Nick Tropeano

Getty Images

Top 25 Baseball Stories of the Decade — No. 5: Tanking epidemic

6 Comments

We’re a few short days away from the dawn of the 2020s. So, instead of counting down the Top 25 stories of the year, we’re taking a look at the top 25 baseball stories of the past decade.

Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most over the past ten years.

Next up: number 5: The Tanking Epidemic 

 

Competition to achieve victory is the very essence of sports. Entertainment derived by fans from watching competitors battle to achieve victory is the very essence of spectator sports. The entire enterprise, then, is premised on everyone involved attempting to win games.

What a great many baseball teams’ strategies in the 2010s presupposed was: “what if it we didn’t try?”

Enter the concept of tanking: clubs intentionally fielding teams of players less talented than they could field in the normal course in the hopes that, by losing, they will (a) improve their draft position, thereby allowing them to get better at some point in the future; and (b) save money in the process. Oh, and how much is (a) and how much is (b) varies depending on the team.

Tanking is a concept that people have talked about with respect to basketball for decades. It makes sense, as basketball is a sport where one player can make an outsized difference in a team’s future competitive prospects. The Houston Rockets of the 1983-84 season are considered Patient Zero in tanking studies, as they clearly woofed the second half of their season that year in order to get into position to draft either Hakeem Olajuwon or Michael Jordan. They got Hakeem and later won two NBA titles with him. Their obvious efforts to lose in the second half of that season, however, led to the institution of the NBA draft lottery system the following year. Despite the lottery, which has been tweaked numerous times, the lure of some transformative amateur talent in the coming draft still incentivizes NBA teams to tank.

The NFL, too, has had at least some isolated experience with tanking, specifically related to teams trying less than their best in an effort to draft a potential franchise quarterback. Remember back in 2011 when fans of the Colts, Dolphins, Rams and Vikings adopted the only partially tongue-in-cheek rallying cry, “Suck for Luck?” Remember the Tampa Bay Buccaneers benching most of their starters in the final game of the 2014 season in order to draft Jameis Winston? As I’m writing this right now, LSU is thumping Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl and my Twitter and Facebook timelines are full of my fellow Ohioans drooling over the prospect of their Bengals drafting Joe Burrow. I’d be shocked if there aren’t people in the Bengals front office who have been thinking hard about that — and making decisions aimed at that — for several weeks now.

Baseball, however, had been immune to the concept of tanking for most of its history. There were several reasons for this:

  • Any one superstar baseball player is far less important to a team winning than any one superstar basketball player, thus making it silly to try to move up in draft position to get any one superstar baseball player;
  • The baseball draft is notoriously imprecise, and the development of even seeming “can’t miss” prospects often fizzles out. Which is to say, even if you’re drafting first in baseball, there is no guarantee you’re getting a superstar;
  • Baseball’s free agency system was far more robust than the other sports, allowing teams to improve more quickly outside of the draft, thus diminishing its importance to some degree;
  • Even within the draft, baseball teams’ historic ability to offer big signing bonuses — and amateur players’ leverage of, say, going to college instead of going pro and signaling to certain teams not to draft them via large bonus demands — allowed for both teams and players to match up with one another in ways that diminished the importance of draft order; and
  • Given the far greater number of games baseball has over the other sports, attendance mattered a lot more for the bottom line and thus a team tanking for 162 games would have a far, far greater impact than a basketball team doing it for 82 or a football team doing it for 16. It’d hurt more, financially speaking, for baseball teams to tank, so they generally didn’t.

Over the course of the past decade, however, each and every one of these disincentives for baseball teams to tank went away, and multiple incentives for teams to tank were created.

The first couple of points — that building a winner via the acquisition of amateur talent is difficult business — was seemingly called into question by the Chicago Cubs and the Houston Astros. Both of those teams willfully bottomed out, collected high draft picks, and years later won the World Series. They did this by both exploiting the draft and by signing international amateurs, and each created strong teams that, for a long time anyway, didn’t cost a lot of money to hold together. The notion of rebuilding had always been present in baseball, but the idea of cutting it back to the bone like Houston and Chicago did and emerging, relatively quickly, as world-beaters caused the league to take notice and caused many to attempt to emulate them.

But there was more than just monkey-see, monkey-do at work. The structure of baseball, via the 2012 and 2016 Collective Bargaining Agreements, greatly encouraged tanking and discouraged clubs from assuming a win-now approach involving the signing of free agents and otherwise making greater financial expenditures.

Beginning with the 2012 CBA a slotting system was created in the amateur draft in which a given pick would be paid no more than a predetermined bonus with severe penalties on teams which exceeded slotted bonuses. Along with the slots came a “bonus pool” in which teams got a set amount of money to spend in the entire draft. The higher the picks a club had, the larger their bonus pool would be. The net result: winning teams, who picked late in rounds, were prohibited from making big splashes in the draft, thereby making winning worse for draft purposes than it already was and losing teams, who picked early in rounds, had more draft money to play with, thereby making losing even better for draft purposes than it used to be.

Four years later, in the 2016 CBA, hard caps and a pool were placed on international amateur signings too, curtailing a team’s ability to make up for poor draft position via the expenditure of big money in the international market. As was the case with the draft, international pool money was scaled based on the previous season’s standings, giving the worst teams the most money.

Meanwhile, the CBAs in place during the 2010s made signing free agents far less desirable. The qualifying offer system and draft pick compensation tied to signing free agents who rejected qualifying offers increased the cost of signing free agents. And, given that draft picks were already becoming more valuable to teams given the example of the Cubs and Astros and the changes to the draft, that increase in the value of a draft pick was substantial. At the same time, the Competitive Balance Tax threshold — the payroll threshold which, if exceeded, penalized teams financially and, eventually, would cause them to be knocked down in draft order — rose less than revenues increased and was, increasingly, treated by teams as a defacto salary cap.

Finally, the historic penalty for losing — decreased attendance and loss of money — became far less of a problem for owners. As I’ve noted in this space many times, teams increasingly rely on sources of income — long-term TV deals, marketing partnerships, side businesses and real estate ventures — that have little or no connection to clubs putting entertaining and competitive baseball teams on the field in any given year or, in some cases, ever. Indeed, some of these revenue streams have no connection to the playing of actual baseball games at all. As a result, the financial disincentives for fielding a bad team vastly decreased.

The net result of all of this: an epidemic of tanking. A league in which a great many teams made no real effort to win at the major league level.

The basic tanking blueprint:

  1. Trade anyone of value on your major league roster for prospects;
  2. Save as much money as possible by using cheap players to fill out the roster;
  3. Stockpile high draft picks after your team loses a massive number of games for consecutive seasons and use those high draft picks to build an elite farm system;
  4. Allow prospects to develop in the minors while continuing to run out a lineup full of palookas; and
  5. When prospects are finally ready, bring them up in waves and win as many games as possible until they become expensive themselves.

While no team doing this called what they’re doing “tanking” — and while not every rebuilding process can fairly be called tanking — a lot of teams followed this blueprint, and it’s led to a lot of bad baseball.

In 2019 four teams lost 100-plus games — tying a record — and six more lost at least 90 games. Over the past two seasons the Orioles have lost 223 games, giving them one of the worst two-year stretches in baseball history. The Tigers’ 114-losses last year was the fourth-most in baseball history and, at this writing, they appear to be slated to lose in the triple-digits again in 2020. All of this was merely a culmination of a several years-long trend which also included the White Sox, the Blue Jays, the Marlins, the Royals, the Mariners, and the Pirates. Other teams, while more superficially competitive for a time, have declined to improve themselves in the course of a given season, preferring to miss the postseason by many games than merely by a few.

As this has gone on, attendance has steadily declined for each of the past five years. Fans, uninterested in watching games in which as much as a third of the league isn’t interested in winning, are turning away. For aforementioned reasons, however, baseball’s revenues continue to rise. There is nothing inherent in the system that penalizes teams who have no interest in winning in the short or even medium term.

Perhaps, however, failing to win in the long term will eventually discourage tanking. And make no mistake: the teams currently tanking are going to see diminishing returns on the gambit.

While everyone wants to be the Astros or the Cubs, the tanking industrial complex seems to have overlooked a couple of things about how those two team’s tanks paid off. For one thing, they’ve overlooked a basic fact of any sort of market and any sort of competition: first movers have an advantage.

When the Cubs and Astros tanked, they were zigging while everyone else was zagging. They were able to take advantage of trades and high picks in ways others weren’t. Between 2011 and 2013 when Houston lost 324 games in the space of three seasons, only two other teams lost 100 games even once: the Cubs and the Marlins once. This past season the Orioles lost 108 games and they’re not even getting the first pick in draft.

It’s also worth noting that the Cubs and Astros had fewer restrictions on how they could take advantage of losing. For most of their tanking processes, there were no hard bonus slots in the draft or hard caps on international signings as there are now. From 2009-2011 the Astros were able to draft and go over slot to sign guys like George SpringerDallas KeuchelMike FoltynewiczVince VelasquezDelino DeShields, Kiké Hernandez and Nick Tropeano. For their part, the Cubs took great advantage of a cap-free international market, signing Jorge Soler, Eloy Jiménez, Gleyber Torres and Jeimer Candelario. Not only do all the tanking teams now have a lot more competition as they tank, but they seem to have forgotten that, while they want to be like the Astros and Cubs, in many important respects they can’t be.

This offseason has, so far, given us a bit more activity on the free agent front than we’ve seen for the past several seasons. And at least one team who has been tanking — the Chicago White Sox — seems to be transitioning from “happy to lose” to “trying to win.” Whether that means that tanking, one of the defining dynamics of 2010s baseball, will be less of a factor in the 2020s is unclear.

What does seem clear, though, is that while tanking has not harmed MLB’s bottom line thus far, the continuation of the process in which clubs view fielding winning and entertaining teams as an unnecessary component of their mission statement will be a bad one in the long run. Because, again, such a thing is antithetical to the very concept of competitive sports.

 

PREVIOUS ENTRIES 

No. 6: The Deaths of Young Players
No. 7: Miguel Cabrera Wins the Triple Crown
No. 8: The Biogenesis Scandal
No. 9: Bullpen Mania Takes Over the Game
No. 10: The Rise of the Young Player
No. 11: Baseball Goes From Deadball To Juiced Ball
No. 12: Baseball Begins Rewriting the Rulebook
No. 13: Baseball Adds a Second Wild Card
No, 14: Albert Pujols Signs With the Angels
No. 15: Baseball Continues a Remarkable Run of Labor Peace
No. 16: Baseball implements a domestic violence policy
No. 17: Cardinals Employee Hacks Astros’ Database
No. 18: Frank and Jamie McCourt Bankrupt the Dodgers
No. 19: Baseball Embraces Gambling
No. 20: The Hall of Fame Logjam
No. 21: The Bat-flippers Win the Battle Over the Unwritten Rules
No. 22: Astros switch leagues
No. 23: The Strasburg Shutdown
No. 24: Chicken and Beer
No. 25: All-Star Game no longer counts
Honorable mention: Astros Sign Stealing Scandal