ROTISSERIE: Top-secret league-winning algorithm unveiled

As baseball analytics becomes increasingly complex, it can easily become a daunting proposition for a fantasy baseball competitor to come up with a reasonable competitive edge. If only there was a simple method—some basic assessment—we could track that would give us an advantage, putting us in regular contention for the league title. What if I told you there is a straightforward measurement that most of your opponents likely fail to monitor and is key to winning in virtually all fantasy baseball formats? And what if I told you it was as easy as counting how many times your (and your opponents’) hitters go to the plate?

You have one job
As fantasy “GMs” and “scouts,” it can be easy to get confused about what our job is. We often get into the mindset of “finding the best player.” Of course that is part of the battle, and it may well be a league-winning mantra in sim-type games. But the true mission of a fantasy baseball competitor in most other formats is to identify the best players who are going to get the most playing time. While the mantra of “draft skills, not roles” is immensely beneficial to follow, if a regular role fails to materialize, we must have an alternate plan or we’re dead in the water. In fact, the corollary to that mantra may well be "as talent (in the pool) becomes scarce, stockpile role."

WONK wakeup call
In our Writers Only Keeper league (WONK), created last year in order to research and discuss various keeper-league strategies, Brian Slack’s team had quietly built an insurmountable lead by the end of July. I had been traveling a lot in the spring and though I had been actively managing my team, I had not been closely monitoring what other teams had been doing. Finally with a little extra time on my hands around mid-summer, I figured I better dig into what Brian had been doing that made his “Gimme Slack” team so much better than the entries fielded by everyone else.

With more than one-third of the season remaining, Gimme Slack had built an astronomical 21-point lead over their closest pursuer. An examination of the GS roster revealed a solid collection of both hitters and pitchers, but nothing that stood out as far as Brian having run the table on talent by any means. So how the heck is he doing it, I asked myself?

As I dug deeper, I decided to take a look at something that has long been an armchair theory of mine, especially in single-league (AL/NL-only) formats. That is, I looked at plate appearances. (At bats also works, but because WONK uses OBP instead of BA, I figured PA would be most sensible.) Sure enough, just as Gimme Slack was absolutely crushing it in total points, they were also blowing away the field in plate appearances. Not only did Gimme Slack have roughly 350 more PA than any other team at that point, but my sixth-place entry trailed by more than 550 batting opportunities.

I made a vow from that day forward through season’s end to try to lead the league in plate appearances. Just as my team proceeded to vault from tenth in PA to fifth by season’s end, it also climbed from sixth in the overall standings to a third-place finish, just a point out of second.

Don’t whiff on waivers
Another area I looked at was free agent acquisitions where Gimme Slack was also running away with the highest total. This seems to make sense, as one of the biggest problems we run into as fantasy (and real) GMs is the inability to let go of a narrative. That is, we fall in love with our players and are unwilling to part with them, even as evidence piles up in support of such a maneuver. It appeared that Gimme Slack was regularly churning disposable parts in an effort to continually keep hot hands in the lineup as the season progressed. He was not doing it with extravagant FAAB bids, but by regularly procuring seemingly nondescript parts that were, for whatever reason, getting significant real-life opportunity at the time.

Casting a net
At the conclusion of the season, I decided to cast a wider net, looking at various leagues in an effort to test my theory. The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational is a fun industry-wide competition that began a couple years ago in which pundits around the country compete for bragging rights. With 315 competitors spread across 21 15-team leagues in 2019, that seemed like a sensible place to examine.

Sure enough, I found that 11 of the 21 TGFBI league winners led their league in at-bats (plate appearance totals were not available). Three more teams ranked second. That means 67 percent of the teams who managed to finish in the top-two in ABs ended up winning their leagues.

Searching further, I conducted a random sampling of twenty 12-team NFBC Rotowire Online Championship leagues in order to see if the results were any different when the league is not comprised entirely of industry "experts." Nine of 20 league winners ranked first in total accumulated AB, while five more league winners ranked second. That gives us 70% of random league winners ranking in the top-two in at-bats.

What about pitching?
Pitching, of course, is half the battle in most fantasy formats, so how could a methodology that is only impacted by hitters have such a strong correlation to a team’s overall performance? For one thing, most Roto-style fantasy leagues tend to use more quantitative categories for hitters (BA/OBP only) than pitchers (ERA, WHIP, etc.), which makes the accumulation of hitters who are getting significant playing time a critical maneuver.

Winners Watch
I believe that what this really comes down to is a yardstick for being attentive to your team. By mandating that your team does not fall off the pace in PA/AB, you force yourself to make tough decisions with underperformers, especially early in the season. As you do this with your hitters, you will inevitably strive to keep your pitching staff clicking on all cylinders, as well. So, I encourage you to try to set the pace in AB/PA in your fantasy league this year and see what kind of results follow.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.