ROTISSERIE: WONK league rules

The biggest news in fantasy baseball since the invention of FAAB—the BaseballHQ Writers ONly Keeper (WONK) League—was created to test, develop, and learn about roto strategies, particularly for keeper leagues. (Despite prevailing opinion, it was not created to help certain writers improve their trash-talking.) It started as a simple, one-page outline that provided all the information team owners would need to manage their teams. It was disseminated to all 15 owners.

Then the fun began.

A sketch of league rules is helpful, but the devil is in the details. How much FAAB would we have? What types of players can be picked up? How often should we allow transactions?  How will keepers be accounted for? How should keeper salaries be handled? There arose healthy discussions around these topics.

So why should you care? It’s not your league, right? Right. However, the discussions centered around the strategy implications of each rule, as well as the league experience. These topics are common to most leagues, so how the WONKs approached the decisions can perhaps help other leagues make similar decisions, or prompt rule modifications that could improve league play.

For those who missed the original announcement, you can read about it here. The current league constitution is located here.

Key Question #1

The first, and perhaps most consequential, question was about transaction frequency. Some owners pushed for daily transactions (you can read Brad Kullman’s coverage of daily transactions here). While nobody pushed for the old-fashioned once-weekly arrangement, there were concerns about daily transactions. They generally fell into one of three buckets: 1) Streaming pitchers; 2) The need to check on your team every day; and 3) The rush to pick up free agents before others could get to them.

The argument for allowing streaming goes something like this: “the Dodgers can bring a pitcher up to start a game at any time; we should be able to do the same.” The counter to that is that major-league baseball has rules to limit such moves (e.g., a limited number of options for each player). Also, streaming allows fantasy teams to accumulate unrealistic amounts of playing time. Try as they might, the Dodgers cannot accumulate 12 games started or 100 innings pitched in a week. Rotisserie baseball has no such limitations. Many daily transaction leagues place a limit on appearances or games started to prevent such accumulation.

However, streaming pitchers does come at some cost. The extra starting pitchers required to stream effectively cut into the reserve slots you may need to fill other positions or stash prospects. This is a real cost, though it’s measured in something other than draft budget. There’s also the matter of needing to be good at deciding who pitches when—we’ve seen some counterintuitive results recently, like a Colorado starter with better stats at home than on the road.

The last two problems were easier to solve. As Brad points out in his article, most fantasy owners check in on their teams regularly, and those who pay more regular attention should get an advantage. The problem of rushing to pick up free agents was solved by having FAAB transactions once a week. In a way, this will help ameliorate the streaming problem, too, as teams without adequate backups may be left with a hole in the roster for several days when injuries or demotions strike. Final decision: daily roster moves with weekly FAAB bidding.

Key Question #2

The next big question was about FAAB bidding. The salaries of players acquired in the auction or in the reserve draft were set, but how to determine the salaries of players acquired as free agents? Many leagues still use the old $10 rule, but that allows big FAAB bids on potential long-term keepers. On the flip side, setting salary equal to the FAAB bid allows for teams to pick up a bunch of $1 players in September in the hopes of striking keeper gold. It also eliminates the $0 FAAB bid, which several owners thought was important. Setting a $10 floor on free agent salaries allowed us to have salaries equal to FAAB without the concerns about prospect hoarding.

This all tied into the FAAB budget as well—should it be $100 or $1,000? With no in-season salary cap, having a player with a $600 salary wouldn’t be the end of the world, but it is a bit ridiculous to look at. Plus, setting a high FAAB budget would likely prevent most free agents from becoming keepers, as the bids to acquire good players would routinely exceed any fair keeper price. So even though it provides less bidding flexibility, we settled on $100 in FAAB.

Key Question #3

Finally, there was the question of keepers. The rules allow you to keep a player as a reserve coming into the season as long as he is an MLB rookie who has never been active in the WONK League. The overall number of keepers is unlimited. The question is how to account for reserve keepers. Should they slot in at the end of the reserve draft? At the beginning? Somewhere else? The picks you lose to keep reserve players are a definite cost, and a 1st-round reserve pick is obviously worth a lot more than a 17th-round pick.

Consider that a player drafted as a minor leaguer in the reserve round could be kept for 10+ years if he turns into a premium player. A guy who comes up at age 22 would have a $30 salary at age 31 in year 10 of his WONK career. That’s a lot of potential value. Keeping prospects, then, should come at a price.

Again, though, just owning prospects does comes at a cost. The spots taken up by prospects could be used for backups, handcuffs, and pitchers to stream. If the WONK league averages five true prospects per reserve roster, that means that 525 major-league players will be owned. While good, unowned players can emerge during the season, at the beginning the best free agent available will be someone ranked outside of the top 500. That’s hardly replacement level. There has been no decision as of yet; the question of where to slot keepers is still an open one, though one that will be decided shortly.

The ability to keep a player for 10+ years is also a potential issue. One proposal would have any player with a salary of $15 or higher increase at $5 per year regardless of where he was drafted. This would still allow teams to have a young player for five years before the $5 bump came into effect, and it somewhat mimics MLB, where good players tend to get big jumps in years five and six, and reach free agency in year seven. However, the number of players affected is likely small, and it's likely that the league will decide to instead monitor the effects on draft inflation and player availability before making a change.

In Closing

These are just some of the considerations of setting up a league. The thing to remember is that every decision will affect owners’ strategies in some way. Most importantly, though, is the fun of playing! If rules get too complex, that can cut into the fun for many owners.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.