The MoneyBall of Fantasy Sports

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Since the release of the 2011 hit movie Moneyball staring Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and his team’s analytical, evidence-based, sabermetric approach to assembling a competitive team, despite Oakland’s disadvantaged revenue situation the term has been tossed around in every sport and beyond. From Moneyball in the Corporate World, Moneyball for Sales and Marketing and Moneyball in the Politics it never ends. The obvious question for the Roto World is: does the approach work in our beloved world of fantasy sports.

The RotoGuys will not splice, analyze and strip away all equations to arrive at a yes or no but we will try to determine how if any it is or isn’t applicable.

The term Moneyball comes from the book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis  which the 2011 movie is based on. It is simply a must read for any baseball or even sporting fan.


It is not a stretch when they call it “”the single most influential baseball book ever”. Lewis examines how in 2002 the Oakland Athletics achieved a spectacular winning record while having the smallest player payroll of any major league baseball team. Lewis discusses Bill James and his annual stats newsletter, Baseball Abstract, along with other mathematical analysis of the game. Surprisingly, though, most managers have not paid attention to this research, except for Billy Beane, general manager of the A’s and a former player. For those interested, the complete collection of Bill James’s Baseball Abstracts which was the basis for Beane’s theory can be found online and his highly recommended (The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

By re-evaluating the strategies that produce wins on the field, Beane’s 2002 Oakland A’s with approximately $41 million in salary, were competitive with larger market teams such as the Yankees, who spent over US$125 million in payroll in that same baseball season. Because of the team’s smaller revenues, Oakland is forced to find players undervalued by the market, and their system for finding value in undervalued players was proven time and time again. This approach brought the Oakland A’s to the playoffs in 2002 and 2003.

There is doubt whether Sabermetrics can be applied in other sports since they require several players to succeed for a play to go well, making it difficult to apply sabermetrics. The advantage of baseball is that its statistics generally measure and offer a snapshot of the performance of one player. A particular player’s success is often determined by his own plays/actions, although some external factors, like defense, can involve more than one person. A quarterback can have a great game throwing for many yards but usually his offensive line, wide receiver or tight end were just as crucial to the ‘good game’ and putting up great stats. The Oakland A’s Billy Beane has been involved with trying to apply sabermetric to soccer, at one point acting as an advisor to the San Jose Earthquakes MLS team. I can see using statistics to determine what striker is better suited against a certain defense: some strikers are known for being on the high end of fouls resulting in many penalty kicks (awarded) while some defense’s are as well known for racking up fouls. Match made in heaven? However, for a striker to be in a scoring position inside the box this requires strong midfielders moving the ball forward as well as a 2nd striker creating space for the 1st striker. Again, a stat is not just a stat as plays involve an orchestra of ‘actions’ and not just a good swing or speed at stealing a base.

If we agree Baseball and Sabermetrics works why then can’t we apply Beane’s winning formula to fatten our wallets and win some prize money in the world of fantasy baseball? According to Bill James, sabermetrics comes down to ‘the search for objective knowledge about baseball” … sounds perfect for our fantasy team then. Our fantasy teams are also measured by traditional stats 0 home runs, strikeouts, ERA, etc. The bottom line is it offer a competitive advantage but should not be the only strategy in selecting your team. What it can do is allow you to find undervalued assets in a fantasy league.

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Where you must tread with caution is keeping mind that daily fantasy leagues are just that: daily. One is trying to extract the maximum value for that one game: Martin or Saltalamacchia? Sabermetrics or Moneyball would bet on a more undervalued catcher but we don’t have that choice. You may think longer leagues (annual) are the answer but the undervalued or bargain’s will be new players that may never get playing time or veterans that may face injury leaving the season and beyond in trouble. What you want to use the ‘system’ for is evaluating the talent of a player that reveals diamonds in the rough rather than the obvious picks. In reality, everyone in the fantasy league has a pick at the same ‘assets’ it is those with some strategy and a bit of luck that will come out on top. The ability to identify undervalued assets is really the key to winning.

My moneyball ‘moment’ can be traced back to grade school (without even realizing it then). In our 1988 draft the usual suspects were selected : Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman. We were well down the list of candidates when I spotted LA Kings forward Bernie Nicholls still available. Nicholls had a new team mate: Wayne Gretzky and in the past had proven to be a 100 point player playing for less than talented teams like the LA Kings. The season prior Nicholls has a respectable 78 point season. After much analysis I selected Nicholls who doubled his tally to 150 points that season. Not an Oakland A’s winning streak moment but a clear example of the ability to spot out the diamonds in the rough taking into account non traditional ‘measures’ to make selections.

However, the full application of sabermetrics is not clean and according to Scott Kendrick in his article ‘Using Sabermetrics in Fantasy Baseball’ (link: its application to fantasy baseball isn’t clean and is probably misleading in some area. That said, there are sabermetrics statistics that can help you, especially in comparing players on draft day or in trades.” Kendrick describes several components such as VORP: Value over replacement player, MLV: Marginal Lineup Value and BABIP: Batting average on balls in play as useful instruments in measuring player value.

My advice is to measure several factors: avoid it in a head to head daily match up and use it as a selection tool for season long fantasy leagues. Player values are still much like outlined in the moneyball based on old metrics which at times is far from reality. Look beyond the obvious and find your next Bernie Nicholls.

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