For millions of sports fans, spring signals the start of the baseball season…and the fantasy baseball season. To play fantasy baseball (which dates back to 1980, when it was called Rotisserie baseball for the restaurant where the initial league gathered—La Rotisserie Française in New York City), participants select actual Major League ballplayers to populate imaginary teams that compete in virtual leagues.
If you would like to give it a try in 2017, join a league soon because the virtual league season begins when the actual Major League regular season begins on Sunday, April 2, and most fantasy leagues hold their player drafts—which allocate players among the teams—in late February or March. You can join leagues on websites including ESPN.com and Yahoo.com.
To compete at fantasy baseball, it helps to know something about the talents of individual players across Major League Baseball. But to win at fantasy baseball, you will need to know the following shrewd strategies for building a successful fantasy roster…*
“Spend” your top draft picks on hitters, not pitchers. Pitchers are more likely than hitters to get injured, and their fantasy league performance is more volatile even when they are healthy. It’s safer to choose among the best available hitters with your first- and second-round picks in your league’s draft.
Examples: Among the very best fantasy hitters to choose, if you can, are the Los Angeles Angels’ Mike Trout, the Boston Red Sox’s Mookie Betts, the Chicago Cubs’s Kris Bryant and the Colorado Rockies’ Nolan Arenado.
Consider drafting a shortstop and a catcher in the first few rounds. Real Major League teams tend to prioritize defense at shortstop and catcher even if that means they do not end up with very strong batting statistics from players at those positions. But fielding statistics do not matter in most fantasy leagues, only hitting statistics. As a result, there is a chronic shortage of shortstops and catchers who hit well enough to help fantasy teams. That makes the shortstops and catchers who do hit especially valuable—shortstops such as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Corey Seager, the Houston Astros’ Carlos Correa and the Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts…and catchers who hit well, such as the San Francisco Giants’ Buster Posey, the New York Yankees’ Gary Sanchez and the Texas Rangers’ Jonathan Lucroy.
Sly move: If you cannot land a shortstop and/or catcher who compiles impressive fantasy hitting statistics for your team, you might be able to use a fantasy-league loophole to fill these tricky positions with someone who is not really a shortstop or catcher. In many leagues, you can put a player at a position if he appeared in as few as 20 games at that position the prior season or 10 games in the current season. (This varies, so read your league’s rules for details.)
Examples: The Astros’ Evan Gattis qualifies as a catcher in most fantasy leagues this season even though he more often is in the lineup as a designated hitter…the Cubs’ Javier Báez qualifies as a shortstop even though he started more games at second and third base last year…and the Baltimore Orioles’ Manny Machado qualifies as a shortstop even though he usually plays third.
Don’t worry about closers until late in the draft. It is tempting to use a high draft pick to select a big-name closer—a relief pitcher who usually enters at the end of games—to earn your fantasy team lots of saves. But closers are less valuable in fantasy baseball than people tend to think because they generally contribute only in the saves category—they rarely pitch enough innings to help much in the other statistical categories. Also, as many as one-half of closers lose that role each season. If the star closers have all been taken by the time you get around to drafting your pitchers, just pick any closer who still is available as long as he has a firm hold on his team’s closer role. The secret to recording big save totals is simply having lots of save opportunities. Last year, lesser-name closers such as the Tampa Bay Rays’ Álex Colomé and the Texas Rangers’ Sam Dyson were available near the end of most fantasy drafts, for example, and they produced excellent save totals.
As a backup plan, use a late draft pick to grab a relief pitcher who currently is not expected to close games but who arguably is the second-best relief pitcher in a club that might later demote or trade its closer, opening the door for your late-round pick to become a closer.
Examples: The Chicago White Sox’s Nate Jones, the Oakland A’s’ Liam Hendriks, the Atlanta Braves’ Ian Krol, the Nationals’ Blake Treinen or the Miami Marlins’ Kyle Barraclough.
Swipe a base stealer in a middle round of the draft. The stolen base is not a huge part of Major League Baseball these days, but steals still are a category used in most fantasy leagues. Picking up just one or two players who steal lots of bases could help your fantasy team do very well in this category. Top base stealers often still are available between rounds five and 10 of a fantasy draft, sometimes even later.
Example: Milwaukee Brewers’ shortstop/third baseman Jonathan Villar stole 62 bases last year…Cincinnati Reds’ outfielder Billy Hamilton stole 58…and Pittsburgh Pirates’ outfielder Starling Marte stole 47.
Fantasy Baseball for Beginners
Once participants have chosen their fantasy teams based on real Major League ballplayers, the statistics generated by those players during a Major League season determine how well fantasy “team owners” do in their leagues.
ESPN and Yahoo are good places to play. You can form a league with your friends on these sites or join a public league that’s open to anyone. Some leagues are free, while others have entry fees and prize money.
There are many different fantasy baseball league formats, but a season-long “rotisserie” league is a good place to start because this format is widely used and relatively straightforward. Participants earn points based on how well the players on their teams do over the course of the season in specific statistical categories.
For example, if there are 10 “team owners” in a league, the owner whose team hits the most home runs might earn 10 points…the second-place owner might earn nine points…and so on. In a typical “5×5” league, the statistical categories are home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, batting average and stolen bases…and, for pitchers, wins, earned run average, strikeouts, saves and WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched). This can vary, however, so read league rules carefully. The season winner is the team owner whose team earns the most total points across the statistical categories.
Alternative: Another common fantasy baseball format is “head to head,” where players face off against opponents in “games” rather than tally stats over the course of the season.
Fantasy teams generally are constructed by a draft held prior to the start of the Major League Baseball regular season. (Some leagues instead “auction” off players, which can be more complicated for beginners.)
Roster rules vary by league, but a typical league might require that each team consist of nine pitchers, five outfielders, two catchers, one shortstop, one first baseman, one second baseman, one third baseman, two back-up infielders and one additional utility player. Participants usually can alter their rosters during the season by dropping players and signing new ones…and/or trading players with other participants in their league.
*Different fantasy leagues have significantly different formats and use different statistics. The advice provided here is for a common format known as a 5×5 rotisserie league featuring traditional statistics and might not be appropriate for other types of leagues.