You Can’t Blame Tanking for the Lack of Competitive Teams

Tanking is a problem. Professional sports like baseball are built on the assumption that both sides are trying to win. Organizations putting forth less than their best efforts hurts the integrity of the sport and provides fans with little reason to engage. That said, the perception of tanking might have overtaken the reality of late. Competitive imbalance is not the same as tanking. Sometimes teams are just bad, even if they are trying not to be.

Tanking concerns are not new. Two years ago, just after the Astros and Cubs had turned their teams around, the Phillies were attempting to dismantle their roster by trading Cole Hamels. The Braves had traded multiple players away from a team that had been competitive. The Brewers, who traded away Carlos Gomez, would soon do the same with Jonathan Lucroy after he rebuilt his trade value.

The Braves, Brewers, and Phillies all sold off whatever assets they could. Two years later, though, those clubs aren’t mired in last place. Rather, they’re a combined 54-37 and projected to win around 80 games each this season in what figures to be a competitive year for each. While the Braves and Phillies could and/or should have done more this offseason to improve their rosters, neither resorted to an extreme level of failure, and the teams are better today than they would have been had they not rebuilt. While accusations of tanking dogged each, none of those clubs descended as far as either the Astros or Cubs. None came close to the NBA-style tank jobs many feared.

One might suspect that I’ve cherry-picked the three clubs mentioned above, purposely selecting teams with surprising early-season success to prop up a point about the relatively innocuous effects of tanking. That’s not what I’ve done, though. Rather, I’ve highlighted the three teams Buster Olney cited by name two years ago — and which Dave Cameron also addressed — in a piece on tanking.

Here’s Olney:

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.

In Cameron’s piece — again, from two years ago — he attempts to resolve whether MLB has a tanking problem. Jayson Stark, also quoted in that piece, adds the Padres, Reds, Rockies to the list of teams that seemed to be losing on purpose. While it is safe to say that the logic for Rockies’ decisions at that time wasn’t entirely clear, tanking doesn’t seem to have been their objective. Their run to the playoffs last season suggests that some of their decisions paid off.

As for the Reds, Cameron argues that the franchise held onto to most of its stars for too long, which hurt their trade value, and retained franchise player Joey Votto. The same is mostly true for the Padres, who made a big, failed push to contend in 2015 before having to abandon that strategy following a flop of a season.

We can repeat this same exercise for the present season. There are concerns regarding competitive balance because, in the early going, a lot of teams look like they are about to lose 90 games or more. According to our Playoff Odds projections, seven teams who seem likely to reach the 90-loss threshold. While seven teams losing 90 games would be a lot, the average number of 90-loss teams per season since MLB expanded to 30 in 1998 has been eight.

That doesn’t really tell the full story, though: in most seasons, the projected number of 90-loss teams at this point in the season is lower. The table below shows the last few years’ worth of projections at this point in the season with 90-loss teams, 90-win teams, the number of teams with at least a 10% chance of making the playoffs, and the standard deviation of projected wins with lower meaning teams are more bunched together.

Projected 90-Loss Teams
Year 90-Win Teams 90-Loss teams Teams with
> 10% Playoff Odds
Std. Dev.
of Wins
2018 5 7 18 10.5
2017 6 5 21 7.9
2016 3 6 22 8.5
2015 3 2 21 6.8
2014 4 3 21 6.5
After roughly 28-30 games in each season.

Given the figures here, it appears as though the league is a little bit less competitive at this point in the season compared to the last few years. The spread in wins is bigger, as seen by the bigger standard deviation. The number of 90-win teams isn’t any different from last season, but the number of teams with at least 10% chance at the playoffs is down from the last few years. Ten percent is somewhat arbitrary, as the A’s, Phillies, and Twins are all pretty close to that mark. In any event, it does look like baseball is going to be a bit more top- and bottom-heavy this season. While that might not be ideal, I’m not going to run through the numbers historically because Ben Lindbergh already did that for the Ringer, dismissing many of the sport’s current concerns.

Even if a lack of competitive balance were a big concern going forward, we can’t necessarily tie that lack of balance to tanking. Of the teams with the five lowest payrolls at the beginning of the season, only the White Sox are more than two games below .500 at the moment, and they are also the only team in that group projected to lose more than 90 games. If we follow Cameron’s lead in his article from two seasons ago, going team-by-team for the seven teams projected to lose more than 90 games, we don’t find a tanking problem.

The Cincinnati Reds still have Joey Votto, couldn’t find a taker for Billy Hamilton in the offseason, and signed Eugenio Suarez to a big contract extension. They might not be trying too hard to win in 2018, but their failures can be more closely tied to a complete inability to develop any of their pitching prospects as opposed to a refusal to try. The Padres are still bad, but they just signed Eric Hosmer to a $144 million deal as they try to recover from their debacle of a 2015 season. The Orioles headed into the season trying to win by holding on to Manny Machado and signing Alex Cobb. Those might not have been wise baseball moves, but they aren’t the moves of a tanking club. The Royals tried to keep contending the past few years after their World Series runs, and they signed one of their own free agents in Mike Moustakas, held on to Danny Duffy, and brought in a few veteran free agents. The Royals are bad, but they’ve been trying to win and haven’t authored a complete teardown.

The Tigers are similar to the Royals, trying to stay afloat for more than a decade as aging stars couldn’t continue to produce and recent big signings haven’t delivered. The White Sox are only a year and a half removed from trading Chris Sale and less than a year from trading Todd Frazier, Jose Quintana, and a host of relievers. If they aren’t at least competitive by next season, it might be fair to criticize their efforts. The Marlins? Yeah, the Marlins are tanking.

Of the seven teams heading toward 90-loss seasons, which teams are actively trying to lose with no real end in site? It’s really just the Marlins. There is a considerable gap between the best and worst teams in baseball this season, and parity could be an issue in the near future, but it doesn’t look like tanking has been the cause this season.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

Bochy’s managing last year was so bizarre in so many ways that I have to say I often considered the possibility that maybe at a certain point the Giants started tanking through incompetent managing.

5 years ago

Last year, there were better bullpens in the gibbon cage at most zoos than in the Giants roster.