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Roto Arcade: Stream Ethics

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In general, when we make pitching suggestions for tomorrow's games, readers don't respond negatively. Unless we recommend a pitcher who's facing one of the New York teams. Then a bunch of people who spell exclusively with numbers and capital letters like to offer feedback. But in most cases, readers don't have a problem with pitching suggestions.

However, if we use the word "streaming," a certain type of owner snaps. The term refers to the practice of adding and dropping pitchers every day in order to get the greatest possible number of starts. You can do it at other positions, too, and you can certainly do it in other fantasy sports. But when we talk streaming in baseball leagues, we're usually talking about pitchers. In order to employ the strategy successfully it helps to draft a dominant offense – savvy streamers often spend their early draft picks exclusively on hitters – and a collection of closers. Streamers intend to control the hitting categories, then take wins, strikeouts, and usually saves. As we discussed weeks ago, this approach can work particularly well in leagues without transaction or game limits, though it's hardly an unbeatable strategy.

We're not going to discuss streaming countermeasures today, however. Today, for the first and hopefully final time, we're going to discuss the ethics of streaming. This is a recurring topic in feedback from readers. The anti-streaming emails usually look something like this:

To me, streaming is a ridiculous way to play, and I'm not planning on being in a league with anyone doing it anytime soon. As far as I'm concerned, it's ruined Yahoo! public leagues. A move limit, even in the 100 range, would work. All my custom leagues have move limits, except football where it doesn't matter. It's just too bad that the Yahoo! "experts" are now writing about it as a legitimate strategy. – Tracey M.

Most of the emails actually contain a little more invective. Tracey was thoughtful and lucid. After mentioning the anti-streaming sentiment a few days ago, the pro-steaming lobby responded. Those emails were equally spirited:

Anti-streamers are idiots. League settings can easily be put in place to make streaming all but impossible, and if they aren't put in place, it's the commissioners fault or a tacit acknowledgement that this strategy is allowable. It's not like it's a fool-proof plan, it has its pitfalls just like any other risky strategy. Tell those writers to @#*! … – Joshua S.

So clearly it's a divisive issue. My opinion on the subject is very close to Joshua's, but without the idiot-thing and the @#*!ing. Whether you're playing in a custom or public league, if the settings allow for streaming, then it's really not a sinister strategy. It's also a tactic that you can count on several owners using in a competitive public head-to-head league. This might be annoying, but, like intentional walks or pickoff attempts in real baseball, it's hardly unethical.

Still, I can empathize with Tracey. In a free public league, you might find it ridiculous that owners are willing to make daily transactions, often at absurd hours, in order to gain a discernable yet not overwhelming edge. While it doesn't take much time on a given day to make two or three add/drops, over the course of a fantasy season the minutes add up. It's a commitment. Here we get to the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Or maybe it's an $800 gorilla. This gorilla, of course, is the league prize. The amount of time and energy you devote to a fantasy league should have some relationship to the actual stakes. If pride and a virtual trophy are enough for you, great. Go crazy. Add and drop like it's 1978 and you're George Steinbrenner. But for some owners, the payout needs to justify the effort. I suspect Tracey is one of those owners.

Before we go any further, it should be stated for the record – formally and unequivocally – that Yahoo! Sports, its corporate partners, its fantasy experts, Larry Biel, and basically everyone else connected to the site are disgusted by wagering. Seriously. We're disgusted. It sickens us. Blech. Unless of course it's done legally in a place where gambling is sanctioned, in which case we're intrigued. The notion that some of you might play fantasy sports for modest financial stakes, though, is sickening to us. Sickening. We refuse to endorse it. Or even mention it again, ever. Just so we're clear.

But let's consider a totally hypothetical scenario. Let's just say – again, hypothetically – that in one of my fantasy leagues there are 14 owners, and each owner has agreed to wager five cupcakes. Not money, but cupcakes. And each cupcake has a picture of Alexander Hamilton on it. Because we're all staunch Federalists. At the beginning of the season, we give the commissioner all 70 cupcakes to hold until October. When the baseball season ends, the guy who finishes in second place gets 10 cupcakes and the winner gets 60. That's really a crapload of Alexander Hamilton cupcakes. It's so many, in fact, that it might be worth streaming in order to get them, as long as the league settings allow it.

Are we clear?

If you have sufficient incentive to stream, and the rules of your league don't forbid the tactic, then it's a reasonable choice. It's not the only way to win, but it's an approach that has its adherents. Don't judge them too harshly. If someone in your public league is making five transactions each day, OK, they can be mocked a little. If you really detest the strategy, then do what both Tracey and Joshua recommend: create a league with streaming deterrents. Use categories or transaction limits that undermine stream-prone owners. That's simple enough.

And, um … if you happen to be one of those owners trolling for starters in a lawless league, Saturday you might try Anthony Reyes (11.4 percent owned) at Chicago or Boof Bonser (14.4) at Kansas City. On Sunday, consider Micah Owings (18.5) at San Francisco and Tom Gorzelanny (5.7) at Los Angeles.

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