Once upon a time, I was a fantasy baseball player. It was fun, and I enjoyed playing it with a group of friends. After I moved away from where they lived, I drifted away from the game, but this year I plan to jump back in with a group of people with whom I work. On the whole, I am like everyone else: I play fantasy baseball because it is fun. I enjoy the interaction with the group and the raw competition. However, as a connoisseur of baseball statistics and history in all of its forms, fantasy baseball has a secondary appeal. It is useful in answering a particular sort of question: how valuable is a player in the abstract? That question is an intriguing one, and I’d like to dig into how fantasy baseball helps us answer it.
When considering the value of a player in the real world, you must take into account more than just his baseball talent. In this vein, I am particularly excited about the Twins signing of Orlando Hudson to play second base. He fills a whole in the Twins lineup, making him more valuable to them than to most other teams. Second, he earns a reasonable salary. At only $5 million, Hudson is a good value pick that fits well within the Twins budget constraints. All of this adds to Hudson’s real world value. None of it, though, says much about his baseball talent. Is it possible that Hudson could be more valuable to his team than Chase Utley is to his? When you factor in all of these extraneous factors, it might be. Utley, though, is the much better player. Any fantasy draft will reflect this basic fact.
Fantasy baseball is great at evaluating raw hitting. It probably places a larger premium on power hitting than is justified, but it recognizes the basic truth that Albert Pujols is a better hitter than Derek Jeter. For pitching, it tends to focus on things within a pitcher’s control, usually giving extra preference to high strikeout pitchers and hurting pitchers that walk a lot of batters. In discussing talent in its simplest forms, fantasy cuts players to their most important baseball attributes and evaluates them alone.
Fantasy baseball, unfortunately, has limits on its ability to consider value in the abstract. Consider Chase Utley once again. Utley is the best hitting second basemen in baseball, and that accounts for his high fantasy draft position. However, in the world of fantasy he barely nudges ahead of players like Dustin Pedroia, Robinson Cano, and Ian Kinsler. In terms of pure hitting, Utley is only slightly better than that group, and that is all that fantasy statistics reflect. In this sense, ignoring fielding undervalues Chase Utley. Similarly, ignoring fielding overvalues players like Adam Dunn and Manny Ramirez. Nevertheless, by ignoring otherwise critical variables like age, contract, and team depth at a position, fantasy can teach us something.
Outside of raw statistics, fantasy also emphasizes the value of scarcity. Hanley Ramirez is certainly in the argument for the ten best players in the major leagues. As a shortstop, though, he is leaps and bounds better than anyone else at his position. For this reason, Ramirez is likely to trail just Albert Pujols in the world of fantasy drafts. If we ever began doing widespread historical fantasy drafts, you would see Honus Wagner climb to the top of draft boards for the same reason. The drop from Lou Gehrig to Jimmie Foxx is small, as is the drop from Ty Cobb to Willie Mays. The drop from Wagner to Cal Ripken, Jr., though, is substantial. Is Wagner, in the abstract, better than Mays? Probably not, but he is harder to replace.
Why play fantasy baseball? Because it is fun. You really need no other reason. For those with intellectual pretensions who need pseudo-intellectual excuses before we can enjoy ourselves, consider my points above. Fantasy baseball gives an interesting approximation at value in a vacuum, when scarcity and talent are the only relevant considerations. That, I like to tell myself, excuses what can otherwise be called pure fun.