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Fantasy 101: Intro to fantasy baseball

2/20/2013

Many television shows start each episode with what is known as the "saga sell," which is bit of narration that typically accompanies the opening credits of a show in order to sum up the plot of the series in a sentence or two so that any viewer tuning in for the first time can immediately grasp the premise of the series.

It's a good way to help newcomers to a certain popular show immediately feel more comfortable with what they're about to experience. Sure, people who have watched every airing of a show since its pilot have no need for a saga sell, but even when millions of people keep coming back for more, there's always a chance that newcomers might be joining in, just to see what all the buzz is about.

That goes for fantasy sports as well as television shows. You may have been in a rotisserie league for 20 years. You may know that a high WHIP is bad, whereas a novice might not even know why we're talking about "whips" in the first place. What the heck are they getting themselves into?

This article is for that latter group, helping even the greenest of players get caught up with the premise of fantasy baseball in short simple mouthfuls so they're up to speed on the basics of this great game. Hopefully this will help tip the scales for someone who is weighing the pros and cons of whether or not to join their first fantasy baseball league in 2013 and who might be concerned they won't be able to jump right in and get what's going on.

Here, then, is a little saga sell for fantasy baseball:

"You are about to participate in a great adventure. You are about to experience the awe and mystery that reaches from the inner mind to the outer limits!"

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 determine which players you want to own. You select a roster of major league players 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.

"Once upon a time, there were three little girls who went to the police academy. And they were each assigned very hazardous duties, but I took them away from all that and now they work for me. My name is Charlie."

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, in which 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 who you pick when your turn comes up.

"This is the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together."

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 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.

"Today these three players are after high stakes, but they'll have to avoid the Whammy as they play the most exciting game of their lives!"

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 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 such as 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 stat, such as "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.

One 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.

"You're traveling through another dimension. A dimension not only of sight and sound, but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land, whose boundaries are that of imagination."

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 teams.

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.

"In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: the police, who investigate crime; and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories."

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 free agent pickups 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's too lopsided by nature.

Most of the conflict in fantasy leagues comes from this part of the game, and it's 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.

"Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport. The thrill of victory … and the agony of defeat."

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 group 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.

"Space, the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations …"

So what are you waiting for? Even if you've never played fantasy baseball before, even if you can't name a single player on the Houston Astros, that's no reason to avoid taking the plunge and joining an ESPN.com fantasy baseball league today. It's time to boldly go where you have never gone before!