Why isn’t MLB tanking frowned upon?

LeBron James and Francisco Lindor

The current hot topic for discussion in the NBA circles is about team’s tanking as it is every year in late March and early April when the teams near the bottom of the standings start making decisions to help their lottery ball odds rather than the odds of winning on the court. There is even discussion of abolishing the draft because writers are so peeved that a team could possibly look at its long-term interests as more important than a few meaningless games in a lost season (and because everyone knows players like LeBron James wouldn’t just flock to support super teams like the Kobe-Shaq Lakers, right?).

These discussions do not happen as regularly or with as much fervor in MLB though. Every year at the end of July (with two more full months of play!) there are teams that trade away good veterans for minor league assets that will not be realized for at least another season. There are games played with the DL as well as 40-man rosters in September create situations where poor teams play many youthful faces with a distinct eye towards the future. What do you think are some of the reasons why MLB fans and writers aren’t as obsessive about complaining about some obvious tanking?

Hattery: First, lets discuss the heightened value of a Top 5 pick. Based on Hardball Times research it is worth almost twice what picks 6-10 are worth let alone the rest of the first round. The talent value at the top is huge and unlike the NBA, a pick is more easily secured because it is not lottery based but simply built on worst record. I think there are a few reasons why MLB writers and fans are less obsessive about obvious tanking.

courtesy of Hardball Times

courtesy of Hardball Times

The first is distance to the bigs, even tank products like Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant, and Stephen Strasburg spent some time in the minor leagues, unlike the immediate roster position of an NBA or NFL pick. Second, I think people understate the insane value of a Top 5 pick based on the baseball theorum that the draft is a complete crapshoot. While it is in many ways the top end offers fantastic value odds.

The third reason is it has become a tool of competitive balance. Tampa Bay will never be able to spend with New York, Boston, and Toronto but if they bottom out and grab say David Price, B.J. Upton and Evan Longoria they can build a contention window with savvy extensions where there money has more value to stretch than the free agent market.

Anything I missed with that Mr. Bode?

Bode: I agree that hope is a commodity, and the draft allows the smaller markets to sell hope to their fans. The future can be bright even as their team is struggling due to the collection of young players they are obtaining and will acquire. The strange thing is the big markets are the teams that have been the most proficient at seizing this opportunity in recent years. The Houston Astros, Washington Nationals, and Chicago Cubs are the most successful teams to employ the tank strategy. It helps that they can add free agent pieces as their youthful prospects mature as well as sign their best prospects to lengthy extensions.

Time spent in the minor leagues is quite likely a partial reason why tanking is not as frowned upon in MLB circles. It does seem odd though as elite MLB players tend to produce immediately once reaching the bigs (Francisco Lindor, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado), while NBA players oftentimes take years of maturation to become elite. Watching the process firsthand rather than hearing about progression through tiny minor league cities undoubtedly has some effect.

Another component you did not mention is the smaller impact of one lone player on the game of baseball. Mike Trout is the best player of his generation, yet the Los Angeles Angels were terrible in 2016. Similarly, the Arizona Diamondbacks employed both Paul Goldschmidt and Zach Greinke, yet those elite talents were not enough to duct tape over the holes on their roster. Meanwhile, a generational player such as LeBron James is capable of willing his team to the playoffs and perhaps even the NBA Finals (2007). Baseball being a game of individual battles that mitigate any one individual seems to help the perception here.

The biggest item not discussed is if writers and fans simply understand that tanking is a smart strategy. Is it a sound way of creating a competitive team? Should mediocre teams throw away a few years of competitive baseball for a brighter future where they are true contenders? What dangers need to be avoided?

Hattery: One of the points you made perhaps undermines the value of tanking. Baseball is not a sport where one star has the capacity to carry. However, that is why bottoming out for multiple years is necessary. Further, Trout is an example of an incompetently run organization more than a strike on tanking. Indeed, the value beyond just acquiring star level talent is that Major League Baseball Teams get to retain star level talent for far longer without risk of loss than in other sports. The system is constructed for teams to sign extensions, and rare is the day the a big league team will not have no-stress ownership of elite talent at a below market rate for seven to nine years. Adding stars on affordable contracts make roster construction much simpler though the Angels have proven it is not too easy.

One of my long held criticisms of the Shapiro years will always be that they tried to rely on competence and variance to push them over the postseason threshold too often. I think the organization felt that the hit to attendance and revenue would be too significant to truly bottom out for a three year stretch, and instead kept trying to build rosters projected around 80 wins that with some positive randomness could contend for a playoff spot. I am not inside the Indians business department, or any of these small market teams but I think there is a fear that bottoming out will cause fans to never come back. Of course, six years of mediocrity does not exactly keep people in the seats.

I absolutely love what the White Sox are doing. Bottoming out, bringing in high-upside talent that is not ready to produce just yet, and likely grabbing a top-5 draft pick. Indeed, that organization could have gone two ways with a stars and scrubs roster but chose to move on from 30% playoff odds to build a new future. I think it is absolutely a sound way of building a team especially if you have a proven draft and development staff. Ten years ago, the Indians were not in that spot. Now, with Grant and wonderful player development, the Indians would be far better positioned. To be clear, I am not suggested the best team in the American League tank rather discussing the organizational strengths necessary to make it work.

The dangers are front office complacency. Tanking is part of a strategy but small positive gains are so important as well. Assembling lottery tickets whenever a team can be taken advantage of is one piece. I also do not mean to pick on your examples but the Diamondbacks are an example of teams that have punted their advantages. Goldschmidt and Pollock, a really good market and the team loses the two best players in a win now trade for Shelby Miller. Tanking is not foolproof, it of course comes with risks for ownership and the front office. It requires rational decisions throughout the process something Arizona and the Angels(should be noted the Angels did not tank they just ran into a generational talent) are incapable of.Yet, as teams get smarter and smarter, the analytical advantages thin for teams like the Indians, acquiring talent and fleecing other teams will become more and more difficult. Small market teams may be compelled to this approach soon.

Bode: The Angels and Diamondbacks show how important the player development system as well as having an analytical base to sort through potential moves. Drafting (or signing) great talents go only so far in baseball unless you have the overall system depth developed through rigorous processes to supplement them. I agree tanking for multiple years as those big market examples above demonstrated is also desired for a team to add enough influx of talent to push a team over the top.

Good on you for mentioning the consistent mediocrity of the Shapiro era as a limiting factor. Sure thing, the Indians grab a Top 10 pick once, and they select Francisco Lindor. I hear that kid is pretty good at this baseball thing.

I agree that the Chicago White Sox are building a formidable team for the future. As the Indians ride their current wave of contention, it will be interesting to see how quickly the Pale Hose are able to regroup and challenge them. Perhaps a few seasons of tanking several years from now will be the wise move. For now, this particular discussion is more fun to have as the team competes for the World Series.

  • jpftribe

    Timely article, well done guys.
    I was researching the valuing prospects in trades last night and learned two things. One, the seminal modern day valuation paper was written by an intern in 2008 the CLEFO, who is now a key exec. Two, top 10 prospects have less than a 10% chance of busting, with much higher ceiling. I’m sure that translates to the draft somewhat proportionately.

    You guys covered the pertinent points, and in baseball it usually comes down to the business model. Larger market clubs that can be in it for the franchise appreciation might take the hit in operating expenses whereas a club like CLE could legitimately jeopardize the franchise if they lost the fan base. We were already bottom of the league in attendance. I also think there is something to be said for always trying to maximize the win column. Indians develop and attract some of the best MLB FO talent. 3 or 4 years of sweeping the cellar could change that. Surely you can debate both, but why even take the chance.

    To me, player development is really the key. Rob Perez was a 33rd round pick and spent 6 years in the minors. Other than Miller, we punch way above our weight on just pure arm talent. This is where I think they have some competitive advantage.

  • mgbode

    I’m worried about our competitive advantage in player development. We didn’t have one prior to 2007, then created one with a massive undertaking. But, other organizations have seen it and are stealing our development guys left & right. It’ll be interesting to see where we look to find our next advantage.

  • jpftribe

    I’m flat out worried about pitching. They really don’t have much depth and if they have to go out and acquire some, it’s gonna be really expensive in terms of prospects. The salary control they have over the current MLB roster is fantastic, but having them all perform well for consecutive years is a risk for sure.

  • RGB

    28 days until the draft.

  • mgbode

    High-level starters is a problem beyond Clevinger. They have many good pitching prospects at lower levels though their instinence on developing velocity instead of maximizing it could end up biting them.

  • mgbode

    MLB Draft is in June 🙂

  • Hopwin

    Just my 2 cents…

    Tanking and/or throwing in the towel on a season is acceptable because baseball is the sport of the long-term. It has a history dating back almost 150 years. The season is 162 games long. The games are 3-4 hours. So if we are out of contention let’s start seeing what our prospects can do, let’s give them some big league experience, etc.

    In baseball it is therefore perfectly acceptable to fans to start positioning for next year if you are not in contention.

    The flip-side of this implicit patience is that when your team is in contention fans expect their prior patience to be rewarded with moves that immediately impact your post-season odds.

  • mgbode

    Good thoughts.

  • nj0

    “The talent value at the top is huge”

    I don’t know if I’d call 9.2 fWAR over three years “huge”. Even the difference, 3.1 WAR a year for a top pick versus 0.7 WAR for the 50th, isn’t that big in a game where you need 90+ wins to make the playoffs. I don’t know NBA statistics that well so I can’t compare, but I have to imagine top rookies create a greater impact in terms of actual wins.

  • Chris

    I disagree… 2.4 difference in WAR is huge.

    The implications of that are significant… say it takes 90 wins to clinch a playoff spot and you’re a team right around the 90 win mark. Upgrading one player by 2.4 WAR allows that same team to reach 90 wins in 4 less games. What manager wouldn’t like the flexibility of resting his rotation for the postseason?

  • mgbode

    It would require a much deeper dive into things to see the true impact. We would have to see about the rarity of different value players because we have a much different pool of impact in NBA vs MLB.

  • nj0

    “It does seem odd though as elite MLB players tend to produce immediately
    once reaching the bigs (Francisco Lindor, Manny Machado, Nolan Arenado)”…

    1.) Lindor was an 8th pick, Arenado the 59th. Neither was acquired through tanking.
    2.) It is very common for MLB teams to find super star caliber talent in the later rounds of the draft. This doesn’t seem as common in the NBA.

    Other thoughts….
    3.) In the NBA, teams draft the best player (or the player they perceive as the best). In MLB, even with the new system, there’s economic factors at play. We’re not far removed from a first pick who didn’t sign with the team that drafted him. (Also, the wonky economics behind MLB draft makes me take that Hardball Times piece with a grain of salt.)
    4.) This is all kind of based on a false premise too. There was plenty of criticism of the Astros tanking – locally, nationally, and from MLB.
    5.) I’d argue that one of the reasons it’s not a bigger issue in MLB is because the economics of baseball result in large payrolls for the big market teams. That means teams New York and Los Angeles don’t tank. If the Yankees were tanking like the Lakers, I guarantee it would be a huge issue.

  • nj0

    We’re talking about tanking though. 3 WAR for a 60 win team isn’t as noticeable as what a rookie in the NBA can do.

  • Chris

    Take last year’s Twins roster (worst team in league)… add 2.4 WAR player to 5 starters and 9 position players, they’re around 92 wins and make the playoffs. (59 wins, plus 33.6 wins added)

  • mgbode

    1) By the definition we gave above, the 2010 Indians were certainly tanking. The 2009 trade deadline is still discussed today by many fans (V-Mart, Lee)

    2) More rounds, more development time. It doesn’t undermine the top of the draft is still remarkable for finding top talents.

    3) Fair point though much less impact now than in the years where “signability” was a true indicator on a prospect draft sheet.

    4) I see much more acceptance though. I agree there were locals who were mad about the Astros but it is coupled by high praise from many sources too. You don’t get that type of balance as much in other sports. It could be my perception based on who/where I read though.

    5) I demonstrated above how many of the biggest markets are the ones who have had the most success tanking in recent years.

  • Chris

    No… you can’t do that in one year, but that demonstrates the significance of 2.4 WAR

  • nj0

    That’s fourteen players though. Which kind of shows why people don’t care about tanking.

    Obviously, 3 WAR is better than one. I’m just saying, it’s not as apparent as Karl-Anthony Towns averaging 18 and 10.

  • nj0

    I guess I just disagree with your definition of tanking then. I don’t see the 2009 trades and the 2010 season as such. I see it as a team fairly evaluating their situation and taking steps to create a winning team. Knowing that you can’t be good next year isn’t tanking to me.

    Yes, you’re correct that there is more acceptance. I just remember MLB saying something to the Astros about their spending when they were taking the tanking to the extreme. So it’s not like the league doesn’t care.

    Yes, some big market teams have tanked in MLB, the Cubs being the most obvious example (though I’d argue that as the lovable losers they were held to a unique standard). I should have qualified it and said that the major market teams the media cares about (NYY, BOS being at top) don’t tank. If they did, it’d be a very big issue.

  • Steve

    Any more than any one else is worried about their team’s pitching? I’d say it’s more the nature of the position than anything specific to our situation. A guy like Clevinger wouldn’t probably just make about half the league’s rotations, but quite a few teams would be counting on him to perform well.

  • mgbode

    Tanking (as we defined it) – When you know you cannot be good the upcoming season and destroy the short-term mediocrity for long-term potential success.

    Yes, the Astros dumped enough payroll that MLBPA started chirping and Houston was warned. I believe they also found a loophole in revenue sharing if memory serves.

    I agree though the Yankees took some tanking steps last July w/ trades and promotions – they quickly altered course to ensure they wouldn’t have a full tank season or it could have gotten loud.

  • mgbode

    He might be Opening Day in Cinci or SD (assuming he would have been called up late last year as a starter — if he performed adequately… )

  • jpftribe

    MLB roster is fine, it was more a comment about farm depth. But regardless, you can never have enough pitching.

  • Steve

    As in prospects or 7-10th starters? I’d say we are on the lighter end of the former, but perfectly fine on the latter.

  • jpftribe

    One could argue the Yankees having a non-contending season is a tank job on their part. High expectations, deep pockets.

  • jpftribe

    Prospects wise we have 2 in the top 100? Aiken and McKenzie.

  • mgbode

    Bobby Bradley by the smart rankings too 🙂

  • jpftribe

    Was referring to pitching. Zimmer and Mejia are in there too.

  • mgbode

    Figured – I just don’t miss a chance to insert Bobby Bradley into the discussion : )

  • jpftribe

    Be interesting to see if he ends up in CBus.

  • jpftribe
  • tigersbrowns2

    WAR is hell !!

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