Welcome to Magnus Effect Baseball

© Madeleine Cook / The Republic

The 2028-29 offseason was downright bananas. In a matter of weeks, the Dodgers shelled out $2.3 billion in guarantees, a spending spree that upended the league. What had been a good class for first basemen turned into a single team cornering the market: Yordan Alvarez, Pete Alonso, and Alec Bohm created a veritable pileup at first in Los Angeles, one that pushed the team’s best holdover player, Michael Lindauer, from first to shortstop. It also pushed Bohm to third, which meant fellow free agent signee Carter Kieboom was getting $75 million to be a backup. The rest of the league was caught flat-footed, playing catch-up or giving up on free agency entirely.

That’s just how things go in Magnus Effect Baseball, an online baseball-industry Out Of The Park league that grew out of 2020’s COVID-19 lockdowns but has turned into a freewheeling, frenetic playground that shows no signs of slowing down. Those mighty Dodgers didn’t break the league; in fact, they’re not even the best team in their division. It’s a wildly competitive league, with even the bad teams trying to trade, sign, and develop their way into contention.

Magnus Effect Baseball started the way most online activities did in early 2020: out of sheer boredom. Smith Brickner, the league’s commissioner, wasn’t the originator. At the time, he was working for the Braves as a minor league video trainee, but his job had been put on hold by COVID. “I had just driven 20-plus hours from the Braves’ spring training complex back to Long Island when my buddy Sam Denomme asked if I had an interest in joining an industry-wide OOTP league run by some guys at Driveline,” Brickner told me. “When it became clear that someone needed to step up and actually run the league, I raised my hand.”

At first, the league was just one of many activities that its participants took up in an attempt to fill their suddenly-increased free time. Engagement was mixed, with some players taking it extremely seriously, while others drifted in and out. Turnover was quite high in the early days; not every pandemic-induced hobby takes, and many of the league’s initial members left for other interests. “There was a time near the beginning when half the league wasn’t all that engaged,” Brickner noted.

Luckily, the bench was deep. Word spread briskly. League members told their friends in baseball, and prospective joiners quickly outstripped the departing players. The league started to screen aspiring new managers before they joined to stress the engagement level necessary to keep an organization running at the breakneck pace the league still follows: four one-week simulations per real-life week, with offseason simulations coming as frequently as daily.

At first, the league looked like it would only last as long as the COVID restrictions across the country remained stringent. But a funny thing happened in the meantime: managers started to become attached to the teams they’d built. The league started out looking a lot like the existing major leagues; after all, the rosters were the same. Within a year, though, things had gone wildly awry: unconstrained by attachment to players or any real convention, trades remade the league into something that hardly resembled the real-life majors.

MEB’s inaugural season featured familiar names in the World Series, if in an unfamiliar setting. Mookie Betts, Walker Buehler, and Will Smith lost the Fall Classic in 2020, and stranger still, they were playing for the Braves (renamed the Hammers in-game); they’d been swapped for Ronald Acuña Jr. earlier in the year. The Hammers also added Francisco Lindor, Shohei Ohtani, and George Springer that season, the first super-team assembled in MEB. 2020 also featured the first instance of an OOTP quirk that has happened multiple times since: a fabricated independent-league player named Alvaro Herrera appeared out of thin air and hit .292/.375/.585 on his way to winning Rookie of the Year.

Within a year, trades, talent changes, and new players made the competitive landscape unrecognizable. The Orioles won 96 games in MEB 2021, led by a pile of players who aren’t Orioles in real life: Willy Adames, Bohm, Kris Bryant, Didi Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Bryan Reynolds, Eugenio Suárez, Sixto Sánchez, Pablo López, and Jesús Luzardo. But that team didn’t stay together long, as Bryant, Gregorius, Adames, Suárez, and top prospect Luke Leto were traded to the Dodgers after the season in a massive deal for Alex Bregman and Nolan Arenado. To put it mildly, there was a lot of activity in the league’s early years.

As this mess of trades moved the league from a facsimile of reality to a creation of its members, engagement picked up. The league’s Slack channel exploded; soon, managers were sending hundreds of messages a day to each other, angling for trades or simply discussing the league. As Brickner puts it, “Baseball has a way of extracting the competitive edge out of all of us. A temporary break from reality became the avenue for many of us to continue testing our mettle against one another.”

Why did players keep coming back for more even as real life beckoned? For many, it feels like a variant of fantasy baseball that focuses on what they like best about the sport: multi-year team building and the chance to act like a real-life general manager, shaping a farm system and major league roster in their preferred image. R.J. Anderson, a baseball writer at CBS Sports, manages the Texas Rangers in MEB. “I like the competitive and strategic aspects the league offers, and, for whatever reason, I find this more fulfilling than a fantasy league,” he said. “The people are fine, too, other than Craig.”

Craig is Craig Goldstein, the editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus and GM of the Nationals. “When I joined I thought a) I don’t really have time for this and b) I’ve never played OOTP before and it’s going to be a mess. But it’s definitely something I look forward to every day,” he told me. “I still have never played OOTP outside of this setting. It’s the interactivity of playing against/with real people that has been enjoyable for me. It’s a little embarrassing how much I think about my MEB team.” His interest has paid off – his Nationals lead the NL in run differential and have made the playoffs in three of the past four years.

The accelerated schedule helped sustain interest; with an in-game year taking place every two and a half months, seeing prospects go from rookie-ball standout to major league contributor is less a pipe dream than it is the normal order of business. Out Of The Park’s extensive player database also made the league feel more realistic. The game creates entries for real-world players who are potential draftees in the future; one channel in the league messaging system frequently features real-life scouting videos of not-yet-draft-eligible players who have achieved fame and fortune in the MEB universe.

The feeling that any team can be remade tomorrow if its manager gets tired of it today keeps league competition extremely high. Every team thinks it’s either contending or building to contention; a change in game settings that assigns budget based on record means that any team is a few hot years away from building a self-sustaining juggernaut. The Oakland A’s run annual payrolls approaching $200 million, and if Oakland can do it, anyone can.

That’s not to say that a huge pocketbook is the only way to succeed. Jarrett Seidler, senior prospect writer at Baseball Prospectus, uses lessons from real life to help him manage the Hammers. Which lessons? “Just how non-linear player dev is,” he told me. “One of the best hitters in the league is Michael Lindauer, a 20th round college pick in 2022 who was traded several times as a prospect. Caleb Ferguson has made five All-Star Games and won two Cys as a starter…yes, that Caleb Ferguson. This kind of prospect variance does happen in real life and I try to approach MEB understanding that.”

Seidler first managed the Pirates, where he built a core that later won a World Series, before taking over Atlanta when their previous manager left the league. He’s not one of the more adventurous owners in MEB, but the range of styles adds to his enjoyment. “All my moves were basically stuff real teams could have done,” he told me. “And then contrastingly, we’ve got, say, Stephen Coelho of the Dodgers, who is always prepared to make a league-altering blockbuster at all times of day and night. He’s like if you took Jerry Dipoto and turned the volume up to 300% while taking most of the financial reins off. Both are totally valid and fun ways of doing it!”

These days, the league’s Slack channel lights up every time a new simulation runs. With nine years of history, rivalries between GMs run deep — and in MEB, general managers feel free to engage in trash talk each other. Just like in real life, the AL East has been particularly heated. Tyler Oringer, a contributor for Baseball Prospectus and until recently an NFL statistician, manages the Red Sox. “It’s been really fun to mimic the real life Yankees/Sox rivalry,” he told me. “It creates a ‘baseball’ rivalry that doesn’t exist either due to the lockout or when we were on lockdown in 2020.”

Brickner’s Yankees squad is consistently one of the best teams in the league, but their occasional playoff wobbles and inability to put away the Red Sox are frequent fuel for discussion. “The Red Sox have been Smith’s worst nightmare in the playoffs,” Oringer said. “Please just ask [Brickner] how he fared against them in 2025.” It’s clear that Brickner remembers. “Let the peasant keep his stolen goods,” he told me in reference to Oringer’s 2025 MEB championship. “It’s all he’ll ever have.” That’s hardly the only rivalry in the game, either, just the most heated.

Over time, the league has gotten more intricate in nearly every way. In-game, teams have devised ever more complicated strategies to get ahead of other owners who are also thinking outside the box. Early in the league’s history, a plan might be “sign the best players and try to win this year” or “tank, draft, and develop.” With more time to get used to Out Of The Park’s rules, teams have devised increasingly elaborate ways to set up their rosters for success.

That Dodgers spending spree I referenced earlier? It was preceded by a wildly complex set of trades that saw the Dodgers send a mixture of prospects and cheap major leaguers to the Rays in exchange for Wander Franco. After the season, the Dodgers then sent Franco back to the Rays in exchange for Tampa Bay taking Buehler’s onerous contract (following his trade to the Hammers, Buehler returned to the Dodgers and ran into injury woes, tearing his labrum three separate times). The Dodgers also separately traded Bregman (him again!) to the Rays for a pile of prospects.

Coelho, a customer success rep at Blast Motion, a company that sells swing analysis tools, is the general manager of the Dodgers and the pre-eminent rule-bender in MEB. He likes the game for the same reason many of the other GMs do: it provides him a chance to test his creativity and team-building skills against a group of similarly-invested individuals. He simply likes to do it with a little flair. “I’ve managed to end almost every season over budget,” he told me. “I like making big moves that create buzz in the league, and it comes at a price… I often have to get creative to make deals work. People always get a kick out of trades that involve small market teams sending the Dodgers cash or retained salary.”

His repeated Franco laundering set the Dodgers up to spend big in free agency, but that’s not the whole of it. The end game here is to trade those free agents – the ones signed this offseason – and retain all the money on their contracts to extract a big prospect haul. In fact, Lindauer – one of the few holdovers on the team – has already been shipped out for a huge eight-player return. If it works, the Dodgers will be over budget for years but will have a young, cost-controlled core to build around until the money rolls off the books. Pick the wrong prospects, and the Dodgers could be looking at a long fallow period – at least until Coelho attempts another overhaul.

With madcap moves like this the rule rather than the exception, there’s always something to talk about in MEB. There was the time Coelho signed 25 forgettable minor league free agents to major-league minimum deals to include in a trade in a successful attempt to get around salary rules. They were all included as players to be named later, since you can’t exactly add 25 players to your 40-man roster at once. The Twins, who were on the other side of the trade, spent most of the balance of the year receiving a player to be named later and promptly DFAing them.

There was also the time when an indy league player named Jimmy Somers appeared out of nowhere as one of the best catchers in the league, a 65 present value hitter on the 20-80 scale. How unexpected was his emergence? He was 34 and hadn’t played affiliated ball before, which made him eligible for free agency immediately. He signed a 10-year deal worth $330 million dollars, played three years of it, and then opted out, a poor decision given that he’d only accumulated 0.5 WAR in those first three seasons; he signed a one-year, $2 million contract later that offseason.

Stories like these have carved out a space separate from real-life baseball that keeps people coming back. Teams have been successful by trading prospects for superstars or through arcane maneuvers that leverage the peculiarities of OOTP, but many of the best teams in the league focus on drafting and developing talent above all else. “In my experience, the teams who spend the most on scouting and player development are often the ones who enjoy the most consistent success,” Brickner told me. “Pushing all your chips onto the table for the next season or two isn’t a ‘bad’ strategy per se, but you have to win for it to be worthwhile. I just don’t ever want to be in that predicament.”

As much as the fun of crafting your own winning strategy has kept players interested, so too has Brickner’s broader league management, as it’s hard to imagine a more meticulously run online league. From the nine-page league rulebook that covers trades, contracts, and DFA windows to the online directory of custom team and league logos (complete with a guide to downloading them), the extra touches shine. StatsPlus, a website that keeps statistics and allows interaction with OOTP leagues, gives the data-heads of the league something to sink their teeth into, from past drafts to lifetime managerial records to fan interest.

Over time, the trappings of the league have outstripped the time that most players spend on their own teams. Anderson estimates that he spends less than 10 minutes a day tinkering with his team, with occasional spikes around key events. Brickner spends closer to 15 minutes, and many league participants are in the 10-30 minute range. The game engine allows you to spend as little time as you’d like on day-to-day tasks; virtual managers handle playing time and scouts automatically find new assignments when they finish whatever they’re working on.

That’s the rule, but there are certainly high-volume exceptions. Reed Zahradnik, Co-Lead Data Analyst for the University of Iowa baseball team and GM of the Diamondbacks, spends two or more hours per simulation working on his team. “That’s mostly just doing the essentials for me: setting rotation/lineups for the major league team, checking how my top prospects did over the last week, and the waiver wire,” he told me. “But if I have a slow couple of days, I could be on the game upwards of 5-6 hours. Looking through the free agents, trade targets, prospects, scouting – I like to have control over a lot of the little things that go on. I think that’s a big part of what separates the good from the great teams in OOTP.”

While in-game preparation varies widely among the participants, the meta-league occupies a far larger space in people’s minds. There’s league merchandise, stamped with the custom MEB logo. Brickner occasionally does real-time play-by-play of games or hosts the Rule 5 draft online. There’s even a league podcast called Defying Gravity, a nod to the spin that gave the league its name.

While the league community is vibrant, Brickner is the driving force behind it. He estimates that he spends roughly 45 minutes per simulation handling the background processes that drive the game engine, and plenty more time planning transactions or just good-naturedly bashing his rivals between simulations. “I have a fair bit of confidence in saying that (MEB) would be really unlikely to stick around, or have made it this far, without Smith doing everything he does,” Goldstein said.

Chris Gabriel, a baseball ops trainee for the Reds who manages the A’s in MEB, concurs. “He’s developed [the league] to the point where there are 30 GMs, plus a handful of AGMs, who are fully engaged in the game. And then to take the time from his own personal life to keep the league running like clockwork is a testament to his dedication. Without him, we’d just be a bunch of kids in the schoolyard with no adult supervision.”

With engaged managers and a rich history, the league is more active than ever before. In previous years, returning GMs scoured friends and industry contacts for prospective new league members, trying to keep ahead of the inevitable wave of departing managers. That flood has slowed to a trickle as players become increasingly invested, and for the first time in league history, every team returned for the 2029 season.

As for the commissioner, Brickner likes what he’s doing. He’s no longer working in baseball – he’s now a wealth management analyst at Morgan Stanley – but he’s as interested in the game as ever, with an eye toward returning to the sport sometime in the future. For now, though, he’ll content himself with being the head of a band of obsessives who spend their evenings trash talking about fake baseball teams and performing byzantine roster manipulations.

Brickner has an unimpeachable overall record in MEB, building a strong core that led to an early-2020’s Hammers dynasty and winning the 2027 World Series in New York. He’s confident that he’ll remain ahead of the crowd. “My goal is to build a good team that fits my philosophy, and everything else will take care of itself. It sounds so simple, but the best teams in the league often win regardless of what happens during the season because they prepared for every possible scenario in January when most people ease up,” he crowed.

That may prove true – his Yankees, built according to his exacting demands, are an impressive 34-18 this year with a +100 run differential, putting them in playoff position for the sixth consecutive year. But they’re a half game behind those pesky Red Sox, and the Twins and A’s may have rosters that eclipse even the mighty Evil Empire. It promises to be another drama-filled season in MEB, just like every year so far has been.

The league is inherently limited in scope – there are only 30 teams, no real spectators, and no real-world stakes. But so long as the league keeps its current breakneck pace, the scope hardly matters. There’s always a new caper afoot – perhaps the star-crossed story of Tyler Callihan, a solid shortstop who was traded from Los Angeles to Cleveland to Los Angeles to Tampa Bay to Los Angeles to Tampa Bay in a span of five months, or Mike Trout’s inevitable stint in pinstripes (four years, one ring, 23.1 WAR). Magnus Effect Baseball likely won’t ever be bigger than what it is now, but its current state is perfectly fine for the baseball zealots who play it.

Author’s Note: I play in Magnus Effect Baseball, as the GM of the Philadelphia Phillies. 2031 will totally be our year.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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Cave Dameron
2 years ago

Thank you Ben, very cool!