The Commish's Court: So you say you want an evolution...

For my next trick, I'm going to use this West Indian land snail to explain why a deal involving Carlos Beltran should not be vetoed. Prepare to be amazed!

But first, Cornell Kaj writes in with a compliment and a criticism: "I just want to say that I enjoy your column. Not that I always agree with your purely free market view on trades and vetoes, I simply like to read it. Speaking of which, for the most part, you are right on with just letting owners do what they want. You must admit one thing: in the *real* world teams have millions of dollars on the line that give them the proper incentives to do their homework and keep their decisions rational. Fantasy baseball owners have no such thing. One idiot in the league can completely disturb what otherwise would be a competitive equilibrium. Why? Because there is no cost to being an idiot (beside, say, looking foolish to a bunch of people you probably don't know). Anyway, love reading the situations you pick for us to read. It's fun. ESPN did a nice job bringing all of you people on board this year."

Kaj, I thank you for the kind words. Now to your point that one bad apple can spoil the whole bunch -- I wholeheartedly agree. If you are playing in a league with complete strangers, there is absolutely no cost to being, as you say, an idiot. In fact, I have found there is a far too large contingent of people who for some unknown reason get their jollies from intentionally ruining fantasy leagues. These are the same people who will log on to the fan-site message boards of some tween pop sensation and post flaming diatribes. Then they will sit back and watch with glee as the crushed youngsters respond to the bait with Tolstoy-length outrage over the initial negativity.

These leagues I cannot help. You've got to know what you are getting into when you sign on with the complete unknown… and even then, I would argue that you need to let trades occur without restriction. This so-called league of twelve strangers could easily turn out to include a secret cabal of five friends who you've unknowingly given the power to veto every deal that does not involve themselves.

But while I believe that any trade that can be made under a league's rules should be allowed, that does not mean I believe that a league shouldn't have rules that restrict trading. In fact, I strongly recommend it. And this is where I introduce Stephen Jay Gould.

Stephen Jay Gould was an influential writer of popular science, and was nicknamed "America's unofficial evolutionist laureate." A Harvard professor, Gould spent a lot of his non-teaching time studying land snails trying to figure out exactly why their shape evolved the way it did. Influenced by this research, Gould co-developed the theory of punctuated equilibrium. Essentially, what this theory says is that rather than a species evolving steadily over the course of time, Gould found that there are actually incredibly long spans of stability where no changes occur punctuated by short periods of incredible, rapid evolution. To the pop-culture junkies out there, think Dr. Suresh's work on "Heroes." Same basic deal.

What does this have to do with the price of tea in China? Actually, quite a bit. This theory, if superimposed on other fields such as policy study, has enormous real-world application. About 15 years ago, Frank Baumgartner and Bryan Jones used Punctuated Equilibrium to explain things such as government regulation of the tobacco industry or attitudes towards the environment or the civil rights movement or tariff regulations regarding domestic oolong. Policy is characterized by long periods of stability, punctuated by large, but rare, changes due to large shifts in society or government. While subtle change may occur over time, it usually takes huge public outcry combined with a change in leadership to get any huge changes to come into play, and then a new equilibrium is achieved. (As evidence, I offer you "The Sixties.")

Now I am going to bring this theory to fantasy baseball rules. You play in a league where there has been some kind of shady dealing, like Steve from Colorado Springs: "I'm the commish in a 12-team dynasty league. We just had a trade accepted that is for sure a rip-off, I just want some advice on whether it is vetoable. I've always tried to be pretty lenient on trades, but the first place team is trading Brandon Phillips and Aaron Rowand for Carlos Beltran. Obviously people are upset the first place team is about to get Beltran, but is that lopsided enough for a veto?"

What is the issue here? Is it that teams want the commish to veto more deals than he has? Probably not. Is it that this deal is incredibly one-sided? I don't think so. In fact, if anything, I think this owner might be giving up a bit too much to get Beltran. No, the issue is that the league perceives that the first place team is getting rich at some other owner's expense. I can't be completely sure, but Steve probably feels this because it's not the first time complaints have been raised involving deals of this nature. The owners in Steve's league feel there should be more scrutiny placed on deals involving the better teams in the standings.

Here's where my free-market stance on trading meets up with the land snails. I feel any trade within the rules should be allowed, no questions asked. Over the course of many years in Steve's dynasty league, if enough unease over a completely free market has built up, then some restrictions need to be codified. So, Steve needs to let this deal through, but also ask his owners if they want to consider a rules change in the off-season… not a veto system, but a restriction placed on trades involving the first place team. Perhaps he can't trade with teams in the lower half of the standings. Perhaps this rule is extended to all teams so everyone must trade within a few standings spots of each other.

The extent of the rule is subject to debate, but the purpose is not. If you don't want certain trades to be made, you forbid all deals of the kind that make you ill at ease. You don't simply allow for a knee-jerk veto which could have the opposite intended effect, namely possibly saving the first place owner from making a bartering blunder that would see his team begin a freefall.

But no matter what you do, you're still likely to get a bad apple. Richard writes in: "(Last week) you failed to get at the heart of some real problems: commissioners who skew their own trades. Case in point, our commissioner agreed to a deal in which he parted with Pitcher X for Player Y. On the way to the trade, Player Y hit the DL and Mr. Commish called managers asking for someone to veto his own trade! The trade was vetoed. Needless to say, his future trades will likely be vetoed as well."

Needless to say, Richard, the fault lies not with Mr. Commish, but with your league membership. Yes, agreeing to a deal and then trying to back out after an injury is slimy, but why on earth did anybody agree to let him off the hook? He can ask all he wants, but unless owners agreed to veto the deal, he'd have been stuck. Your league's society shows no signs of wanting to evolve, and it is clear that nobody is seeking a new leader, since they graciously granted him his freedom from this bad deal. I think it is likely his future deals will in fact, not be vetoed. And if this move truly bothers you, and you want things to change, I think you're going to have to be the one who sprouts legs, gets himself a set of oxygen-breathing lungs and climbs out of the primordial ooze, headed for opposable-thumbed glory.

Now for my next trick… I'll need an egg, a chainsaw and Braden Looper.

All rise… The Court has now adjourned!

AJ Mass has been a Fantasy Baseball Commissioner for nearly 15 years, and was the mascot of the New York Mets for 4 seasons in the early 90's. Want to submit your case to The Commish' Court? Click Here.
AJ Mass has been a fantasy baseball commissioner for nearly 15 years, and was the mascot of the New York Mets for four seasons in the early '90s. Want to submit your case to The Commish's Court? Click Here.