Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Fantasy Baseball Corrosive?

Usually Baseball Prospectus is the target of pompous rants, which is why Transaction Analysis columnist Christina Kahrl's branding of fantasy baseball as corrosive surprised me, as it reeks of the same arrogance usually displayed by crotchety members of the baseball print world:

So, [Mariners fans] get King Felix, and that is quite simply a beautiful thing. And then we have last night’s departure from the mound. I have to think that when Hernandez came out of the game waggling his elbow, thousands of hearts leapt into thousands of throats, not even all of them belonging to Mariners fans, but to baseball fans. And then this afternoon I get reminded that there’s a huge subset of the audience that could care less about King Felix, Mariner, source of hope, because they’re interested in “F. Hernandez, RHP, Commodity, $25.” Cuz he gets strikeouts, donchaknow, and those are worth points.

Kahrl goes on to write:

I’m fascinated by team construction and player usage patterns, and how real teams try to really win or really get better. For me, there’s something fundamentally wrong when the order of concern isn’t over a great young pitcher’s future and what his possible injury means to him or to his team, but instead first flips to whether or not this injury affects something that, to me, is about as exciting as playing the futures market, and feeling the thrill of putting everything on soy.

Thousands of other baseball fans are also fascinated by team construction, so much so that they are inspired to try their own hand at being a general manager. When Bill Bavasi asks himself, "Where the heck do I find someone to replace Hernandez' innings?" and answers Jake Woods, it's a question of roster construction, which Kahrl finds beautiful, subtle, and nuanced. If Joe or Josephine Rotoplayer asks themselves that same question, and answers Mark Hendrickson, it's corrosive? And this in addition to whatever feelings fantasy players have for the Mariners (though Kahrl doesn't appear to trust that if you play fantasy baseball, you retain any emotional attachment to the game).

Kahrl's Transaction Analysis columns are a big part of why I shell out $40 a year to read BP's premium content (Will Carroll's Under the Knife is also a must read and Future Shock columnist Kevin Goldstein has been an awesome addition to what was already an exceptional group). She's also done great work on the annuals that BP publishes every year during spring training, but Kahrl should take a note from BP Executive Vice President Nate Silver. From his response to the Murray Chass column linked above:

We have found that millions of baseball fans appreciate our perspective on issues like these. At worst, we hope to offer them a choice. At best, we hope to increase the caliber of baseball discussion, and to give them another way to love and enjoy the game.

It's too bad an entertaining and informative writer like Kahrl is posturing like she were a part of baseball's self-appointed Ministry of Culture (see: BBWAA). No one way of enjoying the game is superior to another, but more importantly, the assumption that different perspectives are mutually exclusive is hack-kneed.

Eric Hinz, of Fake Teams put it well:

Would Hernandez be as well known if it weren't for fantasy baseball? God
knows, I listen to enough games on XM to know that the announcers should be
compelled to play fantasy sports just to learn about other teams' players!

With the proliferation of baseball fans, and specifically fantasy players on the internet, coupled with free league management services, fantasy baseball is bringing together baseball fans that would have never crossed paths before. It's also drastically expanded the base of players fans know about, which in turn expands the number of players and teams fans care about. In the reserve draft of my AL-only rotisserie league people used late round fliers on Yu Darvish and Yulieski Gourriel. There is no way fantasy baseball is diminishing people's connection with or enjoyment of the game. Sure it's not for everyone, but it's far from corrosive.


John said...

Great article Kyle.

As a roto guy, I'm not afraid say in Christina’s defense – fantasy sport is driving sabermetric theory more than I would like, and there is a corrosive element there. When Karl talks about the subtlety of roster moves, she’s essentially talking about how uneven pieces fit together, which thy cynics derisively label as “chemistry”.

Roto encourages a different kind of thinking – that performance is linear, and that more is always better. That’s not the case in reality, only in fantasy sports, where the players don’t actually interact with each other, and where we care about adding up stats and not winning games.

For instance, I can the following scenario unfolding for Karl:
1. She praises a slick little move a team made
2. She gets email criticizing her take backed by statistics that ‘prove’ a different player should have been given a chance, because his minor league stats translate into 30 more points of EQA.
3. She looks at that email and thinks – no, that person isn’t the right fit for their role.

Does fantasy baseball have a lot of good effects? Absolutely, and I would argue that BP has benefited more from them than anyone. But are there some corrosive effects too? I think so. They’re more subtle, but they’re there, and I think it’s a good idea to pay a little attention to them.

Kyle Eliason said...

I think your criticism is better aimed at fans not recognizing the limitations of performance analysis, and isn't directly related to fantasy baseball and the commoditization of players. There's some overlap, but I don't think they're mutually inclusive.

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