Through 2013, the
fantasy sports industry has blossomed into a multibillion-dollar business. In the U.S. alone, 33.5 million people throw down cash on their fake rosters of athletes, according to the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. Fantasy baseball in particular is a lucrative, agonizing, time-sucking, and highly entertaining activity—and you might have a former U.S. President to thank for it.
John Thorn, the official historian for Major League Baseball, recently posited that a fantasy baseball season was played as early as 1871 by a teenage Woodrow Wilson. The future Commander in Chief compiled made-up stats for real players in the National Association. The ink-on-paper records are even archived in the Library of Congress.
Another early fantasy acolyte: Future On the Road author Jack Kerouac. According to Isaac Gewirtz, Ph.D., curator of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, Kerouac devised a complex baseball game as a teenager that he would go on to play for most of his adult life. In its later iterations, the game made use of a deck of cards; simulations, like hurling objects at a game board; and most importantly, a statistical system that decided the outcome of every pitch. Unlike Wilson’s pastime, Kerouac’s featured both fictional players and stats.
Wilson’s and Kerouac’s games smack of a more modern precursor to online play, Strat-O-Matic, a Dungeons & Dragons-like dice-rolling game for baseball nerds that caught on between the 1960s and ‘80s. Both also have shades of Rotisserie League Baseball, invented by a group of sports journalists in the early ‘80s, which anointed players “fantasy owners” and created a still-widely-used points system.
Then fantasy baseball started to shift toward digital with the advent of 1989’s Dugout Derby, a newspaper promotion executed by a company cofounded by Brad Wendkos. The game, Wendkos says, was fueled by technology that “made the telephone a remote keypad to a computer.” Dugout Derby players would call in to join leagues, draft a team based on a Phoneworks’ algorithms, and accrue weekly stats, according to Wendkos. A non-baseball fan, he quickly got hooked. “It was addictive,” he says.
Then came the breakthrough. In the early ’90s, developers at IBM produced what would be the first online fantasy game,Baseball Manager, which original tech-team member Rick Wolf remembers as attempting to “take Rotisserie Baseball and smash it into Strat-O-Matic.” (He thinks it worked.) Taking into account more in-game simulation than Rotisserie, it allowed you to set lineups and rotations nightly, just like you can nowadays, Wolf says. The exception? You couldn’t get fantasy results in real-time, because of slower modem speeds.
Once the Internet caught fire, the sky was the limit—all of these disparate early versions and their positive quirks connected into one system, Voltron-style. The current version that consumes your mornings, days, and nights is the result of great strides in technological advancement.
But while futuristic tech has simplified the game for you as a fantasy owner, one could also argue that it’s dumbed things down a bit, too. So we consulted with a diverse panel of fantasy baseball experts about old-school strategy in advance of your big draft day. Prepare with these five classic tips, and dominate your league this season.
1. Tap Your Local Library and Newspaper
Before the Internet, how do you think fantasy players did their research? These were two places you scoured for an edge on your competitors. “I remember dozens and dozens of lunches spent at the library to get [information from] local papers,” Wendkos says. Veteran sports beat writers in MLB cities like Milwaukee and Cleveland report on their teams daily, so following their lead could help you nab an early call-up or an under-the-radar waiver-wire pickup during the season. Best of all, libraries carry multiple national newspapers—and the last time we checked, access was free.
2. Think Like an Accountant
Ray Guilfoyle, managing editor of SB Nation’s fantasy site,FakeTeams, got his start and still plays in auction leagues, which tab each baseball player with a dollar value and provide managers with a limited budget to spend on their roster. In these leagues, owners have to double as accountants, using money management skills in drafting a team. Sure, the higher-dollar players—like the Angels’ Mike Trout or Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw—will still go in early rounds on draft day. But if you blow your wad on five pricey players up front, you won’t have enough to spend on support positions in later rounds. “It’s closer to managing an actual Major League Baseball team,” says Guilfoyle. Maybe it’s time to get your Steinbrenner on.
3. Don’t Go it Alone
Wolf, now president of FantasyAlarm, explains that back in the day, “all we had was the [fantasy] community” and resources like Web-based bulletin boards to discuss advanced strategy. You now have access to thousands of fantasy experts and fellow junkies on social platforms like Twitter and Facebook—not to mention dork-tastic analytical hubs like FanGraphs(a favorite of Guilfoyle’s), and up-to-the-minute news on cable channels like MLB Network and ESPN. Think of all of these great resources as one, giant “bulletin board.” If you’re wondering whether to drop Albert Pujols by midseason, you can literally ask the experts for their advice.
4. Keep an Eye on Statistical Trends
Simple math could equal giant results. Wolf does “an enormous amount of numerical analysis” in advance of his drafts to figure out which players are going to break out each year. Grab a pencil and paper and make note. In 2013, by looking at stats over a period of years and factoring in potential areas of improvement, Wolf successfully drafted Baltimore Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, who went from 33 HRs and 85 RBIs in 2012 to 53 HRs and 138 RBIs in 2013, per Baseball-Reference. In short, simple trend-analysis goes a long way. Wolf has a new player tabbed for greatness in 2014: Pittsburgh Pirates outfielder Starling Marte. (Thank him later.)
5. Watch Actual Baseball!
Lastly, in an old-school world, televised games and the ballfield were the two other places you’d execute your research. Former MLB pitcher and current Arizona Diamondbacks broadcaster Tom Candiotti uses what he calls “the eyeball test” for drafting diamonds in the rough for his fantasy team. Last season, he watched Milwaukee Brewers prospect Jean Segura play in an early game, and saw potential: “I immediately put him on my fantasy team; nobody knew who he was,” remembers Candiotti. (In 2013, Segura batted .294 with 49 RBIs and 44 SBs.) In terms of 2014 breakouts, Candiotti, who gets a lot of his info directly from scouts, says he has his eye on D-Backs pitching prospect Archie Bradley. “This guy’s stuff is off the charts,” he says. You heard it from the source.