By Jack Moore
Every five minutes, the big three fantasy baseball providers -- ESPN, CBSSports.com, and Yahoo -- are starting around 25 new mock drafts. These drafts are commanded by some 250 owners who, over the next 90 minutes, will go on to mock select a combined 6,000 players. The process repeats from 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. -- longer, for some sites -- generating some 45,000 mock teams and more than one million mock selections in just one day.
None of these selections will be counted come Opening Day. No money is on the line, and hardly any pride. This is beyond fake baseball. This is fake fake baseball.
The original fantasy baseball league named after a New York restaurant was a radical enough proposition. If we can't actually own teams and trade players, we'll own and trade based upon our knowledge of the players, winning and losing based on the numbers they produce. Sports fandom, to this point, had been an experience lacking agency. Glory or defeat rested on your chosen team; once the season started, you could only wait and watch.
"We wished to possess it. To control it," Daniel Okrent, one of the founders of Rotisserie League, said in the brilliant 30 for 30 documentary "Silly Little Game," which covers his league's creation and the subsequent fantasy sports phenomenon. Okrent and co.'s creation has given an outlet for the same desires of possession and control to fantasy players worldwide.
The mock draft, then, is more than just a solitaire or "Farmville" replacement as the workplace distraction of choice. Its ubiquity is the manifestation of this universal desire to helm a team of one's own that defines fantasy sports. The mock draft is the fantasy player seizing agency by the throat.
"People start asking about drafting with us during the playoffs," said Griffin Lowmaster, lead programmer at Mock Draft Central, one of a few sites dedicated to hosting customized mock drafts. "Shortly after the World Series, we launch. It's difficult because we don't have rankings or projections. People drafting that early are crazy."
Crazy, maybe, but fantasy baseball is a full-blown industry now. Unlike sports betting, fantasy baseball is blessed with the "game of skill" designation, meaning leagues with entry fees and payouts are perfectly legal even beyond your standard office pool. Yahoo debuted "Pro Leagues" with success last year at $20 and $100 levels, and CBS offers leagues with entry fees ranging up to $1,500 and payouts up to $5,000. Against high-rolling competition, more than cursory knowledge of the player pool is necessary; you must dive deeper.
STATS, Inc. hosts the biggest high stakes league in the industry, a 420-player behemoth aptly named the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC). The NFBC's main event takes takes 28 leagues of 15 teams each (the winners of which take home $5,000 each) and throws the 420 teams -- each throwing in a $1,500 entry fee -- into one giant rotisserie pool, with $100,000 going to the overall winner.
For those unfamiliar with rotisserie scoring, the team with the most home runs is awarded the same number of points as teams in the league (in this case, 420). The second-most home runs is awarded one fewer (419), counting down until the last place team only earns one. Add up the points for all 10 categories to find the winner. The 2012 champion, Dave Potts, pulled in 3,628 of the 4,200 possible points (86 percent). Everything needs to go right to win the grand prize.
Derek Van Riper, baseball editor at fantasy content site RotoWire.com, entered a team in the 2012 NFBC Main Event and will do so again in 2013. As an industry insider, knowing the player pool is his job, but preparing for an event as unique as the NFBC Main Event requires a unique approach.
"This year, instead of using Mock Draft Central or Yahoo, I've actually done some slow drafts via email with other people who play exclusively in the NFBC," Van Riper said. "If you match up your format that way you get a better feel for what those guys are likely to do in the main event or a satellite league."
The NFBC Main Event uses the same 10 stats that comprise the standard fantasy baseball league (a standard set by the 32-year-old Rotisserie League, amazingly enough): batting average, runs, RBI, home runs and stolen bases for hitters; wins, saves, strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP (walks plus hits per innings pitched) for pitchers.
But it throws in a few monkey wrenches. The Main Event rosters go 30 players deep, as opposed to the traditional 23, and leagues are 15 teams as opposed to the standard 12, meaning an extra 174 players are drafted in Main Event leagues. The added depth of the player pool makes waiver wire picking exceptionally slim. To hammer this point home, trades are outlawed to prevent collusion. As such, certain scarce positions -- closers and catchers, in particular -- become especially valuable because they rarely come available through free agency in the middle of the season.
The adept fantasy player doesn't target players she likes, she targets enticing values. If she comes into an NFBC draft with standard league values driving her strategy, she'll miss the closer-in-waiting or impact prospect that drives a team to victory. Fine-tuning these values is the role of the mock draft.
"There's always players you find who reliably go earlier than they're ranked. I tend to avoid guys like that," Van Riper explained. "You'll see a guy consistently going earlier than you're comfortable taking him and you'll write him off because you know you're not going to pay the price it takes to get him."
The experience is different in public mock draft rooms like those available on CBS and Yahoo. "Public mock drafts lean pretty heavily on the default rankings," Van Riper said. "The rankings tend to steer the outcome a lot more than in an industry draft, where people will use their own draft softwares, formulas and cheat sheets and will be more aggressive with their individual strategies."
This is an experience familiar to many first-time or casual drafters. The rankings hold an air of authority. Who am I to say I know better than the computer telling me to draft Justin Verlander over Clayton Kershaw in the third round? Using the mock draft allows players to pick out the inefficiencies or inconsistencies in the rankings.
Who's the bargain in the fifth round? The 10th? The 19th? This is where leagues are won, with the picks who give high-round value in the latter stages of the draft. Ryan Braun and Mike Trout were roughly equal in fantasy value last season, but far more teams with Trout earned championships because he cost either a late-round pick or a waiver wire pickup, whereas Braun likely cost one of the first six picks of the draft.
A prime example last year was White Sox starter Chris Sale in Yahoo leagues. Sale enjoyed a breakout season in 2012, as he won 17 games, struck out a batter per inning and recorded a fine 3.05 ERA and 1.135 WHIP in his first year as a starter. Sale was the 11th-most valuable starting pitcher according to RotoWire's auction value calculator last season, but he was ranked in the 200s by Yahoo's rankings and fell even farther thanks to only qualifying as a relief pitcher (and non-closer) entering the season. But as spring progressed, it became clear Sale would earn a spot in the rotation, and his pedigree -- a first round MLB draft pick in 2010 and a 2.58 ERA and 10.6 K/9 in relief in his first two major league seasons -- suggested there was value in a late-round selection.
Sale was lasting into the 20th round or later in every Yahoo mock draft I participated in last season. Of my five Yahoo Pro leagues ($100 entry), I acquired Sale in four of them -- off preseason waivers once, and in the 17th, 19th and 19th rounds, respectively, in the other three. Those four teams finished third, first, first and first in their respective leagues.
In the buildup to draft season in mid-March, I sat through double-digit mock drafts last year in preparation for my nine money leagues. I have done at least 10 mock drafts this season, and plan to get more in; I expect to participate in 12 leagues with triple-digit prizes this season. Participation in these leagues is untenable without some level of control over your surroundings. The mock draft allows me to reach any spot in the draft and never feel heat while on the clock.
This ability to control and direct offered by the world of fantasy sports is by far its most radical aspect. Finally, the fan gets a chance to grapple with destiny, however minimally. The mock draft slows the fantasy owner to hone that control to its finest. It is this connection to the fan, the deepest appeal in fantasy sports, that not only allows a concept as apparently absurd as fake fake baseball to survive, but to thrive.
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Jack Moore's sports addiction was a lost cause from the moment his older brother mowed a makeshift baseball diamond into his backyard. Now he writes about sports wherever the web will have him. Right now, you can catch him at CBSSports.com, FanGraphs, Advanced NFL Stats, Bucky's 5th Quarter, DisciplesOfUecker.com, RotoWire.com and on Twitter (@jh_moore).