How To Play Fantasy Baseball

When fantasy baseball began back in the late 1970s and the personal computer was just getting off the ground, the task of adding up monthly or even weekly stats by hand was overwhelming. To keep it simple, early versions of fantasy baseball featured only a few categories and one standard format.

With the arrival of the Internet and real-time information and large databases, fantasy baseball has thousands of different formats, rules and styles.

If you've never played fantasy baseball before it's time to review a few basics. If you've played fantasy baseball before, take a look at the many different ways to play you may never have thought of before.

First the basic principle: in fantasy baseball you build a team and rack up points based on your players' real-life performances. Your ability to spot the players who will have strong statistical seasons will earn you praise - and possibly even a few dollars.

There are two basic formats to playing fantasy baseball: A league or contest.

There are several types of fantasy contests and leagues offered online. Major media companies such as Yahoo! Sports, ESPN and FoxSports allow you to join a league. You can pick your players by live draft, live auction or have a team selected for you. Contests are often where users pick players based on a salary cap and try to accumulate the most points based on a mathematical formula (1 point for a single, 4 points for a homerun, etc.). In these contests you compete against thousands of other users and only the top few scores win a prize. You must also play by a standard set of rules. A good site to learn more about these contests is

Leagues are where players are put in a group of typically 8 to 18 teams, chose teams by a draft or auction and compete based on year-to-date standings or head-to-head records. Usually there is a nominal prize and no entry fee for online leagues.

Leagues formed by friends typically have an entry fee of $10 to $300 and pay out all the money to the top finishers at the end of the season.

Some leagues or contests offer the lure of bigger prize money but charge an entry fee. Smaller contests have an entry fee typically between $15 to $60. There are also "high stakes" leagues with large entry fees ($1500 or so) and payouts. For example, the National Fantasy Baseball Championship has a top payout of $100,000.

If proving to your friends that you know the most about baseball is your goal, you can also form your own league with a group of friends. You can choose your own rules and categories - with hundreds of options to choose from. And on the Internet, you can have a web site build a homepage for your league and keep track of the stats and standings.

At you can choose from over 50 categories and four different styles of leagues. The RotoWire MLB Commissioner service allows your league to have its own home page with daily box scores and standings. Your league will also get a host of other useful features such as free agent lists, updated player news and its own message board.

There are four different styles of leagues to chose from: Categorical, Points, Points and Head-to-Head Categorical. Categorical is the traditional fantasy baseball format used by more than 60% of RotoWire leagues. In each category, you receive a unit every time one of your players contributes to that event in the game. For example, if your player hits a home run, your home run category is increased by 1. Then your total teams home runs are compared to all other teams in the league then points are awarded.

The number of points a team receives in each category depends on the number of teams in the league. If there are 12 teams in the league, the team with the best stats for a category receives 12 points. If your team had the most total Home Runs based on the example above your team would receive 12 points. The team with the second best stats receives 11 and so on until the worst team receives 1 point. Points in all categories are totaled for each team to determine the team's standing in the league.

In the Points style, each category has a point total and a team owner gets points for what each player does. (Singles are worth 1 points, homeruns 4 points and wins 12 points, for example). Whoever posts the most total points wins the league, regardless of where they stand in each individual category. About 20% of the leagues on RotoWire use this style

The final two formats use Head-To-Head games. In this format an owner goes against another owner each week. The league winner is determined by wins and losses, not points. If you have played fantasy football, you are probably familiar with this head-to-head scoring as it is the primary format of fantasy football. Head-to-head leagues can be scored either Categorical (the primary type in baseball) where if you finish first in a category you win a point. The winner is who wins the most categories. Or you can play Head-To-Head by Points (primary type for football) where each team amasses points and the winner that week wins the game.

There are also a few other decisions your league will need to make before you get started. Will you choose players from just the American League or National League or use both? The advantage of using one league is that with a group of 8 to 12 owners, participants are forced to pick up utility players and middle relievers. Using players from all teams usually produces a lineup of mostly All-Stars, which many feel takes less 'skill' to draft and manage a team.

Your league will also need to decide how many players to draft and start on your team. The traditional standard is to start nine pitchers (starters or relievers), two catchers, one first baseman, one second baseman, one shortstop, one third baseman, one middle infielder (second baseman or shortstop), one corner infielder (first or third baseman), five outfielders, one DH (if it's an AL league) or one utility player (any hitter in an NL league). Most leagues also allow for a reserve list of three to five players for a total roster size of 26 to 28 players.

After you have determined the number of players you will start each week, your league also needs to determine who qualifies at a position. Most leagues use a system requiring a player to have played 20 games at a position the season before. Once a player plays three games during the season, they can also become eligible at a new position. However, standards for each requirement vary widely.

Once you have decided the format, there are a few other decisions you need to make. Someone from your group of friends will have to serve as the commissioner to settle disputes, enter the league's information on your web site and work to resolve other issues. Having an organized commissioner and a format to settle disputes (maybe a league vote) is very important to keeping things fun. You would be surprised how even the most mild-mannered owner can get hostile over a dispute in the rules.

Your league will also need to decide how to choose its players. Most buddy leagues like to have their selection process in person, on a conference call or in a live online draft room. Half the fun in these drafts is the ability to mock your friends' picks and talk trash. There are two formats to most roster selection processes: an auction or a pure draft.

The pure draft format works much like the NFL or NBA draft, with teams drawing their pick number out of a hat. The order is then usually reversed in the even number rounds, so that the team that has the top pick also has the last pick of the second round. The draft continues until every team has all their active and reserve roster spots filled.

The other selection process is an auction, where teams are allocated a salary cap to chose their players. The traditional format is to give each team in your league $260 to spend to fill its roster. Most of the ratings you will find online or in magazines are based on this formula. The top players (Griffey, Alex Rodriguez) generally go for around $40 to $45 and teams bid in $1 increments. (A list of projected dollar values based on your league's format can be found here.

Using the auction format allows for a myriad of variations that can get quite complicated -- and add flavor to your league. You can use the prices paid for your players in the auction as a reference point for keeping players for the next season, for example (these leagues are called 'Keeper' leagues).

Before the season gets under way, you will also need to determine a process for conducting transactions. First, you will need to determine a deadline for making roster moves (most leagues have weekly deadlines, but with the Internet many have daily transactions).

Second, your league needs to determine the process by which teams can pick up undrafted players (free agents). Among the common ways to determine priority for selecting free agents is reverse order of standings, a free agent budget and first-come, first-served. The free agent budget seems to be gaining as the favorite of most leagues because the one person in your league watching ESPN all day doesn't always get the first free agent. The teams at the top have a shot to get the one free agent they need to win.

Once you've defined the setup of your league and drafted players, you are ready to roll. Two words of advice as you move forward. First, make sure there is a method to keep everyone interested all season long. A system where teams can keep players for next year keeps the last-place teams interested as they try to improve their teams for next season. A prize for a second-half winner or a penalty for the team that finishes last is another option. When teams that fall out of the race lose interest and don't replace their injured players, it often makes it too easy for the top teams to hold their lead. This is the problem that plagues many free contests and leagues where random people meet online. When half the league isn't participating come August, the league isn't as much fun. Keeping everyone active and interested makes it more fun for everyone.

Most of important of all, it's best to keep it as simple as possible. Though you will have some members in your league who want to use a Bill James-formula as a category or an obscure statistic, keeping the league rules and setup simple will make it more fun and keep everyone active. Resist temptation to add more rules and categories. Remember fantasy baseball isn't the real thing. It's more fun.

The original version of this article first appeared 02/15/99, but has been updated frequently since.

Peter Schoenke
Peter Schoenke is the president and co-founder of He's been elected to the hall of fame for both the Fantasy Sports Trade Association and Fantasy Sports Writers Association and also won the Best Fantasy Baseball Article on the Internet in 2005 from the FSWA. He roots for for the Minnesota Twins, Vikings and T-Wolves.
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