Why I’m Against Replacing BA with OBP in Fantasy Leagues

Effective March 31, Tout Wars is replacing batting average with on-base percentage as a category in their Mixed auction league.  After spending 2012 on the NL-only side of Tout, I was initially slated to return to the Mixed league this year. While I just found out (after the majority of this article was written) that I’ll be remaining in the NL, this is a change that could creep its way into the AL and NL leagues next year, so it’s something I wanted to express my opinion on.

Over at KFFL, Todd Zola recently held a roundtable of Tout participants to assess their view of the rule change and other tangential topics.  The response was overwhelming and unanimously positive, with all participants in favor of the change to one degree or another.  Seeing as how I lean more toward the other side of the fence, I thought it would be valuable to present a case for the ‘against’ position.

The stated reasoning behind the change is that “sabermetrics tells us that a walk is nearly as good as a hit, and many leagues are using OBP rather than BA because it values the base on balls.” In the roundtable, Tout Wars LLC member Peter Kreutzer says, “I think we’re all in agreement that OBP is a far better stat category than BA.”

You’ll hear no argument from me on this point: on-base percentage is certainly a better reflection of a player’s real-life production than batting average is.  But citing this as the reason for the rule change shuffles past a vital assumption that seems to have been lost in this fray: that the goal of fantasy baseball categories should be to reflect real-life productivity.  At the very least, I’m not sure that this is an assumption that should be sauntered past so casually, and in truth, I’m not sure that this is what our goal should be.

Let’s start here: if our goal in structuring fantasy leagues is to reflect real-life value as closely as possible, we can certainly do better than OBP.  Why not OPS, or even better, wOBA or TAv?  What about defensive value?  And if we’re making these kinds of changes, what about the pitching side?  Why keep wins?  Or ERA?  Or even WHIP?  Why not replace them with things that are better indicators of talent, like walks or groundball rate or xFIP?  Why keep saves at all?  Most sabermetrically-minded people hate the concept of saves for real-life purposes.

The response to these questions, I’m sure, is that change takes time, that these are all things that could be addressed in the future, but in baby steps.  But is trying to mirror real-life value really what we should be trying to do?  For me, I’d be pretty bored just trying to predict things like strikeout, walk, and groundball rate.  Sure, they’re the stats that are most highly correlated with the skills that translate to real-life production, but because of this very fact, they’re also the easiest to predict.  They change the least from year to year.  Where’s the fun in that?  Where’s the challenge?  Some may argue that in making changes like these, we’ll be reducing some of the “luck” involved with fantasy baseball (after all, batting average is highly variable, and OBP is a bit less so thanks to the stability of walk rate), but we’ll also be reducing the skill.

Perhaps more importantly, if we take this ‘replacing stats’ line of thought to its logical end, we may well find ourselves with a boring fantasy baseball league.  And shouldn’t fun be one of the primary reasons for playing fantasy baseball?  “Fun” is, of course, a subjective concept, but for me, a big part of the fun is predicting what players will do.  Making that process easier would make it much less fun for me.

It’s tempting to draw parallels between our game and real baseball, but they’re not the same.  We really are playing a different game, and I don’t think it’s necessary to imitate actual baseball if it comes at the expense of entertainment.  I realize that “tradition” is usually a lame excuse for keeping something, anything the same, but in this case, that tradition is what provides a lot of the enjoyment of fantasy baseball, at least for me.

I expect some (or many) of my fellow touts will disagree with me, and they’re entitled to.  This is clearly a matter of opinion, and intelligent minds are allowed to disagree.  It’s the discourse that follows that helps to push things forward.  I’m totally fine with making changes to the way we play our beloved game, but I do think it’s important to take a step back and consider what we’re really hoping to accomplish before we make them.

I’m not sure how many readers are currently reading this since I haven’t posted here in quite a while, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on using OBP and (potentially) other stats as replacements to the standard 5×5 of fantasy baseball.


Comment from Larry Schechter
Time February 15, 2013 at 3:26 PM

For me, it’s very simple:
Disadvantage of OBP — I have to take extra time projecting how many walks each guy will get. (And I already spend to much time as it is.)

Advantage of OBP — when I see my player get a walk, I’ll feel good that he accomplished something positive.

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Time February 15, 2013 at 3:35 PM

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Comment from Mike Fenger
Time February 15, 2013 at 4:53 PM

Well, I do think there’s value in being able to look at the boxscores and get a good feel for how your team is doing, and to use metrics that aren’t elaborate formulas. I also don’t think we are trying to make things “as realistic as possible”, just a little more realistic. (My home league used OPS instead of BA, and that certainly does change things, though not necessarily as far towards accuracy as would using 1.5*OPA+SA, for example.)
I agree that just being able to think your hitter taking a walk doesn’t hurt you the way it used to is a good enough reason for the change. Though it also drives me crazy when other owners want to change the categories every year. Just like it drives me crazy when poker playing friends always come up with intricate new games to try. Just like in fantasy baseball, I think the best test of skill is to play the same game numerous times (over a night in poker, over seasons in baseball). So put me squarely in the middle — I like changing BA to a stat more reflective of a hitter’s range of skills, while still acknowledging that it’s its own game, without the goal of being as sabermetrically accurate as possible. Lord knows what THOSE roundtables would be like!