Baseball tanking is over – but not because the draft lottery killed it

SEATTLE — In January 2015, ESPN released one of the first definitive installments on the Philadelphia 76ers’ controversial and groundbreaking strategy for losing if not outright on but then certainly with aim. Earlier this NBA season, the team’s dismal record forced the league to consider whether the draft should be adjusted so as not to reward this kind of behavior. The proposal to do so fell through, but ESPN quoted the Lakers team owner condemning the practice anyway: “If you’re in tanking mode,” Jeanie Buss said, “I think that’s unforgivable. “

Two and a half years later, when the Houston Astros won the franchise’s first World Series – just in time – FiveThirtyEight returned to this ESPN article about the NBA team that “trusted the process” .

“The Astros have reached the top,” FiveThirtyEight said, and that was already kind of old news. “They tanked like the Sixers; Now the Astros are the next big power in MLB,” Bleacher Report wrote earlier this summer. In fact, Sports Illustrated predicted in 2014 that the Astros would win the 2017 title.

Granted, the seemingly predetermined successes of the 2017 World Series and the Astros eventually became known for something else, but initially they were seen, especially in conjunction with the Chicago Cubs’ hard-won championship in 2016, as an unmistakable indication that baseball had adopted tanking. . Almost immediately, what may have been for the best for some historically unfortunate teams was derided as for the worse for the sport as a whole, as baseball’s tanking era gave way to the era tanking backlash before the Astros even danced under the confetti. . With the 2017 World Series still underway, Sports Illustrated published a column decrying that tanking was “the norm now, and it will continue to be until baseball makes perverse draft inducements a thing of the past.” pass”.

This offseason, super-agent Scott Boras complained that there weren’t enough teams competing to sign top free agents, and he’s been complaining pretty much ever since.

Boras’ concern was how tanking limits the market for player services and thus suppresses salaries. He was right to fear that owners would exploit any opportunity to save face while saving money, and the language around exploiting current failure for future gain is helpful to that end. The uncompetitive behavior of large swathes of the league, aided by the implicit collusion of homogeneous talent ratings, while more competitive teams favor the pursuit of market inefficiencies (read: cheaper ways to win) has kept players in conflict with the property in the half-decade that has since passed. 2017. As this dynamic evolves, this particular concern culminated in the latest round of labor negotiations between Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association.

Among the objectives stated by the MLBPA at the start of the negotiations was the search for a mechanism to encourage competition. And just as SI predicted, they targeted the National Player Draft to do just that. When a new deal was reached after months of painful lockdown, the MLBPA touted, among its self-proclaimed significant progress, amendments to the draft “designed to deter tanking.” And even the league had to take the positive turn of deterring strategic dipping by proudly proclaiming that baseball’s new lottery “includes anti-tank measures that go beyond anything we’ve seen in other major professional sports.” .

The result of these new measures meant that at MLB’s annual winter meetings in December, the 107 losses of the Washington Nationals – who hit rock bottom three years after winning the World Series when their attempts to retain talent were failed or backfired — learned they would select second overall, instead of first, in Sunday’s MLB draft. The first pick, instead, went to the 100-game losing streak of the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have struggled to rebuild for nearly a decade.

Last year, when the Baltimore Orioles won Jackson Holliday with the last guaranteed first draft pick, I wrote that they “tanked just in time to justify doing it.” Built by some of the same people who turned strategic defeat into enduring success in Houston, the Orioles look set to cash in on a trio of 100-plus lost seasons for a young, cost-contained, championship-caliber team. Indeed, a year later, they are two games back in the AL East and comfortably atop the AL wildcard standings.

A fuzzy, hazy 30,000-foot view of the past decade might look like this: The Sixers made tanking explicit, the Cubs halfheartedly brought it to baseball, the Astros embraced it with ruthless verve, the Orioles were born out of this success, and eventually, the MLB draft lottery ended the practice. But it is not that simple.

Before that paid off for the Astros — or even the Cubs — commissioner Rob Manfred offered his assessment of “tanking” seven years ago this week. During the 2016 All-Star availability, Manfred said, “The more people adopt the strategy, the less likely it is to succeed. By definition, only one guy can get the No. 1 pick.”

He has a point. This is one of the reasons why tanking had a short lifespan as a truly innovative strategy: it takes 29 other teams to zig so you can zag. Beyond that, baseball has proven time and time again that a single player can’t change a franchise’s fortunes — and certainly not one who’s just beginning their minor league career. The first pick in the baseball draft is rarely, if ever, a guarantee of anything. Solid player development and acquiring savvy players to build an organization’s depth does more to build a team’s future fortunes. The path to cheap restraint is paved with waiver claims and successful rehabilitation projects at least as much as predictable better prospects.

And finally, back to the quote from Manfred. Only one team can choose first in the draft, but also a team To choose first. One is the maximum and the minimum. Even in a lottery system, a team will always be rewarded with the first choice to compensate for their failure.

Because even if there was no reward for finishing last, a team would do it every year. Such is sport. And sometimes trying to win – even with impatience and the money to fund it – falls flat. Big-paying teams run the risk of disappointing themselves and their fans and in the process garnering criticism of the dangers of trying to rush to the finish line.

The strain of intentionally anti-competitive behavior plaguing MLB today is so much more complicated than just tanking. This stems from understanding the odds, the risks associated with going all-in in any given year. To be able to see a lost season coming, to not bother trying to change the outcome and instead focus on a future that may or may not come to fruition. That’s because wins mean less to the bottom line than ever, money can keep you from worrying about who you hurt, and the carrot was always meant to be competitive spirit anyway.

The worst team this year will be the Oakland A’s, once anti-tanking in that they managed to string together frugal clashes without ever falling too low (or rising too high). Now, they’re terrible to a historic degree — and not because they’re on a carefully constructed track to take Oakland to the 2026 championship. Their end goal is much looser.

“Tank” has become something of a catch-all term for not trying very hard to win. But not all bad teams tank; some are just totally shameless.

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