Commentary

Fantasy 101: Intro to fantasy baseball

Updated: February 22, 2012, 3:27 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

There's a scene in the classic musical "The Sound of Music" where Julie Andrews is sitting with the Von Trapp children when she uncovers a deep, dark secret about these kids: They (gasp!) don't know how to sing! How could they not know even the basics of such an enjoyable activity that has brought so much joy to millions of people?

So to help them get up to speed as quickly as possible on all that they've missed, she decides to start at the very beginning, which I've heard is a very good place to start. Since by the end of her song these previous musical illiterates were not only singing countermelodies and harmonies that could make angels weep, but doing so while traversing mountainous terrain on bicycles, I'd say the technique worked quite well.

That's why I've decided to follow suit with this primer on the basics of fantasy baseball, to introduce people who might not have a clue as to what all the fuss over this game is about. My friend and colleague Matthew Berry has his Draft Day Manifesto for those players who are looking for more advanced strategies and advice, but to a newcomer that might as well be written in a foreign language.

However, after taking this crash course in fantasy baseball, even the greenest of players will be up to speed and ready to add this great game to their list of a few favorite things. So let me see if I can make it easier:

Doe, a Deer. I want Rob Deer

What exactly is fantasy baseball? It's a way for you to be the general manager of your own baseball team, one in which you -- and only you -- determine which players you want to own. You select a roster of major leaguers for your team and use their real-life statistics to compete against other similarly selected teams to see which owner did the better job.

As the baseball season moves along, the on-field performance of the players you have decided to put into your starting lineup will help determine the success or failure of your fantasy team. It's up to you to bench slumping players, to work the waiver wire and grab that hot free agent or to try to wheel and deal to get rid of that aging veteran before the wheels fall off in exchange for a rookie about to catch fire.

Ray, Plays in the Tampa Sun

So how do we determine which fantasy owner gets which player? You could just pick names out of a hat, but that kind of defeats the purpose. Most leagues choose to hold a draft, where the owners take turns selecting players who have not yet been assigned to a roster. Typically, this draft is done in a "snake" format, where the team that picks first in one round picks last in the next to make sure teams are balanced.

Another popular way to allocate players is to hold an auction. In an auction format, teams all start with the same amount of fantasy money to bid with and take turns nominating a player. The highest bid on a nominated player wins, but of course the winning owner then has less money left to bid on subsequent players. So while an auction does give every owner a chance to go after whichever players they want, they need to make sure to budget properly or else they may end up with three MVP candidates alongside a bunch of "scrubs."

While many leagues hold a new draft at the start of each season, others choose to allow owners to keep players on their teams for multiple seasons. This is a decision that should be made before you draft for the first time, because knowing whether you're selecting players for just one year, or for years on end, will cause you to make different decisions on exactly who you might pick when your turn comes up.

Me, I Can't Play By Myself

Fantasy baseball is not a game of solitaire. You're going to want your fantasy team to play against other teams. While there's no set minimum number of teams that make up a league, 10-12 teams is usually a good number to shoot for when starting a league for the first time. Too few owners and you'll have nothing but superstars on each roster, while too many owners means you may end up needing to draft backup infielders and long relievers just to fill out a starting lineup.

Ideally, you should consider starting a league with a bunch of interested friends. However, there's no need to go hunting around for warm bodies just to fulfill some preconceived quota. It's far better to start small with an intimate group of owners who are gung-ho about the idea of playing all season long rather than loading up your league with people who will drop out just as soon as you ease up on the arm-twisting.

Of course, there are plenty of leagues already in existence that are looking for owners. You can browse ESPN.com's League Directory if you'd rather go that route. Or you can simply start your own public league and wait for other interested owners to find you.

Far, That's Where Dee Gordon Runs

Alright, so we have our league in place and we know how we're going to divvy up the player pool. The next big question we need to answer is how we figure out who wins.

In the early days of fantasy baseball, most leagues were rotisserie-style, meaning that each team got credit for certain statistics -- like home runs, RBIs, batting average and stolen bases for hitters and wins, saves, ERA and WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched) for pitchers. This became known as the "standard 4x4" system. As time went by, runs scored and pitcher strikeouts were added to the mix for "standard 5x5" scoring.

In reality, any combination of categories can be used to compare fantasy team statistics over the course of an entire season. Some leagues use on-base percentage instead of batting average. Others use things a bit more obscure, like "double plays hit into." It really doesn't matter, as long as the league decides before the draft.

Currently, more and more leagues are switching to a head-to-head format in which your team squares off with one other team each week. In some leagues, the team that wins the most categories wins the game for the week. In others, teams get a point for each category they win, so a "blowout" is worth more than a "nail-biter."

A growing trend is to completely do away with categories altogether and simply award points for certain accomplishments. For example, a home run might be worth six points, while a relief pitcher may get five points for recording a save. In points leagues, which can be played either head-to-head or with a running total for the season, each player's value is boiled down to a single number and you don't have to worry about keeping separate tabs on the category in which those stats belong.

So, Taguchi's on the Bench

As you can see, there is no "right way" to play fantasy baseball. Some leagues decide that they want to play with only the best players in the game. Others choose to go deeper into the player pool. You can opt to use only players in the American League, or stick to exclusively National League lineups.

You can even choose to limit your player options to "switch-hitters whose names start with an E," but after Emilio Bonifacio the pickings will get pretty slim quickly. Just remember, the more owners you have, the bigger a player pool you'll need to stock rosters.

La, A Place Where Albert Goes

This note "La" always ended up being a bit of filler in the song, as the best Rodgers and Hammerstein could come up with was "a note to follow So." We're not above adding a bit of filler ourselves, so we now pause to rank the worst five robots of all time in order of lameness, starting with No. 5.

5. V.I.C.I. from "Small Wonder." More frightening than the fact this show was about a robot disguised as a real 10-year-old? They actually made 96 episodes of it.
4. Haley Joel Osment in "A.I." What's the point? He doesn't even see dead people.
3. Mr. Roboto. Trust us, it's not a secret.
2. This thing from "Rocky IV". Although it is a better actor than Stallone.
1. Shufflebot. It's not spelled LMFAO. It's spelled LAME.

T, The Start of Every Trade

Some leagues are very hands-off, and after draft day few roster moves are allowed. Other leagues allow for players to be cut with replacements coming from the waiver wire on a daily basis. Your league should come up with very specific rules on what is allowed in terms of player acquisition. Are waiver picks on a first-come, first-serve basis, or is there some sort of in-season bidding process?

When it comes to trades, some leagues believe that "anything goes," while others have some sort of veto system in place where potential deals can be nixed by the majority of the league if there's a feeling that it is too lopsided in nature.

Most of the conflict in fantasy leagues comes from this part of the game, and it is the reason that all leagues should have a written set of rules, or constitution, in place. At the very least, the league manager should make sure that all owners are up to speed on the particular rules that your league is using to avoid any potential confusion that may arise as the season moves along.

That Will Bring Us Back to Dough

On ESPN.com, you can play fantasy baseball for free!

Fantasy baseball is supposed to be fun, and that should always be the overriding reason to play. That said, if you are in a league with a bunch of friends and you all agree that you want to sweeten the thrill of victory a bit, there's nothing wrong with that, either. Just be reasonable about it. A bunch of college students shouldn't be playing for the same stakes as a gaggle of big-shot attorneys. By keeping it within your means, you can help keep things fun and prevent people from taking the whole thing WAY TOO seriously.

So there you have it. When you know the notes to sing, you can sing most anything. And when you know the basics of fantasy baseball, you can pick and choose the things you like and the things you don't. You can play the game in whatever way suits your personal taste, following every rainbow until you find your dream league. Just be sure you get in there and play!

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" is available for purchase here.You can e-mail him here.