Philosophy of Fantasy Baseball (2023)
My dad was a Yankees fan until I came along, and it makes sense why. He was born in 1950, the year before Mickey Mantle entered the league, and New York won the World Series in eight of his first 12 years of life. He was raised in a town of 495 people in Iowa, and as so many children do, they pick the best team they hear about or see and decide to cheer for them.
Baseball fandom lineage stories typically follow the, “My father cheered for this team, so I cheered for them, and when we had hard times, we could always come back to our love of that and find common ground.” It’s a sweet narrative, but it’s not our narrative.
I came along in 1980 and grew up in an Iowa town twice the size of my dad’s hometown. With it being 30 years later, we had TV and cable. And on cable was WGN. Starting at the age of 5, I missed very few Cubs games in the summer afternoons. My parents, being teachers, were right there with me, and my evil plan worked exactly as I wanted it to. By the time I was 8, my dad was a Cubs fan and has never looked back.
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When they won in 2016, I was ecstatic but also felt so relieved. The five World Series championships the Yankees won in my lifetime had been met with a few snarky Dad comments about how thankful he was that he didn’t have to worry about all that winning.
In 2013, my longest-running home league needed another person, and I asked Dad if he wanted to play. He had retired by then and agreed after I told him he would understand the game just fine and that he could draft whomever he wanted.
And for the first time in the history of fantasy baseball, someone selected Darwin Barney during a 10-team, 5×5 league draft.
“I wanted a Cubs player,” he said.
“You already had Anthony Rizzo,” I responded.
“You said I could draft whoever I wanted,” he reminded me. “And my philosophy is that I wanted some players I would be watching anyway so I could cheer for them.”
I scoffed at his philosophy of fantasy baseball before saying, “I should have let you stay a Yankees fan then.”
He laughed. “It’s fine. I made you a Vikings fan, so I guess we’re even.”
Fantasy Baseball Philosophy: The Parable of Darwin Barney
I do not claim to be a classically-trained philosopher by any stretch of the imagination. I am, however, classically trained in understanding human emotions and behaviors, including Irvin Yalom’s four existential concerns that underline all human fears. These are death, isolation, meaninglessness, and freedom.
As I thought about it, I realized there are also four existential concerns in fantasy baseball.
Every fantasy manager has had at least one of these crises. “I swear I’m not playing this anymore,” we’ve all said approximately 10 minutes before starting next year’s mock drafts. Mine came after I drafted Gary Sanchez in the second round of my 2018 draft, and he went on to hit 15 fewer homers than the year before while slashing .186/.291/.406.
So it’s time to open up our four deepest fears and address them. Shall we?
Our esteemed LeadingOff host, Mets fan, and all-around great human put this fear into context quite eloquently.
Not sure if I'm going with…
Statler and Waldorf
Grumpy Old Men
— Joe Pisapia (@JoePisapia17) February 17, 2023
There is a cool combined 78 years of life on that bullpen mound. Their names are so familiar to us that drafting them has been a long-standing “solid” choice. We (may) remember when Verlander made his debut; “Madagascar” had just hit the theaters, and the White Sox had won their first title since 1917 (which is the year Rich Hill debuted, I think). Three years later, Scherzer hit the scene while Cole Hamels (soon to be available in a draft near you) won World Series MVP.
Fantasy managers go through this every year: Father Time waits for no athlete, but He certainly seems to procrastinate with some of them. The crisis we all face on draft day is whether we are going to bet against Mr. Time or not.
In my darker, more brooding youth, I was fond of saying, “At some point, potential becomes disappointment.” If “potential” never transfers to “successful,” it only has one route.
The fantasy baseball industry has some amazing analysts who are completely enamored by prospects. Their enthusiasm is palpable, whether on Twitter, podcasts or in their writings. They are geniune Encyclopedias of Potential. You may feel the same level of excitement and are absolutely sure you will target some of these vessels of possibility in your selections.
Then draft day happens, and suddenly, the next names on your sheet are Jo Adell, Jarred Kelenic, and Spencer Torkelson. What do you do besides enter into the temporary throes of a crisis?
Fantasy managers don’t necessarily fear potential, but they definitely fear rostering a player when it turns into disappointment.
Every league has at least one player who adds/drops like a maniac in the first two weeks of the season based on who had a good night the night before. Know who that guy ended up with after Opening Day last year?
Seth Beer. Seth Beer hit a walk-off 3-run homer to beat the Padres and proceeded to hit zero major league home runs for the rest of 2022. I would love to see the stats of (a) how many people added him the next day, (b) which player they dropped for him, and (c) the date he landed back on waivers.
On the opposite side of the coin, some managers will hold on to players for so long after they are fantasy relevant that they may be accused of having codependency issues. That group is terrified of letting go of their commitment, fearing that the second the player is picked up by someone else, he will morph into his inner MVP self.
Working the waiver wire is obviously an important element in leagues that are not best ball or draft-and-hold. But learning how to do so is an art form, and knowing which side of commitment you are more likely to fear is important to success in fantasy baseball.
[Commitment comes in many forms, as demonstrated by my league mate, Steve, who once needed a player mid-season and flipped a coin to choose one of two waiver-wire guys. One was Mike Carp. The other was Mike Trout. “They were both fish names, which I thought was funny,” he recounted when we announced our keepers… each year… for a decade.]
Playing for Fun
Baseball’s unique quality is that it is the only sport where a player’s primary goal is to get back to where he started. And, aside from tennis, it is the only untimed sport where a team is truly never eliminated from a win until the last out is made.
Hope is prevalent in fantasy baseball, even on the doggiest days of summer. Maybe your team will hit a winning streak, or those three hot prospects you’re rostering will get the call-up and come out of the gates on fire. It is a long, beautiful season that we love.
But in case no one has ever told you this: You are allowed to enjoy playing fantasy baseball for any reason you like.
If you love math and spreadsheets? Great. If you just love the camaraderie of talking baseball with other people who love it as much as you? Fabulous. Join our Discord!
And if, for the love of all things, you just want some players to root for a little harder while cheering on your favorite team? Fine.
Draft Darwin Barney. See if I care.
Have a great season, everyone! And, as always, good luck!
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Kelly Kirby is a featured writer and the lead copyeditor at FantasyPros. You can check out her archive here and follow her on Twitter at @thewonkypenguin.