of any fantasy league: the draft. There are three options to choose from here (more choices!):
- Snake draft: Using a 12-team league as an example, in a snake draft, the draft would run from pick one to pick 12, and then back up from 12 to one. What that means is that the teams on each end, 1 and 12, will have back-to-back picks followed by a long stretch between their picks.
- Standard draft: This is a less popular format where the draft order in each round is the same as round one: 1-12 in this case. Imagine being able to pair Mike Trout with Bryce Harper (the current 13th ranked player by Pitcher List staff)? For that reason, this is not a widely used format.
- Auction draft: This is becoming the most popular form of drafting for one reason: you can get any player you want. In an auction, you are assigned $260 to spend on your roster. Instead of a draft order, you have a nomination order, where teams can nominate one player at a time for bidding. The owners will bid on each player until there is a high bid and a winner. There is strategy involved in how much to bid and even which players to nominate for bidding. Dan Richards did a great job of laying out some auction draft basics in his article back in December.
The draft was a success! Now what?
Your draft is complete and teams are set. Great job! But the work is just starting. In-season management is not as exciting as the draft but there are a few things you need to make sure are clear in your league rules.
How often are lineups set?
You can choose to allow daily or weekly lineup changes. Weekly is the least time consuming, as you can imagine, and is the most popular setting. Once a lineup is set at the deadline, which is usually Monday before the first game of the day, it cannot be changed. Injuries early in the week can impact teams in this format. I personally still prefer daily lineup changes because it allows owners to react to injuries and take advantage of match-ups game by game. This does require a level of management that not all people have time for, as the season is so long.
How will free agents be picked up?
There are three basic methods to choose from to allow owners to pick up players. In each case, owners would need to drop a player currently on their roster or place them on the IL (if your league has IL, formerly DL, spots) in order to pick up another player.
- FAAB (Free Agent Acquisition Budget): This is becoming the most popular method for picking up free agents. Each team is assigned the same FAAB budget and uses those “dollars” to place blind bids on free agents they want to add to their roster. The FAAB processing can be run daily or weekly, depending on league preferences, but the key point is this: once a team runs out of FAAB dollars, they will be unable to pick up any more free agents. This introduces a salary cap and strategy into the free agent process, which can be very fun.
- First Come, First Served (FCFS): Under the FCFS format, all free agents are available to be picked up at any time, no restrictions. This format greatly favors someone who can readily access free agents and make moves at any time.
- Waivers: The waiver process is run based on the reverse order of standings, with the team with the worst record having the highest waiver priority. Once a player is picked up, the team goes the bottom of the waiver priority list, meaning they will lose any player someone else bids for.
How will trading work?
Trading is generally considered the second most exciting part of the game, behind drafting. Owners get to put on their GM caps and try to work out deals to make their team better. There is usually a trade deadline, corresponding to either the July 31 non-waiver deadline or the August 31 waiver deadline in MLB. The most controversial aspect of trading that needs to be decided is the trade veto. In some leagues, after a trade is announced, there is a short period where the rest of the league can vote to either uphold the trade or veto it. After that time frame is up, the commissioner will execute or veto the trade based on the voting results. Personally, I hate this system. I have witnessed many occasions where a veto has been used to try to stop a competitor from getting better instead of vetoing the trade because of a valid reason. In my opinion, only the league commissioner should have veto power and should use that only in extreme circumstances, like if there is obvious collusion for example.
If you’ve read this and decide you do not want to create your own league, there are plenty of leagues on all the major sites that you can join for free. Once you start playing fantasy baseball, I am convinced you will be hooked and hopefully, you will continue to visit Pitcher List for our guidance and advice.
(Graphic by Justin Paradis, @freshmeatcomm on Twitter)