March 26, 2008
It's important that you get to know Ben Distler.
That might sound like the name of some utility infielder for the Twins, or a dark horse closer candidate for the Rays, or possibly one of the menacing creatures living inside Ryan Freel's head. But it's not. Instead, Distler is just some dude who plays a lot of head-to-head fantasy baseball.
He wins a lot, too. According to Distler's user profile, he's finished in first place in public leagues in each of the past four years.
There's nothing particularly unusual or noteworthy about that, of course. Many of you can make similar claims -- in fact, I'm sure many of you have fantasy credentials that are substantially more impressive.
It's not important that you get to know Distler simply because he's won a bunch of head-to-head leagues; the interesting thing is how he wins them. He does it without home runs, RBIs, runs, and without much consideration given to batting average.
The first 11 rounds of his most recent public league draft went like this:
R1, Jake Peavy
R2, Brandon Webb
R3, CC Sabathia
R4, Dan Haren
R5, Joe Nathan
R6, Francisco Rodriguez
R7, Billy Wagner
R8, Javier Vazquez
R9, Brett Myers
R10, Trevor Hoffman
R11, Jason Isringhausen
So that's 11 pitchers in the first 11 rounds. In public leagues, you can only actually start seven on any given day.
Johan Santana was taken immediately before Peavy, which no doubt crushed Ben. He finally drafted a batter in Round 12, taking Willy Taveras. Then he took Michael Bourn in the 13th, Jerry Owens in the 14th, and Ryan Theriot in the 15th.
He didn't draft a catcher or first baseman at all. Those positions are both occupied by the same player: "--empty--."
Distler is deliberately giving away three categories (HR, RBI, R) and largely ignoring a fourth (AVG) while stacking his team to win six (SB, W, K, SV, ERA, WHIP). He'll carry 14 or 15 pitchers on his roster, including a bunch of benched closers. His draft created a bit of pitching scarcity, which isn't typically an issue in public leagues, and his decision to forgo the power categories left useful players like Jim Thome (99.6 percent owned) and Frank Thomas (67.5) in the free agent pool.
Plenty of fantasy owners find this sort of strategic roster imbalance completely objectionable, just as they find streaming in head-to-head leagues to be unethical, criminally unsportsmanlike, and fundamentally anti-American. They'll tell you in the strongest possible language that Distler's tactics fall well outside the spirit of the game.
But in fantasy leagues, you can reasonably summarize the spirit of the game in one word: Win.
Without violating any of the actual game rules, Ben is playing for 6-4 wins every week. He gets enough of them to qualify for the playoffs in virtually all of his public leagues, and he's amassed a decent collection of virtual trophies.
Would the Distler method work in a hyper-competitive custom league? No, probably not. And I suspect it would be an epic disaster in roto leagues. Ben's strategy relies heavily on the tendencies of public league owners, and somewhat on the element of surprise on draft day. He hasn't actually taken first place in any of the public winner's leagues he's qualified for. If an opponent can just reach the weekly innings minimum with lights-out middle relievers -- guys like Jonathan Broxton and Pat Neshek -- then they can probably take ERA and WHIP. The Distler method obviously leaves you little margin for error.
So I'm not actually recommending that you try it. I've argued its merits with Ben, but I can't really dispute its success in public leagues. I'm bringing it up here as a way to introduce the subject of game strategy, which is something we'll spend a lot of time on throughout the season. Fantasy baseball is a game, and if you're trying to win, you'll need to actively play it. Legally, but strategically.
In the days ahead, we'll discuss head-to-head tactics specifically (you'll find roto tips here). The scoring style doesn't suit everyone. If you're horrified by Distler's approach, then it's probably not for you.
Bonus Coverage: Thanks to Steve-O for pointing the way to Derek Carty's piece on unorthodox strategies. Derek offers a more plausible draft strategy for private competitive leagues. It relies on pitching dominance, but there's at least an illusion of balance. With Distler, not so much.