A New Way to Play Ottoneu

Ottoneu is one of the premiere fantasy baseball (football is coming!) platforms available today.  It’s “smarter, better fantasy baseball” that offers some of the deepest player pools and sabermetric-friendly formats around.  After all, where else can you interact directly with the game developer and see league enhancements in almost real-time?

With all that said, there’s always room for improvement, and addressing the issue of “parity” within Ottoneu (always a hot topic in any version of fantasy sports) is the subject of this post.  After playing Ottoneu for five seasons, I’ll summarize a key issue I see trending in many leagues and propose an idea on how to correct it without massively overhauling a game that is already best-in-class for die-hard baseball fans.


Problem: Despite its dynasty-like foundation, Ottoneu’s “winner-takes-all” structure leaves no distinction between teams finishing in 2nd and 12th place in the standings in a given season.  As a team’s chance of winning is reduced over time, there is no incentive for owners to continue putting the very best scoring roster on the field in the current season.  Instead, owners are left with looking only into the future, as their only remaining option is an attempt to buy surplus value for next season and beyond.

This “problem” really isn’t news, is it?.  You’ve probably seen it or experienced it in your own league, and it’s been a hot topic in the Ottoneu Champions League (530) and on the Slack discussion boards, too.   As Dave Cameron pointed out:

Without a clear shot at a championship, what is your motivation to put the best team on the field for the current season?

Without a clear shot at a championship, what is your motivation to put the best team on the field for the current season?

“…so there’s no reason to keep your team together once your odds of winning drop below a reasonable threshold.”

Within this winner-takes-all system, you may have noticed some of the most common symptoms of this issue as you play the game over time:

  • Symptom 1: Within a given season, there are far more teams selling than buying.  With supply [of player talent/production] exceeding demand, buyers have most of the leverage in trade negotiations.
  • Symptom 2: Finding themselves with less leverage than buyers, sellers (non-contending teams) are pressured to sell as early as possible in order to appeal to the greatest number of buyers (the largest possible market).
  • Symptom 3: As non-contending teams sell early and often, a snowball effect encourages other non-contending teams to react quickly by selling off their own player assets because of a shrinking market of buyers.  As the market shrinks, the best player talent quickly floats to the top of the standings and into the hands of the few buyers lucky enough to keep up with the compounding effect.
  • Symptom 4: Buyers often accumulate massive roster salaries (via loans) far above non-contending teams because the leverage they gain in a shrinking market allows them to demand that sellers cover the cost of moving their most productive and expensive player assets.

Q. – Wouldn’t a hard salary cap (above and beyond the current $400 soft cap) fix this issue?

No.  Again, from Dave and the recent discussions in the Champions League on the possible unintended consequences of implementing a hard salary cap:

A Hard Salary Cap Won't Work

And…

Reduce the Number of Sellers...by Introducing Rewards

There’s a case to be made that a hard cap won’t really address the issue at hand, and could actually have the opposite, unintended result.  And since we’re not advocating for an playoff system in Ottoneu any time soon, what’s the answer?


Proposal: Create an incentive structure that rewards all teams for scoring as many points as possible all season long, regardless of their place in the standings.

So what should that incentive be? Or, more importantly, what incentive would be strong enough to motivate non-contending teams to score as many points as possible in a season in which they cannot win a championship?

There are plenty of options and ideas here, but I’ll suggest the best answer is the same incentive that all leagues already have in place today: an increased chance to win a championship.  What gives a team the very best chance to win a title? Surplus value, or getting more production than what you pay for.  With value in mind, the best way to motivate all teams up and down the standings is to create an incentive system that awards owners with the opportunity to earn surplus player value for their rosters.  What is the easiest way for teams to earn surplus value? By reducing the cost (salary) of the players/assets they choose. What follows is a proposal for implementing a simple incentive structure that allows all teams, regardless of their place in the standings, to earn salary discounts based on total points scored.

First, some assumptions:

  • Assumption 1: 12-team, Ottoneu FanGraphs Points league
  • Assumption 2: Arbitration allocation system (not vote-off) of $300 ($25/team)
  • Assumption 3: The average FGPTS league champion over 2013 & 2014 scored 18,320 points; a replacement level team scores just below 14,000 points in a season
  • Assumption 4: In a dynasty format, owners prefer to keep the players they choose for as long as the want.*

Solution: Allow teams to create surplus value by earning salary discounts based on total points scored in a given season.

How it works:

  1. Twelve (12) discount levels are established based on points scored between 15,000 – 18,000 points.
  2. Salary discounts between $14 – $32 are assigned to each level and are earned according to each team’s season-ending total score.
  3. Following the completion of the arbitration allocation process (usually by November 15th), owners are allowed to apply their earned salary discounts to any player(s) on their roster by announcing the discounts, by player, to the league message board (must be completed by December 1st each season).  Owners are not limited to applying the earned salary discounts only on those players receiving arbitration allocations; they can apply them to any player(s) they own.
  4. League commissioners apply the discounts (by team, by player) by using the Commissioner Tools to reduce each player salary by the discount applied.
  5. Owners may apply their earned salary discounts in any amount to any number of players they own.
League commissioners can easily adjust the salary of a player.

League commissioners can easily adjust the salary of a player.

Let’s take a look at the discount scale:

Owners can earn salary discounts ($) that can be applied to the salaries of players they own following arbitration.

Owners can earn salary discounts ($) that can be applied to the salaries of players they own following arbitration.

  • Teams must score a minimum of 15,000 points in order to earn a salary discount.
  • There are 12 different levels of discounts, with all but the first “step” calculated off a threshold of 250 points.
  • The “bell curve” distribution ($14 at the bottom, $32 in the middle, and $14 at the top) is intentional.
  • Several levels (from 2 to 3; from 5 to 6) increase at twice ($4) the rate of others ($2) to encourage “stretch” goals where possible.

Note: the “Scoring Distribution” in the table above is a sample of 20 different FGPTS leagues taken on June 1st, 2015, and represents the average % of teams that project to have a season-ending score within one of the 12 discount levels shown.

“Owners may apply their earned salary discounts in any amount to any number of players they own.”


Let’s walk through an example of how this new discount structure works:

  1. I finish the 2015 season scoring 16,600 points (Level 6), which would earn me $28 in total salary discounts.  In this scenario, my final placement in the standings is irrelevant; it is only my total score that matters.
  2. I finish the 2015 season owning the following players:
    1. $50 Andrew McCutchen
    2. $40 Stephen Strasburg
    3. $36 Matt Harvey
    4. $10 Nolan Arenado
    5. $10 Mookie Betts
    6. $10 Carlos Correa
    7. $6 Joc Pederson
    8. $4 Kyle Schwarber
  3. I receive $26 (out of $33 max) in arbitration allocations following the season, applied by the rest of the league as follows:
    1. $50 Andrew McCutchen + $2
    2. $40 Stephen Strasburg  + $0
    3. $36 Matt Harvey + $4
    4. $10 Nolan Arenado + $4
    5. $10 Mookie Betts + $4
    6. $10 Carlos Correa + $4
    7. $6 Joc Pederson + $8
    8. $4 Kyle Schwarber + $0
  4. Following the completion of the arbitration allocation process, I now have $28 in salary discounts (Level 6) to apply to my roster.  These discounts were earned based on my 16,600 points, and can be applied in any amount, to any player, and to any number of players on my roster, so long as I do not exceed what I’ve earned ($28).  In this example, I choose to apply these discounts as follows:
    1. $52 Andrew McCutchen – $0
    2. $40 Stephen Strasburg  – $0
    3. $40 Matt Harvey – $0
    4. $14 Nolan Arenado – $2
    5. $14 Mookie Betts – $3
    6. $14 Carlos Correa – $13
    7. $14 Joc Pederson – $10
    8. $4 Kyle Schwarber – $0
  5. After applying my discounts as I choose, my roster now looks like this:
    1. $52 Andrew McCutchen
    2. $40 Stephen Strasburg
    3. $40 Matt Harvey
    4. $12 Nolan Arenado
    5. $9 Mookie Betts
    6. $1 Carlos Correa
    7. $4 Joc Pederson
    8. $4 Kyle Schwarber

As this example shows, I’ve chosen to apply the majority of my discounts to my youngest players in an attempt to create the greatest amount of surplus value for my team for the longer possible amount of time (years).  In other words, I’ve just given myself the best chance to win in the future by keeping Carlos Correa at a price that can actually deliver surplus value for years to come, making him the cornerstone of my future.

“Allow teams to create surplus value by earning salary discounts based on total points scored in a given season.”

It doesn’t take long to see that the process of choosing which of my players to discount becomes a very interesting, strategic decision that has both short-term and long-term benefits.  If I’m a non-contender for 2015 but am setup well to compete in 2016, would it make more season to heavily discount a player like Andrew McCutchen or Matt Harvey while they are in their prime? Does a $1 Correa offer me a better chance to win next year than a $25 McCutchen? Should I now focus a bit more on long-term strategy rather than just next season? Personal preference will certainly impact these decisions, but the primary goal here is to give owners plenty of options [that they don’t have today], and plenty of control.


So what is the competitive impact of implementing this incentive structure of earned salary discounts? Consider the following likely results:

  1. The number of sellers will be reduced.
    • When non-contending teams are presented with the alternative option of reducing their own player salaries for future seasons, they will be less likely to sell off expensive, productive players because those assets will now be critical to the strategy of scoring the highest possible in-season score that earns them the highest possible salary discount available.  Sellers may not necessarily become buyers, but there is now value in the option of holding good, even “overpaid” players because they contribute to your ability to earn surplus value in the same way attempting to trade for it does.
  2. The pace of selling will be slowed.
    • It’s important to note the goal here isn’t to eliminate selling by non-contenders; sellers should always be free to choose whether and when to rebuild, which is a foundational market element to keeper leagues.  However, when sellers are provided an alternative to the current winner-takes-all system, they have the option to wait longer to sell off, when waiting longer may make the difference between a small discount and a large one.
  3. Leverage will become more balanced between sellers and buyers. 
    • Sellers will find themselves with more leverage than they have under today’s current system because they would be given an alternative to selling their $70 Mike Trout to the highest bidder of the two remaining contending teams.  Instead, they have the option of turning a $70 Trout into a $50 Trout (or less) in the off season using earned salary discounts, which must now be weighed against the value of the return for trading away the $70 Trout to a contender.  This new consideration gives sellers the choice between two strategies instead of one, and free, viable alternatives provide for additional leverage in negotiations.
  4. Roster salaries will become more balanced throughout the league.
    • When leverage is balanced, roster salaries should also become more balanced up and down the league.  The team that chooses to hold the $70 Trout because he is contributing to an in-season scoring total that could earn his owner a discount is now less likely to sell Trout with a large loan for other players that may actually deliver less surplus value than what keeping Trout could earn himself via points scored.  While high salary players can and still will be moved under this incentive structure, it becomes less likely that a great imbalance of roster cash (via loans) will float to the top of the league as is common under the current winner-takes-all structure.  This is all accomplished without adjusting the current soft salary cap or instituting an arbitrary hard salary cap.
  5. Ottoneu will begin to function more like a true dynasty league.*
    • The longer (years) I can keep the players I choose, the more Ottoneu begins to function like a true dynasty league.  If you buy into the assumption that most owners enjoy keeping (and building around) their players for multiple years, the salary discount system is a step forward in allowing teams to truly build around the players they choose long-term.
  6. Leagues will become more competitive, more fun, and more owners will return year after year.
    • By slowing the non-contender sell off effect that is common to Ottoneu leagues, it is likely that more teams will contend in a given season.  By increasing the opportunity to earn surplus value on the players you choose, more teams will contend over multiple seasons.  High salaries (via loans) and elite player production will be less likely to float to the top of the standings so early in the season, and non-contending teams will not only have a reason to play hard all season long, but also have a more tangible reason to return for following seasons.  In other words, owners will be given more control over the future of their teams.  As stated earlier, the single greatest (and easiest) incentive is an increased chance to win a championship, so giving owners greater control over their ability to extract surplus value will have a cumulative effect that increases competitiveness and parity, both short-term and long-term.

Adjusting the “winner-takes-all” structure of Ottoneu is the best way to make in-season gameplay more relevant for non-contending teams, and implementing the proposed salary discount system is the single-best way to achieve it because it doesn’t require a massive structural change to the game itself.  The proposed salary discount system is also easy to manage, communicate, and customize.  The salary discount system simply offers more options to all teams, regardless of their place in the standings, that would clearly enhance the overall competitiveness and enjoyment of the game, and would push Ottoneu one step closer to a dynasty environment that rewards the best overall baseball strategy.

So, will the Salary Discount system work for your league? Why, or Why Not? Let’s discuss in the comments – feel free to weigh in.  Your feedback is welcome.


Some anticipated questions:

  • Why is 15,000 points the minimum to earn a salary discount?
  • $14-$32 seems steep – why are these discounts so aggressive?
  • Why does a team scoring 17,000 – 17,250 earn the highest ($32) discount? Why does a team scoring > 18,000 points earn only as much as the 15,000 point team?
  • Why not limit the use of salary discounts to only those players who received arbitration allocations?
  • Wouldn’t just limiting the amount of loans between teams be an easier way to correct this issue?
  • How will we know if this works?
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8 thoughts on “A New Way to Play Ottoneu

  1. Brendan says:

    However, teams (like my own) that are undergoing severe rebuilds due to inheriting crap teams and have rosters of a lot of non-MLB prospects do not always have the ability to score a lot of points because they cannot field an entire team every day. In this system, the last place team gets 0$ in discounts. They wish to be in the running and wish to compete, but they may be 1-2 years out. Thoughts on how to incorporate value for them?

    • fazeorange says:

      Thanks for your comment, Brendan. I can sympathize with an owner taking over a bad team in an established, competitive league, but I don’t think the salary discount system works against you as a rebuilding team. Remember, your potential “last place” finish is irrelevant since the discounts are awarded by total points scored. Less than 9% of the 20 leagues I sampled had teams projected to finish the season below 15,000 points, so while the 15,000 point threshold represents something just above replacement level, it’s very attainable. Also, with 40 man rosters, you should easily be able to field a full (23 minimum) MLB scoring roster. I’d argue owning more than 8-10 prospects during a rebuild carries more risk (and less upside) than just fielding a slightly above replacement level MLB roster of 30+ players that help you achieve the 15,000 minimum needed for the Level 1 $14 discount. In other words, while some prospects can be valuable, there’s a greater chance that the minimum $14 salary discount you could earn becomes a greater benefit to the future of your team than sitting on so many prospects that you can’t field a full team. Generally speaking, prospect values are likely to actually decrease a bit (at least non-elite, non-Top 10 prospects) under the proposed incentive system because the value of scoring from an active roster spot (to earn the discount) will increase, which should make more prospects available more cheaply.
      One final thought: it might make sense to automatically give a new, in-coming owner in an established league the benefit of receiving the min. $14 salary discount in their first year, regardless of scoring, and then allow them to earn the upper levels based on their score. This would be similar to giving a new team a round of “penalty free” player cuts, which is already an option today.

  2. fazeorange says:

    After some additional thought and some good discussion with @ottoneutraderumors, I’ve realized one factor not addressed properly in this proposal is the timing of applying the earned roster discounts. Whether the discounts are applied before or after arbitration is a key consideration that needs to be accounted for. One element of the proposed discount structure is to help offset arbitration allocations, but it isn’t really intended to reduce overall roster salaries beyond the increases we see today. In other words, the incentive structure is designed to slow inflation, not to speed up deflation, which can have unintended consequences of removing more quality talent from the annual auction pool. With timing in mind, I’d offer the following changes to my proposal above:
    * Owners must apply the earned salary discounts BEFORE arbitration begins. However, they can still apply them to any player on their roster (not just those players receiving arbitration allocations).
    * I’d be open to removing salary discounts entirely from the league champion, as their primary goal is to win the league.
    * Open to moving the $32 highest discount up to level 9 and adjusting levels 12-10.

  3. Jim L says:

    Our league fixed this problem pretty easily by having a $25 buy-in from all teams, with staggered prizes for the top six finishers (i.e. $120 for the top team, $80 for 2nd, etc.). The trade activity has been robust, and we’ve had a good mix of buyers and sellers as we enter the second half of the season. This would also allow for a hard cap if Niv wants to go that direction.

    • fazeorange says:

      Good feedback Jim. Having a scaled payout system is another way to address this, but I’d argue it needs to be pretty strong to be effective.

  4. Dave C says:

    I’m intrigued.

    Our league uses the vote off arby process and this year we implemented an new rule to keep the league competitive. It was only designed to solve the absentee owner problem, not the buyer/seller problem, but it went like this.

    If you score less than 12,000 points you are removed from the league for at least one year.
    If you score 12,001 pts to 13,999.9 the league will vote on whether or not you can continue for the following season.

    I’ve had the misfortune to find myself as a selling team this year, and this rule has definetely been on my mind as I’ve contemplated trades. That said, if you are paying attention these are relatively easy hurdles to clear. The buyer/seller problem you describe definetely happens in our league, though not to the extreme extent I see referred to here. Some owners are bothered by large loans and this dynamic you describe may be at the heart of their complaints.

    I’m intrigued by the idea of adding a “carrot” to induce selling teams to perform well in addition to the “sticks” that we implemented this year. For leagues using the vote off arby process, you could just stipulate that within a certain point range, you get to keep your arbitration player. Based on the point averages you showed above, I’d guess that 16,500-17,499.9 would be about right.

    Thanks for all your thoughtful work.

  5. edwinblume says:

    An intriguing idea. With the bell curviness of the scale, there is a point where, if I believe I’m not going to win the league, it becomes more beneficial for me to stop scoring points so as to land at the top of the curve. Maybe something more linear? Then everyone will have incentive to keep scoring. Maybe exempt the league winner from discounts? Also, having a cutoff at the bottom will make it harder to build those teams up. I understand giving current owners an incentive to reach a cutoff, but realistically, many of those low scoring teams will become abandoned. With no discount incentive it may be harder to find replacement owners for the teams at the bottom.

  6. […] leagues.  The debate is still relevant for many Ottoneu leagues today (some custom leagues have spawned because of it), so you can read the full Champions discussion […]

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