(The full, nine-inning Playbook was originally published during the spring of 2020. It has been updated for 2023 where applicable.)
Some may call it a silly little game, but I’ll tell you a secret: Once you play fantasy baseball, you’ll be hooked for life.
There’s a simple reason: It’s great.
That’s because it’s fun and easy to play. Whether you’re an obsessive fan who doesn’t like to miss a pitch in a given season or a casual fan who simply enjoys a game from time to time, anyone can fall deeply, instantly in love with fantasy baseball. In fact, it’ll transform the way you watch the game.
On Opening Day, you’ll shriek with child-like excitement as your ace starting pitcher strikes out all three batters he faces in the top of the first inning, propelling your team to the top of your league’s live scoring page. On a Sunday in June, you’ll groan in misery when your opponent’s top slugger hits a walk-off two-run double, those two RBIs providing the critical edge needed to defeat you in your weekly head-to-head matchup. And as the regular season’s final game enters the ninth inning, your heart will race with anticipation as you root for your closer to convert that solitary save required to capture your league’s championship.
In the process, you’ll gain a greater appreciation for the game. You might be a die-hard Toronto Blue Jays fan whose knowledge extends deeply enough to be able to name both of the runners who were on base at the time of Joe Carter’s walk-off home run to clinch the 1993 World Series (hint: they are both Hall of Famers, and the answer is at column’s end). Or, you might be a casual Philadelphia Phillies fan still enraged that manager Rob Thomson didn’t let Zack Wheeler face Yordan Alvarez in Game 6, but knows little about the rest of the division (let alone the rest of the league). Either way, engaging in fantasy baseball management will educate you on all facets of the game, enhancing your passion for it.
But perhaps most important, fantasy baseball provides an opportunity to build camaraderie. What better way to share that passion for the game than challenging your family, friends or co-workers in a fantasy league?
Here’s how to start
While it can be played individually, as with daily games, fantasy baseball is most commonly played as part of a league, or a group of people competing against one another. To sign up for a league on ESPN, go here, or go to the baseball tab within the ESPN Fantasy app.
Your first decision is whether to venture into this fantasy baseball experience by yourself or as part of a group.
You don’t have to know seven, nine, 11, or whatever other number of people you’d need to fill your league of choice. If you’re interested in playing but either don’t know enough people to fill a league or would rather not spend the time rounding people up, ESPN can hook you up with other people, using the “JOIN A PUBLIC LEAGUE” option on the right of the page within the link above.
If you do have a group in mind, you’ll want the “CREATE A LEAGUE” option on the left of that page. But there’s a catch: You’ll first need to nominate someone from that group to serve as your league’s commissioner, a role that includes creating and operating the league as well as making important league rulings. Once your commissioner is chosen, they should be the one to create the league, after which point they can use the “Invite Owners” button to send out individual invitations through ESPN for the other members to sign into the league.
You’ll notice on that page that “Scoring” is one of the menu selections. Consider carefully the type of scoring system you wish to play.
How exactly are players scored
In order to declare a league champion, we need a method for scoring players’ performances. ESPN provides five scoring systems: roto, head-to-head points, head-to-head each category, head-to-head most categories and season points.
How do you know which league type is right for you? I’ll dig deeper into the ins and outs of each in a future column, but for now, here’s a quick summary of each.
Roto, or traditional rotisserie baseball: While not necessarily the original fantasy baseball format — evidence exists that some form of the game was played as far back as the 1950s — this one brought it to the mainstream, with the first published set of rules for playing. Named after a defunct New York City restaurant, La Rotisserie Francaise, rotisserie baseball scoring compares teams’ seasonal totals to one another in a select group of statistical categories. The best-performing team in a category scores a point total equal to the number of teams in the league, with points awarded in descending order until the worst-performing team scores a single point. For example, in a 10-team league, the best-performing team scores 10 points, the second-best team nine, and so forth until the worst-performing team scores one. Ties in a category split the points, so if the second- and third-best-performing teams in home runs in a 10-team league have the same number, then these teams both score 8.5 points (the average of eight and nine points, for second and third place).
These points across all categories are then totaled for an overall standing, with the team finishing with the most total points for the season declared the league champion. As new statistics are accumulated each day, they are added to each team’s cumulative total and the standings rerun daily, until the season ends and said champion is crowned.
The original rotisserie league used eight categories, four apiece for hitters and pitchers (or rotisserie 4×4) — batting average, home runs, RBIs and stolen bases for hitters, and wins, saves, ERA and WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched, which was created specifically for the rotisserie format) for pitchers — but most rotisserie leagues nowadays use 10 categories (or rotisserie 5×5), adding runs scored for hitters and strikeouts for pitchers. ESPN’s standard leagues, for example, use only these 10 categories. A rotisserie league, however, can use any categories you wish, but if you choose your own for a custom league, for symmetry I recommend an equal number of categories for hitters and pitchers, as well as an equal number of “ratio” categories — categories that are either averages or ratios, such as batting average, ERA and WHIP — if at all possible. (Note the imbalance in ratio categories in the original version, something with which I’ve long disagreed.)
Head-to-head points: The most common scoring format in fantasy football, which has also helped increase the popularity in fantasy baseball over the years, pits teams against one another in weekly head-to-head matchups, with the team scoring the greater number of total points in each individual matchup declared the winner. Ties are accounted for as ties in the standings. The season is generally divided into 25 scoring periods of roughly one week — though in the opening Week 1, it’s typically 11 days, running from Thursday’s Opening Day through the second Sunday, and around the All-Star break, it’s another 11 days — with the first 21 serving as the “regular season” and the final four divided into a pair of two-week playoff matchups. As in football, the teams with the best regular-season records advance to the playoffs, which is a single-elimination tournament to declare the league champion.
Points within these matchups are scored based upon a player’s accomplishments in a select group of statistical categories. For example, a hitter might earn one point per total base and one per RBI, so a home run with no one on base would earn that hitter five points. Most points leagues also penalize — or charge negative point totals — for accumulating statistics in bad-outcome categories, like strikeouts for hitters, or hits, walks or earned runs for pitchers.
For 2023, ESPN’s standard leagues have experienced a small scoring change. Beginning this season, these will be the new point values:
Total Bases (TB): 1, Runs Batted In (RBI): 1, Runs scored (R): 1, Stolen Bases (SB): 1, Walks (BB): 1, Strikeouts (K): minus-1
Innings Pitched (IP): 3, Wins (W): 2, Losses (L): minus-2, Holds (HD): 2, Saves (SV): 5, Earned Runs (ER): minus-2, Hits allowed (H): minus-1, Strikeouts (K): 1, Walks issued (BB): minus-1
Head-to-head each category: This is a blend of the previous two formats, using the categories of rotisserie leagues but with the head-to-head matchups format. Instead of matchups being decided by the team with the greater number of total points scored, teams accrue “wins” by having the better number in each of a select group of statistical categories. In ESPN standard leagues, these are the same 10 categories in rotisserie 5×5 scoring, so the team that hits the greater number of home runs would score a point, the team with the lower ERA would score a point, and so on, in each individual weekly matchup. Categorical ties go down as ties in the standings, so a team could go 6-3-1 in a matchup. Playoff teams are determined in the same matchups format as in Head-to-Head Points, as are league champions.
Head-to-head most categories: Rather than score each statistical category individually, this format grants a single matchup victory to the team that wins the greater number of categories within that matchup. For example, a team with the better number of home runs, RBIs, runs scored, wins, ERA and strikeouts, but worse numbers in batting average, stolen bases, saves and WHIP would still have won six categories to its opponent’s four and therefore would pick up one win in the standings. Ties, again, are recorded in the standings as ties. Playoff teams as well as league champions are determined in the same way as the other head-to-head formats.
Season points: Using the same method of awarding points for players’ statistical accomplishments as in Head-to-Head Points, the critical difference here is the lack of head-to-head matchups. In Season Points, the team that has the greatest number of total points scored for the season is declared the league champion.
Congratulations to the commish
As mentioned earlier, if you’re among a group of people creating a new league, you’ll need to elect a commissioner, who will be responsible for entering all of the league’s settings upfront. The commissioner is the only member of the league with the access to change league settings, and they are also the one to whom everyone else will turn for critical decisions or rulings in times of conflict, so choose wisely — the commissioner’s job is a thankless one, but it’s also one that merits great respect.
If you’re selected commissioner, my advice to you is simply this: Be fair but be firm. The best commissioners always place the good of the league ahead of their own interests, are detail-oriented and transparent.
But most important, make sure to review your league’s settings — twice if you have to!
Beyond the basic scoring system, fantasy baseball offers several different styles of play, covering such things as the roster, the player pool utilized, the method of player selection and the way transactions are handled during the year. Let’s take a closer look at each to help commissioners structure their leagues.
Define your roster
A roster, or list of players who are part of your team, can take on many shapes and sizes. The traditional rotisserie guidebook allowed for a 23-man roster, 14 of those hitters — broken down as two catchers, one apiece at first base, second base, third base, shortstop, corner infielder and middle infielder, five outfielders and one utilityman/designated hitter — and the other nine pitchers of any type. Corner infielders, for these purposes, are any players who qualify at either first base or third base, while middle infielders qualify at either second base or shortstop.
You may play with any arrangement of positions you wish.
ESPN’s standard leagues, for example, have undergone a change for 2023 designed to speed up drafts and put more of an emphasis upon the game’s brightest stars. These utilize a traditional baseball lineup, one apiece at catcher, first base, second base, third base, shortstop and designated hitter/utilityman, three outfielders, seven pitchers and three additional “bench” spots — those are players who are members of your team but who don’t accrue statistics for you while in those spots. Some leagues divide pitchers up into starting pitchers and relief pitchers and require a certain number of either. Others have expansive benches of six players, while others still don’t differentiate between different infield positions.
When it comes to the bench, the benefit to a larger number is a greater range of options as you set your active lineup, while the drawback is a smaller amount of talent available on your league’s free agent list. I find that six is the optimal number of bench spots regardless of league, but you can freely experiment with your league’s number.
Another option is the injured list (IL), which affords you space to place players who are on the MLB official 7-, 10-, 15- or 60-day injured lists. ESPN’s standard is three IL spots, but some leagues prefer to limit that to one, while others still have unlimited IL spots (something not offered on ESPN; eight is the maximum number).
You can also limit the maximum number of players at a specific position, if desired.
For beginners, it’s probably best to go with one of the standard roster sizes, with my preference the 23-man — so two catchers rather than one — arrangement with six reserve rounds. It’s a workable size but won’t excessively drain your player pool.
What are these ‘only’ leagues?
When rotisserie baseball was first invented, Major League Baseball’s two leagues — the American and National leagues — were much more distinct than they are today. Each had its own president — only the NL currently has an honorary president, Bill Giles — and there was no such thing as interleague play. As such, the original game intended for the player pools — defined as “Player Universes” on ESPN — to be divided among AL- and NL-only leagues rather than the majors as a whole. Many leagues retain that format today, often as a manner of tradition.
On ESPN, if you wish to separate the pool of players from which you draw into only those in the AL or NL, you can do so in the league settings. Picking an “only” league, as it’s commonly referred to these days, allows managers to dig deeper into the pool of player talent, at the expense of thinning out your league’s free-agent pool, effectively heightening the challenge.
The annual League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) and Tout Wars leagues, contests populated entirely by industry analysts, host pairs of such AL- and NL-only leagues that have run since 1994 and 1998, respectively.
Leagues that include all players are called mixed leagues and are selected with the “MLB” option in the league settings.
It’s time to select your players
Perhaps the greatest part of the fantasy baseball experience is the thrill of the draft. These are meetings of all members of your league at a set time to select players for your team, which will serve as the starting point to your season, and they can be events either held live and in person or conducted online through the ESPN draft room.
If you’ve never before participated in a draft, I highly recommend the live, in-person format, as it’s the best way to build the camaraderie, and it provides an experience most like a real general manager selecting his/her players. If you’re planning to do that, you’ll probably want to pick the Offline option under the Draft settings, then enter the results of your live draft manually. If it’s a snake draft, you can set up your league to run the draft online with people entering their picks while meeting in person, though that requires a bit of patience.
For those drafting online, you have three choices: a snake draft, an autopick draft or a salary-cap draft. These must be selected beforehand, and the commissioner will need to enter a draft date and time, the amount of time each team will have to make a selection and the draft order.
Snake: A snake draft proceeds in the listed order in odd-numbered rounds, going in the reverse direction in even-numbered rounds. For example, in a 10-team league, picks in Round 1 would proceed from 1-10, but in Round 2 they would go from 10-1, meaning that the team picking first would receive the first overall pick but then the 20th overall, 21st, 40th, 41st, 60th, 61st and so on. This is done in an attempt to create equity among all draft positions. There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to certain positions despite this attempt at balance.
Autopick: For leagues that have difficulty finding a common time at which everyone can meet, or that don’t want to take the time required to complete a live draft, an autopick draft allows our computers to assign players to all rosters for you. In this option, individual managers do have some control over the players selected to their teams, as ESPN provides each team the opportunity to rank players in advance, as well as the option to choose how many players to select at each position.
Salary cap: If you’re looking for some real fun and a heightened level of strategy in player selection, consider selecting your players via the salary-cap method. Each team is granted a set budget — typically $260, using traditional fantasy baseball rules — with which to fill its roster, with the format granting every team access to every player (assuming it has the requisite funds remaining). Players are nominated one at a time, with the team making the highest bid securing his services, until all rosters are filled. While I’ll discuss salary-cap format strategies in much greater detail in a future column, be forewarned that salary-cap drafts require a greater level of skill, focus and patience, and are more advised for intermediate or advanced players than beginners. They also have a tendency to take significantly longer to complete than do snake drafts, often as long as six or seven hours. The best salary-cap drafts are live and have their own designated master of ceremonies to keep the process running smoothly. Plan accordingly.
Whatever your preferred draft format, keep this in mind: It’s best to find a common time at which all managers can be available. For teams that are absent, or anytime a team’s timer expires, the ESPN computer manager will take control and select players for that team, which diminishes the overall experience for those present.
After I’ve drafted my players, what in-season moves can I make?
Oh, plenty. Many a championship has been won by smart in-season management.
Before we get there, though, you’ll need to define the parameters for how teams can improve themselves, via lineup changes, free agency or trades.
Teams in fantasy baseball leagues typically allow lineup changes, moving players freely between their bench and active roster spots on either a daily or weekly basis in order to capitalize on their real-life teams’ schedules or individual game matchups. If you choose a daily-transactions league, you’ll provide maximum flexibility to managers in exploiting these matchups, improving the overall competitive experience, though that can also come at the expense of teams making a large number of transactions — specifically free agents added to rosters — or trying to load up on “counting numbers” such as runs scored or wins. Daily leagues can also be taxing on the schedule; baseball is, after all, a 180-day-plus marathon.
If you choose a weekly-transactions league, you’ll enhance the strategy of managers needing to consider a real-life team’s entire one-week schedule and the matchups it contains but run the risk of an early-week injury that leaves a team with an absent player for several days.
Another factor to consider: Do you prefer that fantasy lineups for the day or week lock with the first pitch thrown on that given day or in that given week, or can managers change players freely, as long as their teams haven’t yet begun their games on either that day or during that week?
There is no singular, correct arrangement. You simply need to choose the setup that best serves your league’s needs.
Speaking of adding free agents, fantasy baseball teams generally are allowed to pick up new players who aren’t on other teams within their leagues during the season, either to replace a player being released back into the free agent pool or placed on the injured list. As some free agents will be desirable to multiple teams within a single league, there are two ways to fairly award these players: Either by Waivers, which determines which team has priority in signing that player (usually by reverse order of the league standings), or by the Free Agent Budget method, where teams can bid from a budget set at the beginning of the season. The former provides a simpler method, but the latter grants more strategy and better reflects an open market for adding players.
The aforementioned waiver order, incidentally, can be adjusted to either reset each week based on standings, or never reset, with teams making claims always moving to the back of the order.
You can also cap the number of player acquisitions a team can make during both the season as a whole and in an individual matchup. I generally advise against transactions limits — in these days of increased injured list usage in the real game, I feel that limits penalize the unlucky in the health department — but I can see the argument for limits of eight acquisitions within a matchup and 200 over the course of a season as a method of curtailing teams trying to load up on counting stats, which is usually called “streaming” in the case of adding starting pitchers in a quest to secure more wins and strikeouts in a weekly matchup.
Trades are an important decision for a fantasy league and its commissioner. Should there be a limit on the number of trades a team is allowed to make in a season? When is the league’s trade deadline? And should the commissioner be the final judge on the “fairness” of all trades, or should the league as a whole vote on that?
All of these can be adjusted in the league settings, and you’ll get a variety of opinions on the best setup. I prefer not to limit teams in the number of trades they can make, want a trade deadline that is more than four weeks but not greater than eight weeks in advance of the season’s end date (and at least two weeks before the playoffs in a head-to-head league) and trust my commissioner to rule on all trades. Every league is different, though, and you can freely select the settings that make you the most comfortable
Don’t forget these other factors
A few more league settings warrant your consideration, the first of which is whether to observe ESPN’s undroppable players list. Our staff regularly identifies a group of players deemed too valuable to be freely released into the free-agent pool, in order to prevent collusion or tanking — deliberately losing — within fantasy leagues. Depending on the trust you have in your league’s membership, you can opt out of this setting, but I generally recommend using it.
Keeper leagues are those that roll over a certain number of players from season to season. You can set this number within the league settings, if you’d like to convert your league to a keeper format. These tend to be even more fun than leagues that redraft annually, mirroring the real game with general managers building teams over the course of several seasons.
Would you like to limit the number of games a team is allowed within a certain head-to-head matchup? For example, if you’re trying to curtail streaming, as mentioned above, you could consider limiting a team’s starts to 14 — or two per day over seven days — or some other number. Just keep in mind that a team can be prevented from accruing statistics only after exceeding its cap beginning with a new day of competition. This means that if a team had 13 starts entering play on Saturday, it can make three (and potentially more) on Saturday before being restricted from earning points from more starting pitchers on Sunday. I generally don’t like caps on games, but in a mixed league where starting pitching is abundant on the free-agent list, it’s a reasonable restriction.
Head-to-head leagues have the option of dividing their teams into divisions, providing you an opportunity to draw your league’s highest playoff seeds from the winners of their respective divisions. This is under teams and divisions settings within your league settings.
If you choose one of the head-to-head formats for your league’s scoring, bear in mind that you don’t have to follow ESPN’s prescribed regular-season or playoff schedules. You may make regular-season matchups extend multiple weeks, can make playoff matchups single-week contests and you can extend or shorten the length of the regular season. Considering how major league teams often shut down star players near the end of the regular season, usually to provide them rest in advance of the postseason or to conclude their years early if they’re eliminated from contention and could use the rest, a shorter regular-season schedule makes some sense.
These can all be amended under regular season setup and playoff bracket setup within your league settings.
For any other topic I didn’t cover, you can also go to ESPN’s Fan Support portal, which has an informative Q&A and provides a search for your question.
There is no greater advice I can share to a commissioner just beginning his or her journey than to be detailed, nor to a fantasy manager within his or her league than to know your league’s rules!
Many leagues, in addition to their settings within the ESPN system, craft their own, printable constitutions. All details pertaining to the league are included within the document, to help with any possible disputes that arise during the course of the season. Amendments, covering any topic that is unclear within the constitution or potential rules, can be proposed at any time, or the league can make the decision to trust its commissioner to make necessary rulings. Regardless of which route your league takes, this is why it’s imperative that you select the right commissioner.
A tip to the commissioner: Never, ever change a rule pertaining to the league once the championship season process has begun, unless not doing so would erode the functionality of the league. (Even then, I’d ask, why wasn’t the topic raised sooner?) Rules are best changed between seasons, to give everyone a chance to approach a new year under the same set of guidelines. Make it clear what’s being changed, or if there’s a league vote — a preferred method for amendments — make it clear when it takes effect.
Fantasy managers, meanwhile, should always know their league’s rules. It’s on you to examine every single setting within your league, or to read your league’s constitution in advance of every season. There are tiny advantages to be gleaned by any individual setting of a league, many of which I’ll detail in future columns.
But — and I can’t stress this enough — be an ethical manager
The Golden Rule most certainly applies to our wondrous game, though I’ll adjust it to read: Treat others with the same respect with which you’d want them to treat you.
Don’t be “that person” who doesn’t know the rules, or is challenging and/or seeking loopholes to every single detail within the constitution.
Don’t be “that person” who offers nothing but bogus trades, hounds people about trades at all hours of the night or completely ignores their trade offers.
Don’t be “that person” who won’t see his or her team all the way through to Game 162. The best leagues have everyone committed, from the start until season’s end.
There are plenty of others, but all come down to the same root point: If what you’re planning to do is something that might irk you if a competitor did it, there’s a simple answer to what you should do.
Now, let’s play ball!
Congratulations on completing the effective “first inning” of my multipart Playbook series. You’re now seasoned enough to be ready to play a league on your own, but worry not, I have plenty more tips to help you master your league in the other eight installments — you’ll naturally want to quickly become a perennial league champion, right?
The next eight “innings” more deeply examine ESPN league types and tips to win them, how to structure and succeed in a salary-cap league, how to best prepare for your draft, trading tips for success, intermediate strategies, leaguewide trends to consider, advanced statistics and Statcast tips, and how to identify secret pockets of value within your league’s player pool (including individual player tips).
It’s one heck of a ride. Buckle up, sit back and enjoy! You’ll never look at baseball the same way again.
Trivia answer: Rickey Henderson was on second base, and Paul Molitor was on first base, at the time of Carter’s homer.