The Playbook, Inning 2: How to pick the right fantasy baseball format

You can't declare a champion in your fantasy baseball league until you figure out what format you're going to use to decide who wins. Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports

(The full, nine-inning Playbook was originally published during the spring of 2020. It has been updated for 2023 where applicable.)

The original rotisserie baseball draft -- the league that made our grand game famous -- took place on April 13, 1980, or nearly 43 years ago.

It's the format still near and dear to my heart: A traditional salary-cap draft of players within the constraints of a $260 budget, "only" leagues -- this means a player pool drawn from only those within either the American or National Leagues, but not both -- and season-long categorical scoring. The most notable quibble I had with the original format was its 4x4 scoring, rather than the 5x5 that is now commonplace.

That's not to point criticism at any of the game's other formats. If asked which of my current leagues is my favorite, I might be as apt to name my longtime home points league (which, in 2023, will be my 25th as a participant) or my longtime online keeper league (which will be my 26th season as a participant and 25th as commissioner) as I would any of my "old-school" leagues. In fact, it's those points leagues for which I now compile our site rankings.

Each format has both its strengths and flaws, but finding the one -- or, preferably, several -- most enticing to you is perhaps the most important ingredient as you begin your fantasy baseball journey.

Part 1 of the Playbook provided a brief glimpse into each of ESPN's standard offerings. Today, let's dig deeper into each -- as well as other possibilities beyond those -- and find the perfect format for you. Included in the profiles of each format are insights provided for each from some of my readers.

Roto, or traditional rotisserie baseball

The "4x4" or "5x5" mentioned earlier refer to the number of statistical categories counted on both the hitting and pitching sides of the roto -- or rotisserie -- game, as in four or five select categories for hitters and four or five for pitchers.

Roto compares fantasy teams' cumulative numbers to one another in these categories -- batting average, home runs, RBI and stolen bases for hitters, and wins, saves, ERA and WHIP (walks plus hits divided by innings pitched, which was created specifically for the rotisserie format) for pitchers in 4x4, with runs scored for hitters and strikeouts for pitchers added for 5x5 -- and awards points to teams in descending order by standings rank in each, with those points then combined to create an overall standings. These standings shift daily as games are played and totals change, and the team on top after the season's final game is declared the league champion.

There's an element of strategy in rotisserie baseball that isn't found in some of the others, as teams must balance players' individual accomplishments as well as each team's statistical totals over the course of an entire season. For example, a speedster like Jon Berti, whose 41 stolen bases last season led the majors, takes on greater importance in a rotisserie league because of how he can influence that singular category. Berti was a top-70 overall player in those formats, yet wasn't even a top-100 hitter in points-based scoring. Similarly, a closer like Daniel Bard, whose 34 saves were sixth-most last season, carries more weight in a rotisserie league because saves is (typically) its own department. Bard was a top-50 overall player in rotisserie scoring, but he finished outside the top-50 pitchers in points scored.

It's that strategy that I, as well as many veteran fantasy baseball players, find most alluring. As Lyle Wood puts it, "roto requires six months of focus, and the best team typically wins." Jonathan Hurst describes roto as "purer," a game that minimizes the influence of uneven scheduling due to either rainouts or shortened weekly team schedules. Roto also has the advantage of equally weighting every day, week or month of the season equally, making it considerably more likely that it'll take your league's competition right down to the year's final regular-season pitch.

To that point, in the annual League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) and Tout Wars industry analysts' competitions, roto leagues in which I've played for more than two decades, the champion of at least one of the AL- or NL-only leagues was decided by the results of the season's final game in four of the last seven years. You can't ask for greater drama than that.

If you're up to the challenge of a rotisserie league but struggle with the idea of calculating player values, whether for your draft or trades in-season, worry not: Our ESPN Player Rater is updated daily in-season to reflect year-to-date as well as past 7-, 15- and 30-day earnings, and Eric Karabell provides regular rankings, all year, that forecast how he expects players to perform in rotisserie leagues for the remainder of the season.

Head-to-Head Points

If you're a longtime fantasy football player just getting your feet wet in fantasy baseball, Head-to-Head Points might be for you.

Teams are pitted against one another in weekly head-to-head matchups, where the team with the greater number of fantasy points for the week is awarded a win. Points are doled out for players' accomplishments in a number of statistical categories, with ESPN's standard scoring system listed below. Note that for 2023, there have been a few small changes to the scoring.

  • Total Bases (TB): 1

  • Runs Batted In (RBI): 1

  • Runs scored (R): 1

  • Stolen Bases (SB): 1

  • Walks (BB): 1

  • Strikeouts (K): minus-1

  • Innings Pitched (IP): 3

  • Wins (W): 2 (changed from 5)

  • Losses (L): minus-2 (changed from minus-5)

  • Holds (HD): 2 (new category)

  • Saves (SV): 5

  • Earned Runs (ER): minus-2

  • Hits allowed (H): minus-1

  • Strikeouts (K): 1

  • Walks issued (BB): minus-1

Teams traditionally compete over a 21-week "regular season," with the four teams possessing the best records at that point matching up in a pair of two-week "playoffs" to determine a league champion. As with fantasy football, though, a Head-to-Head Points league can adopt any sort of schedule type: Three single-week playoff matchups following a 22-week regular season (or 21 if you choose to eliminate the final week due to major league teams often resting up for their own playoffs), multiweek matchups all season (regular season and playoffs), "all play" where every team is matched up against every possible opponent every week (unavailable in ESPN games), or even regular season-only, where the champion of the league is the one that has the best record when the major-league season concludes.

For newer players, a points-based league might make more sense. Defined awards for players' statistical accomplishments makes it easier to evaluate them; anyone with a basic knowledge of spreadsheets can calculate player production and determine which ones are the best. "It's way easier and more intuitive to see that 'X action equals Y number of points' than it is to try to analyze categories," says Jerry Mazzuca.

But even if you need some help with said evaluations, I'm here to help with rankings for points leagues, all season long.

Head-to-Head Points is also a popular format because of its "real-life" simulation. As Ben Hinkley points out, "it creates rivalries like in real baseball." There's more individual engagement among managers in a head-to-head league, and especially points, where it's easy to make a direct comparison of teams' performances.

That has a similar drawback to football, however, in that the best team doesn't always win. If you've ever suffered the misfortune of being a 1-seed knocked out in Round 2 of your fantasy football playoffs, fresh off a bye week, due to facing a team that had the least-expected player have a huge game, beware that there's a similar danger in this fantasy baseball format. Worse yet, a 21-week season amplifies that sting that you'd feel in a 13-week football season, not to mention that baseball can often be an even more unpredictable beast in the month of September, as teams wrap up playoff positioning and begin resting regulars or teams which have been eliminated begin to audition prospects for the following season as well as shut down their injured stars.

Ah, but there's another advantage to the head-to-head format: A 21-week season's conclusion will coincide almost perfectly with the first week of the fantasy football season. "That allows for managers to more easily move from baseball to football," said Hinkley. If you're usually thinking football by Labor Day, head-to-head play is surely for you.

Head-to-Head Each Category

Compromise is a good thing: toss both the categorical scoring approach of traditional roto and the head-to-head structure of Head-to-Head Points into the proverbial blender and press the "purée" button. Voila: You've got Head-to-Head Each Category!

Teams again are matched up against another in a weekly head-to-head battle, but in this case, wins are awarded to the better of the two teams in each of a select set of statistical categories. In ESPN standard leagues, these are the same roto 5x5 categories cited above. So, for example, if a team had the greater performance in home runs, RBI, runs scored, wins and strikeouts, but the worse of the two in batting average, stolen bases, ERA and WHIP, and the two teams tied in saves, then it would finish the weekly matchup with a 5-4-1 record.

Many of the same benefits and caveats of the former two formats apply as a result of their "blending." In this format, however, final records are considerably larger than they are in Head-to-Head Points, due to the 10 categories up for grabs weekly rather than one win at stake. That helps provide more opportunities to play catch-up, which might appeal to those only playing and learning the game for the first time in the season's early weeks. It's never a good feeling to get the hang of a fantasy baseball league at the one-third point, only to realize you're too far back in the standings to make up ground.

In Head-to-Head Categories, though, the cumulative design of traditional roto is gone and each weekly matchup is a new opportunity to make up ground. As Daniel Cast explains, "it allows for the teams lower in the standings to still make a run for the playoffs, as they would probably be more willing to give up in roto when behind."

That 10-category -- and it could be more or fewer than that, if you choose a custom set -- arrangement also grants an opportunity that fantasy football cannot: "Instant gratification as you crush your opponents," as Thomas Cavanaugh explains. Who doesn't love the rush of a 10-0-0 performance against your opponent?

As with traditional roto, fret not if you need help with your player valuations: The Player Rater, with its 10-category calculation, provides an equal gauge here, where it's the roster-building strategy that's the critical difference between the two. Karabell's rankings, updated all spring and throughout the season, are also ideal for this format.

Head-to-Head Most Categories

If the multi-category approach to head-to-head matchups feels cumbersome, then Head-to-Head Most Categories is probably for you.

This one is similar to the previous format, except that instead of awarding a win to the better team in each statistical category within a weekly matchup, the victor, who gets a single win (or tie, in the case of ties), is the one who had the better performance in a greater number of categories. As with Head-to-Head Points, it's more of a fantasy football-style approach to standings, but in the process it also slightly diminishes the strategy of roster-building.

For example, in an Each Category league, a team should aim for a more balanced roster in order to be competitive in and potentially capture a larger number of categories each week. In Most Categories, a team could opt to "punt" -- or deliberately ignore in an attempt to preserve those resources for other areas of the roster -- certain categories in the quest to load up on enough of the others to carry a weekly victory. For example, punting wins and strikeouts by going with an all-closers strategy while loading up on offense.

Karabell's Head-to-Head Categories rankings, provided throughout the preseason and regular season, apply just as much to Most Categories as Each Category.

Season Points

Those who prefer points to roto but aren't a fan of the head-to-head format might love Season Points. As I mentioned, my favorite of any of my current leagues -- and I generally play in at least a dozen different formats annually -- is a Season Points format, because it doesn't incorporate the randomness of the fantasy playoffs and has a sort of "horserace" feel to it when examining the daily standings. Simply put, the team with the most total points at the conclusion of the season is declared the league's champion.

What appeals here is that, like roto, every day, week and month is equally important in your quest for a championship in a points league. There's no sort of September shenanigans, yet in my experience this can also be the format most likely to allow a first-place team to run away with a seasonal race.

A drawback of points leagues -- and the head-to-head version also comes into play here -- is that there's little appeal to specialty players, such as speedsters, middle relievers, low-in-the-lineup hitters and platoon men. Returning to the Jon Berti example in the roto section, in a points league, Berti's 41 steals in 2022 were worth -- you guessed it -- 41 points on their own, and that accounted for 22% of his 190 total points for the season. To put that into perspective, 194 players hit at least as many as 11 home runs, the points-league HR value equivalent of 41 stolen bases (and that's before getting into the fact that home runs also have attached RBI and run scored that are worth an additional point apiece). It's important to keep that in mind in your player valuations if you choose a points league.

Again, my points league rankings are as helpful here as they are in the head-to-head version.

How big should my league be?

Once you've picked your preferred format, determining the extent of how much you want to utilize your league's player pool is the next critical step. This has both a bearing on your draft strategy as well as how deep your league's free-agent pool will be during the year.

The number of teams in your league is a key decision. That decision might come down to how many friends (and/or family) you have interested in playing in your league with you, but if you're good at recruiting prospective fantasy managers, you could have as few as six or as many as 20 (at least on ESPN) in your league. The more managers, the deeper you'll dig into the player pool and therefore the greater level of knowledge of the major leagues you'll need, but also the greater number of potential trade partners as well as the greater the challenge.

One way to decide what size league is right for you is to examine the on-field game's structure: Major League Baseball is comprised of 30 teams with 26 active players at any given time, which roughly breaks down to eight field-position regulars, a backup catcher, 3-4 backup infielders and/or outfielders, five starting pitchers, a closer and 7-8 middle relievers. Typically only three of the hitting backups per team have large enough roles to warrant fantasy consideration in any format, and only the closer and 1-2 of those middle relievers also do so.

That means a grand total of 18-19 players per big league team are fantasy-relevant on any given day, or 540-570 total players. Considering that a typical fantasy team is comprised of 22 regulars -- 13 hitters and nine pitchers -- and three bench players, that means that a league that wishes to have all of those fantasy-relevant big leaguers rostered can have as many as 21.6 teams.

Since most fantasy players prefer to draw from only a big league team's starting lineup, rotation and closer, however, that's only 15 players per team and 450 total players. That's enough to cover 18 teams.

One could divide the player pool into AL- and NL-only, as the aforementioned LABR and Tout Wars still do (for some of their league formats), at which point those calculations of total players would be 270-285 and 210. That's why AL- and NL-only leagues are typically no greater than 12 teams in depth, and in fact, my longest-running home AL- and NL-only leagues feature only nine teams apiece. I'd suggest 10 as the optimal number for an "only" league.

As for mixed leagues -- those which include the entirety of the majors in the player pool -- 15 is my preferred size, including the expansion of the roster to include two active catchers for 23 overall active players, and six bench spots. A 15-team league would therefore have 345 players active and 435 rostered at any given time, or roughly three-quarters of the "fantasy-relevant" portion of the major league player pool. It's digging deep enough to create healthy competition, yet shallow enough to ensure that some extremely relevant players will be on the free-agent list in-season.

Feel free to experiment with the number of teams in your leagues, with a 12-team mixed being a good starting point in addition to our 10-team standard.

You can get creative with these league types, too.

There's no reason to think that only the five standard league types we offer, and the categories we include within them, are the finite number of ways to play.

With ESPN's League Manager, you have additional controls to alter the categories, or the scoring system itself, within each of said five formats. Want to replace batting average with on-base percentage, a move popularized this century with the increasing focus on advanced analytics? Want to add holds in order to heighten the value of those oft-forgotten middle relievers? You can do that.

Here are a few other league formats you might want to consider:

Roto 6x6: A league format I first pitched as far back as 2013, roto 6x6 replaces batting average with both on-base and slugging percentage, wins with quality starts, strikeouts with K/9 ratio, and adds innings pitched to the pitching mix, all in the quest to create a more sabermetrically oriented game. With the advent of the "opener" in 2018, however, I've been more hesitant to recommend leagues switching from 5x5 to 6x6 scoring, being that the opener strategy mathematically eliminates the prospect of a quality start and teams are increasingly keeping their starters on limited pitch counts. I still consider it a better way to play, but have been considering recommending a change to the quality start's inclusion in this scoring system with the league trending in the direction it has. Changing quality starts back to wins and sticking with the other proposed 6x6 categories is one way to do this.

"Most home runs" league: Friends of mine have played a "predict the home runs" leaderboard style game for many years now, and it's one you can play on ESPN if you wish. The setup is simple: select a Season Points league, then change your settings to only award one point per home run.

"Stink" Ball: What if the idea wasn't to pick the best players in fantasy baseball, but rather the worst players? Using an ESPN Season Points league, you can set up a system that awards players for negative outcomes: positive points for at-bats but negative points for hits, points for hitter strikeouts, times hit into a double play and caught stealing; and on the pitcher side points for hits, walks, hit batsmen, earned runs allowed, losses, blown saves, wild pitches and balks, and negative points for innings pitched (those are outs recorded, and a positive outcome for a pitcher).

Now that you've got your league type picked out, it's time to start preparing for the most important day on your calendar: draft day.

In the next Playbook edition, we'll talk more about salary-cap leagues -- the original format for selecting players in the aforementioned 1980 rotisserie league.