No time in a fantasy sports season is more exciting than the weeks/months leading up to a league draft. Draft prep allows every manager to be a winner in his or her own mind. Questions about preferred draft pick are pondered (is it better to draft in the middle or at the turn this year?). Lists of sleepers are compiled. The top 10-50 players are ranked, reranked, and argued about passionately. Much time is spent considering the value of positional scarcity.

In theory the mock draft is a place for managers to test various strategies, lists, and draft positions in an effort to prepare for the real thing. In practice, at least anecdotally, it seems to this author that mock drafts are mostly for fun, or for quick-fading bragging rights, or to pass the time building enthusiasm during the otherwise dull preseason. We take part in mock drafts because we enjoy drafting. The draft is one of the only parts of the fantasy sports season where all managers play the same game together at the same time, before splitting up to essentially play solitare with the occasional trade or smack talk serving as the only meaningful exception. Where fantasy sports are individual activities, drafting is a group game that everyone wins purely by participating.

Mock drafting, then, provides the excitement and energy of a real draft sans consequence. As “practice”, mock drafting can be invaluable by virtue of familiarizing the owner with the pace and interface of whatever draft tool is used. And this is about as far as most managers go in deriving value from a mock. All the blog posts and message board threads comparing “who won a mock draft” are the height of ephemeral intellectual masturbation, focusing on who got which player at which position rather than attempting to understand how the draft itself worked and, more importantly, how the owner’s draft strategy played out.

If you want to mock draft for the hell of it, by all means do so. It’s a blast. But if you want to learn from your mock draft results, and especially if you intend to write about your mock draft, I recommend some best practices presented below for your approval

  1. Test your strategy- The ostensible purpose of a mock draft is to prep for the real thing, and this requires forethought. Going into a mock draft with no predefined strategy is only barely more useful than reviewing lists of Average Draft Position or thinking about your “dream team”. Have a list of players ranked or in tiers, or identify that you are going to target various positions in each round, or plan upfront that you will take “best available player”
  2. Stick to the plan- Mock drafts have no consequences. As such, if you go into a draft with a plan only to abandon that plan at the first sign of failure, you are not actually testing your strategy. If I plan on not drafting a starting pitcher until round 6, but there’s Kershaw sitting there in round 3 and he’s the best available player, I’m abandoning my plan if I take him. The point of a mock draft is to test  your overall strategy, not to win the mock draft.
  3. Test your goals- Above my strategy for a draft, I have goals for the season. Obviously the primary goal is to win, but a secondary goal could be to finish in the top 3 in home runs and strikeouts or to have a promising young core in a dynasty league or stock up on depth for future trades. Think about your goals going into the draft as  you test your strategy, and think about how your draft technique prepares you to meet these goals. The goals will define the strategy– if I want to chase homeruns rather than steals that defines who “best available player” is to me, given a choice between Michael Bourn and Mike Napoli.
  4. Take risks- The mock draft is a safe place. If you truly believe Verlander is a first round pick, take him in the first round regardless of your draft position (yes, even if you’re pick no. 1). Be bold. Be decisive. Be stupid. Try something you’d never  do if the results were permanent. Pay for saves, build an injury prone core, ignore upside for safety. Try the stuff that annoys you about other managers just to see how it impacts the team you end up with.
  5. Think about the results- When looking at the results of the draft, don’t look only at your team and don’t think about whether you won or lost or just did OK; focusing on your individual outcome rather than your process or the group outcome will not teach you anything useful. Mock Draft Central lets you rank each team and each pick of any mock draft– take the time to do this. You may identify flaws in your strategy and holes in your game. If your goal was to finish with 250+ home runs, figure out what round you feel like you met that goal and compare it to other players who came in later rounds. Perhaps the 20 home runs you got in round 5 could be split between rounds 13 and 20, and round 5 could buy you a serious pitching upgrade. Maybe someone you’ve got as a sleeper is going 3 rounds earlier than planned and you’re forced to reevaluate him.
  6. Try again- Take what you learned from this draft and apply it to another mock. Refine your strategy, adjust your rankings, and test your goals again. Every draft is different because every manager is different. Test your strategy from a different draft position, or try the same draft position with a radically different strategy to see what happens. If you usually use Yahoo, try ESPN or MDC and see how the results change.

Over the course of the preseason I will be applying these rules to a few different mock drafts to try and impart some general lessons for drafting. View the draft strategy or mock draft categories for more info on this topic.