Sports Nut

Otto von Bismarck at the Bat

The fight for the soul of my fantasy-baseball league.

This week, I begin my fifth season as a player of fantasy baseball. I humbly submit that I am entering my prime. Over the past five years, I have learned how to plot a smart draft, work around the inevitable injuries, and keep an eye out for the late-season call-up who can spark a flagging team. (I’ll never forget you, Zach Duke of August ‘05!) As this season approached, however, I found myself contemplating an early retirement. It wasn’t that I’d grown tired of the game—on the contrary, I’d spent February happily poring over PECOTA projections. The problem was that a nasty dispute had riven my league—and threatened to destroy it altogether.

What set off this existential crisis? A proposal to switch the league’s seventh pitching category from complete games to holds. The choice between these two relatively obscure statistics may seem like a trivial matter to the uninitiated. Actually, even I didn’t anticipate that it would be a big deal. But by switching from complete games to holds, our league commissioner forced us to confront a fundamental question we had never properly considered: Is it more important that fantasy baseball be fun, or that it be realistic?

Over the years, the league had struck a tacit balance between the two, and had it not been for the brinksmanship of this year’s commissioner, this dispute might never have come about. As is the case with most fantasy-baseball leagues, ours is a democracy, though were our unwritten rules to be set down, they’d look more like the Articles of Confederation than the Constitution. The commissionership rotates from player to player each year, and in essence he is merely a functionary: He has the power to veto lopsided trades, for instance, but the league can override that veto with a simple majority vote.

This year, the league commissioner is my college roommate Simon, who has been playing fantasy with friends from his hometown of Port Washington, N.Y., for more than a decade. This is not Simon’s first stint as commissioner nor his first brush with controversy. The last time he held the office, he brought with him a theory of the unitary executive that would have made Dick Cheney’s look meek by comparison. Here’s how he described his first term in office, in a recent e-mail to the league that served as his second inaugural address:

A few years back, as many of you remember, I approached the commissionership of this league with the realpolitik that was the hallmark of Otto von Bismarck’s tenure as chancellor of Prussia, and then later, Germany. This “iron and blood” philosophy led to a couple of major initiatives, first and foremost, the timely arrival of all league funds prior to the start of the league.

Getting the league finances in order had been a major accomplishment, and, as a result, Simon was remembered by most members as an enlightened despot. Emboldened by the achievements of his first term, however, he endeavored to make more drastic changes during his second.

Traditionally, our league has used seven hitting categories and seven pitching categories; the higher you rank in each category, the more points you’re awarded, and the guy with the highest cumulative point total at the end of the season wins. The titanic change that Simon envisioned? Dumping complete games from the list of pitching categories in favor of holds, an arcane statistic that’s awarded when a middle reliever comes into a game and doesn’t cough up the lead.

Major changes to our league are typically put to a vote. Simon made a show of respecting this convention, but when holds failed to carry the day in a ballot measure, he simply instituted them by fiat. The responses to Simon’s move were swift, profanity-laced, and almost uniformly ungrammatical. But the message was nevertheless clear: The other managers were apoplectic that Simon had thwarted the will of the people. They also really, really liked complete games.

The argument for using the complete game as a fantasy-baseball category is that complete games are fun. Even the CGs fiercest supporter didn’t make the case that the complete game is a good measure of a player’s skill. While it’s certainly an accomplishment any time a pitcher throws a CG, in the era of the pitch count, it has become increasingly rare for a starter to last all nine innings. Whether a pitcher earns a CG has as much to do with the state of the bullpen as it does with how much gas he has going into the ninth. It’s like the pitching equivalent of the grand slam—you have to be able to hit the ball out of the park to get one, but you also have to come up with the bases loaded.

No one has ever won the complete game category because of their fantasy-baseball acumen; you win CGs by luck. But getting a CG is undeniably a blast. There is nothing quite like the rush of realizing one of your pitchers is headed into the ninth having thrown just 98 pitches—so long as he doesn’t put anybody on base, the CG, and the big spike in points that comes with it, is surely yours. Last year, the team that won the category had 12 CGs; I finished second, with nine, having paid no attention to the category all season long.

The hold, by contrast, is not fun. It’s like a save, but without the glamour that attends the final inning of a game. No one roots for holds. Major League Baseball doesn’t recognize them, and most fans aren’t even aware they exist. But holds do make you pay attention to middle relievers. In the past, my league has used six pitching categories in addition to complete games: wins, losses, saves, ERA, strikeouts, and WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched). This means that while starters and closers are highly sought after, only the elite middle relievers—the Hideki Okajimas and Joba Chamberlains—are typically on anyone’s roster. But if fantasy is a test of how well you know baseball, should you really be able to dismiss a group of players so key to real-world success?

Simon argued no, and, I confess, I shared his opinion, which I guess makes me his Albrecht von Roon. For Simon and me—and I think for many players of fantasy—the game long ago stopped being “fun.” I invest an unhealthy amount of time and energy in my fantasy team; its successes buoy my spirits, certainly, but its failures can ruin my day. In this sense, fantasy has become something of a misnomer—it suggests an escapist pursuit, when this league is in fact very much a part of my everyday reality. There are more edifying, more useful ways I could spend my time. But if I’m going to spend hours reading up on Kelvim Escobar’s supraspinatus, I at least want to be able to entertain this fantasy: that if Theo Epstein were to be hit by a bus tomorrow and John Henry decided to shake things up and bring in someone from outside the organization, I might be a plausible candidate for the job. If I went in there and prattled on about the importance of letting Red Sox starters go the full nine, no way I’d make it to the second round of interviews.

Running a fantasy team will always be at best a rough approximation of what it’s like to run a real one. Because it’s based purely on statistics, fantasy distorts the value of players who might dominate a certain category. If a real-world GM put together a team with Mariano Rivera, Takashi Saito, Brad Lidge, and Kerry Wood—as one player in my league has—he’d be run out of town on a rail. Still, in an era when no front office is complete without a sabermetrician, managing a fantasy team can feel close to what the guys in the big leagues do—if you could only make a few changes to how your fantasy league is scored …

Alas, that’s not how the majority of the managers in our league saw it. Simon, recognizing he didn’t have the political capital to push his change through—and, indeed, that he was flirting with being deposed—struck a conciliatory note and reinstated the old league settings. But if I know Simon, this is far from over. The whisper campaign for a splinter league next season has already begun. We’ll use holds instead of complete games. No second utility spot. Fielding percentage. Watch your back, Epstein.