Did you do well in fantasy baseball this past season? For 10 to 12 percent of you, that answer is yes, but for many others, you failed to finish first and may have even checked out early. Many players turned their fantasy attention to the NFL or simply forgot about baseball after the All-Star break passed.
Perhaps this doesn't bother you. I'm in two leagues here at ESPN, and in both of them, much of the so-called pennant race drama was simply non-existent. It was tough for everyone to stay motivated until Game 162 finished for every team.
I'm sure there are many league commissioners out there in similar boats, wondering what -- if anything -- can be done to keep their managers from mailing September baseball in from the football bleachers. Obviously, locking rosters of non-playoff teams and setting early trade deadlines is a no-brainer strategy to prevent any talent dumps and roster purges of superstars to the waiver wire (often done merely out of spite) from impacting your league's crown.
However, save for playing only in leagues with baseball-obsessed participants or known quantities you can shame into finishing honorably, there are no guaranteed fixes to this problem. Still, here are a few potential ideas to try in the future to try and keep your league together all the way through Game 162 of the regular season, regardless of how the standings come out.
While monetary prizes are not required to enjoy fantasy baseball, it would be an act of sheer naivety to assume that there aren't a lot of leagues that provide a little cash incentive to finish higher in the standings. If that's the way your league does things, there's no rule that says you can't divvy up the kitty in ways other than winners-take-all. If the goal is to make sure everybody is still playing down the stretch, then perhaps a small share of the prize pool dedicated to the team that posts the best stats over the last six weeks of the season will do the trick.
Cut the season in half
Of course, you may not have managers sticking around past the month of May if they feel the gulf between their roster and the top squads is simply too vast to overcome. Why not take a page out of the minor leagues and institute a split season format for 2018? Teams all reset to zero halfway through the season, with the first-half champion getting an automatic slot in the playoffs. Heck, you can even hold a midseason re-draft with all but the first-place team required to start from scratch if you like.
Reward consistency, not luck
The head-to-head format makes fantasy baseball a lot more like fantasy football, where you only have to have to outperform one other manager each week in order to get that elusive "W." That said, there's enough luck involved in the game without having to add in the potential for an player to have the second-highest score each week, yet be 0-10 and essentially out of the running by June. A team that's last in your league in overall points likely has no chance at ever truly competing on the regular with the top teams. That said, if you throw out schedules and simply award a win to the top six scores each week in a 12-team league, it's a lot easier for a struggling manager to see light at the end of the tunnel if he only has to reach as high as No. 6 overall to achieve future success.
Balance the playing field
When I was about 9 years old, I joined a local bowling league for anyone 18 and under. Needless to say, it would have pointless for my team of fourth graders to attempt to compete with a squad of high-school juniors who frequently flirted with 300 games while we were still learning how to throw the ball down the lane without guttering 90 percent of the time. To counter this, most leagues include a "handicap" to help balance the matchup, based on each bowler's prior average performance on the season. Why not do the same for fantasy baseball teams? If that last-place team is typically 100 points worse than the first-place team, giving them, say an 80-point head-start when they square off, certainly will help keep both players a lot more interested in the matchup.
Stop the tanking
In keeper leagues, it makes some sense for a team at the back of the pack to make deals and waiver moves in order to "play for tomorrow." Because of this, it's hard to call lopsided deals "tanking" -- in most cases, it's actually good strategy. However, in redraft or "one and done" leagues, even if the managers are all coming back next season, you need to disincentivize giving up. Tying future draft order to September stats for non-playoff teams, or some other form of rewarding those players (say with extra FAAB dollars or a larger salary cap) could be key to keeping them involved the whole season.
"Punish" the loser
Ideally, you're going to want to be playing in leagues where you know the other players. Otherwise, there's really nothing preventing a losing team from simply bailing on a bunch of strangers with little in the way of future repercussions. "Punishment" for the last place team doesn't have to take the form of a "Game of Thrones"-styled "shame walk" with the rest of the league ringing a bell behind the unfortunate soul in the cellar, but if it's something that can be done with good humor and everyone signs off on it? Fear can be a terrific motivator.
Promote the best, relegate the rest
Many times, I've played in leagues where there were more interested managers than there were teams available to be managed. Even when an effort was made to go with co-managers, there were often friends left on the outside looking in. Taking a page from European soccer, why not institute some form of promotion and relegation? It could be two separate leagues, where the winners of the B-league (which would necessarily have a lower prize pool) get to move up to the A-league next season, replacing this year's last-place team. Or it could be two divisions of the same league, where the "A-division" sends their top-three teams to the post-season, while the "B-division" sends only one.
Get creative with the stats
We tend to focus on the positive, point-scoring categories in fantasy baseball, but the truth is that there are stats that cover just about everything. Secondary prizes for all teams that meet certain participation criteria can give bad teams something to play for even after they've been mathematically eliminated from the real title chase. For example, giving an player a discount on next year's league dues for having the team with the most GIDP or errors made -- provided they meet league-minimum plate appearances and at-bats -- could be an interesting wrinkle.
Keep drafting all season
Lastly, while I'm generally not a fan of "forced trading," the truth is that in most leagues, getting some managers to even respond to emails suggesting the smallest germ of a deal is often a Herculean task. So, how about holding a dispersal draft every 3-4 weeks, where all teams are allowed to protect five players? Then, going from worst to first in the standings, each team must claim a player off of any other roster, no questions asked. No team can lose more than one player in this process. It's a way to help the have nots keep up with the haves, at least a little bit and can also provide a new layer of interactivity and strategy during the season.