Fantasy vs. Reality   (07/20/01)

I had a really good time at the National SABR convention last week.  I got an opportunity to meet a number of very interesting people, including Bill James, Bill Clark (who's the International Scouting Director for the Padres, but previously helped build both the Big Red Machine and the current Braves organization) and the Commissioner of Baseball Bud Selig.  I also got to know a ton of other people who are less famous but no less interesting including a curator at the Hall of Fame, several authors and a guy who raises money for disadvantaged children by selling baseball music compilations on CD, many of which are absolutely fantastic.  One of the CDs has Garrison Keillor's hilarious retelling of "Casey at the Bat" , as told from the opposing side's viewpoint.

However, one of the things that kinda surprised me about the SABR convention was the prevailing attitude toward fantasy games.  They are still viewed as the ugly stepchild of statistical research.

Through the Looking Glass

Listen, I understand that there are many things in fantasy baseball that don't quite jibe with reality.  For instance, the relationship between pitching and hitting is reversed.  It's much easier to find a guy who can help your pitching numbers off the waiver wire than it is to find a hitter of similar impact.  This is due to two reasons: 1) success in baseball is determined by a different set of criteria and 2) due to the fact that there are fewer fantasy teams than talent pool teams, impact pitchers are much more available than impact hitters.  This is by design, either intentionally or unintentionally.

To explain #1, it's a difference of team goals versus individual ones.  Actual pitchers and fielders don't really care how many baserunners are on base just as long as they don't score.  Fantasy baseball players, on the other hand, are more alarmed by 2 walks and a hit in an inning, even if they don't score, than they are by a solo home run.  Additionally, unless your league uses on base as a category, a walk isn't as good as a hit.  And a sacrifice is never useful to a fantasy player (well, and only slightly more useful for a real one) unless it actually brings home a run.

As for the second point, each talent pool team only has 8 or 9 impact hitters, and that's if the line-up is deep.  Generally, they only offer 5 or 6.  Each pitching staff however, routinely offers that many impact pitchers (2 or 3 quality starters, a closer and a couple of good middle relievers/set-up men).  Given the demand for at least 13 hitters for each team, but only 9 pitchers, it stands to reason that more pitching quality would be available in the free agent pool.

In real life, however, there is no scarcer commodity than quality pitching.  One needs to look no further than the recent Yankees-Padres deal for a brilliant illustration.  The Yankees traded their organization's second best player under 25 (D'Angelo Jimenez) for a middle reliever (Jay Witasick) who was having a sensational season.  Witasick has a spotty history of success but has taken very well to the larger strikezone this year.  However, he's still only gonna compile about a 100 innings a year.  Jimenez, on the other hand, will be every day player for the next decade and perhaps notch a few All-Star appearances.  That kind of deal would either be laughed at or tried for collusion in a fantasy league.  But in real baseball, that is the value of quality pitching.

Go Where the Money is

That said, fantasy baseball has made a significant contribution toward the understanding of the game.  You don't believe me?

Fifteen years ago, how many statistical analysis books were in the top 10 in the sports genre?  Zero.  Today, STATS, Inc's Major League Handbook is the best selling sports book... every year.   Did people suddenly just become very interested in stats?  No.  Fantasy players who were looking for an edge on their competition started buying that and any other reputable source of analysis.  That's also why Baseball America's circulation has gone from about 10,000 copies a month to well over 100,000 in a matter of a decade.

The increased money these and other organizations received allows them to devote more time and resources to their analysis, thereby improving their product and concomitantly everyone's understanding of the game.  Fantasy players aren't the only ones buying these publications though.  GMs and front offices buy them looking for an informational edge as well.  And when they implement some of the theories espoused in forums like this one, then the lines between fantasy and reality begin to blur.

Mirror, Mirror

Fantasy games are improving on their reflection of reality, too.  When the game first began, there was really only one way to play it - rotisserie rules.  But now, there are literally thousands of variations, in both categories, scoring and format.  And some of them are remarkably representative of the game, offering player contracts, realistic win values and rosters with farm systems.  As people get a better understanding of the game, their simulations of it get more realistic.

So maybe it's time to stop the condescension and come to grips with the fact that despite it's flaws, fantasy baseball is a huge driving force in the effort to completely understand this sport.

Back to Reality

Speaking of driving forces, my caution in the Sandbox league by staying away from several of the interleague matchups turns out was not entirely warranted.  Tony Armas Jr, Javier Vazquez, Kip Wells, Glendon Rusch and Matt Morris each pitched very well in their first starts after the break, yet were sitting on my bench.  Still, I like the fact that they were on my bench and not someone else's.  I also like the fact that I'm 9 games behind the game played pace in starting pitching and I have a very nice collection of arms from which to pick and choose the make-up starts.

I only made one change this week and that was to replace John Rocker with Bob Wickman.  Despite his off-the-field history, I think Rocker is a good pitcher.  He has incredible talent.  However, I'm beginning to think his ability to deal with strong emotions off the ball field, or rather his inability to deal with them, is beginning to affect his performance on it.  With his talent, it wouldn't surprise me if he pitched lights out for the rest of the year.  However, it also wouldn't surprise me, given his situation with the press, if he struggled the rest of the year.  Wickman was a reasonably reliable closer before the Rocker trade, and I think his consistency will get the nod for most of the save opportunities the rest of the year, regardless of what Rocker does.

The Standings

                                    Starting P       Relief P       Hitters FP
Rank  Team                         FP    G  FP/G    FP  G  FP/G    FP    G  FP/G   Total
1     ...Jumanji!                 1398  86  16.3   621  80  7.8   3190  924  3.5    5209
2     SF Mock Woodmen             1281  98  13.1   593  79  7.5   3149  907  3.5    5023
3     BaseballHQ Bombers          1510  86  17.6   703  90  7.8   2684  912  2.9    4897
4     Fantasy Baseball HQ         1453  95  15.3   791  93  8.5   2495  920  2.7    4739
5     Dr. Stats Juggernauts       1836  97  18.9   651  83  7.8   2170  874  2.5    4657
6     Sandbox Sports              1424 102  14.0   635  86  7.4   2593  910  2.8    4652
7     Desert Dwelling Scalawags   1488 120  12.4   417  82  5.1   2724  924  2.9    4629
8     The Write Stuff             1587  87  18.2   573  82  7.0   2343  886  2.6    4503
9     WSS Hurlers                 1582 102  15.5   466  79  5.9   2338  873  2.7    4386
10    Press Room Pundits          1432 100  14.3   485  79  6.1   2450  923  2.7    4367