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Fantasy baseball's lasting legacy

Without the symbiotic relationship between Sabermetrics and fantasy sports, the MLB landscape would be very different today -- and James Click, a former writer for Baseball Prospectus, would likely not have been named as Houston's GM. Getty Images

It's the 40th anniversary of the launch of Rotisserie baseball, which as sports fans we can celebrate as the moment when fantasy sports went from a nascent hobby to something that mainstream society could embrace. However, that's not all -- 2020 is also the year we just saw two former interns of sabermetric think tank Baseball Prospectus become Major League Baseball general managers, in Boston and Houston. And the thing is, these two things are interrelated.

Sabermetrics and fantasy baseball are full-blooded siblings that reinvented not just how we enjoy sports as fans, but also how we see them played and how they're played on the field. How did this symbiotic relationship arise, giving us not only a fantasy sports market now worth almost $70 billion-with-a-B dollars, but also changing both the game on the field and the interpretive lenses through which we all view it?

Rotisserie baseball was invented by Daniel Okrent and friends, arising at the exact moment that sabermetrics was gaining critical mass as a field of serious inquiry. This shouldn't be a surprise since, at the same time, Bill James was self-publishing "The Baseball Abstract" and selling it through ads placed in the back of The Sporting News. Do you know who was reading the Baseball Abstract? People like Daniel Okrent.

"I think I made my first contact with Bill [James] to write the piece that ended up in Sports Illustrated two years later around the same time I was thinking about Rotisserie," Okrent said. "Whatever the impulse was, it happened coterminously. I read the privately published, mimeographed Baseball Abstracts, starting in '78 and got the idea for Rotisserie within a year. The connection between sabermetrics and fantasy baseball is inescapable."

Okrent has hands-on experience on that score, having invented a key fantasy baseball staple stat, WHIP -- then called IPRAT, shorthand for "Innings Pitched Ratio" -- as a scoring category for the Rotisserie Baseball game he founded. Yet, there was another key ingredient, something beyond baseball itself, because the baseball industry had changed thanks to free agency. That development, of real-world general managers having the opportunity to invest a portion of their budget on freely available players on the open market (thanks to Curt Flood suing for his freedom to become a free agent in the '70s), was fundamental to what made Rotisserie click -- giving fans that same power to play with a budget and invent their own personal dream team.

"The publicity that the original Rotisserie league got in 1980, '81, '82, when we were the first out of the gate, said 'You can play at being a general manager' -- including the financial decisions, which had not existed in the same way before free agency," Okrent added. "So you're allocating resources in the moment, on that player. That could not have come up in the pre-free-agency era."

The ideas and the recognition that fantasy could be a popular entertainment product immediately profited from a bunch of well-read people who were wired into the publishing industry who could advertise their enjoyment of fantasy baseball and get buy-in. These days, you'd call it another example of the power of influences, because these days it's a model any tech start-up might follow -- that a key element of success is that you get a bunch of smart people talking it up and enjoying it.

Simultaneously, Rotisserie did not just help to invent a hobby that entertains millions of Americans. It also helped inspire innovations in sabermetrics. And it did that because they became popular at the same time, in almost exactly the same way, with products designed to engage users of the same tools people used to get ready for each new baseball season: books -- and not just analytical books like the Abstract, but books that accumulated basic stats, like the "Elias Baseball Analyst" in the '80s, empowering fans to do some of their own analysis. Books like that didn't come from nowhere. They were made possible by publishing honchos like Jeff Neuman -- who was, as he put it, playing in one of the first 100 Rotisserie leagues, if not the first 10.

"With very few exceptions, I wasn't looking to publish things about fantasy," Neuman reflected. "We knew that the fantasy audience drove a certain amount of [sales]. Remember what the universe looked like back then. The information there, we were always putting it out there in a way that was useful for fantasy, but it wasn't directly addressed to fantasy."

So, at the same time that you had Bill James or Pete Palmer and John Thorn writing the seminal sabermetric work, "The Hidden Game of Baseball," you also had the growth of the fantasy baseball industry -- and publishers looking to cater to that industry. People were reading sabermetrics and applying it to fantasy baseball. Suddenly, the expectation that sabermetrics was something that you as the fan could not only use for your own edification, but also to possibly get a leg up on the competition in fantasy baseball, was born. Everything that came afterward was changed as a result.

"The first time I saw Baseball Prospectus [in the '90s], my first thought was, 'This will be really useful for my fantasy league,'" Okrent said. "I saw it as a guide, in the same way as the abstracts, offering information that had prospective value moving forward. 'Is this player going to get better?' I felt that kind of content was designed for fantasy players. Bill's work predated fantasy, but it then tailored itself to it very closely. When his [first publishing] contract was with Ballantine Books [where Okrent was involved as an outside editor on the book], they were trying to get Bill to finish the Abstract in time for Rotisserie drafts."

Admittedly, baseball as a game engine isn't that complicated, which is why fantasy baseball is an exercise in problem-solving. People who have grown up with fantasy baseball have effectively grown up thinking about how to operate a franchise, and how to treat players as assets -- in itself, something born out of the introduction of free agency.

"Analytics always starts with a question: Why did this happen, how is it that this happened instead of that outcome," said Cory Schwartz, VP of Data Operations for MLB and also a frequent host of popular MLB show Fantasy 411. "We don't go into it open-minded and say, 'Let's see what we can find.' We try to get a specific answer to a specific question. Front-office analytics are about understanding what's the proper way for me to value players and win games. On a fundamental level, fantasy baseball is the same thing.

"If you go back to the mid-'80s, you had people like John Benson trying to use analytics to make better fantasy decisions. Ron Shandler created and advanced a number of analytic concepts for fantasy purposes," Schwartz added. "A lot of these things seem kind of obvious now, but they were really groundbreaking. For example, [if] a hitter hits a lot of ground balls, he's not that likely to hit a lot of home runs. That's something that, as baseball fans, we intuitively understand, but fantasy analysts like Shandler were able to draw those distinctions in a much more concrete way, specifically to help fantasy players."

However, it goes beyond fantasy analysts using sabermetrics to figure out which players they want to draft. When the next wave of statheads to follow in the footsteps of pioneers like James or Palmer created their groundbreaking analytical tools, they weren't simply doing so for the advancement of sabermetrics. They were also trying to win their fantasy leagues.

"Without the fantasy league and its rules that required us to develop software to grab the box scores we needed, I wouldn't have had the raw data that spurred my work." Keith Woolner, creator of VORP

"When we look at the intersections between analytics and fantasy baseball where discoveries in one inform or change the other -- and the game -- two come to mind," said Schwartz. "First, there's Voros McCracken and DiPS [defense-independent pitching statistics] which was 100 percent about making his fantasy baseball teams better. And Keith Woolner's creation of Value Over Replacement Player [VORP] when he was at Baseball Prospectus -- those two things are the pillars of contemporary analytics. Everything to do with analytics and player performance is built on those two things."

McCracken's invention of DiPS was one of the greatest discoveries sabermetrics has given us, by anybody. Thank you, fantasy baseball. But what of Woolner's VORP, which was the inspiration for every flavor of WAR that arose afterwards? He also credits fantasy baseball.

"The customized fantasy league I played in didn't lend itself to any of the few services that tracked stats at the time," Woolner recalled. "So, along with a couple of friends who were in the league too, we wrote a utility that could download box scores, parse them into the results for each batter and pitcher, and store the records in a relational database. Then we could input the fantasy league rosters each week, and compute the points for our league. After a couple of years, that database had a complete set of game-by-game MLB batting and pitching stats for each player -- including the positions they appeared at -- spanning multiple seasons. I started doing statistical studies on my own using that database as a resource. Those efforts eventually led to VORP, although VORP itself was not used as a fantasy stat. Without the fantasy league and its rules that required us to develop software to grab the box scores we needed, I wouldn't have had the raw data that spurred my work."

Woolner left BP to join the Cleveland Indians in 2007, and is still there as their Principal Data Scientist for Baseball Research and Development.

"I don't think an aspiring sabermetrician goes into a club today, and part of their interview process, they tell you how many times they've won their fantasy league," Schwartz deadpanned. "But in any endeavor, the way you get good at something, you do it. It's the same thing with analytics, you have to actually do that thing, and one good way to do it is by analyzing that data for your fantasy baseball team. I would sit there and pore over spreadsheets for hours on end, and I'm not the person in a front office doing a club's analytics, but it gave me a great appreciation for the value of using data to make decisions."

"I've felt for a long time that the sabermetrics revolution is over, and baseball lost," Neuman observed. "But I think without fantasy baseball you wouldn't have had the same acceptance of sabermetrically based decision-making that we've seen in baseball. It was one of the first important steps in treating player performance as wholly abstract, and separate from your own fandom of a team or favorite player. To a great extent, the way that players are using their personnel and altering so many traditional decision-making processes -- in a lot of ways, fantasy baseball paved the way for acceptance of that."

The fantasy baseball experience is now almost intrinsic to the fan experience. Today, 40 years after the launch of Rotisserie, the grandchildren of the people who played in the first leagues are playing fantasy baseball. So, as we watch two former sabermetric site interns becoming MLB general managers, fantasy baseball deserves to take a victory lap as well. It has already been the vehicle to reward dreams of success in your fantasy leagues. But maybe, just maybe, it can also be a path to a career in a real-world front office.

Christina Kahrl was a cofounder of and executive editor at Baseball Prospectus; she has never played fantasy baseball.