League design is something I greatly enjoy. In my more innocent days, I believed in using stats that most closely mirrored on field performance. For example, replacing batting average with OPS or using quality starts instead of wins.
Time and math – mostly the math to be honest – taught me that the best fantasy experiences have nothing to do with accurately estimating real world values. Instead, the name of the game is managerial flexibility. Put another way, how many different strategies and tactics can I use and still contend? The top formats like classic 5×5 roto allow for dramatic mid-season pivots. It’s not simply a matter of zigging when others zag, I want the option to zeg, zog, and zug* as needed.
*no, those aren’t words.
The power of the traditional 5×5 roto league stems from the categories it uses – R, HR, RBI, SB, AVG for hitters and W, K, SV, ERA, and WHIP for pitchers. Four of five hitter categories are poorly correlated with real world production. Some people don’t like that. Younger Brad was among them. However, those stats are also poorly correlated with each other. Let’s take a look at some common interactions.
Types of Player
Leadoff hitters: The best source of runs. One of the worst sources of RBI. Typically steal some bases and hit for a decent average. However, as a group, they’re more reliable for OBP and AVG.
Sluggers: Home runs and RBI correlate heavily. Mid-lineup thumpers also post health run totals – assuming they’re not playing for a scrub team. These guys usually offer very little value in batting average and stolen bases. When they do, they’re first round talents.
Empty speedsters: One category stolen base guys can be a necessary evil – especially if you draft a Nolan Arenado in the first round (two steals, third pick in 2018) instead of Mookie Betts (30 steals, 10th pick in 2018).
Platoobs: Hitters with handedness platoons can help fantasy owners overcome injuries or draft day mistakes. These guys are only occasionally good based on facing an exploitable pitcher. Sometimes they provide multiple categories. The rest of the time, they’re unplayable.
Often, the value of platoon batters are vastly overstated – thus I refer to their most staunch adherents as platoon noobs or platoobs. That’s an article for another day (and perhaps another writer).
Aces: The most scarce resource in fantasy baseball is the ace. Every owner wants three or more on their roster, but there are only eight to 20 in the league during a given season. Many pitchers briefly flash ace-level production only to regress or hit the disabled list.
Starting pitchers can only provide four of five roto categories – wins, strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP. They’ll (almost) never record a save. Aces help in all four starting pitcher categories. They would be hugely valuable if they didn’t all come with a 25 to 50 percent chance per season to spend substantial time on the disabled list or otherwise hobbled. That baked in bust risk adds difficulty to constructing a winning roster in March. If you use your resources locking in aces, you forego top hitters in exchange for a player type prone to completely vanishing.
Volume Starters: These are pitchers who contribute to some categories at the expense of others. Since wins and strikeouts are counting stats, it’s necessary to bulk up on innings pitched. However, ERA and WHIP are rate stats which means owners can’t spam any ol’ hurler. Balancing quantity with quality is the second hardest challenge with managing pitchers. (The top challenge, in case it isn’t clear, is pitcher health)
Closers: Some of these are “ace” closers – i.e. guys who are top relievers for many years. They furnish extra fuel in four to five categories. Production in the win column tends to be volatile and inconsistent. Other closers are guys who simply record saves without doing much damage to your other categories. There always a couple closers who only add to your save total. Kevin Gregg is the classic example. More recently, Wily Peralta was a hot mess despite handling the ninth inning for over half the season.
Ace relievers: With the flood of elite non-closing relievers in the league, it’s become more and more popular to use these guys to shave a few points off ERA and WHIP. In leagues with an innings cap, they can also provide essential fuel in the win and strikeout categories. Sometimes they become ace closers.
Tying It Together
These are just a few commonly used player types. They each do something a little bit different. The categories of 5×5 roto force owners to be creative. There’s no easy path to victory because every season ushers in a new meta with new strengths and weaknesses. Just a few years ago, it was essential to find home runs early in the draft. Then the fly ball revolution turned everybody into a 20 homer threat. I still remember getting excited about guys who hit 10 home runs and stole 10 bases. Yuck. Some years, the path to victory depends on ace starters. Other times, the Low Investment Mound Ace (LIMA) is more profitable.
Generally, a competitive 12-team, 5×5 roto league requires the winner to perform well in all 10 categories. Sometimes, a partial “punt” or sacrifice of a category is possible. In very competitive settings, a more aggressive category-punt can work. However, the sweet spot approach is to build a team that projects to finish third in every category. Doing this requires a lot of careful roster manipulation. And that, to me, is the hallmark of a perfectly designed league.
Long live 5×5 roto. Long live the king.
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