What Can You Learn from Fantasy Baseball?

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.

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4 Comments on “What Can You Learn from Fantasy Baseball?”

  1. You make a lot of good points regarding the relationship between fantasy baseball vs. baseball in the “real” world. It is interesting to note, too, though, the increasing influence that modern statistical analysis, a by-product of fantasy baseball, has had on real-world roster composition, especially on some of the more enlightened teams like the Red Sox. Now, stat-heads populate not only fantasy baseball leagues, but the front offices of real teams as well, a development that some so-called traditionalists rue. Regards, Bill

  2. sportsphd Says:

    True. Stats have exploded everywhere. Millsy, over at Prince of Slides and Fantasy Ball Junkie, does interesting and serious stat stuff focused just on fantasy baseball. I don’t remember anything like that existing when I first began to play. Similarly, the A’s first moved into serious statistical analysis in the mid 1990’s. Now, you can hear Theo Epstein talk about how the Red Sox have better proprietary fielding metrics than the ones widely available on the internet. Sometimes, the world changes very quickly.

  3. Millsy Says:

    Thanks for the shout out, PhD. Fantasy sports has even recently found some interest in academic research in the sport management realm, and has helped with questions about the psychology of bias and gambling behavior. I think it has the potential to work as a platform for the ever so trendy field of “experimental economics” as well, but shhhh, that’s my idea (don’t tell any economists). As for satistical analysis, someone out there actually has an NSF grant for using fantasy in education as a tool/platform for teaching statistics. An idea that I would like to extend on myself when I begin teaching.

    In terms of my own stuff, I’m just addicted. We try to do novel things over at Fantasy Ball Junkie, pushing the limit of what fantasy can tell us and what we can tell others about fantasy. And on top of it all, as you said, it’s FUN!

  4. sportsphd Says:

    Ah, Millsy, you’ve been around long enough you don’t have to call me PhD anymore. Call me Sports.

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