Among the first things you learn when you begin digging into advanced baseball stats is that some of the numbers you’ve been paying attention to are dumb. They’re dumb, dumb, stupid numbers. Batting Average? It’s bad and it should feel bad. Wins? ERA? Those are clown stats, bro. Before long you’re introduced to some really useful advanced stats that help you understand the game at a whole new level.
When it comes to understanding the game, you have reached a higher plane of existence.
Then you go to join a fantasy baseball league and find that your life once again revolves around those dumb stats you thought you’d left behind. So you decide you want to join a weird league – a league that isn’t using standard 5×5 stats (AVG, HR, RBI, R, SB | W, K, ERA, WHIP, SV) – but you are intimidated by having to develop an approach to player research, roster makeup, and strategy tailored specifically to that league. Here are some basic tips to allay those fears and get you started playing and having success with non-standard leagues.
First off there are weird leagues and there are WEIRD leagues. A normal weird league…so normal it’s really not weird at all…is one where AVG is replaced with OBP and W are replaced with QS. And some leagues allow you to keep some or all players from one season to the next. In these cases only a minor adjustment in evaluating players is needed. Most good fantasy baseball writers and podcasts will include the caveats about a player being good or bad for OBP and whether you’d draft the player in a redraft league vs. a keeper or dynasty league.
There are two main areas to be concerned about when it comes to custom league settings and how to handle them as a manager: Scoring and Roster Construction. And when it comes to scoring there are to main types that need to be thought of differently: categories; and points.
Truly weird leagues’ categories often bear little resemblance at all to a standard format. So how do you use the tools you normally use to rank your players in such a league when all the available information is based on a 5×5, redraft format? To start, know the people in your league. Is it mostly casual managers? If so, then you can count on half of them simply relying on standard rankings for building their rosters. So knowing how players are ranked for standard games gives you an idea of how your opponents will draft. A more seasoned bunch of managers is likely to be savvier about the unique features of the league and how to succeed in it.
But whether or not you’re playing a bunch of normies with “jobs” and “families” and “interests outside of baseball” you’ll need to do your own research to find consistent success in a non-standard league. This goes with the territory – if you’re not ready for this commitment you might as well play standard. But it’s not too onerous and you can feel cool that you’re gaining an edge through your own deviousness. That’s a good feeling.
For years in my weird league, I would just take the regular rankings and move a few select players up or down based on my own rough evaluation of how they’d play in my league. This was simply a matter of looking at clusters of interrelated non-standard stats that they were especially good at or bad at, and it’s a quick way to improve your team in a hurry. Even if you only move up five or ten of the best players for your league, that can have a huge impact on your roster.
What I mean by “stat clusters” is groups of interrelated stats categories that provide a focal point for your re-ranking effort. If you target the right couple of categories, you can easily spot players that will outperform their standard ranking in your league.
For example, if your league tracks K/BB ratio, WHIP, K and QS…you will notice that K/BB ratio has a built-in bias for players that throw a lot of innings. Every three K is an IP so a pitcher with a high K/BB ratio will often perform well in all of these categories since QS and WHIP are both likely to benefit from innings pitched with a lot of strikeouts and few walks in them. (The exception is the really-hittable control pitcher who gives up a lot of dingers).
And you can use these “shortcut” stats to identify hidden gems that might get overlooked in other formats. For example if you see a player whose K total wasn’t very high last season and ERA was just ok, but will get more innings next season and has a high K/BB…that might be a good target in this league. That highly-ranked pitcher in standard who induces a lot of grounders and has a low ERA but has a poor K/BB should get bumped down in your rankings.
On the offensive side, it’s usually really obvious which stats are related in standard, but less so in a custom format. HR obviously boost H, R and RBI implicitly. But if you have an OBP league that also includes BB, 1B, 2B, 3B, HR, RBI, SB and R, the stats clusters aren’t as clear. A high-OBP player may be performing well at BB or some combination of the hits categories. But they are likely to do better with R and (if they have speed) SB.
On the other hand a player with power might do well at 2B, HR, RBI but not so well at OBP, SB or 3B. So a shortcut combination of stats to look for in this format is either 2B or HR combined with OBP which should capture most of the categories. Conversely, that high AVG speedster on the crummy team has to be dropped lower than standard ranking if he doesn’t walk and is rarely on base to be driven in. A more well-rounded player with ok speed and high OBP might suit you better.
Once you have your rankings, it’s important to use them well. In general you want to use your high draft picks on players that are good in both standard format and in your league, since everyone will be competing for them. You’re unlikely to gain more than a marginal edge in the first two or three rounds since all of the players are pretty good in a lot of categories that early in the draft.
It is in the middle and end of the draft where you can really make a huge difference. This is where you scoop up those hidden gems you identify with your ranking system by picking them up significantly earlier than managers who are using standard rankings. For a player I really like, I will usually look at the listed ADP (Average Draft Position) of a player to guess when they’ll go, and jump it by about two rounds to be safe. Frankly, once you get past round nine or ten, the rankings should be viewed much more skeptically anyway. Don’t be afraid to get your guy even if everyone tells you you’re reaching. You’ll get the last laugh.
If you would like to be more thorough in creating your custom ranking you have the option of paying for one of the many custom ranking tools online such as those from Rotowire or Fantasy Pros. I personally choose not to pay for them, even though they might be a time-saver, so I created my own spreadsheet using a ranking system I devised for my H2H categories league. So far it’s worked well, but it takes me probably five hours to prep each season. With the more quick-and-dirty approach above, you can improve your draft substantially in less time.
Sometimes a league is weird not (just) due to the stats categories, but how they’re scored. I play in a league that uses Ottoneu points scoring, which is radically different from normal points leagues. Figuring out which players are best in a league like that is easy (in Yahoo at least) because the Yahoo Players page can be sorted by total points in the league’s own scoring system. The only trick is to pay a lot more attention to this ranking than the standard rankings. This is your bible. If the points say the player is better, he’s better, even if he’s ranked much lower in standard and in real life.
Another thing to be aware of in custom points leagues is the relative value of different positions. Unless done carefully a commissioner might create an unbalanced system in which hitting and pitching are valued very differently. Look at the top 25 hitters’ scores from last season vs. those of the top 25 pitchers. This can inform you which positions you ought to prioritize on draft day. Also examine the top of the list of players in each positional category, and the middle. Is the gradient really steep in one or the other? Then you may really need to grab those top players in that category to succeed.
Also, you should compare SP to RP because it might be the case that relief pitchers just don’t score enough points to even be very useful. If, for example, Innings Pitched receive a good number of points, even a mediocre starter might score higher than a good closer. Save those draft picks for other positions and grab an SP/RP eligible starter at the end of the draft to fill your RP spots.
It’s really important not to bring a mentality to a points league that you need to fill up each stats category. You do not. You need to fill your roster with the highest-scoring set of players you can, regardless of how they score.
Another factor that will vary in a custom league is positional scarcity. You may be aware that OF is actually a scarce position since each team needs to start at least three. If so then you’ll recognize how much more scarce it is in a four OF league. The MI and CI positions have the same impact on the scarcity of infielders if added to a standard roster. If you use a ranking system based on standard rosters, you’re likely to find yourself scraping the bottom of the barrel for a player that you’ll need to start regularly at one or more positions. And if the league has more or fewer UTIL spots, the scarcity of good batters in general will increase or decrease in direct proportion.
Some custom leagues actually break OF into the three outfield positions: LF, CF, and RF. In this case you will quickly learn that each has its own kind of scarcity. Usually it’s CF, but a few years ago there was a real dearth of left fielders that were worth a dang. You will want to make sure your rankings are set up to target those positions individually.
Finally be cognizant of the non-starting roster spots and how they might differ from standard. Do you have “Reserve” or “NA” type slots for minor leaguers? Use them to stash some high-upside players who aren’t likely to provide value early in the season. Are there extra IL spots? Or fewer? This will increase or decrease, respectively, the value of a player with a long history of injury. Using these extra roster spots to add depth to your team, and exposure to some high-risk/high-reward type players can make a huge difference in the success of your season.
A lot of managers will manage their rosters the way they normally do, and not even look for players to fill these slots strategically. Those players are the ones you often find at the end of the draft because they simply aren’t being drafted in standard formats. Again, don’t be afraid to pick up a player with an ADP of 548 if they will be of value in your league.
In conclusion, playing in a custom league can be especially rewarding because of the unique set of challenges it presents. If you do join a weird league, be sure to look out for players who’ve figured out a trick that no one else has. Something that looks dumb might actually be brilliant if you try to understand exactly why they did it. I keep winning leagues doing stuff that would be absurdly stupid in a standard league and it’s amazing how few returning players learn from my approach.
They are bad and they should feel bad.
Featured image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)
Stephen, this will be my second year in a very long-standing league (older than me, in fact). The settings are pretty normal, except for three quirks: unlimited IL spots, 2 man bench, and SP/RP eligibility with just one appearance in that role. Any thoughts on how I can optimize for these quirks?
If you’re able to freely acquire players, keep a close eye on the injured list and add any decent player who hits the IL and is also likely to return during the current season. With a 2 man bench you’re limited on streaming options, so there isn’t going to be much to be gained by the added flexibility of having a lot of SP/RP combo pitchers. If it’s a weekly league, you could punt saves and add two-start starters to the extra RP slots to get more W and K. Just make sure they don’t kill your ERA and WHIP. Alternately, in a daily league, you could have an extra RP on the bench to drop into SP spots on days when the starter isn’t pitching.
Thank you for the response and I agree with you. After looking into it further, I am leaning towards that approach of grabbing sluggers and avoiding speed category guys. As a result, the top end guys are worth a lot more (Soto, Mookie, Yelich) than in traditional leagues as they produce everywhere whereas a guy like eloy and edwin are a dime a dozen because last year dan vogelbach was very valuable in my league for a good amount a time (same with Mancini) who both were basically undrafted.
Once I read the fangraph articles giving the logic behind Ottoneu (fangraphs) scoring, I convinced my league and shifted to it (from a 5X5) and never looked back. I don’t understand how this has not become the standard fantasy scoring format for fantasy baseball yet, and why its not getting more online writers pushing for it. It’s all based on the real life value in Runs created or prevented (hitting and pitching) and it’s elegant, it’s simple, and its balanced.
If you are in any categories/H2H league… you know the pain of losing a week because your opponent had 1 more SB than you, but you had 8 more HR’s than them and you end up 1-1 between those categories that you know in real life are not 1:1 in value. If you think you are enlightened because you went to OBP over AVG and QS over W… you have really only made 1 small step toward what fangraphs has done… find out what true value really is and determine how to convert that to a point value that equates to real life value… the end. Only thing they have never been able to get rid of is making RP value equal to SP so there are still Sv’s and Hlds to help
One reason I play categories is that you actually need to balance your team to support all the categories. Also, you need to look at each opponent as a unique challenge, with their own strengths and weaknesses. I am commissioner in a points league and I don’t even bother with saves or eared runs or batter outs made or stolen bases due to the scoring. In one sense it’s simpler but rosters look nothing like real teams.
Stephen, thanks for the article. Very interested in your thoughts on draft approach with my new league settings. R, HR, RBI, Steals, OBP, Slugging for hitting and IP, QS, K/9, Sv+Hld, ERA, WHIP. 10 starting hitters (4 OF, 1 Util) and you are capped at 12 starts per week (although you can go over if you have 11 going into sunday so you can reach 13-15 total starts).
Is there a specific draft strategy to use in this approach? I was thinking of just grabbing all innings pitchers for cheap $ amounts, assuring high end relievers for the Sv/Hld category and spending $200 on hitters? Or is balance always the key approach?
This scoring quadruply rewards pure sluggers, with the one category that is a penalty for striking out a lot: OBP. But if they walk a lot, that disadvantage disappears. A player like Edwin Encarnacion will be worth a lot more than in standard. You might also find some undervalued players who hit for power mostly through speed, and therefore hit a lot of doubles and triples, score runs and steal bags. But the big sluggers who hit for average are worth a ton in this kind of league and rabbits (low-AVG, low-OBP speedsters) are really worthless.
I think your strategy for starting pitching is really good…obviously favor K/9 and low BB/9 pitchers. You could save money by just skipping high-end closers altogether. Build a bullpen via low-end closers and setup guys who are behind shaky closers and thus likely to slide into that role. By mid-season you should have a good bullpen. But it’s a high-effort approach…you need to manage in-season a lot.