With our commenter leagues sign ups in full swing, we decided to look at different fantasy baseball league formats. Most fantasy baseball league providers (inc. ESPN, Yahoo!, CBSSports.com) offer a number of league formats. This post is a quick primer on how to find the league format that best fits you.
The two biggest decisions when creating or joining a fantasy league are: 1) Drafting from MLB rosters vs. AL/NL-only and 2) Number of Teams.
There is no one right choice. If you are playing with a group of friends/colleagues, the first thing you need to consider is their baseball knowledge and dedication level. If you have a number of novices, skip past AL/NL only and go to MLB. I’d suggest either a 10 or 12 team MLB league. If your friends/colleagues are more advanced, I’d consider 14-16 team MLB leagues. Of course, this depends on whether you can wrangle up enough people. If you can’t, I’d generally stick with 10 or 12 team MLB over AL/NL-only unless everyone is really on board. If you only have 8 teams, I would do AL/NL-only.
If you are looking to join a new league, you can be more selfish and think about your strengths and what you enjoy. If you really enjoy combing the free agent wire and churning through your roster, your best bet is shallow leagues (10-12 MLB). If your interest level peaks in March but you really like draft strategy and player valuation, go with a deeper league (14+ team MLB, 10-12 AL/NL-only). Just realize that deeper leagues require both a broader knowledge of MLB players and the ability to find pleasure in owning mediocre to below average players. Here’s a quick illustration of the projected ‘replacement 3B’ (e.g., best player not drafted and available as a free agent) in all the league formats (Runs/HR/RBI/SBs/AVG). Note that AL-only is more shallow than NL-only because there are two less teams in the AL.
10-team MLB: Chase Headley (71/14/71/13/.263)
12-team MLB: Danny Valencia (62/12/69/5/.283)
14-team MLB: Edwin Encarnacion (70/25/74/3/.246)
16-team MLB: Wilson Betemit (63/17/72/3/.263)
8-team NL: Chipper Jones (65/15/65/4/.280)
8-team AL: Kevin Kouzmanoff (53/16/64/2/.252)
10-team NL: Brooks Conrad (33/8/33/4/.241)
10-team AL: Mark Teahen (38/7/34/4/.259)
12-team NL: Mat Gamel (26/7/30/2/.256)
12-team AL: Omar Vizquel (32/3/29/7/.244)*
* My AL-only team got so decimated with injuries that I had Vizquel starting for most of the 2nd half. It’s sad when you do a Tiger Woods fist-pump for a 1-for-4 day with a run.
Daily vs. Weekly Roster Changes + Free Agency
The decision behind daily/weekly roster changes and how to handle Free Agency are inter-related. If you are an active player, you likely want a Daily league where there is no cost (either actual $ or symbolic $) to picking up free agents. You also want the ability to rotate in bench players if your starters have an off day. I generally recommend this format for 10-12 team mixed leagues.
In deeper leagues, there are fewer impactful free agents. Allowing free pickups can dramatically alter a season and can be very frustrating for those that played the deeper format in search of more strategy. Most AL/NL-only leagues go with a fixed FAAB (Free Agency Acquisition Budget) that allow players to go to the highest bidder (vs. the quickest bidder). This can be managed on a daily basis but tends to be easier to manage on a weekly basis. I would recommend a weekly/FAAB approach for AL/NL-only leagues. Depending on the league, you can still have weekly free agency with daily roster changes. Most expert players prefer weekly roster changes vs. daily.
For 14-16 MLB leagues, you can go with either approach. I would generally recommend daily pickups/roster changes unless you have a lot of novices (the weekly FAAB lets the slower teams catch up).
While the various league providers let you adjust rosters, I suggest using either: 1) C/1B/2B/SS/3B/5 OF/CI/MI/UTIL/9 P or 2) The same as #1 except 2 catchers.
I prefer either of these formats as they tends to pull evenly across all major league positions. Assuming your CI and MI are equally divided amongst 1B/3B and 2B/SS, this format nets out to the following per team (before you start filling up UTIL and Bench spots): 1.5 1B, 1.5 2B, 1.5 SS, 1.5 3B, 5 OF. If you divided this against a real team’s starting lineup, you get 1.5 for all the infield spots and 1.66 for OF. The one UTIL spot will generally pull from 1B and OF to drive those positions’ replacement level close to 2B/SS/3B. (Note: Catchers are their own beast. I don’t find much difference in 1 or 2 catcher leagues – I generally suggest sticking with one catcher for mixed league and two for AL/NL only (because that’s the default format for AL/NL-only).
The Yahoo! default format that has no CI/MI, 3 OF, and 2 UTIL is also proportional but I find it’s too shallow. You’re basically losing 4 hitters per team (2 OF, CI, MI) and adding one UTIL. This inflates the available free agents. I would only suggest this if you have 14-16 teams but the players are very novice.
As for bench and DL, I recommend sticking with 3 bench and 1 DL for shallow leagues and 5-7 bench spots/1 DL for deeper leagues. For deep leagues, it’s fun to use the bench for both necessary filler (e.g., a Brooks Conrad type that might give you something when your starter gets hurt) and prospect speculation (prospeculation?). In shallow leagues, the free agency pool is so rich that deep benches only serve to frustrate active owners. There is nothing worse than seeing potential free agent targets languishing on the bench of someone who checked out of the league.
The two primary draft formats are Snake (Team with #1 pick in 1st round has last pick in 2nd round and first pick again in 3rd round) and Auction.
The benefit of auction is that you could always get a certain player or players if you’re potentially willing to overbid. You can, in effect, draft multiple first round picks although, since there’s a salary cap, this means you’re set for a top-heavy team – especially in deeper formats. For those who prefer balance on their team, you have the opportunity to forgo expensive picks and build an extremely deep, well-rounded team. In deeper formats, ‘well-rounded’ generally means that the majority of your players are set for 400+ ABs. In shallower formats, it means that you were able to stock up on better starters that might have all been picked, say, before the 20th round. There are a number of winning strategies for auction leagues but I’ll leave that for another post.
Much like with choosing the League Depth, this depends on the people in your league. There is no reason to do auction with casual players. Auctions are more difficult and lead to harsher penalties if they don’t show up to the draft (I personally love it when an expert skips a draft. You can fill their roster up with a whole bunch of scrubs if you nominate marginal players that they value at more than $1). I think auctions only start to make sense at 14-team MLB. You want to get to the point where teams left with $1 per position have to take weak hitters/pitchers.
There are two main scoring types: Rotisserie and Points. There are two scoring periods: Head-to-Head (weekly) and Cumulative.
Rotisserie is the most common and my favorite. I recommend this for the majority of leagues.
Points leagues are more fantasy footballesque. I don’t like them because they do not penalize teams that are unbalanced. You could draft a softball team and still do well because your extra power neutralizes your lack of speed.
The cumulative format (adding stats for the full year) is the default format for most rotisserie leagues and rewards the best player. The disadvantage is that weaker teams may check out early.
Head-to-head might appeal to those that enjoy fantasy football and it’s a good idea for 12-team casual leagues as it allows the lesser players a chance for bragging rights (so maybe they will stay active a bit longer). If you are a strong player, I think the randomness of week-to-week performance is more annoying than enjoyable. There are weeks where you hit a ridiculous amount of HRs but you only get your one HR point and nothing carries over to the next week. There is also the issue of ‘playoffs’ which – like in football – can turn a dream season to ruins because of a bad week. If you are setting up a H2H league, you need to consider a weekly Games Started cap as a common practice is to continually churn through marginal pitchers to bulk up on Wins and Strikeouts. I am not saying you have to place a GS cap – or that it has to be particularly constrictive – just that you have to consider it.
A head-to-head points league actually isn’t too bad for a casual league. While points might not penalize unbalanced teams, it at least rewards your team more than 1 point if you have a massive week in power, speed, starting pitching, etc.
If you are in a perennial league with friends/colleagues, the keeper format is a great idea – particularly for deeper leagues. Generally, a team can keep 3-5 players. It is recommended that there is an escalator in place to make sure that some players can’t hoard a player for eternity. If you do a snake draft, you can allow someone to be kept at the round in which they were picked the previous year BUT, in future years, the round number would go up 5 rounds. So if you snagged Jason Heyward last year in the 20th round, he will cost you a 1st round pick in 5 years. If you do an auction draft, you can add $5 to the price every year until the player becomes cost-prohibitive and they have to release the player.
The great thing about keepers is that it can mirror the dynamics of a real pennant race. Contending teams trade prospects to losing teams in exchange for veterans that can help now. While this is great in theory, just realize this can also lead to extremely lopsided trades that might bruise leaguemates feelings (e.g., here are all the good players on my team for 1-2 prospects because my team is in 10th and what do i have to lose?). If you are going to do a keeper league, you may want to find an arbiter who can come up with a fair way to determine if trades are fair.