Fantasyland: A Season on Baseball’s Lunatic Fringe
In 2002 Michael Lewis fired the first shot in a culture war taking place within baseball with Moneyball. In his bestseller, Lewis investigates the success of the Oakland A’s, which employ the new ideas of sabermetrics (the scientific study of baseball) to put winning team on the field. The protagonist is Oakland’s General Manager Billy Beane, a failed top-prospect but a successful front office manager. While Beane’s explosive personality and some condescending arrogance documented in the book caused some baseball insiders to grumble upon the book’s publication, it was the methods the A’s employed that created most of the establishment’s backlash. The members of baseball’s establishment—or, “The Club,” as Lewis later labeled his critics—was an old-boys network of GMs, scouts, and media who didn’t take kindly to the implication that the old way of doing things might not be the best way.
Moneyball was an indictment of the old guard. Lewis documented how Ivy League kids with knowledge of computers and mathematics could exploit the mistakes of leather-skinned scouts with one-armed tans. The new methods of measuring player performances that substituted experienced eyes, grizzled wisdom, and a radar gun with sample sizes and confidence intervals was too much. This conflict can be described as jocks versus nerds, experience versus youth, or man versus machine. These are classic human themes, which is why Lewis’s story is so compelling. Few members of The Club would deny the usefulness of stats, but they will always remind you that it’s the human scouts who can pick up things not reflected in numbers. These were the methods acceptable for “fantasy baseball” not the real thing.
The thing is, though Moneyball isn’t the most popular book in MLB front offices, Sam Walker acknowledges in Fantasyland that there has been no rebuttal of the ideas presented. If anything, the Moneyball philosophy seems to have extended its influence further into the game. This is where the story begins. Walker, who writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal, runs the reverse experiment of Moneyball to weigh in on the “scouts versus stat-heads” debate. Whereas, Lewis documents stat-geeks invading the big leagues, Walker brings the human element to the fantasy sports world, where the sabermetric revolution has strong roots.
Tradition has it that fantasy baseball revolution its origins to a few prominent New York publishers who met in a now defunct New York restaurant, La Rotisserie Française, which would give rise to the original name of fantasy baseball: Rotisserie. However, it turns out that the founding father of the league, Dan Okrent, actually got the idea from a group of professors at the University of Michigan, who played a similar game in the 1960s. So, the game that is played over beer and hot wings to fulfill the unmet dreams of sports fanatics actually has ivory tower origins.
Fantasy sports are now big business in the US, with an estimate of 15 million players of fantasy games. While only those with the most extreme athletic gifts can hope to be a part of real professional sports, fantasy games provide an outlet for the masses to participate. Players select real professional players to play on individual teams, where “owners” reap the benefits of on-field production in several statistical categories. Fantasy players must gather as much information as possible in order to win their leagues. It is the drive of fantasy players to win these contests that has generated new knowledge in projecting player performances based solely of categories in box scores. Many of these ideas fit with the strategy employed by the A’s in Moneyball.
But, Walker wants to challenge the roto-nerds on their turf with information that few fantasy players can get their hands on. Though Walker doesn’t have the knowledge or wisdom of experienced front office personnel, he does have a press pass, which gives him access to information that no fantasy player has. And he’s not just jumping into any fantasy baseball league. He’s hoping to test out his ideas in Tout Wars, an advanced league in which only the top Rotisserie experts can play. Walker’s plan for success is simple, “I’m going to be good at this Rotisserie game, because I know people.”
Walker’s quest begins by building his own “front office” that he uses to compile the vast amounts of information he collects. If big-league teams need a group of people to win, so will Walker. The front office is composed of two diverse personalities with slightly differing skills sets. Nando, the general manager of the Walker team—the Streetwalkers—-is a young fantasy buff. Though he is wise to the statistical bent of the fantasy community, he’s open and intrigued by Walker’s idea. Nando will be the human voice, many times telling the owner what he wants to hear. Sig is a NASA biomathematician working on a PhD. in statistics. Everything is in the numbers for Sig, and he’s less impressed with Walker’s plan, but still intrigued. Sig will clash with the owner and general manager many times over the coming months. But, both will also learn to find comfort in his numbers.
Next, Walker starts his personal scouting trip to spring training. There, he talks to players, scouts, mangers, and GMs to try and get the inside scoop. Although he finds some things, he’s certainly disappointed with his trip. He’s gained a few hunches, but possibly he’s formed some irrational attachments to players for the wrong reasons. Walker will also prowl the clubhouses during the regular season, not just to get dirt on players, but to actually try to influence coaches and managers. From a pitching coach he learns that a pitcher he was thinking about picking up is not suffering from a rumored injury. He also uses data to convince a manager to use a Streetwalker pitcher differently. Certainly, these are things that the normal fantasy player can’t do. But, Walker is frustrated that even with this edge, his advantage doesn’t seem to be helping much.
While Walker’s intent is scientific, testing out the idea that inside information is important in sports, one of the greatest aspects of the book is how the game shaped him personally. He becomes to the fantasy baseball world what George Plimpton became to professional football with Paper Lion. Walker meets all of the fantasy players. The Tout Wars participants form a unique bond of friendship, or maybe “acquaintanceship” is the better term. Tempers erupt, tensions are real, and feelings do get hurt. There is no monetary reward for winning the game, but approbation from the fantasy world means a lot to these men. The players know that whatever they do in life, in the fantasy world these are only other people who understand them.
Just as Bill James was the person bearing the intellectual responsibility for the subject matter of Moneyball, Ron Shandler—author of Baseball Forecaster—plays the part in Fantasyland. Shandler also happens to be as much a participant in the book as any other player, because he is playing in Tout Wars. Shandler is bothered by many things in the real and fantasy baseball. He sees the game changing, and doesn’t necessarily care for the new breed of baseball analyst. He cares about Tout Wars partly because it’s an arena to prove his place in the fantasy baseball world. He doesn’t explicitly say it, but I feel it. And this means more to Shandler than the real game, as he walks away from major league employment—the ultimate dream goal of most serious fantasy players—to concentrate on his fantasy empire. I don’t know enough about Shandler to judge the accuracy of Walker’s portrayal; but, assuming it is correct, I really like the man.
As a player, Walker loses himself in the experiment as he experiences the pangs of the competition, watching his team of players (each of whom received a Streetwalkers t-shirt as a sign of devotion) fail and succeed. He stays up late cheering them, let’s himself go when they slump, and celebrates when they succeed. He learns about the human side of players, and gains an appreciation for what he has. “Man, I love my wife,” Walker says on one occasion. Even if you can reduce a player’s performance down to his numbers, it’s important not to forget about the person. The point ought to be a cliché, but Walker has the writing skill to convey it without getting sappy.
I don’t want to spoil too much, but I don’t I think you will be surprised by the fact that the Streetwalkers don’t end up in first place. Season number one ends up as a learning experience. The real joy in reading the book is the documenting of experiences that every fantasy player feels: injuries causing panic-trades, competitors riding fluke performances, and angst over ethically questionable moves. The book really moves, and I enjoyed reading it quite a bit. In fact, the book caused me to join a baseball fantasy league this year for the first time in a long time.
Though it’s not chronicled in the book, Walker and his front office certainly learned from their mistakes in 2004. I didn’t follow the 2005 Tout Wars season to know how they did it, but both Walker and Nando (on his own team) finished first and second, respectively, in different leagues. Sig moved to the real world of baseball working for the St. Louis Cardinals. These movements seem to mirror Walker’s intuition: it’s not just stats or human observation, it’s both. And the both the real and fantasy worlds of baseball need a little more of what the other has got.