Fantasy Baseball "Categories" vs "Points" Leagues - Which is Better?

Fantasy baseball has traditionally been scored in one of two methods - Points and Categories.  These two popular scoring systems have dominated fantasy baseball, with categories being the most popular and most widley utilized of the two.  Categories style selects certain categories and assigns "category points" based on team rankings in those categories.  Points leagues adds to a total Points score with each selected statistical category being worth a certain number of points.  For example, in a Points league a Home Run might be worth 4 points.  In a Categories league, winning the Home Run category might be worth 12 category points (or 1 Category point if head to head matchups with the loser getting 0).

To explain in further detail, a hypothetical 4-team Category league might be scored like this for the Home Runs category:

                  Home Runs     Points

  1. Team 1      20             4
  2. Team 2      10             3
  3. Team 3       8              2
  4. Team 4       2              1

A 4-team Points league might be scored like this when considering Home Runs (if a Home Run is worth 4 points)

                   Home Runs    Points

  1. Team 1      20            80
  2. Team 2      10            40
  3. Team 3       8             32
  4. Team 4       2             8

The first thing that stands out when comparing this hypothetical situation is that Team 1 had a huge lead in Home Runs in this league, hitting twice as many as the second place team.  Points leagues reward this large lead, but in the categories league Team 1 scored only 1 more point than Team 2 - the difference in points as Team 2 scored above Team 3 for only hitting 2 more home runs.  In the points league, Team 1 scores twice as many points as Team 2 while Team 2 only scores 20% more points than team 3 - which seems to make sense given that Team 2 only hit 20% more home runs.  Simply awarding points based on team ranking in a given category results in the margin of victory or defeat within that category to not be considered.  This is solely because of the arbitrary nature of going by simple ranking.  The first place team in the home runs category gets 12 points and the second place team gets 11, even if the first place team hit 300 home runs and the second place team hit 180 (this is how one might have "too many" home runs in the hyperbolic trade example), which gives incentive to teams to win the category by as little margin as possible in order to bolster other categories in which they may be weaker.   In a head to head league, the winner of the HRs category might hit 15 HRs in a week with his opponent hitting 0, which would be 1 category point to 0 category points - the same as if it were 1 HR to 0 HR that week.

The old standard of categories leagues offers many limitations in addition to the obvious problem mentioned above.  The next most obvious limitation is that not all statistical categories are equally valuable to a real life baseball team.  In most categories leagues ("5x5" meaning 5 pitching and 5 hitting categories), the categories are .AVG/.OBP, R, RBI, SB, HR for hitting and W, SV, ERA, WHIP, K.  This means that the team who has the most Home Runs at the end of the year (assuming 12 teams and not H2H) gets 12 points, and the team that gets the most Stolen Bases gets 12 as well.  A home run is worth somewhere in the neighborhood of 5 times as much as stolen base (based on most modern statistics attempting to value the two) to a real MLB team, so why should stolen bases be equally valuable in fantasy baseball?  "I should trade Giancarlo Stanton for Billy Hamilton because I already have enough home runs and need more stolen bases" - said no real life General Manager ever.  However, a team with "too many" home runs (this seemingly crazy logic makes sense in a categories league) might consider that trade or perhaps a less exaggerated version of it at the end of the season in a categories league.  

A side effect of this problem is that limits the number of ways a team can be "good" and encourages every owner to construct the most "average" possible team.  This does not reflect real baseball, contrasting the Kansas City Royals (little power, high contact, pitching and defense) vs the Toronto Blue Jays (big power, high on-base) philosophies for example.  With a points league, a team can choose to be "good" by bashing twice as many home runs as their opponents, scoring plenty of points along their path and never worrying about hitting too many.  A team could also load up on pitching and K their way to greatness, not worrying if they have way too many Ks on the books but rather racking up the points.  Holds can also be rewarded for fewer points than a Save in order to make middle relievers viable, but also without making them essential by adding Holds as a category.  Categories leagues simply limit the granularity of statistics, because each statistic added as a category is then considered equal to all other categories.

Another problem with categories leagues, somewhat touched on in the ridiculous trade mentioned above, is that some players fantasy value does not reflect their real life value.  Speed players come to mind here, of which are commonly overvalued in Categories leagues compared to their real life offensive value.  Speed on the basepaths requires different skills that range in the field, so the two do not necessarily correlate.  Sometimes stolen bases inflated value does reflect defensive quality and redeems itself some there, but not enough to be important.  On the pitching side, we get more flexibility by allowing for more ways to be good.  Good pitchers on bad teams have trouble getting wins, but if they can rack up points by getting quality starts it reduces the randomness of needing to win. 

Head to Head Points leagues also make a lot more sense than Head to Head style categories leagues.  Head to Head leagues are usually 1 week long, so it ends up being too small of a sample size and too granular of a measurement to look at categories every week.  This also lends itself to category manipulation or requires innings limits or other requirements to keep players from manipulating ratio statistics.  In a 1 week matchup, using a granular points-based format is more likely to have a less arbitrary result - especially when most categories will be close races over that short of a sample.  In this format, categories are a problem on both ends of the spectrum.  For example - "I hit 15 home runs but since my opponent hit 16 I get zero points for it!" And the opposite - "I hit 15 home runs and my opponent hit 0 but I only get 1 point for it."  It is worth noting that hitting that many home runs bleeds over to other categories such as RBI and runs - which of course is true - but those are also counted more fairly in a Points-based format.  Roto leagues lend themselves much better to the categories format, however the points format is still superior because of the reasons mentioned above.

Categories leagues and points leagues both have their merits, but I feel that points leagues really offer the most realistic and enjoyable experience.  It allows the flexibility to be good in any way that the owner wants, without having to reverse course at a later point in the season because of being "too good" at certain categories.  There is no "race to be the most average," but rather all owners are scraping to score points in any way they can.  If you're currently used to playing in a categories league and haven't tried points, I recommend you give points leagues a try.

Photo Credit: Marc Falardeau CC

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