How Does Fantasy Baseball Work?: In Simple Terms

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Believe it or not, fantasy baseball is played by many millions of digital team managers every season, and the hobby has enjoyed consistent growth since its inception in the 1980s. We often are asked, In reality, how does fantasy baseball work? We’re finally getting around to it.

To the point, fantasy baseball is a game where people act as general managers (and/or owners, if you will) of virtual baseball teams. Each team “manager” competes against a group of other individuals with their own teams, or in a league of 8 or more such teams, filled with real-life players.

Fantasy points (for Rotisseries leagues) or wins or losses (for head-to-head leagues) are determined by daily performances of baseball players, most often active Major League Baseball players, on a daily basis, and cumulatively season-long.

These players are selected by the managers prior to a real MLB season, in a draft. (For a different style, see the “Keeper League” section at bottom). Such a draft can be “live,” meaning one pick at a time by actual managers just like real baseball drafts; or “auto pick” where managers rank players they want in order of preference, and a computer then fills rosters.

How Fantasy Baseball Operates

There are 2 primary types of fantasy baseball leagues: Rotisserie, or head-to-head.

Rotisserie baseball league teams accumulate statistics (and therefore points) from the active players on their roster, for an entire season. The standings are determined at season’s end in order of who accumulates the most points based on what each player accomplished, e.g. base hits, batting average, strikeouts, etc.

Head to Head fantasy baseball league teams face each other on a weekly basis, with statistics accumulated the week that 2 teams face each other, to determine who gets a single Win, single Loss, or (sometimes) a Tie for that week.

In Head to Head leagues, there is a schedule for when each team will face another on which particular week(s). As you can imagine, these contests are truly between just 2 people and the competition between them can be fierce ~ especially late in the week as fewer games remain in which to accumulate stats.

That format is a series of weekly sprints. Rotisserie baseball, on the other hand, is a marathon. There are no wins and losses from teams competing directly against all other teams in Rotisserie. Instead, the group of teams compete for the most points based on predetermined statistical categories.

Let’s examine an average week as if you managed a team, in each type of league.

Rotisserie Fantasy Baseball Primer

In Rotisserie baseball, it’s a marathon for managers to roster the players who will record the best stats in a predetermined number of categories. Whoever has the most points at season’s end is the champion.

Usually, 10 categories count: batting average, runs scored, runs batted in, home runs, and stolen bases on the offensive side; and for pitching, wins, earned run average, WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched), strikeouts, and saves.

Let’s say there are 12 teams playing. Whoever finishes with the best stat in any one category would get 12 points at the end of the season. Whoever had the worst finish in that same category would only get 1 point. Basically, the better you fare in each category, the more points you get compared with other teams.

Standings can change every day based on how teams did on a single day. Perhaps MLB players “on” your team slugged 4 home runs on a Wednesday to bump you to 3rd place in that stat. He would hold 10 points for that category should he remain in that place at season’s end.

Or, say a manager has a pitcher who got shelled in a single inning for 7 runs. The ERA of Rotisserie teams is based on the performance of players a team had in the lineup that day. If that pitcher was starting, his poor performance would hurt the manager’s overall ERA, and hence result in fewer points.

This is all fine to monitor how your team is playing as a season progresses. However, the only statistics that matter are those once the season is completed.

Prior to that, managers can try to improve performance in certain statistical categories by either trading players with another manager, or grabbing players who are not yet on a roster (commonly called the waiver wire, or free agent wire).

On a day-to-day basis, before games begin, Rotisserie managers choose which players to “start” and therefore have their statistics count. He also must choose to not start players, e.g. hold them on the bench, and the performance of these players do not count for determination of the standings.

Managers could choose to make roster changes every day,  but it is not required, like it pretty much is for Head-to-Head leagues.

Head to Head Fantasy Baseball Primer

The winner of a Head-to-Head league is a team that ends with the highest winning percentage compared with the other teams; or who won a postseason tournament of the teams that finished at or near the top during regular season to qualify for these playoffs.

Those wins and losses are gained by weekly performances, often starting Monday morning and ending Sunday night. At the end of all games on a given Sunday night, whichever team had the better stat in each category, compared with his opponent that week, gets a win, while the other team gets a loss.

In other words, you either get a Win if you had more strikeouts; or a Loss if you had fewer stolen bases.

Then managers re-adjust lineups for the next morning to begin a full new week, against a new opponent. Whatever stats his players got the week before no longer matter. Only stats of players who were in that starting lineup on any given week count toward helping get wins and losses.

Statistical categories used for head to head are usually the same as the 10 noted above for Rotisserie, called 5×5 leagues. There are leagues that compete counting more or fewer stat categories, to be called 4×4, 6×6, etc.

Predominantly, the number of hitting and pitching stat categories are the same. But leagues have been arranged where there are 6 batting cats, for instance, and only 5 for pitching.

Where Did Fantasy Baseball Come From?

Games focused on letting fans use real player stats to simulate competition between themselves is well over a century old. The first surfaced in the late 1800s, usually involving coin tosses, dice rolls, or spinners to randomly simulate play.

By the 1960s, a tabletop board game called Strat-O-Matic began to catch fans’ attention.  Strat-O-Matic assigned a card for real Major League players, and used statistical research to develop play as close to replicating real baseball as possible. It was close enough that players could feel like they were really acting like a baseball manager ~ making roster, lineup and trade decisions that could affect game results.

Then a couple of things happened. First, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a deep interest for baseball statistics blossomed, due to a small group of sportswriters and very dedicated fans. Most of them were aware of Strat-O-Matic, and gained interest in developing a similar game between them.

Finally, a group of journalists set a meeting in 1980 at the La Rotisserie Francaise restaurant in New York City. There, magazine editor and writer Daniel Okrent laid out the concept, including the scoring system, and fantasy baseball was born (and named for that restaurant).

Then the Internet exploded, and websites developed to automatically track and crunch baseball player and team statistics easily and quickly. This resulted in big online fantasy baseball leagues like those still found on Yahoo!, CBS Sports, and ESPN.

Fantasy Baseball for Fun vs. for Money

It’s important to note that fantasy baseball leagues are arranged with differing intent. Some, like the free Yahoo! Fantasy Baseball, are aimed at friends and family members playing for fun and bragging rights, and nothing else.

Others, often private leagues and not through the major national sites, charge managers fees for entry, and even per transaction. Many have salary caps to team “owners” in essence act as general managers, trying to get the most talent on a roster at the lowest possible price.

Players are assigned values depending on their stats, so managers have to decide whether to spend $50 on Mike Trout but have little left over for the rest of the team; or spread out the cost with many average-level players.

These leagues usually have prize money to play for at the end of the season, whether it’s a pot just for the champion, or various cuts for the top 2 or 3 teams. These prizes can get well into thousands of dollars.

What is a ‘Keeper League’ in Fantasy Baseball?

A keeper league means fantasy baseball managers keep their players season-to-season, just like in the Major Leagues, according to how many spots they can reserve on their roster. In these leagues, savvy managers will closely follow minor league baseball to try to grab the next superstar before other managers.

That way, that manager can enjoy years and years of solid production from a young player who wouldn’t cost as much to purchase on the market compared with a seasoned veteran who everyone knew about.

In non-keeper leagues, which is most of them, all players are assigned to a team only for the Major League season ~ and then they are all free agents ready to draft again the following year.

Related Question

Question: Hasn’t fantasy baseball been mentioned in popular culture?

Answer: Yes, notably in the 2007 motion picture “Stepbrothers,” as well as in “Knocked Up”in 2010, and “Fantasy Man” in 2017.

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