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Saturday 16th Dec 2017

The Conundrum

I was talking with my Wednesday golf partner, Brent Harrah, while we were playing a month back. We were discussing the OJ Simpson docudrama that was airing on TV, and Brent and his wife were digging it, while my wife, Diane and I thought it was beyond boring.

But, what I discovered with Brent, and then talking to a few other folks his age (he is 31 to my 63) is that most of the next generation liked the show a lot because they sort of remember the Bronco chase and ensuing trial of the century, but never really knew the details. Obviously, this was a different experience than that of Diane and me, who watched the whole messy affair on television.

So, cut to my Scoresheet team, where my mate in the Murphy League and RotoWire brainchild Jeff Erickson found himself with a treasured surplus of shortstops. Erickson had Xander Bogaerts and Corey Seager on his roster, and since we were approaching freeze list Friday, he offered a shortstop around for something “significant.”

I made an offer, but in the end, Jeff was able to swap off Seager for Chris Sale, which struck me as lopsided, and whereas I am never one to protest a trade, I am more than vocal with my opinion.

I asked Jeff about it—trading arguably the best pitcher in the American League for a guy with less than 150 at-bats—and he said this was commensurate with other offers he received, and even noted a few to me.

This struck the slowly turning into an old man (#iambecomingabesimpson) part of me, and over the LABR and then Tout Wars weekends, I found myself asking a number of my industry mates, both from my generation, and then Brent’s, what they thought about the swap.

The most cogent and interesting response was actually from my Mastersball mate, Brian Walton (of my generation), who noted “If they were both in an auction today, they would probably fetch just about the same price.” Brian also noted—at least before Seager’s spring injury—that both players would likely be gone by the start of Round 4. Both of which are probably true.

But, aside from that lovely theorem, I found an interesting generation gap in talking to my industry counterparts, and I think that points to changes in the way fantasy ball is played, in that younger players—say those of Brent’s generation—are much more willing to give up the potential safety of Sale in favor of the potential, despite the risk, of Seager.

The more I discussed with my mates, the more I wondered, and the more I wondered, thoughts about the evolution of fantasy baseball and more important, baseball on the field cropped up. As a result, I put together some numbers and questions to both understand and contextualize my colleague’s words and opinions, and see just how different the game is viewed at its core with respect to said risk management.

When I started playing rotisserie baseball, in 1988, there were no reserve lists with prospects or Ultra Leagues. In fact, in my home league, when we finished our auction in 1989, we allowed for a reserve list for a first time, and I made my top pick Ben McDonald, the then LSU #1 prospect whom it was speculated would be signed by the Orioles (it was an AL-only league, so I took the gamble).

That move initially rankled my league mates, who protested that we could not draft amateurs, although when I pointed out the rules said nothing about from where reserve picks could be drawn, they dropped the protest and started nabbing prospects themselves.

I lucked out that year, as McDonald was drafted by the Orioles, and got an August call-up even, but that was not the norm as even then most prospects still got two or three years in the minors before they even got a look at live major league hitters or pitchers.

And, with that, it took a while as players might make the roster, but another year or two and then a starting gig would come. The bottom line was in a game where at-bats and innings were everything—and success within that construct was critical—rookies in general made bad choices when building a fantasy roster and reserve list to compete in the current year (though as Ultra Leagues evolved, selecting younger crapshoot players has become beyond the norm).

That is because some confluence of age, experience, skill, and opportunity was a lot more fleeting in a world where aging Mike Gallego would get playing time every day over Kolten Wong.

That was the rule of thumb for a decade, and then Albert Pujols appeared in 2001 and showed us that sometimes a player is indeed so advanced at a young age, he can just do it all from the get go.

Pujols—who was not a first rounder when he came up, but did open the door to the possibilities—whet the appetites of fantasy players all over with the promise of guys like Josh Hamilton and Jeremy Hermida and Gordon Beckham and Sean Burroughs and other seemingly first round killer MLB June draft selections whom it was hoped could replicate Pujols’ success.

In thinking about this, about the fact that fantasy baseball is now a pretty well-established 25-years old, and that the generation who knew about OJ, but did not remember the details, it occurred to me that there is a gap that has appeared between those Boomers who started playing before the internet and smart phones, and the GenXer’s who have grown up with commissioner services, ADP, and the promise of another Mike Trout and Jose Fernandez. Note: A lot of those participating are too old to be GenX’ers, and not quite old enough to be Boomers. They are sort of Tweeners, but for the purposes of this piece, I lumped the generations together.

The Poll

At the suggestion of Larry Schechter, six-time Tout Wars champ and author of Winning Fantasy Baseball, I ran a poll of the Touts to get a little data and see if my notions of differences in generational strategy had any validity.  So, I sent a simple poll to the Touts (of which there are about 70 when we consider all five leagues) asking whether they would make the Seager/Sale swap. I got 32 responses to three questions:

1. Was the trade of Corey Seager for Chris Sale a good one?
2. Would you make the trade?
3. How old are you?

In support of the question, I noted that the Scoresheet League, in which the trade was made, allows for eight soft keepers plus one rookie we can protect in the 19th round. For the uninitiated, a soft eight—in the 24-team Murphy League—allows owners to freeze less than the limit of eight. Those teams who choose that path then draft out of the free agent pool and throw backs until all 24 teams have eight players, and then the draft proper begins. And, part of the value in swapping Seager was that the shortstop still qualified as a rookie, and as such could be carried as a 19th round pick. That means the team owning the rights to the young Dodger could freeze him as a ninth Major Leaguer, buried in Round 19.

Scoresheet is a head-to-head format, and is a keeper league, so obviously trading for this year as opposed to building for the future would always be a consideration. But for the purposes of my questions, I asked folks to think in that context of Brian Walton. Was the talent swap even in their opinion, and bearing that in mind, was it worth the risk?

Of the 32 respondents, 12 said it was a good trade, though only 10 said they would make the swap, while the age range ran from 28 to 65 years of age.

And, within those constructs, the average age of those who thought the deal was good and they would make it is 38.15 while the average age of those who would not make the trade is 56.33, meaning those of Brent’s “I just missed OJ” generation are much more willing than those of my “I am drinking more Maalox every day crowd” to take the plunge.

So, then the question(s) become(s) what had brought on this change in basic strategy from those of us who knew OJ Simpson first as a 2002-yard running back with the Bills, while the GenX’ers see him in an orange jump suit?

I think there are a couple of reasons for this change.

First, the number of rookies who are afforded an opportunity to play—and now start—at the Major League level has changed dramatically since my first year of rotoball in 1988. For, if we review the chart below--with numbers culled from Baseball-Reference--we can see how the number of rookies making an MLB debut has increased from my first year of play to last season.

While determining what years would be representative, I did indeed start with 1988 and then selected a few other seasons to compare and contrast. The seasons and thoughts are below.

  • 1988: My first year playing roto ball.
  • 1992: Year before expansion, as a means of comparison.
  • 1993: Year of expansion, with a major jump in promotions.
  • 1998: Last year of an expansion.
  • 2001: The debut of Albert Pujols.
  • 2010: Ten years after.
  • 2015: Because I noticed so many rookies being promoted, which is what triggered all this mess.
Year Hitters Debuting Pitchers Debuting Total
1988 141 86 227
1992 162 77 239
1993 203 104 307
1998 208 105 313
2001 199 116 315
2010 203 117 320
2015 227 150 377

In looking at those numbers, the obvious point of interest is that 150 more players tossed their first pitch or swung the bat for the first time in 2015 as opposed to 1988. We do have to take into account the roster expansions of 1993 (adding the Rockies and Marlins) and again in 1998 (with the addition of the Diamondbacks and Rays) creating the present 30-team model.

Interestingly, the big jump did seem to occur with the 1993 expansion, which pushed the number of debuts over the 300 mark for the first time, while oddly just five years later, and with the addition of those final two squads, the gross number barely ticked up.

Over the past five years, however, the number of debuts has jumped by 20% of the total pool, a huge increase in players and opportunities.

Furthermore, when we think to last year and Kris Bryant, Carlos Correa, Kyle Schwarber, Aaron Nola, and of course Corey Seager, it is hard to remember one season that included so many potentially prominent and dominant first-year players.

So, certainly the player pool, and more important, the reserve lists like that of Jeff Erickson, present the opportunity that make that risky play of swapping a solid starter for some serious everyday counting statistics.

The Observations

So, what do we conclude from all this?

Before attempting to address this, I believe there is one more factor influencing the GenX’ers and their apparent willingness to part with a steady star for a potential one.

My parents were of the post-depression generation that told us to go to college, get a job, stay with the company for 40 years and retire with a watch and a nice pension. But, keep life safe and secure, always knowing what lies ahead.

That worked largely for Boomers, but for the next generation, who grew up as clever and ubiquitous terms like “down-sizing” and “re-engineering” were created to mask the fact that the company was really cutting staff, there was a shock in discovering the corporate world was not nearly as safe as our parents advised.

Though I would need Margaret Mead or Louis Leakey to analyze and validate the anecdotal aspects of my sociological observations, for now it seems that the Boomers, raised under the aegis of living life carefully and indeed mitigating as much risk as humanly possible, would covet the ownership of Sale.

Conversely, the GenExers who now play fantasy ball—and often grew up with it as a normalcy as opposed to an eccentric game—often graduate from college with huge debt and in what has sometimes been a volatile job market. Couple that with the increased influx of tempting rookies and presence of the daily format and taking a chance on Corey Seager is a gamble, but one to be grabbed at with hope and possibilities as opposed to the fear of making a bad mistake.

In that sense, the game has changed, and perhaps I need to change my game a little accordingly.

In fact, one of the questions I was asked a lot as I prepped for LABR and Tout was “How do you win in such a league?”

To me, the obvious answer is know the rules and know the player pool inside and out. It does help to have drafted with your league mates previously, as that will give a hint as to how your opponents might assess talent and draft.

But, when I think about my biggest successes in playing fantasy ball, they were all the result of taking one or two big risks, be they at the draft table or making a trade. Similarly, it can be easy to be caught flat-footed with your team, both during the season, and season-to-season by adopting a strategy and then sticking with it while never really adjusting to changes in baseball, real and fantasy, both of which are indeed fluid.

So, make sure you do pay attention to trends both short and long term while prepping for your drafts and auctions. And, don’t be afraid to fail big, for if you are willing to fail big, you then stand a better chance of winning big.

I welcome your feedback on the topic. You can comment below, or catch me @lawrmichaels.

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