Otto von Bismarck at the Bat
The fight for the soul of my fantasy-baseball league.
Major changes to our league are typically put to a vote. Simon made a show of respecting this convention, but when holds failed to carry the day in a ballot measure, he simply instituted them by fiat. The responses to Simon's move were swift, profanity-laced, and almost uniformly ungrammatical. But the message was nevertheless clear: The other managers were apoplectic that Simon had thwarted the will of the people. They also really, really liked complete games.
The argument for using the complete game as a fantasy-baseball category is that complete games are fun. Even the CGs fiercest supporter didn't make the case that the complete game is a good measure of a player's skill. While it's certainly an accomplishment any time a pitcher throws a CG, in the era of the pitch count, it has become increasingly rare for a starter to last all nine innings. Whether a pitcher earns a CG has as much to do with the state of the bullpen as it does with how much gas he has going into the ninth. It's like the pitching equivalent of the grand slam—you have to be able to hit the ball out of the park to get one, but you also have to come up with the bases loaded.
No one has ever won the complete game category because of their fantasy-baseball acumen; you win CGs by luck. But getting a CG is undeniably a blast. There is nothing quite like the rush of realizing one of your pitchers is headed into the ninth having thrown just 98 pitches—so long as he doesn't put anybody on base, the CG, and the big spike in points that comes with it, is surely yours. Last year, the team that won the category had 12 CGs; I finished second, with nine, having paid no attention to the category all season long.
The hold, by contrast, is not fun. It's like a save, but without the glamour that attends the final inning of a game. No one roots for holds. Major League Baseball doesn't recognize them, and most fans aren't even aware they exist. But holds do make you pay attention to middle relievers. In the past, my league has used six pitching categories in addition to complete games: wins, losses, saves, ERA, strikeouts, and WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched). This means that while starters and closers are highly sought after, only the elite middle relievers—the Hideki Okajimas and Joba Chamberlains—are typically on anyone's roster. But if fantasy is a test of how well you know baseball, should you really be able to dismiss a group of players so key to real-world success?
Simon argued no, and, I confess, I shared his opinion, which I guess makes me his Albrecht von Roon. For Simon and me—and I think for many players of fantasy—the game long ago stopped being "fun." I invest an unhealthy amount of time and energy in my fantasy team; its successes buoy my spirits, certainly, but its failures can ruin my day. In this sense, fantasy has become something of a misnomer—it suggests an escapist pursuit, when this league is in fact very much a part of my everyday reality. There are more edifying, more useful ways I could spend my time. But if I'm going to spend hours reading up on Kelvim Escobar's supraspinatus, I at least want to be able to entertain this fantasy: that if Theo Epstein were to be hit by a bus tomorrow and John Henry decided to shake things up and bring in someone from outside the organization, I might be a plausible candidate for the job. If I went in there and prattled on about the importance of letting Red Sox starters go the full nine, no way I'd make it to the second round of interviews.
Running a fantasy team will always be at best a rough approximation of what it's like to run a real one. Because it's based purely on statistics, fantasy distorts the value of players who might dominate a certain category. If a real-world GM put together a team with Mariano Rivera, Takashi Saito, Brad Lidge, and Kerry Wood—as one player in my league has—he'd be run out of town on a rail. Still, in an era when no front office is complete without a sabermetrician, managing a fantasy team can feel close to what the guys in the big leagues do—if you could only make a few changes to how your fantasy league is scored ...
Alas, that's not how the majority of the managers in our league saw it. Simon, recognizing he didn't have the political capital to push his change through—and, indeed, that he was flirting with being deposed—struck a conciliatory note and reinstated the old league settings. But if I know Simon, this is far from over. The whisper campaign for a splinter league next season has already begun. We'll use holds instead of complete games. No second utility spot. Fielding percentage. Watch your back, Epstein.