Fantasy Baseball - Why Traditional 5x5 leagues are outdated.

The "fantasy" in fantasy baseball stands for what a team would be like with a collection of stars gathered together, not for an alternate universe where value has no relation to reality. Fantasy baseball is all about capturing players' performance on the field and translating it into a competition. To capture the offensive and defensive sides of play, both hitters' and pitchers' statistics are monitored. Runs, RBIs, battting average, home runs and stolen bases comprise the typical hitting categories, while ERA, strikeouts, wins, WHIP (walks and hits allowed per inning pitched), and saves are the usual pitching categories. At first glance these categories (noted as the traditional 5x5 categories) seem fair enough.

The first two pitchers most commonly drafted are Johann Santana and Randy Johnson. It is hard to argue that these two are not the premier pitchers in baseball. The batters most commonly drafted in the top three are Albert Pujols, Carlos Beltran, and A-Rod. Here again are guys with high name recognition, and great stats, and all in the upswing of their careers. But here is where the traditional 5x5 goes off track.

By far the best current hitter in baseball, steroids controversy notwithstanding, is Barry Bonds. Historically, one could point to Joe DiMaggio, Ty Cobb, or Ted Williams, but presently, there is no argument. Bonds makes the greatest impact in the game. Last year he reached base over 60 percent of the time, thanks to both his high walk rate and .362 batting average. The next closest in on-base percentage was Todd Helton at a mere 47 percent. Before you think, "big deal - that's a difference of 13 percent," know that a similar 13 percent reduction from Helton's number would give you Mark Grudelzniak, or Miguel Cairo. Quite a difference. And that doesn't even bring in Barry's slugging percentage, which is also incredible. The man hit 45 homers in 373 at-bats last year!

What Bonds has been doing to the game is historic in every sense of the word. That his accomplishments have not translated into fantasy sports strips any claim of realism. In a normal 5x5 league, Bonds is usually drafted late in the first round or early in the second. Yahoo has him ranked as number 12. Number 12 for a man who is arguably one of the best hitters ever, and who, as a hitter, dominates the game on a day-to-day basis.

The steals category should also be rethought. In a traditional 5x5 league, the number of steal attempts a player successfully converts gives him his value. This leads to fairly obvious cases of a player being valued much higher in fantasy terms then in real life, even if you do subscribe to the belief that the number of steals a player gets is in fact as telling as his batting average in determining his overall value. For example, Player A steals 20 bases in 40 attempts, as his coach believes strongly in the run. Player B steals only 18 bases, but out of 20 attempts, for a stellar success percentage. Player B obviously helps his team more, and had a more positive impact on the field, but the owner of player A is the more successful fantasy owner.

Why does it matter? So what if fantasy baseball is detached from the reality of baseball? That's why it is called fantasy, right? And everyone hates Bonds anyway. Unfortunately, the vastly divergent criteria used by the fantasy sports world and the real world to evaluate players drives a wedge between the hobby and mainstream sports fandom. Fantasy players become more geeky as the hobby (some would rather call it an obsession) drives itself away from real baseball. The 5x5 system demands that participants learn a new set of rules, and each new rule drives the hobby further away from acceptance and relevance. Bonds is not the best player in baseball. He's actually the twelfth. Alex Sanchez of the Detroit Tigers, a prominent starter on many fantasy teams last year with his 19 stolen bases, was cut from the Tigers this spring. The list goes on, but the point is, fantasy baseball is a reflection of baseball, and derives its legitimacy (if it has any) from its place as an extension of a real-life activity. Fine, a traditional 5x5 player argues, "then why was 5x5 created with these stats to begin with?"

The answer is simple. Fantasy baseball didn't start with the computer age. People actually went through box scores to accumulate the data necessary to play fantasy sports. Imagine the effort taken after each and every game, scanning newspapers, adding hits, then dividing by the total at bats, noting the stolen bases for each and every player on your team. That would take a lot of work. It's obvious why the traditional 5x5 stats were chosen. They were in fact the stats given by the box scores!

Thanks to computers, we are no longer limited by the constraints of newspaper box scores and division on scratch paper. Yahoo! alone offers 54 total categories with which to customize your league. This gives you the power to organize your league in whatever way you believe players in real baseball are really valued.

The most popular version of this is the SABR ("saber") leagues. The popular categories are: runs, RBIs, OBP (on base percentage) and slugging percentage for hitting, and wins, saves, ERA, and WHIP for pitching. This doesn't even begin to touch the value of a team's defense, but since there is no objective or standard way to measure defense, that problem has not been effectively tackled yet. The home team's scorer gives out errors, while defensive range is difficult to pin down as a measurable statistic game to game. It may be some time before Torii Hunter's spectacular home run-saving catch is a part of fantasy baseball, but undoubtedly the statisticians will come up with some method.

However you plan to do it meanwhile, if Bonds isn't the clear first pick in your draft, then your league is long on the fantasy, short on the baseball.

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Sam Neff