Fantasy Baseball 101: How to play our most popular game formats

There are countless ways to play fantasy baseball, but three common formats are by far the most popular on ESPN: roto, head-to-head points and head-to-head categories.

What's the difference between these leagues, and how should you approach them if you join such a league?


The standard rotisserie format so many of us grew up with is no longer ESPN's "standard," as the points-based format has become more popular, and I suspect there are myriad reasons for this. One could be that many fantasy managers no longer want to scrape for every stolen base and save, and in a roto format there are 10 categories and they are equally weighted. In a points format, there is but one overall number ... points. In roto, there are many. I see the greatness of each, but for the ol' standard roto format my best advice generally starts with seeking balance and finding a way to avoid overthinking. This should be fun, after all!

In a straight roto format, filling out a team is like a puzzle as one considers the positions each performer plays and the expected production pending delivery. Still, the focus in the first half of the draft should be about value and balance. Get good players at good value, and if one considers balance along the way -- young and old, durable and brittle, ceiling and floor, and positional aspects -- things can work out. A balanced approach includes the individual stats as well. Waiting until Round 15 to find someone who steals a base is not recommended. Use a tiered system that provides easy and well-presented information for quick access.

It does not need to be difficult, so enjoy the journey along the way, from draft/auction day throughout the summer. It is indeed a long season, so pace yourself; the first day one secures players is merely the beginning of the long ride. It is certainly rare that a championship team in this sport ends up being built entirely through the draft with few alterations, so consider the free-agent and trade markets at all times. There are always ways to improve your fantasy baseball team. Never be afraid to take some chances not only on draft day, but also with a free agent or in a trade. And good luck! -- Eric Karabell

Head-to-head points

The major difference in points league formats as compared with the standard rotisserie or head-to-head category formats is that instead of needing to draft a balanced team full of players who potentially can contribute in multiple statistical areas, every baseball player's fantasy value is boiled down into a single number.

In ESPN default scoring, hitters earn one point for each total base, run scored, stolen base, walk and RBI. You will lose a point for each strikeout, which may take a little shine off of free-swinging sluggers such as Aaron Judge and Khris Davis.

For pitchers, every batter retired earns the hurler one point, with an extra point awarded if that out is a strikeout. Points are lost for walks and hits, with earned runs costing two points apiece. Wins and saves are worth five points each, while losses will cost you five points. Obviously, this puts starting pitchers with a strong K/BB rate, such as Corey Kluber (7.36 in 2017) and Chris Sale (7.16), in predictably good stead, but it also means that overall, the best pitchers will generally end up outscoring the best hitters over a full season.

That said, you don't have to construct a roster made up entirely of aces in order to be competitive. Everybody has to start nine pitchers, so as long as you get a share of the exclusive group of elite arms, there's no need to obsess about it by front-loading your draft and ignoring hitting altogether.

And certainly, you can choose to play in a custom league where you dole out points at your whim to make calculating scores as simple or as complicated as you like. Regardless of what system you land on, make sure you know your scoring system and rank players accordingly. Try to draft as balanced a team as possible, and then adjust your roster through trades and the waiver wire once you determine how well your team stacks up against the rest of the leagues.

Good luck, and have fun -- or else, what's the point? -- AJ Mass

Head-to-head categories

As our resident head-to-head categories ranker, I'm often asked what makes the format different from traditional rotisserie.

From a rankings and draft-day standpoint, here's the truth: There really isn't much of one, considering the formats use an identical set of statistical categories (AVG, HR, RBI, SB, R on the hitting side; W, SV, K, ERA, WHIP on the pitching side).

The differences come into play with in-season strategy, as head-to-head scoring elevates September play -- the "fantasy playoffs" in this format -- above the five months that precede it, and enhances the need for roster balance and week-over-week consistency. This is not a format in which you can use "cruise control" in a given time period, hoping to patch roster weaknesses at a later date, and it's one that might require a lesser degree of patience with injured and/or struggling stars.

September above the rest: Simply getting to the fantasy playoffs is your five-month goal, but a playoff strategy becomes increasingly important with each passing week. Remember, September is when big league teams expand their rosters (40 rather than 25 players); it is also when teams often rest their regulars as they gear up for the postseason, or audition youngsters for next year. That means your amount of matchups homework only grows. And considering the level of pitching specialization in the on-field game -- best illustrated by the fact that only 58 pitchers last season met the qualification requirement for the ERA title of at least 162 innings pitched -- it means careful attention to your pitching staff and strategy. Building a staff of high-risk but high-reward pitchers could leave you in a pinch during this critical month, as could building around many young starters with innings caps.

Roster balance: Punting is effectively not an option in a head-to-head categories league, because of how critical each category is in each of your 26 seasonal matchups. Beginning a weekly matchup down 0-1 is more of a disadvantage than it would be in a traditional rotisserie league, if only because of how volatile almost every category is during a seven-day span. It's a wiser approach to build as balanced a roster as you can coming out of the draft, then patch potential holes that arise during the year rather than starting the season with a shortcoming. The goal, after all, is to win as many categories as you possibly can every week, so make sure you secure enough assets to do that beginning with Week 1.

Week-over-week consistency: This is a format where streaky performers can be greater headaches; they can win you single categories in single weeks on their own, but can also be responsible for multiple losses over multiple weeks when they run cold. Again, you want balanced players, which is why a category-filling Jose Ramirez makes a lot more sense than a potentially streaky Cody Bellinger.

Impatience can pay: In our standard game with only one DL and three bench spots, patience with struggling or injured players is less likely to pay off in head-to-head categories, where every lineup spot and every stat is precious on an everyday basis. Injured players tend to slip further down my rankings accounting for this.