Winning the Unwinnable: Mock Draft Best Practices

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.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Games, Pt. 1: Fantasy Baseball

I first encountered fantasy baseball just a few years ago, in the 2011 season. I had withdrawn from paying any attention at all to the sport of baseball during my high school and college years, only to rediscover it after moving to Philadelphia in 2006. After deciding focusing April through October watching or listening to or reading about baseball daily was not giving enough of my time, I joined my first fantasy league. It was a 10 team head to head Yahoo league, my brother was the commissioner, and he set up the league to score on every imaginable category. I did only cursory draft prep– enough research to determine I wasn’t going to draft a pitcher until round 7 consequences be damned (and I drafted Ubaldo Jimenez which if you recall 2011 was not the best idea). I won the season with the best record only to be shut out in the post season by my dad who autodrafted and then did not change his roster more than twice the whole season.

In 2012 I upped to 4 leagues, including taking on an abandoned team in a deep dynasty league that plays by the strangest rules I have thus-far encountered. In 2013 I expect to join at least one new dynasty league if not more. Suffice it to say I am hooked.

If one were to ask me why I play Fantasy Baseball, my answer would be that I enjoy it. This is the simplest and purest answer one should give for any hobby, I do believe, and in itself should be sufficient as long as the thing one enjoys isn’t causing any harm to one’s self or others.

As for WHY I enjoy it, I have found that the satisfaction I get out of playing fantasy baseball is only tangentially related to the sport of baseball itself. Whereas some seem to play fantasy sports based first on love and knowledge of the sport and a desire to experience it more fully, I find this reason wholly unsatisfactory. Certainly I know far more about prospects, depth charts, stats, and sabermetrics after 2 seasons of fantasy baseball than I ever did in the 4 previous seasons of watching 100+ Phillies games a year. But while knowing baseball is helpful for playing fantasy baseball, it isn’t sufficient.

I posit that any skill required to play fantasy baseball comes more from focusing on the “game” part rather than the “sport” part– that is, focusing on “fantasy” instead of “baseball”. Fantasy as in genre fiction, as in dungeons and dragons, as in RPGs, as in tabletop strategy games. Fantasy as in the sort of thing it is entirely unlikely Ken Burns will ever document. Fantasy as in the sort of thing jocks stereotypically hate.

Knowing baseball, the whole world of baseball inside and out, and above this being interested by baseball is central to one’s enjoyment of playing in a fantasy league. But knowing how to play games, how to understand complex sets of rules and identify strategies that allow you to use those rules to your advantage, how to play with and against other people toward a common goal of mutual enjoyment up to and until the point where a victor must be declared, how to find fun in a seemingly-endless game where the opponents are constantly changing and luck is at least as important as skill; this is what makes fantasy baseball fun.

If you have played fantasy baseball for any amount of time you have certainly encountered the managers who eagerly sign up to play only to ignore or half-ass the draft, forget to set a line up, disappear for 3 months only appearing to complain, and otherwise contribute nothing to the game. Sometimes these people even win a league or at least beat you. Certainly this type of player takes away from the enjoyment of playing, but they also serve to prove that winning is not the ultimate reason to play. Winning could be a result of sheer luck. Enjoying requires effort.

In this specific way– the relationship of luck to winning and effort to enjoyment– playing fantasy baseball is not unlike playing REAL baseball, or any sport. The fun and fulfillment in a sport or game comes from challenging ones’ self, improving ones’ self. Games and sports are tools for self-fulfillment, giving purpose to recreation. In this way, though, fantasy baseball is decidedly not like WATCHING the sport. Being a spectator is extremely enjoyable in its own way and can be equally consuming and defining, but as as spectator the only true benefit to me is in identifying with a community. It’s like being in a club that requires only one pay dues to join. Being a fan is not the same as being a participant.

Most of us will not ever play baseball at any competitive level, and definitely not work in or near a baseball front office. The skills required to work in the world of real baseball are almost certainly divorced from the skills required to succeed at fantasy sports, in the same way that the skills required to slay a dragon are divorced from the skills required to enjoy D&D.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that my exposure to fantasy baseball and my exposure to tabletop strategy games happened at about the same time. I would be quick to compare fantasy sports to games like Agricola, Settlers of Catan, and Ticket to Ride. I’ve only played D&D once, although I’ve played more than a few video game RPGs. The thought behind designing a good game engine, and the strategies various players take to succeed at and enjoy these types of games, are I believe entirely similar to fantasy sports.

I created this blog as an outlet for thoughts such as this. I’ve spent copious hours researching, preparing, and thinking about my fantasy baseball leagues and teams. I’ve encountered a ton of strategy, analysis, and thought about how to improve one’s team or prepare for a draft. What I have encountered very little of is theory. The focus of most thought tends to be on diving deeper into the research behind “baseball” while the “fantasy” part is often treated as secondary. Part of my goal for this blog, or at least the fantasy baseball-related posts, is to turn greater attention to the fantasy parts; the game parts; the ideas at play.

I approach maybe too much of life as if it were a strategy game– attempting to understand the engine, fully research the rules, and determine how to succeed within the confines of the established universe. Games provide a framework to achieve this greater understanding of the world around us, and more complicated games allow for more opportunities to learn. I have yet to encounter a game more nuanced, difficult, or intensive than fantasy baseball. Playing has led me to deeper understandings of statistics, economics, group dynamics, goal setting, and sportsmanship among other things. When I write on my future resumes that I am adept at Microsoft Excel, I will have fantasy baseball to thank.

As a game, I find fantasy baseball extremely fulfilling. But only when I put in the effort.

The Quality Start pt I: Toward a Unified Theory of Its Value

Author’s note: This post is part of 2 series of posts, one a shorter series focusing exclusively on the QS stat in fantasy baseball, and second an ongoing and endless series focusing on the general ideas behind fantasy baseball scoring categories. To view others in this same series, follow the tags at the end of this post and see where they lead you.

The Quality Start Has No Real Value in Baseball

The Quality Start should be a better stat. Less arbitrary than the deplored “Pitcher Win,” the QS is dependent on the starting pitcher to meet an agreed-upon threshold of at least six innings pitched while allowing three or fewer runs; the idea being that a starting pitcher who does this is presumably more quality than the pitcher who does not. Research has shown that the QS is not particularly useful if the goal of the stat is to measure a starting pitcher’s contribution to his own teams’ chances at winning. But as a fantasy statistic, the QS has two distinct advantages:

  1. it is easily understood and (as we shall see) at generally projectable
  2. it simply and cleanly asses starting pitcher performance

In that the QS is valuable primarily as a fantasy stat, this way it is like the WHIP– an attempt to combine multiple pieces of information into one assessable nugget to be used to judge if, say, Cliff Lee is better or worse than Yovani Gallardo. If this were real baseball, we could look at a host of data or animated .gifs or talk radio “analysis” and draw conclusions that way. Given that fantasy baseball is decidedly NOT real baseball (a point I expect to cover in detail in other posts), it is generally agreed that combining multiple pieces of data into one number, that can then be used to determine whether one’s fantasy pitcher or staff is better or worse than his/her competition, is perhaps the ultimate goal of the entire game.

So the value of the QS is mostly derived from the fact that it can replace pitcher Wins as a scorable stat in fantasy formats. Where the win is arbitrary and aloof in nature, awarded to a pitcher in a game using the same approach to reasonable and logical rule-making that also wrote the balk and infield fly rules, the Quality Start is absolute. Every game will have a Win and a Loss recorded against some pitcher, at least occasionally regardless of that pitcher’s true contribution to his team’s win or loss. Often this win or loss is given to a starting pitcher, often it is not. For the purposes of ranking the potential value of a pitcher for fantasy purposes, one of the grandest tropes of the game is “Don’t chase wins.” Seeing as another point of fantasy baseball is to chase after the ethereal, the QS stat now derives something like 99% of its value as something an owner can more reasonable pursue.

Achieving a QS is almost entirely in the hands of the starting pitcher. The pitcher must reach a minimum of 6 IP; which I suppose the manager could have some control over (cf. the 2012 colorado rockies). The pitcher must allow 3 or fewer runs, which are still ruled as allowed by the rules of baseball as opposed to defense-independent metrics but since the QS doesn’t have value outside of fantasy anyway there’s no point at trying to improve it by adding FIP to the equation.

In a given season of baseball there will be, inevitably, 4860 games played, out of which there will be 2430 Wins awarded to pitchers. Given the stated inevitability of this, one would assume projecting pitcher win totals would be, you know, feasible. History has proven otherwise and it is not the point of this post to argue with history.

Out of 4860 games played in 2012 there were 1589 quality starts. The actual inevitability of a QS is at the fate of the game, namely at the fate of the starting pitcher. But because the stat focuses exclusively on two points of data within that pitcher’s control, the value of the stat for fantasy purposes–where the purpose is to judge the quality of a starting pitcher– is exponentially higher than that of the Win.

In Favor of Looking at Quality Starts in All Fantasy Formats

This post is primarily meant to argue the value of the QS over and above the “Win” for fantasy scoring purposes. In generally any traditional fantasy format, the author would prefer to have pitchers scored by QS rather than Win. In some formats, especially head-to-head category/points formats in, say, ESPN or CBS leagues, it is not uncommon to see QS combined with Wins and other, even more unpredictable stats (i.e. shutouts and complete games). In formats where the QS and Win are combined as categories, I will uniformly ignore any potential guesses at a number of wins a pitcher is capable of in a season. Conversely, as I will explore in another post it is entirely possible to make an educated projection for QS. Thus, even if I were playing in a traditional 5×5 format with Wins and NOT QS, while I would certainly not “chase wins” I would make an effort to assess QS potential. Given the choice between two otherwise equally-rated pitchers, take the guy with better QS potential.

How can you determine which guy that is? This is the topic of the next post in this series, Projecting Quality Start Potential.