Project GOAT review: Building the greatest rotisserie team of the fantasy baseball era

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All of this began with Mike Schmidt

Schmidt was the first nomination in fantasy baseball's first rotisserie auction way back in 1980. At $26, he was also a filthy steal. He led the National League in home runs (48) and RBI (121) by huge margins that season, winning the first of his three MVPs. Schmidt would average 37 homers per year from 1980 to 1987, dominating roto's formative period. 

And somehow, in his biggest power season, he went for just $26. Of course, in that first year, at the first auction, nobody was an expert. Prices were guesses.

Rotisserie's original scoring rules were conceived by writer Dan Okrent, who pitched the concept to various friends and colleagues until he found a small group of curious/willing players. The game itself was named for a New York restaurant frequented by league members, La Rotisserie Francaise (now defunct).

The first roto title was won by co-managers Glen Waggoner and Peter Gethers, who ruthlessly fleeced another franchise in a deal for Omar Moreno. 

Almost immediately, Okrent's concept began receiving national attention. The New York Times wrote about the game in its first season. The league was featured on the Today Show and NPR. Okrent wrote a feature for Inside Sports in the spring of 1981 called "The Year George Foster Wasn't Worth $36." Baseball writers began forming their own leagues, and, during the mid-summer MLB strike in '81, they resorted to coverage of their fake teams. And then it was on

All these years later, fantasy baseball is firmly established as a basic part of the fan experience. The game grew steadily throughout the '80s, then mushroomed in the internet age. Today, millions play. (In fact, you can join a league right now.)

Andy Behrens offers up the best roster he could build from the fantasy baseball era. (Yahoo Sports Illustration/Albert Corona)
Andy Behrens offers up the best roster he could build from the fantasy baseball era. (Yahoo Sports Illustration/Albert Corona)

Project GOAT

To celebrate rotisserie's 40th anniversary, ESPN editor Pierre Becquey — a fantasy legend in his own right — invited a group of twelve baseball writers representing several platforms to participate in a contest he dubbed "Project GOAT." The idea was ostensibly simple, yet, in practice, agonizingly difficult: Assemble the greatest possible fantasy roster from the roto era (1980 to present), without using any year, team or individual player more than once. 

So, hypothetically, if you want to use Rickey Henderson's 130-steal season from 1982, it means: A) you can't use Jose Canseco's 40/40 campaign, because the A's are locked, B) you're out on Rickey's 28-homer, 87-steal season with the Yankees and C) you can't have Robin Yount's ridiculous MVP year (also '82). 

The game is full of brutal choices. Also, we were limited to a maximum of six players per decade, another crushing wrinkle. Basically, the contest was a breeze at the beginning and absolute torture at the end.

I could not have enjoyed it more. 

As Pierre was mid-sentence in his initial pitch to me about this contest, I was already thinking about which Eric Davis season would be most useful. 

Most of us are starved for sports-related diversions right now, for obvious reasons. If that's you, download Project GOAT right here. Maybe see if you can construct a roster to challenge the juggernaut that I managed to assemble. 

Have I mentioned that my all-time squad finished on top of the standings in the first version of this contest? Well, it did — and I gotta say, it was as satisfying a fantasy win as I can remember. If you're interested in a (very) deep-dive into team-building for this project, hit this link to Pierre's recap. But if you simply want to admire the GOATest of the GOATs, here's a tl;dr review of my roster ...

Batters

C Ivan Rodriguez, Tex, 1999 - 116 R, 35 HR, 113 RBI, 25 SB, .332 AVG

C Joe Mauer, Min, 2009 - 94 R, 28 HR, 96 RBI, 4 SB, .365 AVG

Pudge remains the only catcher in MLB history to produce a 20/20 season, and he destroyed both of those marks in the year he did it. His 1999 performance was just stupid. Still, it wasn't actually the no-doubt choice from that year, because everyone was feasting. Pedro won 23 games and struck out 313. Robby Alomar scored 138 runs and drove in 120. Larry Walker hit .379. Shawn Green went 42/20. Mark McGwire crushed 65 homers yet finished fifth in MVP voting. Wild times. 

1B Mark McGwire, STL, 1998 - 130 R, 70 HR, 147 RBI, 1 SB, .299 AVG

3B Alex Rodriguez, NYY, 2007 - 143 R, 54 HR, 156 RBI, 24 SB, .314 AVG

CI Ryan Howard, Phi, 2006 - 104 R, 58 HR, 149 RBI, 0 SB, .313 AVG

It hurt a little to pass on Schmidt's best years, but he of course never approached the raw totals that A-Rod and Howard reached at their peaks. Perhaps not surprisingly, Rodriguez was the only player selected by all twelve managers in the first go-round of Project GOAT; nine used him as a Mariners shortstop, while three of us went with the absurd season above. 

2B Tim Raines, Mon, 1983 - 133 R, 11 HR, 70 RBI, 90 SB, .298 AVG

SS Robin Yount, Mil, 1982 - 129 R, 29 HR, 114 RBI, 14 SB, .331 AVG

MI Roberto Alomar, Tor, 1993 - 109 R, 17 HR, 93 RBI, 55 SB, .326 AVG

Middle-infield is one of the spots where I gained a sneaky edge in this contest because I believe I was the only participant to use Raines at second. It was never his primary position, obviously, but the Expos messed around with him in the infield in his early years. (Card-collecting taught me that much.) He started 36 games at second in '82, carrying that eligibility into the following season, then leading the NL in runs and steals. A wildly underrated all-time great. 

OF Eric Davis, Cin, 1987 - 120 R, 37 HR, 100 RBI, 50 SB, .293 AVG

OF Jose Canseco, Oak, 1988 - 120 R, 42 HR, 124 RBI, 40 SB, .307 AVG

OF Barry Bonds, SF, 1996 - 122 R, 42 HR, 129 RBI, 40 SB, .308 AVG

OF Sammy Sosa, CHC, 2001 - 146 R, 64 HR, 160 RBI, 0 SB, .328 AVG

OF Mike Trout, LAA, 2012 - 129 R, 30 HR, 83 RBI, 49 SB, .326 AVG

UT Larry Walker, Col, 1997 - 143 R, 49 HR, 130 RBI, 33 SB, .366 AVG

Every time I've mentioned this contest to anyone, they reflexively suggest that Bonds' 73-homer season in 2001 is the obvious cornerstone. There's not much question he had a better real-life year than Sosa — he reached base at a .515 clip — but Sammy finished well ahead in runs and RBI while hitting for an identical average. Again: Wild times. 

Eric Davis, under-appreciated rotisserie legend. (Photo by: Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)
Eric Davis, under-appreciated rotisserie legend. (Photo by: Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images)

One of the most challenging aspects of this exercise was the absence of category benchmarks. We all have a pretty decent notion of what it takes to be competitive in, say, batting average, in a deep 12-team mixed rotisserie league. But what sort of average should you shoot for in a league in which you can select from four decades of stellar individual seasons? It was pure guesswork. In the end, I simply tried to keep my team average above .320, ultimately finishing at .322. I was fairly sure that wouldn't win the category — someone was gonna use a vintage Tony Gwynn and/or George Brett and/or Wade Boggs season — but it earned a respectable 7.0 roto points. 

Elsewhere, I kinda crushed the hitting categories: 12.0 points in both runs (1738) and RBI (1665), 11.0 in home runs (566) and 9.0 in steals (425). Power/speed balance was a huge challenge for everyone, unsurprisingly. The team that finished first in stolen bases (508) also finished last in homers (478); the team that led in home runs (596) earned only 5.0 in steals (366). 

[Prep for MLB's return: Create or join a Yahoo Fantasy Baseball League]

Pitchers

P Dwight Gooden, NYM, 1985 - 24 W, 268 Ks, 0 SV, 1.53 ERA, 0.97 WHIP

P Mike Scott, Hou, 1986 - 18 W, 306 Ks, 0 SV, 2.22 ERA, 0.92 WHIP

P Greg Maddux, Atl, 1995 - 19 W, 181 Ks, 0 SV, 1.63 ERA, 0.81 WHIP

P Pedro Martinez, Bos, 2000 - 18 W, 284 Ks, 0 SV, 1.74 ERA, 0.74 WHIP

P Randy Johnson, Ari, 2002 - 24 W, 334 Ks, 0 SV, 2.32 ERA, 1.03 WHIP

P Justin Verlander, Det, 2011 - 24 W, 250 Ks, 0 SV, 2.40 ERA, 0.92 WHIP

P Clayton Kershaw, LAD, 2014 - 21 W, 239 Ks, 0 SV, 1.77 ERA, 0.86 WHIP

P Corey Kluber, Cle, 2017 - 18 W, 265 Ks, 0 SV, 2.25 ERA, 0.87 WHIP

P Blake Snell, TB, 2018 - 21 W, 221 Ks, 0 SV, 1.89 ERA, 0.97 WHIP

Every team's pitching totals in this contest were hilarious, entirely out of line with anything that might be achievable in a typical fantasy season. The rotation above has a combined ERA of 1.98 and WHIP of 0.90, yet those rates earned only 18.0 total roto points (9.0 in each category). 

As you may have noticed, all nine pitchers in my rotation are starters. I ditched saves completely. I wouldn't normally endorse category punting in standard fantasy formats, but, well ... this is definitely not a standard format. In this particular contest, I didn't need to rely on projections to guess at the stats I'd collect from my nine pitchers. Instead, I was able to guarantee top-of-the-ranks scores in two categories by kicking one to the curb. Only one other league manager, ESPN's Dave Schoenfield, used the same approach. We tied at the top in wins (187), finished 1-2 in strikeouts (2348 vs. 2288) and tied for the most total roto points in the pitching categories (43.0). It should be noted that the squad which finished first in saves (147) also ranked dead-last in wins and Ks.

(Just for the record, the first version of my roster included Bobby Thigpen's 57-save 1990 season as well as Edwin Diaz's obnoxious 2018. It seemed to me that everyone in the contest was going to choose from only three or four reliever seasons, so I veered away from saves entirely. Punting: It's cool.)

If you never had the pleasure of watching peak Doc Gooden, here's a taste. He was like a visitor from another world. Wiffle stuff, with velocity. It should shock no one to learn that his '85 season appeared on nine of twelve rosters, tied for the highest usage with Pudge's '99 and Trout's 2012. 

For however long the sports universe is paused, we're gonna need distractions. Project GOAT is a baseball wormhole in which you can lose a day or two (or five). If you think you can topple my crew, download this monster and get to it. 

I still feel like there's gotta be a winning path involving Mark Eichhorn's 1986 season. Someone, please go find it.

Follow Andy on Twitter @andybehrens

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