The Ethics of Tanking

During last night’s series opener against the New York Mets, a brief debate emerged on Twitter about the ethics of tanking. It’s no secret that the Phillies had no designs of being a winning team in 2015, and though no one involved with the team will openly admit it, every loss has been good for the Phillies as it has nudged them closer and closer to the first overall pick in the 2016 draft.

Someone tweeted a complaint at Kevin Cooney, the Phillies’ beat writer for the Bucks County Courier Times, because the Phillies appeared to be playing with an intent to win Tuesday’s game. Kevin responded:

And thus the debate began. On the one side, you had people like Cooney, who does not fault the players on the field for putting in as much effort as possible in order to achieve a win. Our own Corinne Landrey is on that side of the battlefield and tweeted this:

While one may construct a subpar roster, the transactions are made with the intent of creating a successful team at some point in the future. The basic principle of Landrey’s viewpoint is that in-game decisions are made with a full intent on winning. Anything less calls into doubt the integrity of the game. Sports betting is banned for a similar reason, which is that it creates an incentive to perform poorly, or not at all.

On the other side of the debate are people who think that, in the end, the results are all that matter. The Phillies could have given full effort and every single decision could have been maximized for winning, but they still wouldn’t have been a .500 team. Still, more rather than less effort will net them a few extra wins over the course of the season, and that could be the difference between picking first or second in the draft. Along with having pick of the high school and college litter, picking first rather than second has this benefit:

Cooney wrote in response, “I think saying ‘they shouldn’t try and what is their problem’ isn’t exactly fair, either.” As Landrey noted to me in an email conversation, it’s also questionable to think that athletes can simply not try when they’re on the field. They’ve been trained since they were kids to perform a certain way; it’s tough to just flip that switch in the name of tanking. Furthermore, what if that player isn’t likely to stick around to see the fruits of the rebuild? Essentially, it is asking a player to sacrifice his stats (and, thus, potential earning power) for the good of the organization.

The Phillies are in a tug-of-war between putting up at least a facade of effort in trying to win, and overtly bottoming out for the draft pick. It’s not a debate a team would wrestle with in an ideal world, as Michael Baumann pointed out:

That opens up a whole ‘nother can of worms. Take it away, Baumann:

To sum it up: MLB can remove the incentive for tanking, which would clear up that Shakespearean “try, or not to try?” dilemma, by simply making the draft a mostly-free market not unlike free agency. However, that will never fly as the wealthy owners and front office personnel of all 30 teams would have to loosen up the purse strings, and they would also have to take more risks with their money by signing as-yet unproven amateur talent. It’s something they have hesitantly bought into with foreign talent, but we still only see five or so foreign players every off-season brought into the fold on big-money deals.

As such, we’re left hemming and hawing over the ethics of tanking and we probably will continue to do so for many, many years. Frankly, I’m not sure there’s a right answer in this debate; both sides have merit in their arguments.

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18 comments

  1. Romus

    September 30, 2015 08:23 AM

    I agree with Cooney….very negligible talent -wise between first and second pick.
    However, the bonus money from 2015 was first pick $8.6M and second pick $7.4M…not sure how that $1.2M difference would affect a team’s overall draft philosophy going forward with later picks beyond the 10th round.
    It may have helped the ‘Stros to land prize HS prospects Daz Cameron down the line….and they were picking second.

    • ASK

      October 01, 2015 05:55 AM

      You would think that a beat writer for a Major League team would have more knowledge about the situation than Cooney projects from his tweet. First of all, the draft is 8 1/2 months away, so who knows whether or not a clear-cut 1-1 choice will emerge. And, if one does not, your last comment demonstrates an advantage of having pick 1-1. If on player emerges as the definite 1-1 pick next June, the team picking first will have a lot of leverage to sign their pick below slot and use the savings to go over slot with a later pick, presumably at 2-1. Another benefit, albeit a lesser one, of having the worst record is having the 1st pick in the Rule V draft. Finally, I believe that the amounts that teams are allowed to spend in the international free agent market are determined in reverse order of the standings.

    • ASK

      October 01, 2015 06:00 AM

      In my comment above, I assumed that when Cooney suggests that there’s not much difference between the first and second pick, he’s talking specifically about the 2016 draft. If he’s talking about historical results, he’s way off base as the 1-1’s have produced significantly more WAR than the 1-2’s or than players picked in any other slot. And yes, I know that WAR is flawed and is not an end-all / be-all stat. However, I think WAR is the best metric to use in showing how 1-1’s have fared as compared to all of the other slots.

  2. Dante

    September 30, 2015 08:54 AM

    Anyone defining tanking as what Corinne’s first tweet refers to as “tanking” is extremely shortsighted. All of those moves are done with what you accurately label “the intent of creating a successful team at some point in the future”. If those moves had resulted in 70 wins instead of 60 (due to luck and other short term variances in performance), they still would have been the right moves to make long term. This team is clearly not expected to win, and the vast majority of its players are trying to either establish value at this level (the rookies and other controlled players) or re-establish value (the past-peak guys and bounce-back candidates). Neither is incentivized to give less than optimal effort. Whether they end up with the top pick is irrelevant to how they are structured and managed this season, it’s simply a consequence of the results (of this team, and the rest of the league in comparison).

  3. Ryan

    September 30, 2015 10:55 AM

    Agree on all points. The odd thing about the timing of this article/sentiment is that the Phils are 3 games “ahead” and should feel free to win as much as they’d like. I’m not exactly sure how tie breakers work , but the Phils went 8 – 11 against the braves this year and 2 – 4 against the Reds.

    Also, and most importantly, the Phils have not been tanking, they’ve been steadily improving. They have gone 31-35 since the all star break while playing guys who should be able to start the year with the team next year. The only productive player they traded was Papelbon and I’m not sure anyone could make a case that was about tanking. This team came in with about a 145 million dollar payroll and could not win games with those players. Every move since has not only improved the long term view but has also immediately improved the team as Eikoff/Galvis/Altherr have matched/outperformed the group sent out in trades.

    That pace of play comes out to 76 wins over a full season. I’m not sure that external prognosticators will be so optimistic but even if this second half squad can play at 70 win pace until Crawford/Thompson/Eflin/Williams come up the team could realistically be expected to win somewhere in the 75 range. The famous tanking teams like the Astros and Sixers attempted to prolifically suck for a long time while banking on a series of lottery tickets. This Phillies team should expect to be marginally the worst team in the league exactly once and them improve by 10-15 wins in each of the next two seasons without banking on anything more than the maturation of a ridiculously deep farm system and wide open payroll flexibility.

    • Andrew Finkernagel

      September 30, 2015 03:00 PM

      I don’t see what the Astros did so dramatically different compared to what the Phillies are doing now. I guess they traded their big chips a bit earlier than the Phillies did, but I would describe that more as “intelligent management” rather than “egregious tanking”.

      • Ryan

        September 30, 2015 05:16 PM

        Thanks for the comment. I actually didn’t have a very strong opinion on the Astros’ tank until I did a deeper look. It’s definitely an interesting question to weigh the ethics of intentionally losing within a closed system like MLB that also affects the lives of a wide variety of external stakeholders.

        For the record, the Astros have been embarrassingly bad. The Phillies have gone 102-81-81-73-62ish and are on pace to rebound. The Astros peaked at 86 and went 74-76-56-55-51 before rebounding with a 70 win campaign. They had a payroll of 89 million in their 2008, 86 win season coming in at 14th in the league in spending. They bumped that up to 102 in 09 good for 8th in the league. That fell all the way down to 22 million (3 million less than Ryan Howard got all by himself) in 2013 where they managed to win 51 games. No one even pretended to give a crap about that season. Delusional or not, the Phillies were top 3 in MLB in spending from ’11 to ’14 and only decreased to 9th in ’15 and other than ’15, really seemed to think they had a chance to compete every year.

        My point is that rich guys who could support a $100 million payroll were sitting at some sort of messed up poker table that they could not get kicked out of, folded every hand and somehow kept walking away with more money. And anyone else who had aligned with the organization in good faith during the good times was hung out to dry. The current team has about 5 20+ home run threats and Hamels exercised his no trade most likely because he has absolutely no trust in the organization. (It clearly wasn’t the league or the state, as he ended up going 250 miles away).

        To me, the Astro’s type of tanking (and the 76ers for that matter) is breaking the fundamental agreement of competition and left unchecked may cause a drastic and unwanted correction. The Phillies went into the current year without much expectation of being competitive but have already charted a path to improvement. I can already get behind that. I have no idea how you are supposed to get onboard with a 56 win team who plans to continue not trying at all for the foreseeable future.

      • 100Bucks

        September 30, 2015 08:00 PM

        The Phils did enter the season setup to tank. They started the season with Utley, Hamels, Papelbon, Ruiz, and Howard. Personally, I thought Utley would put up numbers similar to last year, but he did not. I really expected Howard to come back this year and hit 27-30 HRs and bat a respectable .245. He did not. We also had reason to believe that Dom Brown would play like a major leaguer. He did not. If those three players had played well, the Phils would have easily won 70-something games. Later, when it was clear that there was no path to winning, the Phillies retooled. That is not tanking, its just being bad.

    • Romus

      September 30, 2015 03:51 PM

      I believe tie-breakers are not current year record vs the same opponent, but previous years final standings.
      In 2014..Phillies had 73 wins (.451), Reds 76 wins (.469) and Braves 79 wins(.488)
      Phillies own the tie-breaker..

      • ASK

        October 01, 2015 05:45 AM

        You are correct. The Phillies win (lose) the tie-breaker with both Atlanta and Cincinnati, so if they end up tied with either (or both) of those teams, the Phils pick earlier.

      • Romus

        October 01, 2015 02:28 PM

        What happens if Hurricane Joaquin cancels one or two games this weekend?
        Do not see MLB playing make-up games on Monday with two teams having no bearing in the playoff picture.

    • ASK

      October 01, 2015 05:44 AM

      “They have gone 31-35 since the all star break while playing guys who should be able to start the year with the team next year.”

      I completely agree. This team has done the opposite of tanked. They are now 32-35 since the break and have taken two very important games (to the Mets) from the Mets the last two nights.

      “The only productive player they traded was Papelbon and I’m not sure anyone could make a case that was about tanking.”

      Here I disagree as I believe that both Cole Hamels and Ben Revere were productive for the Phillies this year.

  4. David

    September 30, 2015 11:13 AM

    A couple stats worth noting:

    Over the past 10 games (9/18 – 9/29) the Phillies starting pitchers have worked 61 2/3 innings and have given up 55 hits, 12 walks, and 11 earned runs. With an ERA of 1.75 and a WHIP of 1.086 (and a K-rate of 6.13/9) it certainly looks like the rotation at least is more focused on winning games (and on winning jobs for next year) than they are on relative draft position — regardless of the 4-6 record over that same stretch (sss-caveats notwithstanding).

  5. Bary Onyx

    October 01, 2015 03:16 PM

    First of all, let’s not forget that the cap is intended to let small market teams pick the overall best player in the draft. There were a few years there about a decade ago in which the last place team drafting first purposefully DIDN’T take the best player because they wouldn’t have been able to afford him.

    Second: Maybe I’m confused, but wouldn’t the #1 overall pick cost more than the #2? Isn’t that how it works? In a year which, form what I understand, the talent difference between #1 and #2 and even #3 and #4 is minimal, what difference does it make if we end up with #1 or #2? Maybe we get the same talent for less money.

    Third: Asking players to tank is tough. Everybody likes a “team first” guy but asking one to purposefully play worse, making his stats look worse and possibly damaging his market value and reputation is a lot. A sport like basketball, in which a #1 pick could have an immediate impact on the pro team, is different. In baseball, the #1 pick MIGHT have an impact in 2 years at BEST.

  6. Major Malfunction

    October 01, 2015 03:23 PM

    Since 1980, the career WAR of players drafted in the 2nd round is 419.5.

    Looking at 1st rounders drafted since 1980, career WAR is 802. EIGHT HUNDRED AND TWO! Even if you take out Alex Rodriguez 118.9, it’s still an incredible number. And that includes minimal additions by Harper, Strasberg, and Cole who would no doubt bulk up that number as their careers go on.

    Of course, that does not mean if you draft a #1 that your team and your team only reaps those rewards. J.D. Drew was drafted 2nd by the Phillies and he achieved a 44 WAR. And we remember how much of that the Phillies got to enjoy of that! Then you have to worry about things like flaming out too early or getting Boras as an agent and demanding gold bullion as a signing bonus.

    Regardless, statistically it makes it extremely worthwhile to draft #1 if possible. The ethical ramifications of tanking to do so are still just disgusting no matter what the supposed reward.

    • Major Malfunction

      October 01, 2015 03:23 PM

      Correction, I do NOT mean 2nd round…I meant 2nd PICK overall!!

      • Major Malfunction

        October 01, 2015 03:25 PM

        And correction part 2!! I mean 1st pick overall versus 2nd pick overall. Those WAR numbers and comparisons are #1 pick overall vs 2nd pick overall since 1980.

        Sorry for the clarification snafu.

    • Romus

      October 01, 2015 03:35 PM

      Good info Major.

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