Crafting Rules: A few thoughts

xfllogoI play in a mixed fantasy baseball league with 14 friends. We meet in Arizona at the First Pitch conference in November and auction off 23-man teams for $260. It’s a keeper league, you can keep up to 15 players each year, and in the auction you’re limited to players who finished the previous season on a major league team’s active roster. When you roster someone without major league experience their price escalated by $3 each season after they make the majors. Other players’ prices go up by $5 each year they’re kept.

We started playing in 2003, and made up a set of fantasy rules that are unlike any other league in the world, with the goal of having a simple-to-administer keeper league. It has worked out pretty spectacularly. I love going to Arizona to see AFL baseball and my friends, but making sure I’m at the auction is very important. You can’t play if you don’t auction.

The second part of roster provisioning is a 17-round reserve draft in late March, during which you can draft anyone in the world who hasn’t already been rostered. We’ve had high school players drafted, and players years away from Japanese free agency. The teams draft in order of last year’s standings. At the end of the day,  in time for Opening Day, each team has 40 players for the season.

Since this is a keeper league, dump trades are a part of the process, but each year it seems that teams with bad teams dump earlier than they did previously. Last year there were seven dump trades on May 19th, just seven weeks into the season.

We’ve recently been discussing whether these early dumps are a good thing or not for our game. I thought not, because it felt as if marginal teams were in a race to the bottom. The first ones to bail were able to pick off the best prospects from the teams competing for the top, so there was constant pressure to bail earlier, in order to make the best deal.

This meant that other teams were pressured to make deals as early as possible, too, in order to compete. Once teams dumped, they were no longer competitive, and once teams added real talent they were no longer catchable.

My suggested solutions, a variety of them, all involved increasing the pain for teams dumping. For instance, teams that fell below a certain number of points would lose some of their freezes, depending on how far short they fell. Or the price of players traded before the All Star break might be automatically increased to $10 or more, in order to decrease their value as keeps. Or they would pay a financial penalty, depending on how many points they fell below a threshold. This isn’t a money league and there is no reason to reward winners, but the money could go to charity, simply to induce a little pain if standards weren’t achieved.

Other suggestions, like a reduced inseason salary cap and having losers pay winners some amount, were suggested by others. These are all standard ways for leagues to control dump trades, but in this league at this time these suggestions were met mostly with derision, primarily with the not-really-an argument notion that in a keeper league you can’t/shouldn’t punish dumping. Though that isn’t what any of us were suggesting.

I started this post spoiling for a fight about this and thought that maybe a look at the trades made last May 19th would help me win my argument (something I know never happens on the Internet, or anywhere, really). On May 19th…

The team that eventually finished first traded Garin Cecchini, Dom Smith, and Wily Peralta in two trades for Joe Nathan, Adam Jones and Prince Fielder (when he was still expected to come back). (14 and 13)

The team that eventually finished second traded Matt Harvey and Alexander Reyes for Ben Revere and Adam Wainwright. (15)

One of the teams that tied for third traded Maikel Franco, Marcus Stroman and Daisuke Matsuzaka for Pedro Sandoval, Alcides Escobar and Francisco Rodriguez. (11)

My team was the other team tied for third and didn’t make a trade.

The team that finished fifth didn’t trade.

The team that finished sixth traded Miguel Sano and Matt Moore for Mark Teixeira and Kenley Jansen. (15)

The teams that finished seventh and eighth didn’t trade.

The team that finished ninth traded Alex Meyer and Addison Russell for Ian Kinsler and Asdrubal Cabrera. (14)

The team that finished 10th traded Gregory Polanco and Miguel Gonzalez for Troy Tulowitzki and Brett Gardner. (13 and 12)

All the teams that traded away quality players finished in the bottom five in the league. The teams that finished first and second traded away quality prospects for immediate help and were never caught.

This division, last year, clearly meant that there were teams that were winning, teams that were losing, and then a bunch of teams in the middle who could not win and would not lose.

That in itself isn’t a problem. It’s part of the game dynamic. There is no penalty in our rules for coming in last. In fact, Brian Walton came in last this year with a pathetic number of points (28.5), and that’s a good thing! As he explains, if you’re going to dump you should go all in, trade in this year’s assets to improve next year’s squad.

But that brings us back to dumping in May. There is a problem if somewhat competitive teams are willing to sacrifice their season so early, basically locking in the tiers of competition. The problem is that this is less fun for many teams, and devalues the auction that we enjoy so much. My suggestions of adding friction to dumping wouldn’t end dumping, but they might slow the process, and make the stakes higher for the dumping teams. They would have to not only reload their squads, but try to claw for points this year (and would be rewarded for their success).

This would be good, because it was make it easier for the teams that didn’t trade away prospects early to remain competitive longer. For instance, my team didn’t trade prospects in mid May because it got off to a horrible start (bad pitching mostly) and was in 11th place on May 19th. The team looked too good to dump, but was not competitive enough to buy by trading away prospects. Of course, once we didn’t buy we had no chance to catch the teams that did when we started rising in the standings.

If the trading didn’t get going until June we might have been tempted to trade Oscar Taveras and Archie Bradley. Instead, we decided to play for third, which is a different way of playing for next year.

While trying to make my argument, I looked at the May 19th standings and wasn’t exactly surprised to see that the bottom four teams finished in the bottom five at the end of the year. After all, they had traded excellent players for futures, most of whom didn’t contribute much this year at all.

What surprised me more was that a look at the Draft Day Rosters, the team that was bought in November (something of a less than perfect estimate of the amount of talent a team had last year on Opening Day), three of the five lowest finishers were in the bottom four (the other two were sixth and ninth). If anything, with the die cast before the season started, it seems as if these teams actually waited too long to dump. Or maybe, it was the teams that were contending who waited to be sure they were in the fight before swapping their top prospects and futures for reinforcements.

In either case, the problem I thought I was actually seeing was subtly different than the one I had diagnosed.

Instead of marginally talented teams racing to dump, mostly truly bad teams recognized they were better off dumping than not. Increasing friction for them might make the game marginally more interesting inseason, and might protect the value of the auction a bit, but any rational player with a bad team would still dump.

I suppose this seems like a fairly esoteric tale. A league unlike any other trying to fine tune rules that aren’t working all that badly isn’t much of a tale. But what I found in the telling was evidence that the problem I was seeing wasn’t totally the problem I was experiencing.

I still think adding some friction for teams that finish poorly is a good idea, simply to make sure they take it seriously. Just because they usually do doesn’t mean an incentive doesn’t help order things properly. After all, two of those bottom five teams  had Top 10 teams based on the Draft Day Standings. Why were they dumping a quarter of the way into the season? Because that’s when you can get the best prospects.

This friction, call it an incentive, isn’t a punishment. That definition is what got me riled in the first place. Every league’s rules define limitations that shape the way the game is played. Deadlines, keeper rules, categories, position eligibility all shape the way the game is played. In the context of the current rules, adding more restrictions might seem like punishing certain behavior when it’s really incentivizing others.

But to go back to Brian Walton, he hits the nail on the head in his story when he says, “It is always best to agree on the original problem statement before throwing around ways to address it.”

Our division is between those who think we can make the game better (but have to recognize that the problem at this point isn’t acute) and those who think dumping and rebuilding should be an unfettered process (apart from the inseason salary cap, of course), who don’t see a problem.

So, for now, we take no action, but we each snap our lips trying to make the other side see reason. It’s almost Hot Stove season.

 

 

How’m I Doing? The End of April Report

I’m playing in three leagues this year. Tout Wars NL, American Dream League AL, XFL Mixed. This is about as close as I’ll get to the ideal of putting all one’s eggs in one basket, where attention is focused and mistakes hurt all season long.

So, how are things going?

TOUT WARS NL

The standings are bleak, and they’re not getting any better. Well, I did climb into 10th place last night, thanks to Todd’s nightmare.

Screenshot 2014-04-30 11.54.42

You can see all the league details here.

I went with an extreme Stars and Scrubs strategy here, and a pitching staff of Bumgarner, Rafael Soriano and a bunch of cheap guys. The hitting has not been helped by Ryan Zimmerman’s injury, and as expected picking up productive hitters via FAAB has not been easy. Tony Campana has helped with four steals. Otherwise, not so much from anyone.

The good news is that Nate McLouth should see more playing time due to Bryce Harper’s surgery, and I have an insane cushion in OBP. The question coming out of the auction was whether I would be able to deal OBP for productive hitters in other categories. It’s still too early to judge, but if I’m going to climb out of this hole it will be because someone saw lots of value in Joey Votto.

The other good news is that the pitching staff has been pretty good, despite their pathetic standing in WHIP. Cheap guys out of the draft, Wily Peralta and Tanner Roark, have been good. So has cheap FAAB pickup Alfredo Simon. Bumgarner’s WHIP has been a big problem, as has Edwin Jackson’s performance overall, though that has improved lately. There’s work to be done here, but if Jake Arrieta isn’t bad and Andrew Heaney shows up in June, there is some potential to be a pretty good staff.

Getting off to a bad start is a problem. It makes it more difficult to maneuver, and puts pressure on that leads to mistakes. My week by week finishes (11, 10, 10, 3) show some improvement. There is still lots of time, if I make the right moves.

AMERICAN DREAM LEAGUE

I’ve been in first or second all season thus far.

Screenshot 2014-04-30 12.10.51

I came out of the auction thinking I had a pretty strong team, both offensively and in pitching. Until last week I was languishing in homers, however, but then Kyle Seager busted out, and things are okay there.

Where I am suffering right now is stolen bases, despite having guys like Alex Rios, Shin Soo Choo, Erick Aybar, and Ian Kinsler. And wasn’t Eric Hosmer supposed to run a little, too? The problem is that all my speed guys are pushing into their thirties, so it shouldn’t be a surprise they’ve slowed down some. I’m going to need to do something about that.

Especially because I didn’t buy a closer, despite intentions to. I did buy Matt Thornton, as a CIW, and scored, sort of. He’s saved three games, which is better than nothing, but obviously if I don’t add steals I’m going to need to trade some speed for saves. It’s going to take a lot of luck to improve in both categories.

Last week was a rough one, because I lost Chris Sale and Shin Soo Choo for extended period, and dropped into second place. Shoo came back last night, and Sale is expected next week, probably. This team has broad enough talent that I should be able to compete, but it’s still early. Plenty more could go wrong.

XFL

This odd mixed league, with an auction in November and a 17-round reserve draft in March, is a keeper league. Alex Patton and I are co-owners.

Right now we have a strong offense, but have been hobbled by our big three starters, Jordan Zimmerman, Jered Weaver and Mike Minor. We also have a team construction problem. Since these guys aren’t big strikeout guys, and we’re playing three closers, we can’t really compete in strikeouts.

This being a mixed league (15 teams), the success of the secondary starters is very important and we’ve not gotten much out of Jenry Mejia, Felix Doubront, Jarred Cosart and some others. Henderson Alvarez has been excellent, but it’s hard to expect him to continue on this level.

This is a league in which teams play to win, and when that is clearly not in the cards they trade for next year’s keepers. We’re in poor enough shape to have started to think about the next step, but we have so much talent it’s hard to embrace failure so soon. Alex is chomping to make changes, I’m keeping my fingers crossed. But losing Archie Bradley is not a harbinger.

Screenshot 2014-04-30 12.25.56

Fear the Duck!

Don Drooker goes by the name the Duck, not because he waddles or quacks but because he, um, well, I don’t know. I’ve played with Don in the XFL for ten years now (our 11th draft is coming up in three weeks) and he’s won four times. It turns out that Don waddles and quacks in other leagues, too. He played in three auction leagues this year and won all three. He writes with humor and grace and pride about one of those leagues here.

XFL: Xperts Fantasy League Draft Results

XFL: Xperts Fantasy League

For those of you who follow the league of friends who are mostly in the fantasy baseball business, here is the draft sheet from the 2010 draft (took place in Phoenix on Nov. 6th). The red guys are keeps.

XFLTRACKER2010-1