Please Explain: Fantasy Baseball 5×5 Leagues

During one of the fantasy drafts I was involved in, I mentioned to the other team owners that I’ve never understood why so many people who pledge allegiance to sabermetrics still play in the typical 5×5 league?  One of the other owner’s mentioned that this sounds like a topic for Please Explain.  So here we are.

If you not familiar about what a 5×5 league consists of here you go.

Offensive categories: runs, homeruns, ribbies, batting average, stolen bases.

Defensive categories: wins, saves, strikeouts, era, whip

Now, I’m not blaming Daniel Okrent and the guys who developed rotisserie baseball back in 1980, as these were the stats that ruled the game at the time.  It’s just as many of these numbers have been exposed as being empty categories over the past couple decades that I wonder why so many baseball fans continue to play in these leagues.  What is really mystifying to me is when there are fantasy baseball challenges conducted between writers who cover the game, they always seem to be 5×5 leagues. 

I have always joined "sabr-type" scoring leagues, which generally use OBP, SLG, Runs, RBI’s for offense, with Wins, Saves, ERA, WHIP for pitching categories.  While I know there is no perfect stat to judge players (yes, even SWOBODA), being concerned about batting average and stolen bases just seems hypocrital.  How can sabermetrical experts be involved in public leagues where these categories count for so much?  It’s like Al Gore owning stock in Haliburton.  There seems to be a major conflict of interest here, as you are rooting for something that you find as a negative to your most central beliefs.

Now, I know some would knock the merits of runs batted in, wins, and saves, but if you just had an OPS category, it wouldn’t make for a very interesting game.  While a "sabr-type" league has flaws in its categories, at least it doesn’t give a player like Juan Pierre too much credibility like 5×5 does. 

If you follow baseball from a sabermetrical viewpoint, Please Explain why 5×5 fantasy baseball has merit. 

20 thoughts on “Please Explain: Fantasy Baseball 5×5 Leagues

  1. 1.  Well for me, it is what it is: fantasy baseball. It really seems to add to the fantasy when you take statistics that don’t really matter as much. You do have to give the 5×5’s some credit for using WHIP though.

  2. 2.  The only game I’ve played consistently over the years is Baseball Manager (used to be on Prodigy and now it’s owned by Even when I started doing it as a 14 year old, the game simulation seemed more realistic to me, where walks are very nearly important to scoring as a single. It’s not rotisserie at all, but when you draft players very little attention is given to guys like Juan Pierre, because CS dings you also.

  3. 3.  5×5 leagues are a puzzle. It doesn’t matter what variables are used to assign points – the puzzle is the same. I don’t care if my 5×5 fantasy team is actually a better team on the field than the other teams in the league but I do enjoy researching players around the league and trying to find players who would help me solve the puzzle. Getting the most points in 5 categories is like playing Yahtzee more than being a General Manager. It doesn’t matter if the 5 categories are closer to the ones a GM would use or not. Fantasy baseball isn’t random like Yahtzee but it’s still a game of counting.

    Saves and steals might not be as good stats in determing player value but as a 5×5 player I had to learn about things like ‘Will Chris Duffy be the starting CF for the Pirates?’ and ‘Who will close for the Devil Rays?’. I know Al Reyes isn’t Scott Kazmir and Chris Duffy isn’t Jason Bay but so what? I don’t know how it’s any more or less fun to search or an unknown player who steals bases as one that hits for a good SLG%.

    Joel Zumaya was a better reliever than Todd Jones last year even though Jones had 37 saves and Zumaya had one. Zumaya had 6 wins in 83 IP with great Ks, ERA, and WHIP. Jones was good in one category and OK in all the others. It doesn’t matter what the 5 sets of stats are in pitching or hitting – you still have to know how all the interplay the different stats.

    The traditional 5×5 stats are also the default setting for most free leagues. Inertia rules.

  4. 4.  I play traditional 5×5 because whenever the prospect of joining a dynasty league, or a more “sabermetric” type league, comes up, I can’t get over the suspicion I’ll feel something akin to the uncanny valley once I get into it. If someone claims a fantasy game is somehow “more real”, I can’t dig it because I can’t stop thinking of ways to describe how unrealistic it is. Why stop at 8×8 sabr-friendly categories? Weight everything! Mix in fielding! Pitcher hitting! Nope. It’s too much. The only change I’ve proposed to our league, which I’m not that invested in and it was shot down immediately, was a switch from AVG to OBP. Anyway, that was probably more in reaction to the severe Pedro Feliz trauma I’ve suffered in real-baseball the past few years than wanting a “better” fantasy league.


  5. 5.  For those of us who read the Juice Blog, Baseball Prospectus, Bill James, etc., it’s easy to forget that most baseball fans know nothing about sabermetrics.

    I’m commissioning a league this year with people I’ve played with for close to ten years. It’s not the group’s primary league, so I opted to replace AVG with OBP and SLG and added IP on a whim – nothing too drastic, just a little departure from the norm. Despite doing everything I could to publicize the changes, half the league was caught by surprise. During the draft, it became clear that a number of players didn’t even know what SLG was (not idiots, just not sabermeticians). A number complained that the changes over-emphasized power hitters (oblivious to the fact that 5×5 leagues do as well). Of the thirteen other players, only one seemed happy with the scoring “changes”. Of the four leagues I’m in this year, I suspect the Juice Blog league is the only one that wouldn’t have a similar reaction.

  6. 6.  I’m in a 5×5 league in addition to the Juice Blog-sponsored ESPN league (praying those waiver pick-ups eventually go through…).

    Anyway, I’d consider myself more of a sabermetrics type than an old-guard type, and I still enjoy 5×5 for a few reasons. For one, as StolenMonkey86 noted, it’s fantasy. I’d argue that fantasy keeps things interesting because small actions can have major results. A guy goes 25/50 in his last dozen or so games, and suddenly a .270 league-average hitter has finished the season batting .300.

    Furthermore, they’re the sort of stats that, for the most part, are more visceral. A guy taking a walk, while I can intellectually appreciate, doesn’t really ‘fire up the blood’ so to speak. However, a guy on my 5×5 roto team steals a base, beats out a throw to home to score on a single, and the inning ends on the next batter, that’s much more immediate gratification.

    Lastly, it allows me to play with non-sabermetric friends, which is a major component. I enjoy fantasy leagues. And I enjoy playing in leagues with my friends. But unless you work with a bunch of other SABR fellows, it’s rather difficult to get a discussion of VORP going. So I play in 5×5 roto leagues, and hope that I can stomach my dislike of Juan Pierre.

  7. 7.  4 “which I’m not that invested in and it was shot down immediately, was a switch from AVG to OBP”

    Yes, that’s the one that’s got to go.

    As for the other major “Juan Pierre” number: Though stolen bases are overvalued way beyond their corresponding worth in the actual game, I’m still in favor of playing in leagues that have them, simply because they make the game of fantasy baseball more challenging. You have to work harder to get a balance, rather than simply scrambling to stockpile a bunch of Travis Hafner OPS hosses.

  8. 8.  I prefer to play in a league made up of my friends and co-workers rather than random people on the internet. Problem is, finding 12-16 people who all are invested in OPS and scoff at AVG is pretty tough.

    We go 6×6, adding OPS to the bats, and K:BB to the arms.

  9. 10.  I was thinking a 5×5 sabermetric league would look something like;
    Pitching: K/9, BB/9, FIP, WPA, and pLi (to keep relievers valuable)
    Batting: OBP, ISO, OPS Wins (or a run formula derived from wOBA), WPA, and maybe Clutchiness to make it more unpredictable.
    Useful glossary here:

  10. 12.  Another reason to use standard 5×5, it allows owners to use off the shelf valuations. Sure, us math oriented guys would have an advantage over the guy in my league who is a script writer if everyone had to calculate the impact of Sabermetric categories, but standard 5×5 levels the playing field a little bit.

  11. 13.  I am playing in a league right now that is pretty cool. I didn’t come up with the concept (and neither did my commissioner apparently), but basically every batting outcome has a value associated to it (a single is .5, a double is .72, an out is -.09, ect). Over the course of the year your team accumulates runs in this manner, meanwhile, you have a stable of pitchers who have to reach 1450 innings (~162 times 9) for the year (there is a penalty for being under it) and at the end the earned runs are calculated back down to 1450 if you are over. Then the runs scored and the runs against are run through the Pythagorean Win Formula and boom, you have standings.

    I think that is a pretty SABR way around the whole thing. Especially considering that once you do a 5X5 or anything like that you are already sacrificing quite a bit of realism. There is nothing wrong with that, Chuck Klosterman for example wrote about how attempts to make fantasy sports more real resulted in them being less fun. Under that premise I can appreciate why people play in standard 5X5 leagues.

  12. 14.  “Then the runs scored and the runs against are run through the Pythagorean Win Formula and boom, you have standings.”

    It occurs to me that I could have used “put” or “calculated” instead of “run” for the third time in the sentence. I guess it was just on the brain.

  13. 15.  I’m in one of the Juice blog leagues and I am open to saves being eliminated as a category. My team doesn’t seem to feel they are necessary.

  14. 16.  I converted my 10-year old 5×5 league to a pseudo saber league as follows:

    Hits, OBP, SLG, HR, SB
    QS, K, WHIP, ERA, Saves

    Hits is in there to incentivize healthy lineups and top-of-the-order types. Quality Starts was a big leap for people but they’ve come to love it. Your guy exits in the 7th with a 2-1 deficit and you’re golden. Plus you can draft KC and DC guys on equal plane with CM Wang and company.

    One quirk I found after a year of tracking QS. Managers will leave borderline (90-100 pitch) guys in through 5 to get a Win but have a quick hook in the middle of the 6th. Bad for QS!! You start to see how many dopes manage accd to the Win stat.

    Haven’t figured out how to kill off Saves yet. WXRL anyone?

  15. 17.  16 My problem with QS is that 6 IP, 3 ER is hardly quality. That’s a 4.50 ERA and 3 innings for your bullpen. That’s too low a threshold IMO.

  16. 18.  The oft cited 6ip, 3er example represents less than 10% of QS on the aggregate. On the other hand, starters giving up 4-6 ER’s get wins quite often. If 4.30 is league avg nowadays then a QS constitutes giving your team an opportunity to win.

  17. 19.  17 – They have done studies and pitchers usually have ERA’s under 2 in their quality starts and over 6 in their non-quality starts. It is a great way to separate the wheat from the chafe.

  18. 20.  Some people might feel you lose the fun when you knock out Ws, SB, AVG and replace them with something else. When talking about a Cy Young candidate when’s the last time someone ignored wins and talked about quality starts?

    Most of these new stat categories you’re talking about are not tracked or real to many people. Baseball is a complicated stat game but at it’s core it’s simply. Hitters hit and pitchers pitch. Simplicity is fun.

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