Beyond 5x5

Andy Behrens
Yahoo! SportsMarch 30, 2007

In my long and inarguably geeky history of playing various games that simulate baseball, I've valued one thing above all else: realism. That's why I liked Strat-O-Matic. That's why I liked Slugger for Commodore 64. That's why I became briefly obsessed with a game involving 20-sided Dungeons & Dragons dice and a 1979 "Who's Who In Baseball." My friends and I invented it. I'm totally willing to sell the concept and shut those losers out, too.

This desire for realism – and maybe a separate issue with absolute control – is what led me to traditional 5x5 fantasy baseball. But eventually that wasn't enough, either. The next step was to customize a league that rewarded different player traits, those strongly correlated with winning in actual baseball. Among other things, we used OPS for hitters and K/BB ratio for pitchers. The league didn't go completely sabermetric, mostly because we all just really like stolen bases. Who doesn't? If you can't enjoy a Mark Buehrle/Ichiro Suzuki pickoff drama, you're no fan.

Anyway, I've become a devotee of custom leagues. In fact, the Y! Friends and Family League is my only traditional 5x5 mixed configuration this season. The rest of my leagues all have odd quirks, and most of those quirks are intended to enhance competitiveness and realism. Working under the assumption that I couldn't possibly be alone in this, it seemed worth taking a look at the popularity of various non-traditional categories. Thousands of you are managing teams in leagues with custom settings, yet virtually all fantasy content – and everyone's player rankings – are specific to 5x5 play. It's an issue. If you're in a league that uses on-base percentage instead of batting average, Jim Thome (.409 career OBP) suddenly gets a bit more valuable than, say, Carlos Lee (.340).

Maybe your league keeps track of slugging percentage, OBP, holds, and K/9 ratio. That would be reasonable. Those things are all rather important. Looking beyond the ten standard categories, I expected to see a lot of nifty things. Exotic stuff. Stats that suggested many of you were competing in leagues that, like mine, were configured to reward underappreciated yet extremely valuable player traits. Here are the ten most frequently used non-traditional categories in Yahoo! leagues:

1) Hits
2) Complete Games
3) Shutouts
4) Doubles
5) Triples

Exotic? No, not so much. Keep going.

6) Losses
7) Walks for hitters
8) Strikeouts for hitters
9) Innings pitched
10) Walks for pitchers

OK, just one more, because it's that perplexing:

11) Singles

So some of you are in leagues that reward hits, singles, and batting average? Separately? Hmm. If you're looking to create a league that rewards the most important attributes of the best players, you probably shouldn't assign similar value to singles and homers. Strikeouts for hitters and walks for pitchers are reasonable anti-streaming measures. But you're also using innings pitched? Maybe it makes sense as a deterrent to owners who might otherwise just load up on relief pitchers. Don't wins and Ks already do that, though? I'm just not comfortable with league settings that make Miguel Batista (206.1 IP, 8 L, 3 CG in 2006) quite so valuable. Still, I'm familiar with 10x10 and 12x12 leagues with the above categories. They make detainees in secret prisons play them, I hear.

I'm all about winning leagues, though, whatever the settings. The most important point to make is that you shouldn't use standard player ranks for a custom league. Different settings change things substantially. For example, in a league that used the standard categories plus hits, doubles, and triples – and there are probably a bunch of you in such leagues – Grady Sizemore would have been more valuable than Albert Pujols last season. Don't believe me? Here are the numbers:

Grady Sizemore 190 134 53 11 28 76 22 .290
Albert Pujols 177 119 33 1 49 137 7 .331

Grady has him in five categories, and he mauled Albert in three of them: doubles, triples, and steals. Hanley Ramirez would've been fairly close to Pujols, too. He finished the year with 185 hits, 46 doubles, 11 triples, 51 steals, and he tied Albert in runs. If you're drafting in a custom league, it's imperative that you understand how player value is affected. Default ranks don't hold.

Complete games and shutouts are difficult categories to manage because they're so rare. Chris Carpenter and Brandon Webb tied for the MLB lead in shutouts last year … with three apiece. Jason Jennings and Jeremy Sowers were right behind them with two. Gavin Floyd had one. So did Runelvys Hernandez. And Josh Fogg. And Pedro Astacio. And hey, there's Miguel Batista again! It's a category that's nearly unpredictable. If you're in a head-to-head league, most weeks will end 0-0. Complete games are somewhat easier to foresee. If a team has an awful closer, they're probably going to need a few nine-inning outings from their starters. During the horrible reign of Rocky Biddle, the Expos got 17 complete games from Livan Hernandez over two seasons. Last year's league leaders were Aaron Harang and C.C. Sabathia with six each. If you chased Cincinnati and Cleveland closers in 2006, you're not at all surprised.

After digging past singles – which, again, is just a maddening category – we get to a few stats that really make great sense for custom leagues valuing the best traits of the best players:

12) Earned Runs
13) Home Runs allowed
14) OBP
15) Errors
16) Total Bases
17) OPS
18) Holds
19) Hits for pitchers
20) K/9 ratio

Soon after these we get to K/BB ratio, too, a personal favorite and a nice tool for evaluating starters. If your league uses K/BB, follow this guiding principle: Don't touch the denominator! Treat it like a stunningly pretty but oddly tall and deep-voiced woman who hits on you in Vegas: walk away. I'm not saying that walks are exactly like transvestites, they're just …um … OK, the metaphor has broken down. My point is, you don't mess with the denominator. Seems obvious, but people forget. It's important to avoid relief pitchers who issue lots of walks. They can quickly undo all the fine work that, say, the incomparable Ben Sheets (10.55 K/BB in 2006) or the slightly more comparable Curt Schilling (6.54) have done for you.

Home runs allowed are predictable and avoidable. The league-worst pitchers are usually guys like Eric Milton, Ramon Ortiz, Jeff Weaver, and Jason Marquis – although I'm sure that'll improve in Wrigley (guffaw). There aren't too many ownable pitchers giving up a ton of homers, although in recent years Greg Maddux, Dan Haren and Chris Capuano have been exceptionally generous to opposing sluggers.

On-base percentage, which is seriously correlated with run-scoring and all sorts of goodness, is a category that more leagues should embrace. It's about not making outs, which is pretty much the best trait a batter can have. It's relatively easy to figure out who the top OBP guys are, but you need to also know which players are liabilities. Some of them can hurt you severely. In a league that uses OBP instead of batting average, Carl Crawford (.326 career OBP) should not be a first-round pick, and Jose Reyes (.321) is questionable, too. Yeah, I realize that's fantasy blaspheming, and both of them trended upward in OBP last season. But top of the order hitters who don't get on base at a league-average rate will be an incredible drag on your team OBP. Obviously, Crawford and Reyes still have to be owned and picked early, but you should pair them with a Bobby Abreu (.412) or Jason Bay (.390) or someone else who can help make up for their on-base inadequacy.

We tried adding errors as a category in one of my leagues two years ago, thinking that either that or fielding percentage would allow us to account for defense, thus enhancing realism. Then I ruined it by stacking my roster with designated hitters and first basemen, guys who simply don't make errors, yet are not exceptional defensive players. This is really too easy a category to manipulate, and it doesn't tell us anything about the most important defensive attribute: range. Thus, I'm not a big fan, but I do understand why people use it.

I'm a huge fan of holds, however. Solid middle relief is a factor in winning baseball games, and it's nice to represent it in your fantasy stats. The elite middle relievers, guys like Joel Zumaya, Scot Shields, and Dan Wheeler, are usually drafted after the top 12 to 15 closers have gone. This makes sense, since closers are a scarce resource, but there will always be holds available on the waiver wire. They may not be the best holds, but they'll be out there. Plus, premier middle relievers often emerge mid-season. No one drafted Pat Neshek last year, yet few RPs were more useful in holds leagues by the end of last season.

One important detail if holds matter in your league: don't enter the draft thinking that you'll be able to ignore closers and pick up saves mid-season. Nuh-uh. In a holds league, all the pitchers who are likely to inherit closer gigs will be owned. You need to draft them. Pitchers like Wheeler, Mike MacDougal, Rafael Soriano, Matt Capps, and Bob Howry are all excellent candidates to take over game-saving responsibilities, and you won't find any of them on the waiver wire in a holds league.

I'll repeat an earlier thought here, just so we're clear: if you're in a custom league, customize your player rankings. Pre-rank like mad. It may seem obvious, but a startling number of owners will fail to properly account for the non-traditional categories in the league, and you'll gain a huge edge. Congratulations for freeing yourself from the tyranny of 5x5, too. You'll very likely never go back.