The Urbana Premier League (UPL) where I play fantasy baseball is a 6x6 roto format. Since each team has 24 roster spots, you can think of each team as having 24 active players at any given time, and each player has 6 statistical categories associated with him. So in a way, each manager is managing his own matrix; and as the team matrices accumluate stats and are merged daily, they form a bigger and all-important matrix: the scoreboard.
When I look at my fantasy baseball team, I don't start by looking at the players. I start by looking at an empty matrix of roster spots that needs to be filled by players. Each roster spot is a valuable piece of real estate. Every player on my team needs to have a clear purpose for being there. Even players on the bench. Players who start for my team are expected to produce now. Players on my bench are expected to produce when a starter can't go. Period.
When looking at each starting slot where stats can be accumulated (i.e., catcher, first base, starting pitcher, relief pitcher, etc.), I kinda think of these slots as guns on a warship. Each manager gets the same size warship with the same number of guns (starting slots). Some guns might be bigger and others might be faster. But regardless, I want to be sending out a steady flow of gunfire from every gun on my ship. In order to accomplish this, I have two players available at each position whenever possible. That way if one player has a day off or gets a nagging injury that lasts two or three days, I have a ready backup already on hand. Gotta keep the bullets coming.
In a roto league where each stat counts equally (my league is 6x6) and points are determined by where you rank in each category, my stated goal is to pursue first place in each category. In order to be very competitive in each category, my team needs to be balanced. After all, how can you lead the league in R, HR, RBI, SB, OBP, SLG, W, L, SV, K, ERA, and WHIP, unless your team is good at hitting for power, getting on base, stealing bases, scoring runs, striking out batters, saving games, and keeping opposing hitters off base?
Now some people might say, "Wait a second, if you're truly in a competitive league, it's impossible to lead the league in every category." And to this I'd say that's likely true. But there's a difference between an expectation and a goal. And besides, there's something else at play here. Almost as important as how many points my team accumulates is where the points come from. My main emphasis is to have a balanced team.
Okay, so maybe this all seems obvious. After all, everyone wants to have strong hitting and pitching. But what I'm referring to here goes beyond a balance between hitting and pitching. I want balance from roster spot to roster spot. How do I achieve this? Whenever possible, I want players who can rack up points in multiple categories, and it's a bonus if those players have eligibility at multiple roster spots (positions). That way, in a sense, the points that my team puts on the scoreboard can come from anywhere and everywhere.
The reason that I want the best set of bench players possible is fourfold:
- First, I want to foster competition at each roster spot. If a player slumps, then I'll put a hotter player in and won't reinstate the former starter until he plays his way back into my lineup.
- Related to my previous point, I also like setting up platoons at as many roster spots as possible. For instance, last year I noticed that Michael Bourn's OBP against lefties was terrible, but against righties it was okay. So whenever he started against a lefty, I tended to bench him in favor of a better option. If you're able to play the percentages to your advantage, then why not?
- Third, in the UPL (and most leagues) there is a cap on the number of games that can be played at any position. Most fantasy managers don't even come close to maxing out all of their "innings pitched" or "games played" at each position. However, by having multiple players eligible for each position, you can come close to maxing out each position at season's end. By doing so, you'll squeeze out a few more points along the way.
- Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, my strategy assumes injuries. I don't know when or where, but injuries will happen. When they do, I want to have a solid short-term solution in place. Necessity is the mother of invention; and like the Internet, my team is built to survive a disaster.
So what did my team do in 2009? Well, I blogged on May 6 that my team had gotten off to a quick start. At the time, little did I know that on the following day my #3 pick Manny Ramirez would be hit with a 50-day suspension, and then the day after that my #4 pick Aramis Ramirez would hurt his shoulder and land on the 60-day DL. Sure, that made me nervous. But I had already done the best realistic planning I could possibly do for such an unexpected situation. I shifted some of my team's parts around, and we stayed competitive. Later in the season my #2 pick Carlos Beltran also was lost to injury. However, my team was still able to hang on to win the championship.
Now don't get me wrong. The fact that my team finished in first proves nothing about my strategy. The key here (at least to me) is that my team was able to get off to a quick start, and then despite significant personnel losses, stayed competitive. Those characterics seem line up with a strategy that claims to emulate a greedy algorithm running on a distributed system.
Earlier I mentioned that when I look at my fantasy baseball team, I start by looking at an empty matrix of roster spots that needs to be filled by players. But of course, things get more complicated when you start looking beyond an empty matrix. With a 24-man roster in our 6x6 UPL league, every team's matrix is 24x6 if you're looking at each player's counted stats. Although, there are really more than 6 numbers per player. We can add age as a number, plus we could try to rate how players are trending at any given time or in which matchups they excel. That 24x6 matrix can start getting much bigger when you consider all the ways a manager can rate the players.
But let's keep this simple. Fantasy baseball always comes down to filling the empty matrix of roster spots with players. In order to do this well, we need to do a good job of rating the players. In the next part of this series we'll discuss hitter evaluation; and then in part four we'll look at pitcher evaluation.