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Fantasy Baseball – Roto vs. H2H

February 8, 2012 7 comments

By: Nate Douglas

We are mere days from those favorite four words in baseball: “pitchers and catchers report”. This means that fantasy baseball rankings and mock drafts are now in full force as fantasy baseball gurus begin prepping for their drafts and selecting their keepers for the upcoming season. There are two different styles of fantasy baseball: rotisserie (where fantasy players try to win as many categories over the course of a season as possible) and head-to-head points leagues (where a fantasy player tries to accrue more points in a one-week matchup than his opponent). Personally, I prefer H2H leagues over roto leagues, and I’ll explain why in a minute. But first, some background on the history of fantasy baseball which will play into my arguments.

In the late 1970s, aspiring Kansas writer Bill James turned the baseball world upside down when he started releasing his baseball abstracts, questioning a lot of the general wisdom in baseball from everything on how the game was played to evaluating talent. New statistics and formulas measuring success and failure in baseball became accurate barometers of player and team performance as the revolution took hold of first baseball fandom, then started to slowly permeate MLB clubs (as evidenced in the book Moneyball). In 1980, as a result of Bill James’ work, several guys got together at a restaurant in New York City, La Rotisserie Française and played the first game of what would come to be known as rotisserie baseball.

In this article, I’m going to commit fantasy baseball heresy for some, and explain why I believe H2H points leagues are the superior fantasy baseball experience over roto leagues. In order to get a feel for the arguments for roto leagues, I’ll be referring to an article by fantasy baseball Jedi, Ray Flowers of baseballguys.com, who recently wrote a piece about why he played in roto leagues and presented three points about why he disliked H2H leagues.

The basic premise for Ray’s reasoning is that the superior fantasy baseball format (in his case, roto) should best approximate the on-field product. In other words, fantasy baseball should operate as a mirror image of the game the best that it can. I completely agree with and accept this criterion, which is why I prefer H2H leagues. Ray says:

1) “Baseball is a 162-game marathon, as opposed to artificially contrived sessions of weekly matchups which turn the season into a sprint in H2H leagues.”

I agree, baseball is a marathon, but so are H2H leagues. Most H2H leagues still utilize all of the MLB games, just like roto leagues.  If a H2H league has one-week matchups (some leagues have two matchups per week, Mon.-Thur. and Fri.-Sun), that’s 28 possible matchups in a season, with 25 or 26 in the regular season and 2-3 in the playoffs. That hardly makes the season a “sprint”.

If we stay in this vein, however, roto leagues stray further away from the on-field game. MLB does not tabulate all the teams’ statistics at the end of the regular season and declare a winner. There’s the playoffs, and just like “real life”, owners in H2H leagues try to build a team that will give them a good enough record to make the playoffs, as well as succeed in the postseason.

2) “We all know that Albert Pujols will hit .300-30-100 (he’s on the cusp of doing it for the 11th straight season to start his career). However, we really have no idea when he will go deep, when he will produce hits, and when he will knock runners in. If you’re playing in a H2H match up what happens if Pujols hits .450 with three homers and 10 RBI? You’ll likely win that week. What happens though if he hits .150 with no homers and no RBI the following week? You would likely lose that week. Still, if Pujols followed this path, alternating greatness with putrid work, he’d end the year batting .300 with something like 39 homers and 130 RBI. That’s a phenomenal season, right? However, in H2H he’d be a killer to your club in those 13 weeks that he disappeared. Baseball is about consistency and working through the grind as much as anything. When you play H2H you remove that aspect of the game completely.”

Again, have to disagree with Mr. Flowers on this count as well. Correct, we don’t know when Pujols is going to go crazy one week and ice cold the next…well guess what, neither do the Angels! And if Pujols does not produce in a game, their chances of winning go down as well, just like in a H2H matchup. Of course it would hurt if Pujols disappeared for a week; that’s why you build an entire roster to get other players to contribute…just like the Angels. Remember the premise: The best fantasy format is the one that best mirrors the on-field product. I would not say H2H removes the element of consistency, rather it makes the owner try each week to field the best team possible; therefore, he has to pay more attention to slumps, injuries, pitcher/hitter matchups, ballparks, etc.  The H2H owner is always playing to win now. This is “working through the grind”, and H2H play hardly removes that. On the other hand, in roto leagues, Pujols goes through a slump, but no sweat: the roto owner can just sit back because he knows it’ll all even out in the end.  Less work is required from the roto owner.  If only MLB GM’s and managers could do that.  This makes roto the easier style of playing, and if that’s your bowl of chili, then go for it, but it definitely does not resemble the MLB game whatsoever.

Yes, there’s an element of luck to the H2H points style of play, hoping a stud doesn’t have a down week while a crummy player has an awesome one. But to quote Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, “That’s the way baseball go.” Before the last two World Series started, the majority of “experts” on the worldwide leader picked the Texas Rangers to beat the Giants and Cardinals.  Why?  Because the Rangers had a better overall team, better overall statistics, and didn’t sneak into the playoffs on the last day like the Giants and Cardinals did.  If Major League Baseball were a roto league, the Texas Rangers would be world champions the last two years, but that’s not how baseball ‘go’. There’s a luck-element in baseball, and like it or not, points leagues have to deal with it just like the MLB teams do.  Roto leagues for the most part don’t have to deal with the luck factor as much a H2H, and some roto players may be fine with that.  But remember what game we’re trying to imitate, therefore in this respect, roto baseball makes for a fogged up mirror in comparison to the on-field game.

3) “Would you ever draft Gavin Floyd over Dan Haren? That’s like saying you would prefer to cuddle up with Cate Blanchett over Brooklyn Decker? However, there are scenarios where you would end up starting Floyd over Haren simply because you’re looking at one week segments (there is no scenario in which Cate would be the choice over Brooklyn). What if Haren was facing the Yankees and Floyd was pitching in Seattle and Oakland – would you start Floyd because he was a two start pitcher on the road, where he has success, in two parks that favor the hurler? The answer is you might, and we’ve all made that decision at one point or another. However, does this make any sense? Of course it doesn’t.  We’re sometimes “forced” to go with an inferior pitcher merely because we need the starts to keep up with our opponent in the H2H format. In this instance we’re not rewarding the fantasy owner who rostered the players with the best skill, we’re merely rewarding those that were first to the waiver-wire to add a 2-start pitcher. There isn’t any skill in that.”

The scenario being presented here depends on the league rules and if you are actually faced with the either/or that Ray is proposing. If your league imposes strict game start limits, then yes, you might be faced with this decision of starting Gavin Floyd over ace Dan Haren. But roto leagues are faced with the same decision as well because there is a limit on games played per roster spot for the season (and most roto leagues have this restriction; if they didn’t, then the game is just about playing the most players, which is silly). Example, it’s the final week of the MLB regular season, and in your roto league you have two SP starts left before you fill your starting pitching’s starts quota for the season, and you’re faced with choosing between Gavin Floyd against the A’s and M’s, while Dan Haren faces the Yankees in New York.  A lot of people in both roto and H2H leagues would roll with Floyd over Haren.  And if a lot of roto players would chose Floyd over Haren during the last week of the season, the same logic could be applied to the middle of the season as well.  Ultimately, several times during the season, roto owners are faced with choosing between Brooklyn Decker and Cate Blanchett as well. Of course, this hypothetical does not mean that Haren would necessarily go out and blow it against the Yankees. On the contrary, he could throw a complete game while Floyd puts up a couple doozy starts. We really don’t know.  So nobody is being “forced” to use an inferior pitcher in a H2H league; roto leagues play the matchups as well. To have some more fun with Ray’s analogy, you could cuddle up to Brooklyn Decker, who, despite her Deckerness, might not have taken a shower in a month, while on the other hand Cate Blanchett is over there radiating, having just come out of some Elvish spa. You’d have to play that matchup as well.

Concerning Ray’s last point, rewarding the waiver wire pickups…again, there are no guarantees that this strategy would work. It could fail. And if the H2H league is a manly league, with say 12 teams and 25-man rosters, the pickings should be slim for streaming pitchers anyway.

Finally, I wanted to present my biggest issue with roto leagues. It comes down to stolen bases (and why do stolen bases have to be a category? Why not sacrifices? What about advancing 1st to 3rd on a single?). Here’s your token reminder about our premise—the better fantasy format is the one that best imitates the on-field game. The overvaluing of stolen bases in roto leagues dramatically changes the landscape of the players one would draft in a roto league as opposed to a H2H league. As a stat in itself, stolen bases are extremely overrated; they’re risky and have little influence on the outcome of an MLB game as we learned from the Bill James revolution. For example, a Michael Bourn could have six stolen bases in a game, and the Braves could not score one run (which, lest we forget, is what the game comes down to). On the other hand, Jay Bruce could hit just one home run, and the Reds would be beating the Braves and their base-stealing Bourn. Yet in roto leagues, home runs are valued just as much as stolen bases. Can someone argue that roto leagues best mirror the on-field product when this is the case? On the other hand (wait, you’ve got three hands there!), in standard points leagues, SB’s only give you 1 point, while HR’s give you 6 points—an accurate representation of the on-field game.

If all MLB players were put in a pool to be drafted, do you think any of the teams would use the roto stolen bases paradigm and take Hanley Ramirez over Jose Bautista, Troy Tulowitzki or Roy Halladay? Heck no! Yet guys like Hanley Ramirez last year was often taken as the 2nd or 3rd pick overall in roto leagues, the primary reason being he steals bases. On the other hand, H2H points league owners would all take those other guys over the 2011 Hanley Ramirez and Carl Crawfords of the world because they know they would produce more points (as would most big league executives if they could draft any player in MLB).

Over the last 20 years, we’ve learned that .OPS is the greatest contributing factor for MLB teams scoring runs (the object of the game), which is what H2H points leagues emphasize and reward the most. Most fantasy baseball services, however, when they do rankings and mock drafts, are doing them through the lens of roto leagues, therefore they have the overvaluation of steals in mind. This makes most of their rankings and mocks unhelpful for H2H players, which is why in my next article we’ll use some fantasy baseball format hermeneutics to interpret roto rankings and how H2H players should change their approach.

In summary, I believe that roto leagues are still stuck in the 80’s, and while roto leagues themselves would not be here today if it weren’t for Bill James, the roto leaguers obviously didn’t pay much attention to what he was saying.  Baseball has changed.  The game is about extra base hits, scoring and on base percentages.  Therefore, roto leagues need a Moneyball movement.  H2H leagues aren’t taking a cue from fantasy football points-style as Ray would argue. H2H is trying to copy the on-field product the best it can. It’s not perfect, it’s still improving, but H2H players view the MLB players in a more accurate way than roto players .It’s for all these reasons that I believe H2H fantasy baseball leagues best mirror the on-field product, making it a superior fantasy format than roto fantasy baseball.

Nate Douglas lives in Fort Worth, Texas, with his wife and son (whom he is 17-0 against in living-room wrestling…never mind if his son is a toddlerweight).  While his day job is sorting through the dirty legal details of the oil and gas industry, his night job is a sports Jack Bauer.  He has yet to come off his Dallas Mavericks championship-high, and he prays daily for that last strike in the World Series  for his beloved Rangers, and that his children will never know a day when they weren’t fans of his favorite teams.  You can follow him on Twitter- @NateDouglas34.  

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