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.