Don't get too close to my fantasy

by Rob Horning

3 April 2006


The happiest day of the year has arrived, and if you don’t believe me, then you obviously don’t have a fantasy baseball team. For the next few months I’ll be reveling in the joy of numbers and player news, with every piece of data being operable rather than inert—every new fact, every new at bat or injury, leads to a series of reevaluations, a host of potential decisions, a cascade of consequences that one can nonetheless feel one has mastered. In all, fantasy baseball is like a simplified stock market, and I can play a being a daytrader, with all the intensity and obsession that implies, without having to venture my retirement savings to do it. I can have the high blood pressure without the profit. If I put half as much energy into research companies as I did into researching shortstops, I could probably make a mint.

The analytical tools used for investing and fantasy-baseball play are rapidly converging, especially with data available on the big administrative sites like CBS.Sportsline and ESPN and Yahoo on what is happening across fantasy leagues in the aggregate—you get the rough equivelent of a stock’s beta, as well as a speculatively determined sense of a player’s value, and which players saw heavy volume. You can see in how many leagues a player is being used, at what position he was drated on average, and several different objective measures of his value on a daily, weekly, or season long basis. (And of course you get analyst’s reports daily when there is news for a particular player—just as Yahoo gives you company news for your portfolio, it provides player news for your fantasy squad, along with how should affect whether you buy, hold, or sell. The very notion of fantasy baseball is a kind of derivatives market, in which values are derived from another source and slightly distorted, magnified, laden with different incentives. My investment strategy? Get some steady value guys—proven established players whose production won’t surprise or disappoint—and then take on some risk with players with growth potential, such as pitchers in their third full year or players coming off injury-plagued seasons. You need a few blue chippers, but often enough, the small caps outproduce that big-salary guys.

This kind of thinking is probably what’s behind those who complain that fantasy sports “destroy” the fun of being a sports fan, or constitutes some phony kind of fandom, turning baseball into pseudo-business. In truth, it reflects perfectly the values of American culture: it stresses the individual over the team, and holds individuals accountable for things the larger team often controls (a pitcher’s wins, a hitter’s RBIs); it enshrines financial calculation and analysis as a primary mode of pleasure (tracking the value of your holdings is a value unto itself; possession itself is the most pleasurable form of spectatorship) and the most rational way of assessing who’s winning (success must be measured in numbers). It reiterates the sense that there should be no emotional investment in something without a quantifiable stake, and no leisure that doesn’t in some way mimic work.

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