Given the sheer level of detail packed into Ottoneu Fantasy Baseball, is it even fantasy at all?
Could you really, really hack it as an MLB general manager? To build your roster and farm system, manage salaries, execute a draft, and make trades? This is exactly the type of all-inclusive front office experience that Niv Shah envisioned when he designed Ottoneu Fantasy Baseball back in the early 2000s.
The game brands itself as “Fantasy Baseball so immersive you’ll think you’re the next Billy Beane.” Inspired by Michael Lewis’ Moneyball and the success of his beloved Cleveland Indians’ trade of imminent free agent Bartolo Colón for three future All-Stars in Cliff Lee, Grady Sizemore, and Brandon Phillips, Shah constructed a long-term, hyper-analytical approach to fantasy sports that provides users with an experience that goes far beyond filling out a lineup card, mirroring many of the day-to-day responsibilities of a general manager.
And it does so with such precision that some Ottoneu users have parlayed their success on the platform into jobs with very real MLB front offices.
Ottoneu goes beyond the popular stats found in a box score, placing an emphasis on the figures that matter to MLB front offices. That requires Shah to use advanced statistical methods to calculate the scoring rather than relying on the basic arithmetic of other fantasy sports platforms.
For example, although wins look nice on paper as a stat, a pitcher can only do so much to control their team’s record in his starts. Consider Mets superstar Jacob deGrom, who picked up back-to-back NL Cy Young in 2018 and 2019 with a combined 21-17 record thanks to consistently weak run support. With all this in mind, Ottoneu places greater value on the stats that are within a pitcher’s control, such as FIP (fielding-independent pitching), strikeouts, walks, innings pitched, and home runs, the latter of which are assigned the biggest scoring penalty.
Regarding hitters, Shah focuses on the fact that they have no bearing on whether anyone is on base when they come to the plate. In response, Ottoneu doesn’t acknowledge RBIs. This choice remains a bit controversial, of course, as hitters who are above league average with runners in scoring position would logically be considered valuable than their counterparts.
Shah still argues that the statistic is too circumstantial. And evidently, real-life MLB organizations agree.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is that a bunch of people have had to stop playing [Ottoneu] because they started working in MLB front offices,” Shah said in an interview with Axios. “If you have an inspiration to go further, people have shown that you can.”
Unlike traditional fantasy leagues, Ottoneu allows its owners to manage teams’ salaries and develop farm systems. Teams have a 40-man roster and 22-man active roster. This creates minor league spots for cheap prospects who might be several years away from their big league debut — but could be the next star to fuel your team.
The initial draft and free agency are conducted via auction format, setting a market value for each player. Each team has a $400 salary cap, with player’s salaries increasing by $2 each year in the bigs. The league even has an arbitration process and annual winter meetings that simulate the real thing.
In 2011, Shah joined forces with leading baseball analytics site FanGraphs to power Ottoneu, a relationship that still continues today and shapes the experiences of over 4,000 active users. And while not all of them will go on to be the next Billy Beane, it’s clear that Major League Baseball considers the Ottoneu community to be something of a front office farm system for the 21st century.
Taking this into account, however you prefer to characterize the game’s format, it’s no fantasy.