March 22, 2006

HMMMM, CARBOS:

Analyzing Baseball's Dream Dimension: a review of Fantasyland by Sam Walker (DAN BARRY, 3/22/06, NY Times)

If you hate baseball, the crossword puzzle is around here someplace. But if you adore baseball, if you think owning Thomas Jefferson's autograph or Oil Can Boyd's is a toss-up, then do not turn the page simply because this review concerns a book about that national pastime mutation called "fantasy baseball."

Fantasy baseball does not imagine, say, an outfield of Bettie Page, Yoda and Robin the Boy Wonder. But neither does it take into great account those aspects of the game often called the "little things": laying down a sacrifice bunt; hitting the cutoff man; using the least detectable steroids. This is because fantasy baseball is a cafeteria form of baseball, heavy on the carbohydrates, with no interest in all the spices that make the game so enticing.

Here is how fantasy, or rotisserie, baseball generally works, as neatly described by Sam Walker in his entertaining first book, "Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball's Lunatic Fringe." You and your colleagues enter teams in a virtual league, conduct an auction of Major League Baseball players while keeping within an established salary cap, and compete against one another by tracking the statistics of your players.

In a classic rotisserie league, only certain statistics usually help to determine the league's winner at season's end. For hitters: home runs, runs batted in, stolen bases and batting average. For pitchers: wins, saves, earned-run averages, and something called WHIP, which Mr. Walker explains is a formula for "walks allowed plus hits allowed divided by innings pitched."

If your head is now imploding because you never saw a WHIP statistic on a bubble-gum card, you are not alone — though if you think about it, the statistic makes sense.

For nearly a generation now, two camps have battled over how to assess a player's worth. The traditionalists, usually mocked as tobacco-stained scouts with radar guns, rely on old-fashioned statistics and gut feelings about the little things. The newcomers, usually mocked as college wonks who think a jockstrap is a BlackBerry accessory, use advanced formulas worthy of NASA and dismiss gut feelings and the little things as sentimental claptrap.

Mr. Walker addresses this scout-wonk struggle within Major League Baseball, but focuses more on a related phenomenon: the rotisserie leagues that have millions of participants — and you know who you are.


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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 22, 2006 12:00 AM
Comments

If fantasy baseball is so great, why did the baseball gods force one of it's co-creators to spend 18 months dealing with Maureen Dowd and Paul Krugman? If that's not bad karma, I don't know what is.

Posted by: John at March 22, 2006 2:54 PM
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