Commentary

Commish's Court: Islands in the stream

Updated: March 31, 2008, 1:26 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

If you looked at the title of this article expecting to see some sort of homage to Dolly Parton, you've come to the wrong place. That's American Idol's domain. What we're going to talk about here is a strategy known as streaming (also called churning or cycling), which, in my humble opinion, needs to be eradicated from the world of fantasy sports before it brings the whole industry to its knees. But before we can discuss why this practice is pure evil, we must first define it. Simply put: Streaming is the practice of dropping an entire pitching staff and adding an entirely new one on a daily basis.

To understand why constantly shuffling pitchers on and off the roster is so bad, consider the following scenario. Let's say you are playing in a 5X5 head-to-head fantasy baseball league. Each week, you face a different opponent, and the team whose lineup wins the most categories over the seven-day period gets a victory. Sounds simple enough, right? You set your lineup on Monday morning and check back the following week to see the results. Even though you thought your team had a fairly decent week, you see you've lost quite handily, 7-3.

It's not too late! You have until April 18 to sign up and draft your own free fantasy baseball team!
Sign Up Today!
But upon closer investigation, you see something terribly disturbing. You didn't just lose several of the pitching categories; you were completely obliterated. Wins? 28 to 7. Strikeouts? 250 to 100. Something is fishy here. How could a nine-man pitching staff put up those kinds of numbers in one week? That's when you notice that your opponent doesn't have a nine-man pitching staff. He has what amounts to a 63-man pitching staff: each day, he drops all of his pitchers and replaces them with ones who are going to start later that day. And then, once the games are over, rather than have no pitchers starting the next day, he drops them all again and picks up a fresh batch of scheduled starters. This is streaming.

Who cares about quality? With the sheer numbers of innings pitched, the streamer is a lock to win two pitching categories, wins and strikeouts. He also has a chance to win WHIP or ERA because those are averages. While a single bad performance by one of his myriad pitchers may hurt him, the relative effect is much less damaging compared to the effect a bad outing would have on your team's averages because of your far fewer innings. In addition, if toward the end of the week a savvy streamer sees he has already wrapped up wins and strikeouts, and does the math to see he'd still win ERA and WHIP if the week ended today even with your remaining two starters pitching perfect games, he can simply stand pat for the weekend and secure four of the five pitching categories. If he's drafted a top closer, he's in the running for a pitching sweep and is pretty much unbeatable against you, the unsuspecting victim.

If this strategy is so awful, it must be against the rules, right? Sadly, no. If you're in a league where someone is utilizing this strategy, odds are it's completely legitimate under your current league settings. Now, you could change your league settings to fight this tactic. If you didn't allow daily roster moves, this strategy goes away. But some people like the ability to adjust their lineup on a day-to-day basis based on the matchups. OK, then we'll allow daily lineup changes, but only once-a-week free agent moves. But what if my only catcher gets injured on Wednesday? Why should I have to wait until the following week to replace him? Another valid point. Why should a league have to change rules that it otherwise likes, simply because somebody is taking advantage of one unwanted loophole?

Kenny Rogers
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesIs it really worth the gamble to stream in guys like Kenny Rogers every day?
So if it's not illegal, then why can't someone use this strategy? One certainly can. But just because somebody can do something, doesn't mean one should. If I'm in a league where someone is churning, the only way I have any realistic chance to beat him when our teams play is to churn myself. So why did I draft a team in the first place? Why did any of us draft a team? Why don't we all just pick a new roster of players each and every day? Certainly we could do that, but is that what we signed up for? I thought we were playing this game to draft a team, make a few trades and roster moves, and see who comes out on top -- not to see which one of us can snatch up the best available pitchers off the waiver wire each morning. If my fantasy team does poorly because I was wrong in thinking that Justin Verlander would be better than C.C. Sabathia, I can live with that. If my fantasy team does poorly simply because Joe woke up two minutes earlier than me, then there's something wrong with my league.

What else can you do to combat the evil streamers of the world? Some leagues like to have a maximum number of innings pitched or starts per week. That's all well and good, but again this may penalize an otherwise innocent owner who just happens to have all of his pitchers making two starts that week. No shenanigans, but he'll get penalized nonetheless.

If common sense isn't going to prevail, then perhaps the best way to keep this strategy from emerging is to remove its advantage. For years we've seen this strategy rear its ugly head in leagues with the "standard five categories" which includes wins, saves and strikeouts. So why not take these out of the mix? Change strikeouts to K/9, so that sheer volume is no longer a factor. Maybe you can change wins and saves to batting average against and strand rate, which are far less a function of both luck and opportunity, although why should we have to make our lives that much more complicated because of one bad egg?

Now to those of you out there who are streaming: Stop it. I don't want to hear about how it's not your fault if you know how to take advantage of the rules better than the rest of the owners in your league. I don't want to hear a debate about the ethics of utilizing a strategy that is well within the bounds of your league rules. Look, if you want to play with a bunch of your friends and you all agree that streaming is to be allowed, then by all means go for it. But fantasy sports have never been more popular than they are now. The fact that you're even reading this article on ESPN.com is testimony to that. I'm making a plea for the future. Streaming is ruining the game.

Every year, more and more people dip their toes into the fantasy baseball pool. More often than not, the experience is a pleasurable one, and they return for the next season, bringing more friends along for the ride. But if the first time these new players join a league they come face-to-face with a streamer, they're not only not coming back, but they'll also likely have such a miserable experience that they'll actually try to warn others against trying the game for themselves. Yes, you've won the battle and rooked a whole bunch of neophytes by streaming to your heart's content and grabbing your league title. Good for you. What a big man you are. Come next year, how many of those owners do you think are coming back for another try? You may not care, simply moving on to the next unsuspecting league like a ninth-grade bully transferring from school to school in the district.

Eventually though, don't you think it's time you graduated and joined the rest of the adults in the real world? You know, before you discover that there are no schools left to transfer into, and you're left without a place to get your diploma, facing a lifetime of minimum wage dead-end jobs in fast-food chicken joints named after country music superstars? Or you can ignore me, and continue to pick up -- and then cut -- and then pick up yet again -- the likes of Detroit's Kenny Rogers, setting out to get your opponents with a fine-tooth comb, while fantasy baseball can simply sail away to another world.

We need to all rely on each other ... ah-ah.

A.J. Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.

ALSO SEE