Should Early Fantasy Baseball Drafts be Canceled?

Will 2020 fantasy baseball be the same game early drafts signed up for?

With it all but certain that any MLB season we get in 2020 will be, as Rotoworld’s D.J. Short recently put it, “weird as hell,” the dominant topic in fantasy baseball analysis will likely continue to be how that weirdness affects draft strategy – whether the shortened season increases or decreases the value of aces, for example, who benefits from the universal DH, and so on. That’s not the only issue that the unique circumstances of the (possible) 2020 season raise for fantasy baseball, however. One other topic that’s gotten a good deal of attention is what should be done about leagues that drafted before it became apparent that any 2020 MLB season would be a weird one. Should those fantasy baseball leagues that drafted before spring training was suspended and the start of the season was postponed be played out? (I’ll just call these “early drafts” moving forward.) Or should such leagues be scrapped, and perhaps redrafted where possible?

 

Disclaimers

 

Before tackling that question, I want to make a couple of quick disclaimers. First, I drafted a lot of teams before the weirdness set in. Too many teams, by any reasonable estimation. Personally, I want those leagues to play out. Not because I think my teams are benefited by the changes we’re likely to see in MLB. If anything, I expect the opposite is closer to the truth. Rather, I want my teams to play out because I like playing fantasy baseball and if early drafts are cancelled I’ll get to play less of it – there’s no way I’d be able to redraft all my leagues before Opening Day finally comes around. Again, I drafted a lot of teams. Although I prefer that early drafts be played out, I recognize that what I want to happen does not always coincide with what should happen. In this article, I’ll set my personal preferences aside and address the “what should happen?” question as objectively as possible.

Secondly, I’ll focus below on two major fantasy baseball sites: Fantrax and the NFBC. I do so because it’s my understanding that most (paid) early drafts took place on those sites. The question of whether such drafts should be played out thus looms largest for those operators. What I say here should not be taken as a critique of either site’s eventual response to that question, however. As we’ll see, I don’t think there’s an obvious answer. Nor does there appear to be any sort of consensus regarding what should be done with early drafts among the customers of those sites. Their management is thus in the unenviable position of having to make a difficult decision which is bound to disappoint a significant portion of their customers regardless of what choice they make. They also likely stand to lose out on a lot of revenue. I have nothing but sympathy for those decision-makers.

 

Zeroing In: Paid, Public Leagues

 

It’s reasonable to think the question of what should be done with early drafts should be answered in different ways for different leagues. If the members of a particular league had the foresight to include in the constitution a minimum number of games required for a season to count, that rule should probably settle the matter. (After this year, more leagues should probably add a rule of this sort.) If the rules of a “home” or otherwise private league don’t address this issue, but the members of that league unanimously agree on whether to let their early draft stand, redraft, or simply cancel the season altogether, that joint decision settles the question. If no such agreement can be reached, but no entry fee was required, then even if it’s not obvious what should be done, it also doesn’t matter in the same way as when money is on the line. Maybe a majority (or plurality) vote to play out, redraft, or cancel should suffice in that case, even if unanimity cannot be achieved.

The question of what to do with early drafts is most pressing for those leagues that do involve an entry fee and/or cash prizes, but can’t come to a unanimous decision regarding how to proceed, either because there’s no practicable way to poll all participants or because a vote is taken but does not yield unanimity. This will include both home/private leagues whose members cannot agree on what to do with their already-drafted rosters and, more significantly, fantasy baseball businesses like Fantrax and the NFBC. These companies brought strangers together for paid, online drafts beginning last fall. Between that time and the postponement of the season, thousands of teams were drafted on these sites, with entry fees ranging from $10 to $1000. [1] It’s unreasonable to expect these sites to effectively poll their thousands of customers – while they could surely email all participants and/or post polls on league websites, there’s no way to ensure that all, or even most, would respond. And even if all the members of a particular league did voice their preferences regarding whether to play the league out, odds are at least one would vote “no.” [2] If the results of this survey posted by Fantrax’s Nathan Dokken is at all indicative, the result any such vote would be much closer to 50/50 than unanimous:

It’s paid leagues like those offered by providers such as (but not limited to) Fantrax and the NFBC with which I’m primarily concerned. As far as I am aware, no such site includes in its rules a minimum game number required for a season to be official. Rules at both Fantrax and the NFBC afford operators the discretion to cancel leagues due to “acts of God,” among other things, and if the COVID-19 pandemic doesn’t qualify as an act of God, I don’t know what would. I’m no lawyer, but these sites would therefore seem to be within their legal rights to cancel leagues that drafted prior to the postponement and modification of the season. The question I’m interested in is: Should they?

 

Fairness 1: Fairness of Competition

 

That question can be tackled from several perspectives, including prudence (is it in the best interest of these sites to cancel such leagues?) and legality. (Could these sites be sued for cancelling leagues despite the ‘acts of God’ clauses in the rules? Could they be sued for playing leagues out? Would such suits hold water?) I’m not qualified to answer any of these questions, but will instead address the issue from an ethical perspective: Morally speaking, should fantasy baseball sites cancel and refund leagues that drafted prior to the March 12 suspension of spring training and postponement of the MLB season?

The answer to this question turns largely on whether it’s fair to play those leagues out. Most of those who’ve argued that early drafts should be played out rest their case on the claim that those leagues remain fair contests and so there’s no reason not to play them out. These arguments come in a few different forms. Some, such as NFBC message board user “Wolfpac,” have emphasized that playing out early drafts is fair because “we all had equal information at the time.” Back in November and December, COVID-19 presumably wasn’t on the radar of any drafters. As draft season proceeded, so did reporting on the pandemic, but all drafters had access to the same information regarding the virus and its possible consequences for baseball.

In response to the fact that many MLB players may either opt out of the 2020 season for health reasons or contract the virus and miss substantial time, it’s been argued that these possibilities are not different in kind from risks that are already accepted as part of the fantasy game. Later in that same NFBC message board thread, user “KJ Duke” put this point as follows:

[There are] countless other unpredictable risks. Star hitter busts hand on HBP. Runner slides into bag breaks ankle. Wife breaks your rib giving massage. Tripped over luggage and tore ACL. Tore ACL covering first base. Pitcher hit in head with line drive. Slipped on wet grass and ripped groin. Closer is a pedophile. How, exactly, are you accounting for these? No different than the pandemic when you were drafting in January.

As it became clear that any MLB season would be shorter, and thus more volatile, than usual, some pointed out that all participants will be competing, not only with the same information and injury/illness risks, but the same “volatility and uncertainty” as well:

Along these same lines, Zack Waxman has on his Draft Champions Podcast, recently argued that fantasy baseball:

[is] a game of skill and luck. There are injuries, there are rainouts, there are extra innings, there are contract holdouts, there are wives giving birth where you’ll miss a few games, there are brawls, there are steroids suspensions, there are domestic violence suspensions. There’s also performance luck. As an example, the number of times Acuña faces deGrom could range considerably from one season to the next but you can’t really predict it. The percentage of times Kirby Yates faces the heart of the order in a save chance will fluctuate. Performance will also be impacted by factors no one considers in the analysis and preparation. … All these elements of luck that will impact teams unevenly or randomly should be considered when you assert that the NL DH and pitcher utilization, etc., which are in theory evenly distributed luck, are reasons for a refund.

As I understand it, the argument here is that, while the circumstances of this season introduce additional elements of luck – Did you happen to draft a hitter who now finds himself with a full-time job as a result of the NL DH, or an injured pitcher who was had time to fully recover thanks to the delay? – luck is already part of the game. And since the new elements of luck are distributed randomly (albeit not “evenly”), they don’t render leagues unfair.

What these arguments have in common is that they all attempt to show that leagues which drafted early remain fair competitions – that while the pandemic and baseball’s response to it will introduce new, unanticipated factors, those factors do not advantage or disadvantage any teams in an unfair way. “In an unfair way” is important here. It can’t be denied that some teams will gain an advantage as a result of the changes made in response to the pandemic and others will be disadvantaged. If you drafted Mike Trout in the first round and he misses 25% of a 60-game season because he had to quarantine for 14 days in order to be present when his wife gives birth, your team is put at a significant disadvantage. But according to the argument under consideration, this isn’t an unfair disadvantage, but rather an obstacle of the sort we already accept as part of the fantasy baseball game. After all, players go on the paternity list every year; Trout just spends a bit more time on that list than is typical in a season that’s a bit shorter.

Fairness 2: Fairness of Transaction

 

I’m not convinced that the unanticipated factors introduced by the unique circumstances of this season really are “no different than” the injuries and uncertainties that are already recognized as part of fantasy baseball. Sure, players missing time is already part of the game. But the pandemic hasn’t just introduced new ways in which players might miss time. It’s also led to significant and unforeseen changes to the rules and schedule of Major League Baseball which have no obvious counterpart in a normal season. What part of a normal MLB season is “no different than” than a 60-game schedule, for example?

But I won’t attempt to argue that these factors render leagues which drafted early unfair competitions. Even if the above argument is correct and those leagues remain fair competitions, that’s not enough to show that they should be played out. There’s another form of fairness that needs to be considered – roughly, fairness of the transaction between fantasy baseball sites and their customers. Even if leagues that drafted early remain fair competitions, if they aren’t the kind of competition that customers paid to play, then those customers should seemingly receive a refund.

Imagine, for example, that the MLB season is canceled and rather than canceling leagues that drafted early and refunding entry fees, a fantasy baseball site randomly assigns one team in each league to first place, one team to second place, etc., and distributes prize money accordingly. In that case, the contest was fair – each team had an equal shot to win. [3] But the transaction between the fantasy baseball site and its customers is obviously not fair because those customers paid to participate in a fantasy baseball competition, not a lottery. A fair competition is necessary for a fair transaction between fantasy baseball operators and their customers – if a league is unfair in some significant way (e.g. collusion between owners), then participants in that league should be refunded. This is because part of what customers are paying for is a fair competition. But they’re not paying to participate in just any fair competition; they’re paying to participate in a fair competition of a specific sort – namely, a particular form of fantasy baseball. And so a fair competition is not on its own sufficient for a fair transaction. It must also be true that the competition customers actually get is close enough to the one they paid for.

The key question, then, is whether the “weird as hell” version of fantasy baseball that we (hopefully) get in 2020 is close enough to the version of fantasy baseball that early drafters signed up for to consider the transaction between those drafters and the operating site fair. When we look at the issue this way, it doesn’t matter that early drafters all had the same information. Nor does it matter that the advantages and disadvantages generated by the new circumstances are distributed randomly among early-drafted teams. What matters is simply how much those circumstances change the game of fantasy baseball. It’s clear that some changes to the MLB season would leave fantasy baseball sufficiently unaltered to justify playing out early drafts. If the season had only been reduced to 150 games, for instance, with no other rules changes, I’m comfortable saying that the version of fantasy baseball early drafters would get is close enough to what that they expected that the transaction should be considered fair. It seems equally clear that other changes to the MLB season would so drastically alter the fantasy game that early drafters wouldn’t be getting what they paid for. Suppose, for instance, that left-handed throwing is prohibited for 2020 due to its “sinister” nature. Or that wins are not assigned to the pitcher of record, but rather to whichever player – batter or pitcher – has the highest Win Probability Added for a given game. Or that balls hit over the fence are counted as outs rather than home runs. Or that the regular season is reduced to eight games, followed by a 24-team, months-long playoff system (the owners’ dream?). In any of these cases, I’m comfortable saying that it would be unfair to enter teams that drafted for the original version of fantasy baseball into the new, fundamentally different version of the game created by such rules changes. Again, this is true despite the fact that no drafters saw those changes coming and that they impact teams’ chances in random ways.

So, which scenario do the changes to MLB that we’re likely to see in 2020 more closely resemble? Will those changes merely tweak what at bottom remains the same game of fantasy baseball, as would a 150 game schedule? Or will they fundamentally alter that game, à la a ban on left-handed throwing or a redefinition of the win statistic? We of course can’t give a final answer to this question until we know exactly what those changes are. Even then, I don’t think there will be an obvious answer such that people couldn’t reasonably disagree. But as the probable length of the season shortens from 110 games to 80 to 60-ish, and as the likely rules changes pile up (We’re maybe looking at ties now?!), I find myself leaning more toward the latter, “not the same game” camp. As Phil Dussault put it on the NFBC message board:

I signed up for 2 $1000 [Draft Champions leagues] knowing that over a 162 games season I have an edge over my competitors. For a 60 games season that edge is cut in more than half. Add to that the NL DH which completely changes the value of all pitchers considerably and all hitters to a lesser degree.

I have no problem drafting Main Event teams for a 60 games season but my rankings now look nothing like they did back in late February and those leagues are basically a coin flip now.

As this post suggests, the most significant change is probably the length of the season. Fantasy baseball is not only a game involving both skill and luck, as Waxman argued, but a game in which those two factors are balanced in a particular way. Whatever the relative importance of the two might be in a typical season (e.g. 70% skill, 30% luck, 50/50, etc.) that balance is achieved over a large number of games. Reducing the number of MLB games from 162 to 60-ish prevents the fantasy game from achieving, and perhaps even approximating, that balance. It substantially increases the role that luck will play in determining winners, and reduces the importance of skill. The delay of the season, introduction of the NL DH, realigned divisions, expanded rosters, likely changes in pitcher usage, lack of a minor league season, etc., etc., etc. all also play a role in changing the game of fantasy baseball. But the shortened season may on its own be enough to replace fantasy baseball as we’ve known it – a game in which skill and luck are balanced in one way – with a clearly related, but importantly different game in which the balance of those factors is substantially altered. [4]

Or at least so it intuitively seems. The question of how the relative importance of luck and skill for a 60-game season relates to that of a 162-game season could perhaps be approached in a more quantifiable manner. The correlation between an average fantasy baseball team’s total points and place in the standings at 60 games and its points/place after 162 might be relevant information, for instance. Maybe such data would show that this particular form of weirdness does not change the game as much as I’ve suggested. While there would still be the myriad other weirdnesses to take into account, that would go some way towards showing that for fantasy baseball sites to play out early drafts is not merely to enter those teams into a fair competition, but to complete a fair transaction.

In the end, then, my answer to the question of whether paid early drafts should be played out is a tentative “no.” The version of fantasy baseball we seem bound to get appears to me different enough from what early drafters signed up for to make me worry about the fairness of the transaction. However, I’m not certain of that and leave open the possibility that I could be convinced otherwise – perhaps by data like that describe in the preceding paragraph, or perhaps by objections and arguments I’ve failed to consider. I welcome any such feedback and will be happy to continue the debate. Without Major League Baseball to watch and fantasy baseball to play, what else am I going to do with my time?


[1] The NFBC’s Draft Champions contest, for example, includes multiple leagues at three price points: $150, $400, and $1000. Entries into that contest were cut off shortly after the season was postponed, but even so it includes 4,260 teams across 284 leagues. By the time the NFBC’s Rotowire Online Championship, which has price points of $350, $750, and $1,500 (though it’s not clear whether any $1,500 leagues were drafted), was closed to new entries, it had reached over 2,100 teams. Another 1,960 were entered in the best ball Cutline Championship. In addition to these nationwide contests, the NFBC also offers a number of “satellite” leagues. Fantrax does not to my knowledge announce the number of teams drafted in its various leagues, but based on its use of sequential league numbers, it’s safe to assume that that number was well into the hundreds, if not thousands, before the MLB season was postponed.

[2] Unanimity is a virtual impossibility in the NFBC’s “overall” competitions, in which teams not only compete for league prizes against the 9-14 fellow participants with whom they drafted, but are also entered into a separate, “overall” competition consisting of all of the hundreds or thousands of teams playing that particular format (e.g. Draft Champions, Online Championship).

[3] If you think this is unfair because teams that drafted well or by better fantasy players had more than 1/15 or 1/12 chance to win the league, and other teams less than 1/15 or 1/12, just imagine that each team’s odds of winning the random drawing are identical to the odds they had of winning the league after the draft (however this is calculated).

[4] Given that fantasy baseball is for most of us a game we play for fun, it’s worth noting that the reduced length of the MLB season changes that game in at least one other important way: it decreases the amount of time customers get to play – the number of MLB games they can watch with an eye on their fantasy players, how many weeks they can follow their team in the standings, how many free agents they can pick up, etc.

(Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire)

  • Avatar Linda Garman says:

    I agree with the author that the 60-game season, rule changes and the now-regionalized schedules (NL and AL teams playing each other because they’re in the same part of the country vs. the long-existing divisions) make the real-life and the fantasy seasons vastly different. I feel the paid fantasy leagues should offer their members a full refund before the real season starts.

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