How to Play Fantasy Baseball

by Herija C. Green on December 1, 2010 @ 03:41:30 PDT


Don't be afraid to admit that you're a novice when it comes to fantasy baseball. That's the first step, and we'll provide you with a foundation, showing you not only how to play the game but also how to succeed.

The basics

Like other fantasy sports, the object of fantasy baseball is simple: Accumulate the most points or win the most games to take home the spoils.

The process begins by selecting a team of players in a draft before the start of the season. Those players contribute to your team's place in the standings based on how well they perform in specific statistical categories such as home runs, stolen bases, ERA and wins.

There are many different ways you can play fantasy baseball, although you'll find the rotisserie method, in which stats accumulate throughout the season and count toward your final score, to be most common. Within this method, 5x5 scoring - which counts five hitting (batting average, home runs, RBIs, stolen bases and runs) and pitching categories (wins, saves, ERA, WHIP and strikeouts) - is typical. You'll also find a fair amount of 4x4 scoring, which removes runs and strikeouts from the 5x5 system and is the original format.

The other primary league type is head-to-head, in which your statistical output rolls back each week as you face a new opponent. At the end of the week, whoever has performed the best in a particular category will get a win for it. Let's say you outscored your opponent in runs, RBIs and steals but were bested in wins and saves. In that case, you'd either earn a win (and your opponent a loss) by the score of 3-2 or be given a record of 3-2 for the week. This continues until a few weeks remain in Major League Baseball's regular season. The teams with the best records reach the playoffs, which take place during the real season's final weeks.

Draft styles vary as well. You can fill your roster in a standard serpentine draft, in which owners take turns making selections for as many rounds as necessary to fill each team's roster. You can also have an auction, in which each player is obtainable and bid on by owners. In auction leagues, owners work within a budget to "purchase" their players.

There are three classifications when it comes to the pool of available talent, also known as the "universe": AL-only, NL-only and mixed (players from both leagues). AL-only and NL-only leagues require greater depth of knowledge and are not for the faint of heart. The casual player or novice is better off learning in a mixed format, although there isn't a limit to the intensity of the league just because it's mixed.

Rosters usually include the usual positions, but some add middle infield, corner infield and utility slots. These are intended to make the league a little deeper.

Of course, there are many ways to play this game, and none of them are necessarily the best way. In fact, this introduction merely scratches the surface of the many ways you can enjoy fantasy baseball.

Be prepared

Imagine you're back in school, and the teacher says that it's time for a pop quiz ... and you haven't studied, at all. That's how a novice fantasy baseball player might feel if he or she walked into a draft without having read an ounce of news or checked out pre-draft rankings.

The draft is truly all about preparation, preparation and preparation.

You need to keep abreast of what's going on in the world of baseball, and preferably not as part of a pre-draft cram session. It may sound cliche, but it's true: The minute one season ends, the next one begins - words any aspiring fantasy aficionado would do well to heed.

Start by tracking offseason player movement. Free-agent signings and trades can drastically alter the fantasy landscape, especially when a pitcher goes to a team with a stronger offense or park with pitcher-friendly dimensions. Likewise, a power hitter transitioning to a cozy park might see an increase in his power numbers and a corresponding bump in fantasy value.

Your first priority is to work on your rankings, which is the order in which you value players going into the draft. If you're incredibly serious about your pursuit, you can develop your own player projections. That's a tall task, but it's important to understand, at least, the concepts that go into player valuation. Then you can formulate your opinion when you review someone else's projections.

Consult the many cheat sheets KFFL furnishes in its preseason draft guide. Give KFFL's cheat sheet generator a whirl. Review KFFL's projections and see where you agree - and disagree. Debate gives way to new ideas and improved forecasts.

Identify the signs

Beyond the obvious statistical measures, there are always other factors than can contribute to performance. For instance, keep an eye out for players entering the final year of their contract - those heading toward free agency are ripe targets for selection. In some cases, particularly with batters and much less so with pitchers, they'll produce better-than-average numbers thanks to the lure of a better contract.

On the flip side, be wary of players who have signed new deals; some of that pressure to produce is off. They won't necessarily have bad seasons, but you may want to avoid players who parlayed a career year into a fat payday when previous seasons suggest they aren't as good as their contract-year numbers do.

Be aware of ballpark factors. Power hitters who ply their trade in hitter-friendly parks get a boost - think Texas Rangers outfielder Nelson Cruz - while those who find themselves leaving those situations for larger parks should be knocked down a peg.

The same holds true for pitchers. Any pitcher lucky enough to pitch his home games in the San Diego Padres' PETCO Park could experience a drop in ERA and WHIP and an increase in strikeouts per nine innings, but expect some rough outings from hurlers dealing in Coors Field.

Another phenomenon to be aware of is positional scarcity. Put simply, some positions are thinner in talent than others - catcher springs to mind. In drafts or auctions, there may be "runs" on certain positions, at which expected production drops dramatically after the top handful of players are taken. Be careful not to get caught in these runs; you may well be missing out on better value at other positions.

Draft day should be a blast, and hopefully it goes well, but just because it's over doesn't mean your responsibility to your fantasy baseball team is done. On the contrary, the fun is just beginning. You have to manage throughout the season using the roster you selected.

It's a marathon, not a sprint

By about a quarter of the way into the season, you should have a feel for your team's strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps your pitchers aren't registering enough strikeouts, or your power hitters have blown a fuse. What now? Don't worry. Just because your draft didn't play out perfectly doesn't mean you're dead in the water. There are always options available to right the ship, and one of the best parts about fantasy baseball is that it's truly a war of attrition.

Fantasy baseball leagues have waiver wires, where owners may make changes to their lineups by adding or dropping players. Some run first-come, first-served waivers on a daily basis, while others have weekly claims, where your desired moves are submitted and then processed based on waiver priority. This is often done in reverse order of the standings, meaning the worst record gets first dibs, or some other determinant.

Still other leagues utilize a Free Agent Acquisition Budget (FAAB), where owners bid on free agents but have a limited amount of "money" to acquire players throughout the season.

However, sometimes the solution to what ails your squad cannot be found on the waiver wire. That brings us to trading. Maybe you have an excess of pitching and not enough hitting (or vice versa), or perhaps your star players have taken up residence on the disabled list. This is where wheeling and dealing comes into play. Trades can improve a club immediately or down the road. They may also weaken a club in each of those scenarios, depending on the players traded.

When going the trade route, tread carefully. Odds are that the person you're trading with won't have your best interests in mind; instead, he or she may be trying to rob you blind. Of course, most best deals help both sides in theory, with each club dealing from a position of strength to address a perceived weakness. Also, unless you want to receive a series of e-mails mocking your baseball knowledge, try to avoid sending grossly unbalanced trade offers. It's a good idea to learn essential trade etiquette.

Most leagues have a deadline to prevent trading after a certain date, partially to avoid a non-contending team dumping players to a contender in an effort to influence the race. The fantasy sports community frowns upon collusion. With the waiver wire and trading, chances are good that you will have enough mechanisms to improve your team for the duration of the season.

Know your limits

One often overlooked aspect of fantasy baseball is whether there are playing time requirements in place. Maximums or minimums can be applied to both batters and pitchers.

In shallow (usually mixed) leagues, position players are often limited to a number of games per roster slot, say 162. That prevents owners from plugging reserves into starting roles whenever their regulars have the day off. This ensures that everyone has a more even playing field, as long as managers monitor their rosters fairly regularly.

This is also usually done to prevent one person from using more pitchers in an effort to monopolize the wins, strikeouts and saves categories. It also serves to dissuade owners from shuffling starting pitchers via the waiver wire. The limit forces owners to determine which players are best to start in order to get quality innings from a pitcher, not just quantity.

Many leagues, especially those with an AL-only or NL-only format, employ league minimums instead. They require fantasy teams to reach a minimum number of at-bats, innings pitched or both. This helps to prevent owners from resting on the laurels of a few top players and employing reserves who do little to negatively impact categories like batting average, ERA and WHIP.

Fantasy baseball leagues can employ combinations of these maximums and minimums, too. The goal is to create a competitive league in which no one can gain a clear advantage by manipulating the scoring system.

The end of the beginning

Now you are familiar with many of the various options available in fantasy baseball. If you don't grasp all the concepts right away, don't despair.

If there's one thing you should take away, it's to do your homework. A good start is to visit KFFL's MLB Hot off the Wire for news and notes on injuries, promotions and demotions, playing time, trade rumors and more. Baseball is a year-round sport, but thankfully for aspiring fantasy owners, KFFL works the same way!

Take this knowledge and combine it with what you learn from our offseason articles and Spring Training guides. It will help make the difference between hoisting a trophy at season's end and going home wondering about what might have been.

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About Herija C. Green

A graduate of the prestigious Top Gun school, Green's ego writes checks his body can't cash. When he's not overdrawing his ego's bank account, Green enjoys games of beach volleyball, riding his Kawasaki Ninja motorcycle, and buzzing the tower (whether the pattern is full or not). He resides in the Danger Zone and yes, Ice... Man, he is dangerous. He also writes.

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