Fantasy Baseball Round Table: The Role of LABR and Tout Wars

by Todd Zola, MastersBall.com on February 27, 2013 @ 15:11:28 PDT

 

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The League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) auctions are this weekend with Messrs. Minnix, Michaels and Van Hook participating. As such, I thought it would be a good idea to talk a bit about the role of showcase leagues within the industry. As the expression warns, "Be careful what you ask for."

Our guest this week is USA Today Sports' Senior Fantasy Editor Steve Gardner. Steve administers the LABR auctions as well as being an active blogger and a great Twitter follow @SteveAGardner.

Pittsburgh Pirates 1B/OF Garrett Jones
Trout joins in on the argument

The League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) auctions are upon us, with Tout Wars coming up in three weeks. For those that participate in the leagues, what do you feel the role of industry league should be? Do LABR and Tout Wars promote these efforts adequately? For those not actively playing in LABR and Tout Wars, beyond following how your colleagues are faring, do you glean anything from the leagues?

Lawr Michaels (member of Tout Wars LLC)

Speaking for the Tout side of things, our objective is to hit a couple of bullets. First, we want to showcase the guys we think are the best players in the industry, though I know there are a lot of regular guys out there who play as well as the Touts.

We really are trying to showcase a league that is well run, that challenges us, and attempts to push the limits of the game. That's why there are rule changes like swingman, or going 5x5 so many years back, or as with this year swapping batting average for on-base percentage in Tout mixed.

We aim to keep the game vital and dynamic along with keeping readers and players interested in the game, and keep the industry growing as well as evolving, because we all know eventually, stagnancy means death.

But, the reality is though it is true the large percentage of players rubber stamp leagues like Yahoo! and ESPN (not knocking them, just a fact), there are still soooooo many players who indeed have quirky rules - I can't count how many times I've had questions framed around "my league has really weird rules."

Ideally, Tout somehow crosses over such that it can appeal to and support the play of both kinds of players, both giving them tactical ideas when selecting a team, and constitutional ideas for their leagues to make the game a challenge.

Perry Van Hook

Personally, I feel Tout Wars and LABR are doing a poor job of really trying to educate the audience or promote the players in their leagues. Until last year I just didn't see much beyond those participants writing up their teams for their sites/papers/blogs. Mastersball did a great job to bring out the results of the FAAB process with weekly reviews and prices, and while USA Today and the Tout website linked those and occasionally had some really good articles by the participants, how many people actually know Tout Wars even has a web site? I think both industry leagues (note, not expert leagues) should be committed to explaining the competitions beyond "Hey look at the team I drafted." Every participant should be committed to furthering the awareness of Tout Wars and LABR and should talk more about their moves in an educational way and make sure those efforts are promoted via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, message boards and radio shows.

Brian Walton

Selected league winners write a column about their winning strategy, which is published in the Fantasy Baseball Guide. This year, AL Tout winner Larry Schechter, NL LABR winner Steve Moyer and Mixed Tout winner Cory Schwartz were all feautured along with XFL winner Don Drooker.

We can always do more to promote the leagues, of course. Doubting anyone would argue with that.

Todd Zola

Podcasts are an extremely popular venue to get the word out nowadays; I think there's a golden opportunity for someone to host a podcast with the theme being the industry leagues by having different guests on every week to discuss their teams, their strategies, etc. If a big trade was made, have the principles involved on to talk about it. Maybe even interview the person who had the high FAAB bid on a player that week.

Nick Minnix

Perry, I appreciate your perspective, but I respectfully disagree with the statement "Every participant should be committed to furthering the awareness of Tout Wars and LABR and should talk more about their moves in an educational way and make sure those efforts are promoted via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, message boards and radio shows." This is with awareness of the fact that I might raise an eyebrow from the powers that be from LABR and Tout, each of whom strongly encourages us to make efforts to bring attention to these leagues. I think the statement is shortsighted with respect to economies of scale, perhaps even to the scope of these leagues and the magnitude of the impact they can make.

I don't question Perry's intent and in fact agree with the sentiment that drives his position. I question if there are clear incentives for the doers, especially if some of the doers don't share the goals or desires of the parties who run the leagues. For various reasons, they either can or choose to contribute only so much.

I hope I'm not out of line, but a major stumbling block is the dichotomy between work and play. We mostly have full-time jobs, or other priorities, whether they're in the industry or not. At some point, for each of us, there's a point at which fun turns into obligation, which then becomes a balancing act between the purity of our games and the business side. The masses seem just to want to see the results, and that's the end of their interest. Some of us are encouraged to produce content that appeals to the widest possible audience. Sometimes, it feels almost like a battle. I try to find ways to infuse a reference to these leagues in blogs, to use an occurrence from one as a prompt to discuss an issue with broader appeal. I respond to and make the occasional tweet about either, but what impact does that have? And it becomes very difficult when one objective conflicts with another. For some, frankly, there is less to sacrifice or more to gain from doing so than there is for others. I think Brian's comment is a good example of that. That's the nature of it. But I think it deserves respect before we can make judgments about what everyone should be doing.

What I want to know is, how can we overcome this conflict? Is it possible to give LABR and Tout Wars broader appeal? How can Tout Wars and LABR increase incentive for participants to spread the word? I have some ideas and see value and potential in these leagues and am extremely curious what others think.

Steve Gardner

Milwaukee Brewers OF Ryan Braun
Who'd have Braun in his hole cards?

Before I begin, here's the link to my LABR column from the Sports Weekly fantasy baseball special edition that's out now.

http://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/fantasy/2013/02/25/history-of-labr-1994-to-today/1945761/

For starters, I don't think you're out of line at all Nick. We should always question whatever we're doing to make sure it's still beneficial. "Because we've always done it" is no reason, by itself, to continue doing anything.

Rick Wolf brought this point up when I was talking with him for a column linked above (and I'm paraphrasing): These leagues are very similar to the World Series of Poker. There are experts who really know their stuff putting their skills on display in a game millions of others play for fun. The difference is that ESPN and others have thrown a ton of promotional effort at making these guys stars while we are still traveling in our own (relatively) limited circles. ("I want groupies like Phil Ivey!!!")

I know at USA TODAY, several ideas have been tossed out to make LABR more of a "big deal," but getting the support further up the food chain has been difficult. Maybe that's where we're missing the boat.

Rob Leibowitz

I think Steve and Rick have it fairly right on the promotion side. The majority of players do not play an auction/12-team AL- or NL-only format.

For Tout and LABR to become more relevant to the general public, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy with the adequate television/promotional effort where the general public sees "how the pros play" and then that public emulates them by shifting their game play format to match it.

That's when the strategies and books offered by the pros just like poker players become more relevant - when more people are all playing the same or closely similar game.

The issue of course is format. It's easy to edit a hand of poker or a whole table of poker players and isolate the key moments as every hand can occur quite quickly. I'm not sure watching an auction and its key moments makes for good TV. The side-jokes and digressions at the table are probably the most entertaining moments rather than the auction itself.

The key factor in popularizing Texas Holdem was showing the hands under the table. So, you'd have to have some way of showing the Touts and what they value a certain player at "under the table" when it gets close to head-to-head bidding. Of course, we all value players at ranges and change our bids based on timing, what's left at the position and such, so it's not a static value that can be second guessed like poker can.

Getting back to the actual question for me - the purpose of these industry leagues - promote the hobby, promote the participants, provide strategy help, and promote new and interesting ways to play the game (albeit without radically changing it from a categorical/auction or draft format).

Perry Van Hook

Nick, If they can't (or won't) talk about their teams and the league, then in my humble opinion they shouldn't be invited. These are not money leagues or family/friend leagues. They exist to allow us all to compete as representatives of our site/paper/blog - whatever puts us in the arena of discussing and educating people about fantasy baseball.

Nick Minnix

Perry, is your opinion different from how the leagues operate? If not, then clearly there's something more needed. If so, then you must take umbrage with the selection process, and in that case, if you feel the way you do, you must have proposals for solutions to get closer to your ideals, I imagine.

Lawr Michaels

Not so sure Perry. I mean discussing teams and strategy is good but it does get redundant. 

I think discussing moves and rules and how to exploit is good. But again, one can only write so much.

Ryan Carey

As someone who does not participate in either LABR or Tout, but aspires to one day have a seat at the table, I'll try to answer Todd's question partly by talking about what these leagues meant in my evolution as both a fantasy player and now as a writer. I played in local leagues, and sought the best sources of information like Baseball Weekly which led me to the participants' publications and/or websites. Next came pay services and discovering the NFBC, Mastersball and countless other sites.

So for me the expert leagues really served as a portal to the information that I was looking for as the guy who was determined to know more than you did at the draft table. I think that is still likely where the leagues can have the most impact. I agree with Perry to the degree that I believe that participation in these leagues should be viewed as an honor rather than a privilege. However, it will be up to the leaders to decide what that actually means in terms anything beyond full and committed dedication to the league one plays in. I think Todd is onto something with the Podcasts, because you can control the information you send out to a degree, and it's an easy way for all participants to contribute during the course of a long season. 

Perhaps one way to achieve a lot of the goals is to expand the offerings so newbies to the industry like myself can participate in leagues under the auspices of Tout and LABR, and in doing so write about making our way up to the Bigs. Perhaps a tiered system where you work your way up through different levels, much like real baseball players, until you finally make the Show. Something like that would expand not only the audience but also increase the pool of people writing about the quest to sit at the main table.

Perry Van Hook

I don't know how you get to that question, Nick.

There is nothing wrong with the selection process in fact doesn't that mean that all the participants are in the industry?

So if people in the combined seven leagues can't write an article or two during the season and try and promote their own articles and sites, then might I ask why they are in the leagues? But I don't see anyone who isn't delighted to be in the leagues, so they can then help give back and do something to promote the leagues, which of course entails promoting themselves, which is fine.

A great avenue could be more trade discussion, especially amongst the better-known players.

Let's say you and Todd were in the same league and wanted to make a trade. You could both tell your readers what you wanted to accomplish and your thought process and invite suggestion or discussions on your respective sites. You might be surprised at the response, or I might, if you get squat.

My point remains that these leagues are interesting to players, especially, as Ryan says, those coming up the ranks. The Baseball Weekly issue with the LABR auction prices is still widely sought and used by people in auction leagues. SiriusXM broadcasts the LABR and Tout Wars auctions live and then repeats them often. There is interest by people who don't even know who KFFL or Mastersball or many of the other sites are! Wouldn't you want to gain some additional readership by helping promote the LABR or Tout Wars leagues you are in?

Greg Morgan

I think Ryan has an excellent idea. Tout is similar in parts to the WSOP but a fundamental difference is that anyone, in theory, can play their way into WSOP with $10 and a satellite entry. All they have to do is win the satellites and they are in. Tout, by comparison, is a closed system. That doesn't mean that it's wrong, but it does make it very different. This difference and the fact that it's referred to as an 'experts league' does lead to the perception in some high-stakes circles that it is somewhat of an elitist group. I think this is unfortunate and, like Perry, would prefer to see a symbiosis. This could take any number of forms. The next time a Tout or LABR seat opens up, invite one of the previous or current NFBC champions. I would also love to see the industry's presence at the NFBC. Maybe a Tout format league with one or more Touts versus NFBC members. You might have to buy Greg Ambrosius a Corona, but I think he'd see the truth of it. Something along these lines would be great for the industry.

Steve Gardner

Ryan, we started a LABR online mixed league last year and like the Tout Wars mixed league it's no coincidence that they're 15-team leagues that mirror the NFBC format. Hopefully, that makes the league more helpful to those who wish to play in those types of high-stakes leagues.

Cross-over leagues would be a fascinating experiment, but the biggest stumbling block to that is: I doubt the high-stakes winners would agree to play for free and I doubt any of our sites (or any of us individually) would freely put up the entry fee to make it interesting enough for the NFBC high-rollers.

Another question I'll just throw out - would people learn anything from the NFBC champs? Would they be willing to share their secrets, sleepers or strategies the way we industry analysts do freely since there's no actual money on the line?

One of the benefits I believe we do provide our readers (and podcast listeners) is an insight on our strategies and why we do what we do. The in-season pieces from Mastersball, KFFL and USATODAY.com during the season, for example, can be helpful in identifying good players to pick up - before our readers have to make those same decisions.

Brian Walton

Many of the Touts also play in the NFBC main event. When I was last in it a few years back, so were Jeff Erickson, Glenn Colton/Nate Ravitz, Larry Schechter, Ron Shandler, Cory Schwartz, Gene McCaffrey, Ray Murphy and of course Lawr, Todd and Perry. No one notices them as a group as they are spread across many individual leagues. Last year, Jeff and Gene were in the top 20 most of the season. Cory has two top-10 overall finishes; Ray has one as well. I finished in the top 25 the last year I played. Larry has won the $5,000 entry Super League and Todd won back-to-back NL-only auctions.

Other than the overall standings, the NFBC approach would not show much since a key foundation of the competition is the random placement of players across leagues. With all the money involved, that is very important to avoid any suspicion of collusion.

Steve Gardner

The big question in all of this is, could you get enough players from each side to agree on a single format that would be used in the new league?

Brian Walton

This is getting further away from Tout and LABR and some may already know this, but Rotowire has its own NFBC challenge leagues. They are open to all, and their writers advertise the opportunity for anyone to compete against them.

Ryan Carey

Well - it could be argued that the NFBC is already represented with Shawn Childs/Greg Ambrosius in both LABR leagues. Shawn has made the transition to writing full-time over at Sports Draft Daily, and for years has been very open about his strategies, etc. There are others out there like Glenn Lowy, who is writing the NFBC column for BHQ this year. And don't forget our own Greg Morgan who writes the Masters of the NFBC.

Brian Walton

Let me play Devil's Advocate as it seems to me we are down a side track. Would Tout or LABR admitting one NFBC winner help accomplish anything significant for Tout or the general game itself? I guess it might generate more interest for the NFBC by having an additional incentive for their winner. I suspect the ultra players in the NFBC already know about the industry leagues and have their own opinions whether or not one of them join us.

I guess I would hope to see actions more universally impactful.

Nick Minnix

Maybe not. I think we've gotten a little sidetracked, but there's a lot of grey area and plenty of crossing over. At some point in crossing over, the objective of LABR and Tout would easily be lost. In the end, I'd have no desire to shift the focus from Tout or LABR just that one of them becomes a centerpiece of something greater. It can evolve with certain criteria, making it not exclusively about money or whatever else and more about education. Or whatever else. I think some of the suggestions we've seen may have feasibility, but probably not. Maybe those contests aren't the best avenue, as I said; I think there are a few more possibilities, at least. It's a brainstorm, I think, and a conversation that could go on forever.

Lord Zola's Wrap-up

Oy vey, So much for "The least important aspect of the LABR and Tout Wars festivities are the actual prices themselves." I admit, I was fishing for "The best way to look at the LABR and Tout Wars auctions is to look at the different roster constructs to get an idea of the different strategies. Don't pay as much attention to the actual players as the positions and strategies." Or maybe even, "Don't ignore the reserve rounds. That's where the latent gems and sleepers lie."

But stuff happens.

There are three points I'd like to quickly address.

The whole "so-called-expert" junk irks me. Those invited to play in LABR and Tout Wars are not necessarily the best players, but each and every one does their part to better the industry. Their resume does not say "Fantasy Baseball Expert" but rather writer, analyst, editor or host. When a friend asks them what they do for a living, the answer is not "I'm a fantasy baseball expert," Trust me, very few tote the term expert around with them; it was bestowed upon them by the very faction that mocks its existence.

Admittedly, this rant rings hypocritical since "tout" is a synonym for expert. That said, the use of the term expert in the industry is no different than CNN introducing a guest as a political expert or CNBC referring to a financial expert or E! interviewing a sideboob expert. It's not elitist; it's marketing. I have friends that play the high-stakes that say they know as much as the so-called experts and I have industry friends that say ponying up cash doesn't make one a better player. They're both right. But who cares! That's what bugs me.

Real quick, with respect to televising an auction, the reason so many shows are popular is a rooting interest. This is true for the WSOP as well as Shipping Wars, The Deadliest Catch, Survivor, The Greatest Race, Big Brother, The Biggest Loser, WWE Monday Night RAW I think you get the picture. This dynamic just can't be created. Though I do agree with Rob: The table talk at some of these auctions is hilarious. Of course they're mostly inside jokes, not exactly great TV fodder.

And finally, one means to enact this hybrid league would be to have it sponsored and broadcast by SiriusXM. There will be no money involved, just exposure. The industry representatives get free advertising and publicity while the high-stakes players get what they really want to hear their name on the radio.

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About Todd Zola, MastersBall.com

Focusing primarily on the science of player valuation and game theory starting in 1997, Todd Zola and Mastersball carved out an important niche in the fantasy industry. In 2006, Todd became the Research Director for fantasybaseball.com, and in 2009, he relaunched Mastersball and is now a managing partner.

Todd competes in Tout Wars and the XFL, and has been a multiple-time league champion in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. He has been a contributor to the fantasy content at MLB.com and SI.com, is a frequent guest on Sirius/XM and Blog Talk Radio and is an annual speaker at the spring and fall First Pitch Forum symposiums.

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