Tanking: Does MLB Really Have a Problem?

Tanking. It’s a buzzword, and over the last few months, one that has gained some traction in regards to Major League Baseball. Back in December, Buster Olney wrote about the issue as one of his 10 things to watch in 2016.

The Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs both had great seasons in 2015, reaching the playoffs with young and exciting and talented teams built through a tear down to build up approach. After cutting spending and losing a lot of games in successive years and finishing at the bottom of the standings, the Astros and Cubs had picked at or near the top of the draft and had access to players such as Carlos Correa and Kris Bryant.

The impolite phrase for this is much more common in the National Basketball Association: tanking.

Now it appears that the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves and Milwaukee Brewers are in the midst of a similar approach, with the possibility that the Reds and other teams could follow. MLB might have a situation in years to come that 10 percent to perhaps a quarter of the teams are designing failure.

A few weeks ago, Jayson Stark went into greater detail.

But on the other side of that divide, we have the Phillies, Reds, Brewers and Braves. And we can find some execs out there who would throw the Rockies and Padres into that mix, too.

Those teams have various ways of describing what it is they’re up to. But assembling a team that’s built to win a World Series in 2016? Let’s just say that wouldn’t make the top 25 ways other clubs would describe it.

“I’ve never seen the game so messed up,” grumbled one exec from an NL team on the “win-now” side of the Not So Great Divide.

“I think it’s a problem for the sport,” said an executive of an American League contender, looking at the state of the NL from afar. “I think the whole system is screwed up, because I think it actually incentivizes not winning. And that’s a big issue going forward.”

It’s interesting that this issue is being raised at a time when baseball is experiencing a golden age of parity. The Kansas City Royals just won the World Series, the New York Yankees are the only team not to sign a free agent to a Major League contract this winter, and, in my view, we have more teams than ever before trying to win in any given season. While there is absolutely a huge divide between the good and bad teams in the National League, that is a byproduct of the fact that the American League is so condensed that all 15 teams see themselves as contenders this year.

And, with all due respect to Stark and the unnamed executives, I actually just don’t see much evidence that any MLB teams are currently attempting to lose as many games as possible in 2016.

The Rockies and Padres project to be lousy, but that certainly isn’t for lack of trying to be decent on their part. The Padres are 12 months away from a huge (and ill-advised) win-now push that saw them make a bunch of future-for-present moves, and even in the aftermath of the failure of going for it with a roster not good enough to justify the optimism they were selling, the Padres have held onto most of their team. If anything, the Padres are being too slow to enter a necessary rebuild, following the footsteps of the Rockies, who have been perpetually mediocre without committing to a direction.

Rather than blowing up their roster, the Rockies have thus far rejected offers for Carlos Gonzalez, even after signing Gerardo Parra to a three-year contract. They’re kicking the tires on Yovani Gallardo for some reason. They kept Troy Tulowitzki for a couple of years past the point of when they should have, only dealing him a few months ago once he’d lost a good chunk of his trade value. They re-signed Jorge de la Rosa rather than dealing him for young talent when they had the chance. The Rockies aren’t going to be good in 2016, but that’s more due to their unwillingness to commit to a rebuilding project in past years than any kind of effort to lose on purpose.

Those two teams are bad because they have yet to show they know how to win, not because they don’t want to. The Braves, Reds, Brewers, and Phillies? They’re more obvious rebuilders, but even there, I don’t see really see much evidence for tanking.

The Brewers’ asking price for Jonathan Lucroy has reportedly turned away all potential suitors. There’s been no real attempt to move Ryan Braun that anyone can see from the outside. Will Smith, an elite left-handed reliever, is still a Brewer despite the fact that contending teams paid through the nose to acquire relief pitching this winter. These are players who could definitely help a winning team, and in the case of Lucroy and Smith, their contracts are significant positives boosting their trade value. Sure, Braun’s a tougher guy to move due to his contract and the PED suspension he served recently, but if they were really trying to lose, paying down his contract to get his bat out of their lineup would be priority #1.

The evidence is even weaker against the Braves. A year ago, they signed Nick Markakis to a four-year contract because they wanted a reasonable on-base guy to help keep their lineup from being too anemic during their rebuilding years. They’ve steadfastly refused to trade Freddie Freeman, and when they have made present-for-future trades, they’ve brought in guys like Shelby Miller, Hector Olivera, and Ender Inciarte. The Braves are clearly looking to the future, but if they were attempting to get the best draft pick possible, they’d have flipped Inciarte to one of the many teams who would like to have him playing center field for them in 2016. They’d have traded Freeman for a package of young talent and a lot of cash savings. They wouldn’t have signed Markakis. Looking at what the Braves are doing and calling it tanking is supplying a conclusion without respect to the evidence.

And then there’s the Reds, who refused offers for Aroldis Chapman, Todd Frazier, and Jay Bruce back when all three had significant value at the trade deadline, holding onto their veterans because they explicitly said they didn’t want to put too poor of a product on the field. That proved to be a poor decision, as all three lost value over the next few months, and the team ended up having to take significant discounts when dealing Chapman and Frazier this winter. Interestingly, however, the Reds have repeatedly chosen proximity to the majors over long-term upside in their trades, going so far as to turn the Frazier deal into a three-way trade to get players from the Dodgers that they can get to the big leagues more quickly, rather than the longer-term values the White Sox could offer. And, of course, the team has made no real attempt to trade Joey Votto; a team trying to get the #1 pick in the draft doesn’t keep a 32-year-old MVP candidate just for the fun of it.

This leaves us with the Phillies, the team that really seems to be driving this “tanking” talk. Or, perhaps more realistically, it’s the city of Philadelphia that is driving this talk, because sportswriters in that city have to cover a team that really is trying to lose on purpose. The 76ers, the local basketball squad, are currently 6-39. They probably won’t set the record for worst mark in NBA history, but they’re going to be in the conversation, and it’s pretty clear that the Sixers are “tanking,” in the sense that they see value in losing as many games as possible to up their odds of getting a franchise-changing talent in the draft.

My suspicion is that the Sixers’ approach is being applied to the Phillies mostly due to the fact that the two teams share a market. That both teams are building for the future makes it easy to draw parallels between them, but it should be pretty clear that MLB and the NBA are not the same entity, and they do not have the same incentives.

In basketball, one player can literally turn you from a disaster into a contender. The best player in baseball is worth something like +8 WAR, with most of the other elite players worth more like +6 to +7 WAR in a given year; in basketball, the metrics suggest it’s more like +20 WAR for the best of the best players, and that’s in a season with half as many games. You put a great player on the worst team in the NBA and they’re suddenly a legitimate playoff team; you put a great player on the worst team in MLB and they’re probably still going to finish 20 games out of first place.

There’s another huge factor in NBA tanking: draft picks not only join your team in the very next season, but the best picks often become your team’s best player from the moment they sign. If you land the right player, the turnaround can be almost instantaneous, where in MLB, the payoff for hitting on a good draft choice is still a 2-3 year wait for impact at the big league level. The necessary development time for MLB players is also why it’s more difficult to get those picks right; Ken Griffey Jr is going to become the first #1 overall pick to ever get enshrined in the Hall of Fame when he goes in this summer. For comparison, there are 14 #1 overall picks in the basketball Hall of Fame, and that doesn’t count the three more who are going in this summer, or active players like Tim Duncan or LeBron James who are shoo-ins for induction when they retire.

Tanking is a real thing in the NBA because of the outsized impact of single players, and the fact that they are so much easier to identify before they get to the professional ranks. Neither of those things are true in MLB, at least not to nearly the same extent, so conflating the Phillies’ rebuild with the Sixers’ lose-on-purpose approach is based more on a tenuous geographical comparison than anything else. The Phillies are going to stink, and unlike the other rebuilders, they haven’t really held onto any of the players who would have made them less bad than they will be, but why should they have?

The Phillies could have kept Cole Hamels and won 70 games instead of 67, maybe. But to what end? Would those three wins over six months change the fans’ perception of what the team was doing? Is MLB really better off with bad teams going the Colorado route, staying bad for long periods of time, rather than bottoming out in the hopes of bouncing back to high levels? Would any Rockies fan really rather have their organization’s position right now than the Phillies, simply because they’ll be slightly less terrible in 2016?

The reality is, the spread in talent in MLB is the smallest of any of the big three sports leagues; pretty much every team wins between 30-60% of their games. That’s more like 15-85% in the NBA, or 10-90% in the NFL. The NFL is a behemoth even as the same few teams win every year, while other franchises linger as bottom-feeders for decades. The NBA actually has a real tanking problem, with teams actively seeking to get rid of good players for little return to improve their odds of getting a franchise player with the #1 pick, even though they have a draft lottery.

In MLB? I just don’t see it. There are six teams who realistically don’t have much of a chance this year, but only one of them has stripped their franchise of present-value veterans, and given the Phillies’ lack of organizational talent after waiting too long to rebuild, they didn’t really have much of a choice. And because franchise players are harder to identify and matter less in MLB than they do in the other sports, I just don’t see that the league actually has a structural issue where losing games is heavily incentivized.

There are always going to be teams that are not trying to win in a given year. Given MLB’s efforts to increase parity over the last few decades, there are fewer of those now than ever before. All this talk of tanking feels to me like taking basketball’s problem and forcing it into baseball’s narrative simply because two Philadelphia teams happen to be terrible at the same time. Right city, wrong sport.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
8 years ago

Just curious, but: is there at least a slight argument to be made that MLB teams might be getting smarter about the top of the draft, especially in an era with better scouting, more data, and more hard-and-fast slot restrictions? Obviously player development is still a massive crapshoot, but it seems like there could at least be the chance that the value of top picks is going up a bit recently.

That said, tanking in baseball still has much more downside (especially for GMs) than it does in the NFL or NBA, and as you point out Dave there’s no real reason to think it’s happening.

8 years ago
Reply to  Sportszilla

These feels more like a comment on the youth movement in baseball where we have a historically great under-25 cohort of players. That will obviously make the draft *appear* to be smarter, but in reality it is just a comment on the once-in-a-generation talent level.

You don’t have to look that far back — take 2009 for example: Strasburg went #1, but then you have Ackley-Tate-Sanchez-Hobgood rounding out the top 5. With some useful pitchers in the top 15, but nobody that would justify tanking. Oh, and 24 picks missing on Trout would probably be counter to your assessment as well…

8 years ago
Reply to  troybruno

I agree that draft pick volatility is a good reason why tanking doesn’t make a lot of sense. On the other hand, if you are on the cusp of having a protected draft pick (meaning you can sign free agents who have been extended a qualifying offer AND keep a high draft pick), the incentive seems considerably greater to “position yourself accordingly”, or tank. Even with this level of common sense as a backdrop, many teams cannot or will not take the bait: case in point Mariners 2015. Needed either to lose last game of year or needed the White Sox to win their last game, and they (the Ms) would get a protected pick. Needless to say, in a season where most things went wrong, the Mariners won and the Sox lost that final game, striking a blow against tanking, and underscoring with emphasis what it means to Mariner something up.

8 years ago
Reply to  Sportszilla

Even if it was true that MLB teams are getting better at evaluating the top picks, you still have to wait 2-4 years before you see any of that benefit to your big league club.