The mockery of mock drafts

I’m not an avid mock drafter, but this past weekend, my friend Andrew and I decided to kill a few hours late Sunday morning by participating in one. I was reminded why mock drafts frustrate me.

If you’re a THT Fantasy reader, and an astute and accomplished fantasy player, you know that the middle rounds are absolutely crucial to your draft. This is where many of your most difficult decisions will be made. This is where opinions begin to differ wildly about players who are expected to play a major role in the success of teams. This is where you feel out how far you can let some of your targets fall before you lose them to another team. For these reasons, it is especially frustrating that mock drafters often abandon drafts after the first few rounds and leave the remaining selections to autopick. This behavior is not only foolish, it undermines the integrity of the whole exercise. Additionally, it reinforces existing ADP as a function of its relation to pre-ranks. Frankly, ADP becomes less reliable as it gets deeper because a smaller percentage of drafters are manually selecting their own players deep into mock drafts. Therefore the pre-rank and ADP start to become an echo chamber.

Once several teams switch on the autopilot, the others know who is going to be coming off the board so they are less inclined to reach for a player with a lower pre-rank, knowing half the teams are not threats to take him. Meanwhile, had the ghost owners stuck around, one of them may have taken the plunge as well. The sum of the circumstances conspire against late round sleepers moving up in terms of ADP. But, on the day of your real draft, don’t be surprised to see the Adrian Beltres of the world going sooner than you had been primed to expect through your participation in mock drafts.

In essence, fantasy sports is like poker in the sense that it is meant to be played for stakes. Unlike, say, chess, you cannot accurately replicate the dynamic of a real fantasy baseball league if the participants don’t have anything invested in the game, and that’s why mock drafts are of limited utility. Apologies to all of those out there who play free leagues and/or take great pride in “winning” mock drafts, but you are not playing actual fantasy baseball any more than you would be playing Russian Roulette with an empty chamber. Only when there are consequences to poor decision making, indecision, and apathy does the decision-making process become genuine. And that’s basically what we’re measuring in fantasy baseball—who are the wisest decision makers?

Even if we ignore the integrity arguments and focus on the individual utility of participating in a mock draft, it is rather unwise, not to mention an inefficient means of skills-building, to participate in a mock draft and not make the round 7-15 picks.

In this mock draft, we had debated taking Carlos Beltran at one pick (we had the first pick, and therefore were picking back to back—the most difficult position to be in when it comes to deciding when to draft players around which there is considerable uncertainly) before ultimately passing at the last minute. I remarked that this could turn out be a nice experiment and was very curious to see whether Beltran would still be available more than 20 picks later. But it soon became clear that we’d get sniped by somebody on autopick, as Beltran approached the highest-ranked available player. Therefore, we weren’t able to conduct our experiment.

Would an actual owner have selected Beltran? Would Beltran have even been there when we passed during the previous round? Well, what’s the point of the mock draft if the Carlos Beltran experiment can’t be conducted? … To see whether Evan Longoria gets taken before Miguel Cabrera? Who cares?

I did take two things away from the mock draft though.

We had the first pick and agreed to take Hanley Ramirez instead of Albert Pujols. We both just felt that HanRam offered us a greater chance to be versatile in terms of what we would choose to do throughout the rest of the draft. However, in a 12-team league, the owner drafting from the 1 slot will likely be presented with more players that resemble Ramirez than Pujols in the second and third round back-to-back. Had we taken Pujols, we’d still have had the option of Jimmy Rollins, Jose Reyes or Brandon Phillips to fulfill the five-tool middle infielder archetype. Meanwhile, the biggest corners available were Adrian Gonzalez, Kevin Youkilis and Joey Votto. Knowing we wanted Grady Sizemore with one of our two picks, we chose to take Rollins anyway. Through three picks we were sitting on approximately 90 steals and 75 homers without having filled a corner outfielder and feeling relatively content.

As our next pick approached, our thinking was that we’d have to give serious consideration to whoever represented the best homer potential and I was prepared to select Mark Reynolds whether Andrew approved or not. (It’s kind of cool to have the back-to-back when you are using a co-manager approach because you can simply split the picks when you can’t agree on the players you want.) Reynolds went a few picks before our turn though, which caused something of a last-minute change of strategy. Neither of us were ready to take Adam Dunn at this point and none of the other “power” options really tickled our fancy at the time (Adam Lind, meh). Andrew proposed we postpone our power move and do something radical by taking two starters back-to-back. I normally would think this was a bad idea, though I was eyeing Johan Santana with one of these two picks. Basically because I didn’t find the offensive options all that appealing, I bought in and figured we’d try the pitching combo route. So, we took Johan Santana and Jon Lester and made it a priority to get either Adam Dunn on our next turn, or take Carlos Pena in the following set if Dunn didn’t make it to us.

That’s what mock drafts are for—you should be drafting to win, but willing to be experimental within that context. The results of this experiment weren’t bad. There were two reasons why I hesitated on the double pitcher move. The first is that pitching is so deep that I knew we’d be in round 12 and saying, “Wow, pitcher X is still here?” but we wouldn’t want to take that player because we already had two stud starters. That happened to be sure. But, the other reason was that I feared we might be digging ourselves too deep a power hole, having gone five picks without a “slugger.” This problem didn’t really come to fruition though. We wound up with Berkman (I like the bounceback potential) and Carlos Pena as 1B/CIs and continued to acquire 25/90 outfielders, making up ground in the power departments as other owners started drafting punch and judy R/SB middle infielders. By round 13, our offense looked no worse than just about anybody else’s, and only one other team had a 1-2 pitching combo as formidable as ours. All things considered, I think that experiment actually worked, even though I would prefer not having to have to employ that strategy.

So the two lessons here are, one, if you’re picking first in a 12-team league, your options on the way back will be more attractive among the toolsy middle infielder type than the slugging corner type. This may or may not influence your initial decision between Ramirez and Pujols. And, two, double dipping on starting pitching may not put you too far behind the offensive eight ball if you’ve left yourself the deeper positions to fill later in the draft. Many owners are forced to cobble together cheap speed later in the draft and pass on players at deep positions with perfectly respectable HR and RBI totals. The tortoise and the hare approach to power accumulation is still possible when drafting a pitcher twice out of your first five picks—at least in a 12-team mixed set-up.

Finally, one general observation I have noticed over the years is that when it comes to snake drafts, the owners picking at the bookends are more likely than others to double dip at a position. There’s something appealing about skimming the top of the same talent pool twice before others have the chance to react to what you are doing. I’ve seen guys double dip on top closers, on catchers in two-catcher leagues, and here I double dipped on starting pitching, I’m not sure it’s any more advantageous to double dip as a bookend, but there’s something about that draft position that makes people more inclined to do it, anectdotally at least. Perhaps it’s as simple as the long string of picks in between turns causing the owner to surmise that the only way to get two top options at a position is to double dip.

Full disclosure and irony alert: Andrew and I didn’t finish the mock either, but I don’t consider us hypocrites. I was willing and motivated to participate in the draft for as long as I felt the exercise remained useful, which would have been until the end had three or fewer owners left. But by round 15 more than half the teams were on autodraft, so we logged off too. I just didn’t see the point in continuing a fruitless activity through completion for the sake of a principle that wouldn’t be effectively communicated to anybody. So, I chose to do something productive and take a walk to grab some beer for the gold medal hockey game.

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  1. Jon E said...

    Well timed article for me. I just did a Mock Draft at Yahoo! last night….and a continuing thought I had was that I KNOW some of my strategy was flawed because I waited on some players that I feel very unsure would still be there in a real draft when everybody is trying. It was still kind of fun….but I’m not going to make any assumptions for the two real drafts I’ll be doing in a couple of weeks.

  2. The A Team said...

    When I saw the headline I immediately shook my head ‘yes’.  I’m participating in my first auction draft this year and so I ran a couple mock drafts to get a feel for it.  Auto draft in an auction setting is especially bad.  My first draft, 9 of the 12 owners were on auto by around pick 50.  I ended up leaving that draft maybe 20 picks later because all the players I wanted were being bid up to their Yahoo assigned dollars (all of which are too high in the middle rounds).  I got very lucky with my 2nd mock.  11 of the 12 were still there after an hour and 8 of 12 finished the draft.  Still, the four autodrafters really reached on some guys that we all agreed should have been $1 candidates.  The auto drafters also reach their budget limit very quickly, making them non-factors late in the draft.

    On the flip side, I like to test my dollar values/draft order by running the draft on auto.  So I’m gumming up the mock process for everybody, but I’m learning a little about my draft board.

  3. Dylan B said...

    The main thing is use a mock draft for at the begining of the time frame is to see how my pre-rankings are workign out. I’ll run my first one with out any hanges and see what is the typical team I would expect, and then make adjustments, and repeat. I do this not that I plan on going strickly by my pre-ranks, but to have a fairly good back-up incase something happens where I am unable to make the draft.
    After about 4-6 drafts like that I fell I have a pretty good back-up in place and will then utilize a mock draft to see how it would go using different strategies liek you mentioned above.

  4. Dave Chenok said...

    For what it’s worth..each year, I am one of the guys who goes on autopilot after Round 3 of the Mock—maybe even before.  For me, the exercise is NOT about testing draft lists, or seeing how far players will fall (which you can figure out by studying ADP).  For me, it’s simply about testing the ESPN app.  Each year, ESPN makes changes to the draft app.  Sometimes those changes are not intuitive.  The time to understand the app (and make sure it is working right, with no Java uploads needed) is not when you are about to make your first round pick and can’t figure out which button to press, and you somehow end up with Aubrey Huff.  (Of course THIS YEAR the guy who ends up with Huff will probably WIN his league, but that’s another story).  I’m in the mock for an in vivo test drive.  I suspect at least some others are as well…

  5. Pochucker said...

    I put little to no value in mock drafts, especially “expert” mock drafts. To many times the “experts” are looking to create controversy or show you how “smart” they are by making outrageous picks.
    As far as public mocks go the only use is for doing what you were doing” trying out strategy” for first five or six rds.
      Other than that ADP lists I use are for my mark off list only.The key is knowing your league mates and trusting your own rankings. At least if you get beat you know it was based on your own deficiencies.

  6. Neil said...

    Great post. I’m a big believer that leagues are won-lost with the picks from round 15 onward…when most people left the draft. Like you said…who cares if Pujols goes first or second or if Wright goes #10 or #15. I do find it interesting how your draft position really determines your team. Sometimes I’m always in a position to grab the OF I like while other times I grab Miggy and Tex by the end of round two. Last night I got Kemp and then Crawford…obviously there’s a huge difference between starting with Miggy/Tex vs. Kemp/Crawford.

  7. Jay said...

    Mockdraftcentral does seem to be quite a bit better in terms of people sticking with drafts. I’d done a few on that site earlier this year, and most of the people stuck it out. Then I tried ESPN once, and while the draft was completely full, something like seven out of ten people bailed before the end of the draft. Like Dave Chenok mentioned, I was really only doing the ESPN mock to test the app, but I still thought I should stick it out. Maybe the problem with ESPN is that they’re scheduled so often that people take them for granted!

  8. Jason B said...

    re: Dave’s comment—

    Is ESPN’s draft app really that hard to use?  I’ve drafted through Yahoo many times, but I can’t imagine a draft engine being that difficult to figure out.  They usually have a big button that says “DRAFT” that you can click when it’s your turn to pick, and the picture and name of the player you’re drafting is highlighted prominently.  And since most people have moved beyond dial-up to some form of high-speed internet access, I would imagine that connectivity problems should be diminishing pretty rapidly, too…

  9. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Good points, Jimbo, and I don’t really disagree.

    Two minor points – personally, I don’t actually make my own hard rankings. I think the whole exercise is too subjective and while I understand that somebody has to fill every slot on a ranking board I think its kind of an exhibition of hubris to think I can clearly discern between the 63rd most valuable player and the 68th. And, that’s even before considering skill sets, needs, surpluses and team building considerations.

    Also, I’ve always been good at test taking, and that’s what I compare drafting too. As soon as I became old enough to have a sex drive and experiment with hallucinogens I pretty much became a pretty horrible archetypal student, but I was always good at taking tests, standardized tests especially, so I got the most out of whatever meager amount of studying/notetaking I did. Those skills translated as I would expect they would, so I never really felt the need to participate in exhibition drafts.

    Drafts really are kind of like tests – you amass a lot of knowledge about a lot of topics, but you’re not sure which ones you’ll actually get asked about. (Some players you never have the chance to draft.) You can often exploit inefficiencies by recognizing the patterns in how questions are asked, or how answers are grouped. (You can figure out others’ strategies by paying attention to how they draft.) And, finally, I’m sure many of the same people who got nervous before tests, even ones they were well prepared for, are the same ones who get nervous around draft time.

  10. Mike B said...

    I always take some time to do a few drafts on any of the providers through which I will participate in a league (usually just ESPN and Yahoo!)

    Mainly, I want to get a feel for each of their rankings.  Even in savvier leagues, the anchoring effect takes hold, and players will be drafted differently based on the service’s pre-draft rankings.  For me, knowing how to exploit those rankings against my own, searching for value in the margins, is one of the more useful draft-preps I do.

  11. Brian said...

    You are absolutely right about most players (pork chops, in my opinion) leaving mock drafts before the most important parts.  Late rounds as much as mid-rounds.  None of the experts seem to cater to deep keeper league drafts where 200 players are off the board before the draft starts.  Now that is strategy and a lot more fun.

  12. Jimbo said...

    I’m going to disagree, respectfully of course.

    I’ve done a couple dozen mocks at MDC and have found it extremely useful.

    Regarding the auto-picks…I simply use MY rankings for the “next best” window. Doing that, I can’t see (on purpose) who is up for auto-pick next. Solves that issue right quick. Sure, in a ‘real’ draft some players will fall more or go earlier. But also in a real draft (unless it truly is experts only) there will be owners sitting with some default ranking list that serves to garner similar results. So I don’t think that alone saps the exercise of all benefit. And MDC seems pretty good at filling drafts and keeping humans around through at least the teen rounds.

    The primary reason to do mock after mock is to practice decision making. Research, study and pre-draft prep won’t always help you in crunch-time on draft day. It’s the 9th round and your two targets go right before your pick. In those moments, based on my experience, is where mistakes happen most often. Having this occur in Mockville time after time , you learn to identify as many draft targets in your queue as there are picks left until your turn…almost as second nature. (If you’ve never had to scramble for a pick and wound up regretting it, you probably don’t need to mock!)

    In addition to the clock-based selections, there is team building to practice. Your example was a good one, where you went with Hanley and found power later. If you did another one and took Pujols first, you’d be able to contrast the flow of each based on position depth, power vs speed, and overall ‘feel’ of your results. If there are multiple owners on a team, practicing under-the-clock decisions is even more helpful.

    Lastly there’s strategy practice. Think power goes early? See how much power you can accumulate. OR try punting power and focus on speed/pitching. If you have flexibility in draft position, see what the middle feels like vs the bookends. Not sure how many Hanley’s and Ichiro’s are needed to balance the Dunn’s and Pena’s? Try drafting Ichiro once, then Pedroia, then try a more balanced approach. All of it is good for expanding one’s view of the landscape and not going into a draft with blinders on.

    In the end, the purpose of a mock draft should NOT be about specific players as much as it IS about draft-day skills and strategy. Just my two cents, or two-hundred cents based on the length of reply. wink

  13. Derek Ambrosino said...


    You are correct, IMO. Now, I’m not one to vociferously defend the expert community. So, if you want to dismiss the lack of coverage of deep keeper leagues/strategies as experts being lazy, or the subject matter being more difficult than pumping out another Jose Reyes vs Jimmy Rollins column, I won’t put up a huge fuss. However, I would like to offer two points just for consideration.

    One of the reasons why it is very difficult to cater to that market, beyond generic “deep sleeper” columns, is that so much of the nucleus of each team is already in place in those leagues that each individual owner’s situation is largely unique. So, it’s hard to give widely appreciated advice, again, beyond generic lists of deep sleepers.

    Another reason writers may be less inclined to write these columns is because this market represents a small statistical minority of the fantasy playing universe. Such a column is necessarily hyper-niche.

    Giving advice in those leagues would work much better in a one-on-one consultancy model, IMO. This is actually a business idea I’ve had and kicked around with friends, but not really for the hyper niche, super advanced league. Would wealthy fantasy novices who played (largely office) leagues almost exclusively for the purposes of bragging writes be willing to pay to outsource the drafting and managing of their team to an “expert.” I bet among the wealthy blue bloods caught in an ultra-competitive, alpha male dynamic, they’d be willing to pay considerably to win the league.

    The question is really the business model. How do you charge? A flat rate? A percentage of the entry fee? No money down, half your winnings from the pot? Are there different “plans, ” i.e. an a la carte menu for only drafting your team, only handling free agent pickups, individual trade consultancies? You could have auction experts, shallow league experts, etc. all different types of experts for different types of leagues.

    I’m telling you, I think it *could* work. I’ve pretty much abandoned the idea of actually getting it off the ground, so I guess I’m willing to risk just putting it out there knowing somebody else may give it a go. If anybody does take this idea seriously enough to further explore its viability, I would love to be involved somehow though.

  14. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Apologies for some of the horrid grammatical/misspelling errors above.

    Umm. Bragging writes?… Musta had J-Live on the Ipod recently.

  15. Seattle Zen said...

    This is the highlight of the piece and something I’ve felt for the past few years as MDC’s ADP became more and more popular:

    it reinforces existing ADP as a function of its relation to pre-ranks. Frankly, ADP becomes less reliable as it gets deeper because a smaller percentage of drafters are manually selecting their own players deep into mock drafts. Therefore the pre-rank and ADP start to become an echo chamber.

    The mere presence of the pre-ranked list affects the ADP even if all the drafters stay for the entire draft, they are very suggestive.

    I would be curious to see if there were any significant difference between mock ADP and manually loaded, off-network drafted leagues, ones without any pre-ranks. I have a hunch that leagues that draft in person or slowly without the help of pre-ranks are filled with very serious managers, I’d trust that group more.

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