Passing Judgment: How to Improve Fantasy Baseball Roto Leagues

I will admit that I have been openly critical of rotisserie-style (“roto”) fantasy baseball leagues over the past few years.  Personally I believe that head-to-head points league better reflect a player’s true intrinsic value.  But, I recognize that most fantasy baseball leagues are roto – meaning there are a set number of offensive and pitching categories where fantasy teams accumulate their players’ statistics over the course of the season and the standings are determined based on whoever leads in each category.

There are ten generally accepted categories in roto leagues that are used as the bare minimum.  The five offensive categories are batting average, homeruns, runs batted in, runs scored, and stolen bases.  The five pitching categories are wins, saves, strikeouts, WHIP (walks+hits per inning), earned run average, and strikeouts.  This is a typical 5×5 roto league where points are determined based on how many teams are in the league and what place each team is in with respect to each category.

So if I am going to accept that roto-style fantasy baseball is the pervasive norm, then is a standard 5×5 format the best way to measure a player’s value and build a team?  My answer would be in the negative.  Sure, you could better account for players’ values by adding additional categories.  But this article is premised on modifying and improving the five categories each for offense and pitching.

Before I delve into some suggestions, I must address a gripe I have that I don’t necessarily recommend changing, but I feel must be stated.  The idea of having a category dedicated to stolen bases places an emphasis on marginal players who happen to have a unique ability to succeed at a lost art.  This isn’t about the value of a stolen base in real baseball.  This is about the cumulative value of a statistic that only a handful of players represent any real value for.  Michael Bourn, Rajai Davis, Coco Crisp, Emilio Bonifacio and Juan Pierre are examples of players who are completely overvalued in roto leagues simply because of their propensity to steal bases.  Their contributions in other categories are average at best. 

I am sure some people will disagree with me on the stolen base debate.  I understand that having a category dedicated to stolen bases also increases the value of already premier players such as Mike Trout and Ryan Braun.  After all, speed is one of the proverbial five tools.  I also understand that it presents a strategic decision for fantasy players to decide whether to pursue points in that category or sacrifice speed in order to improve at others.  But it just bothers me that several marginal players are held in such high esteem simply because they possess one unique skill in a game that requires so much more.  I accept that this is not going to change, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it.

One pragmatic suggestion I have is to change some of the other categories.  For example, instead of using batting average as a category, why not use OPS (on base percentage + slugging percentage)?  This would encompass a player’s skill in drawing walks and getting extra base hits that are not necessarily homeruns.  Batting average is an important statistic, but it doesn’t necessarily represent a player’s true value.  Being a good hitter goes beyond simply getting a hit. It goes back to the old Little League saying of “a walk is just as good as a hit.”  Well, it’s true.  A walk has the same effect of hitting a single.  In standard roto leagues, there is no value given to bases on balls.  This would alleviate that problem.

Furthermore, by including slugging percentage as part of the equation would reward those players who hit lots of doubles and triples, but not necessarily homeruns.  A player like Jose Reyes will never be valuable in terms of homeruns.  However, he does hit lots of doubles and triples and fantasy owners should be rewarded for those statistics.  Granted, players like Adam Dunn and Mark Reynolds would not be an albatross because their batting averages are consistently low.  But combining on base percentage with slugging percentage would be a far better way to measure the value of players.

Another option to consider would be to use total bases instead of homeruns.  For a refresher course, players get four total bases for a homerun, three for a triple, two for a double, and one for a single.  This would similarly reward fantasy owners for having good hitters that don’t necessarily hit the ball over the fence. 

From a pitching perspective, the saves category is similar to stolen bases on offense.  Saves are a specialized statistic which, theoretically, only 30 players are going to accumulate.  As we all know, closers are the most volatile and inconsistent players in baseball.  Practically every season, pitchers emerge from nowhere to become teams’ closers.  Besides Mariano Rivera and arguably Craig Kimbrel, there really are no “sure things” from a saves perspective.  But in general, there is a finite number of pitchers who will be able to accumulate this statistic. 

Instead, we could do one of two things.  We could combine saves with holds into one category.  This would vastly expand the pool of viable relief pitchers from a fantasy perspective.  Set-up relief pitchers would become much more valuable and give greater flexibility when it comes to drafting strategy and roster management.  Another option would be to use Games Finished instead of saves.  This would give value to relief pitchers who get into games when a save opportunity is not present.  It also gives greater value to dominant relief pitchers that happen to have high strikeout totals as well.

This leads to the last suggestion I have which would be to amend the strikeouts category.  Clearly pitchers such as Justin Verlander, Clayton Kershaw, David Price and others have added fantasy value because they tend to strikeout over 200 batters per year.  But racking up strikeouts doesn’t always equate to being a successful or valuable pitcher.  To better evaluate pitchers, I would suggest using K/BB (strikeouts to walks ratio).  This puts a premium on pitchers who not only have higher strikeout totals, but more so to those also with lower walk totals.  This way, a pitcher who might only strike out five or six batters per nine innings but walks less than two is given his fair fantasy value commensurate with what his performance means in real baseball.

There are a myriad of ways you can modify a roto league.  As Billy Joel says, it all depends upon your appetite.  My suggestions are not an exhaustive list.  But simply accepting the standard 5×5 categories as an equivalent to the true value of players is fallible.  You can be creative in selecting which categories you want to use in your league, and that is the beauty of modern-day fantasy baseball.  There is no doubt that you spend hours, days, weeks, and months preparing for your draft.  So why not make all of that homework worth it by properly measuring the data you are studying in a bigger picture than the well-defined norms?

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