On the Phillies and Tanking

Recently, ESPN’s Buster Olney criticized the Phillies for tanking, or in other words, intentionally losing. That prompted a response from John Stolnis of The Good Phight, and that prompted a follow-up from Olney.

I disagree with Stolnis, but it’s really a semantics argument. I’ve always considered “tanking” to simply mean that a team is losing on purpose, and it’s a strategy I’ve suggested for years. Though team officials would never outright admit to it, the 2015 Phillies were designed to win no more than 65 games. Odubel Herrera had played 14 games in left field — and zero in center — and hadn’t played above Double-A, but the Phillies selected him in the Rule 5 draft and gave him the starting job in center field to open the 2015 season. Teams with designs on winning don’t do that.

The strategy paid off for the Phillies. They finished at 63-99, the worst record in baseball. As a result, they will pick first overall in the 2016 draft, which will help them bolster an already strong minor league system. Their first round pick is also protected, which means that if they were to sign a free agent who received a qualifying offer, they would forfeit a second round pick rather than their first round pick. Furthermore, they also had the first pick in the Rule 5 draft, with which they selected outfielder Tyler Goeddel from the Rays. Goeddel could potentially win a starting outfield job in spring training, or at the very least will serve as a bench player.

Olney’s larger point is that the strategy of tanking is bad for the game. Parity has always been a point of contention, especially when comparing baseball to other sports, and having more than a quarter of the league fold up the tent on the 2016 season months before it’s begun is, indeed, not a good look. As we’ve seen, local fans of bad teams are much less likely to buy tickets or merchandise. TV broadcasts become an issue for the likes of ESPN and FOX, because who’s going to tune in on a Monday night when it’s the Phillies and Reds duking it out?

The NBA attempted to limit the reward for intentionally losing by instituting a weighted lottery system. Rather than just giving the team with the worst record the first overall pick, the NBA gives the worst team the highest chance — 25 percent — to earn the first overall pick. That way, there’s still some uncertainty involved and tanking for the worst record won’t necessarily yield the desired results. Since this system was instituted in 1990, the team with the worst record has picked first only three times in those 26 seasons.

The NBA is dominated by star players much more so than baseball. LeBron James might touch the ball on almost every possession during which he’s on the floor. Beyond shooting and passing, James can have an effect on the game simply by being on the court, by playing defense, by rebounding, etc. Furthermore, many draft picks are ready to contribute at the NBA level immediately. They don’t have to work their way through the minor leagues first. Thus, if a team gets to pick the best player in a draft, it can set itself up for many years of success. Needless to say, tanking is an attractive option for struggling basketball teams.

In baseball, the star effect isn’t so strong. Even the likes of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are only responsible for 10 of their teams’ 85-or-so wins because there is only so much they can do. Their contributions are dependent in no small part to random factors like how many runners are on base when they bat and how often the ball comes to them in the field. Trout is only one-tenth of his team every night; he takes only four trips to the plate per night out of 35-45 of his team’s total plate appearances and he may only get five chances on 25-30 overall balls put in play. The Angels, despite getting four historically-great seasons since drafting Trout in the first round, have won 90-plus games only once in those four seasons.

A baseball team can tank, get the first overall pick, and still wind up in a worse spot as the Pirates are well aware. The team’s scouts could have been wrong about the player, the player could stall developmentally in the minor leagues, or he could suffer a freak injury in the three-to-five years it typically takes a first-overall pick to make it to the majors.

That being said, there is no doubt that tanking rewards teams for performing poorly. To have no reward for losing teams, however, would exacerbate disparity. The Nationals wouldn’t have to worry about the Phillies drafting the next Harper. The Red Sox could balloon their payroll towards $200 million knowing that the $75 million payroll of the Rays makes it highly unlikely they will ever land an impact player to match David Price. Rewarding poor teams in this fashion is an imperfect solution to a big problem. It’s unclear if there are any better potential solutions.

When the next collective bargaining agreement is negotiated, representatives will have to weigh two possibilities: lessen the reward for performing poorly and thereby increase the effect having a large payroll has (leading to the likes of the Yankees and Red Sox dominating the league again); or, keep the system the way it is, and potentially have anywhere from two to eight of the 30 teams doing very little to put up a fight on a day-to-day basis. Though normally resistant to the status quo, I’m inclined to stay the course in this particular case.

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  1. Pete

    December 24, 2015 12:21 AM

    I disagree with expanding the term “tanking” to cover roster construction. Tanking used to be a precise term that meant coaches and players were deliberately trying to lose individual games through their in-game decisions and lack of effort. I agree with Stolnis that constructing a young roster to see who if any of these guys can contribute in the future is simply “rebuilding”. As long as those players are trying their hardest to win each and every game, it’s not “tanking”, regardless of how competitively overmatched they are on a day-to-day basis.

    Now, the FO can be guilty of deliberately putting an inferior product on the field in the hopes of winning fewer games and gaining a higher draft pick. But that’s not tanking. Maybe I’m just splitting hairs.

      • Roforoadblock

        December 24, 2015 02:45 PM

        Well, the difference to me between tanking and rebuilding is the return on assets you do have. As Stolnis pointed out that both the Hamels and Giles trades returned some players that were viable major league pitchers that could be added to the rotation or bullpen. If the Phillies were tanking like the Sixers, then they wouldn’t want to take on any players that would have any chance of helping the team. The equivalent of a MCW for a draft pick would have been trading away Herrera for AA or lower prospects. The acknowledgement that your team doesn’t have the talent to compete and trying to address that over more than a season does not equate with stripping all the talent out of the major league team with the intent of losing as much as possible.

      • ASK

        December 25, 2015 09:28 AM

        It really is just a matter of semantics and Olney, in his follow-up, seems to be implying that his definition of tanking is a positive one. That being said, he might just be covering his tracks a bit.

        To me, tanking is actively trying to lose games to improve a team’s draft position and bonus pool and by extension, improve their international pool allowance and Rule 5 draft position. However, I do not think it is tanking if a team that chooses to not do everything possible to win (e.g. sign multiple big name free agents) the following year, especially if those moves to increase their wins the following season might come at the expense of wins when they are actually ready to contend.

      • edwin

        December 25, 2015 03:11 PM

        In the Christmas spirit Buster Olney can go screw himself.

  2. joe2

    December 24, 2015 06:38 AM

    Wasn’t the media banging the drum for the Phillies to “get younger” and criticized them for holding on to their star players for too long? Damned if you do and Damned if you don’t.

    • Bob

      December 24, 2015 07:07 AM

      The media did want them to get younger. But that is a different proposition than not signing younger free agents.

      • Steve

        December 24, 2015 01:57 PM

        Heyward and Upton are the only young free agents worth signing. You simply cant say they havent improvred their roster this offseason. Its just not true.

      • Bob

        December 24, 2015 02:13 PM

        Their bullpen is worse. Their position players are the same. We hope to see development, but we could see regression. It’s an unknown.

        The starting rotation has gone from the second worst in baseball to . . . probably the 4th worst. Instead of finishing dead last, we might be third or fourth worst team. We could easily finish 5/5 in the division again; however, the Braves are equally awful.

        How many wins do you really think our big veteran acquisitions, Hellickson and Morton, will add? They’re back of the rotation arms. Maybe Appel and Velazquez break camp with the Phils but I doubt it.

        Look, I’m all for what the Phillies are doing in going with youth and letting them experience growing pains. But I doubt they’ll improve that much in the win total or standings.

      • Steve

        December 24, 2015 08:36 PM

        I hear you, but my point was that signing a free agent other than Upton or Heyward would have been ultimately irresponsible. There is no way to make the Phillies a division winning team in ’16. What the FO did was make the organization stronger and bring the team closer to a future division title.
        The final rotation was what? Nola Eickhoff Harang Asher and Williams i think. The Opening Day rotation is much stronger, not to mention the depth at AAA knocking on the door.
        The bullprn lost Giles, easily their best RP, but im not sure you can say the 16 BP will automayically be worse until you see what we have in the 4/5 additions. We lost one potential high profile closer, and added a ton of depth that could potential ipprove evey other facet of the BP.

      • Grinch

        December 25, 2015 03:37 PM

        “We hope to see development, but could see regression” could apply to almost every roster in baseball. Any player, regardless of age or past success, could regress at any time. This doesn’t mean a team should feel obligated to sign an expensive free agent as an insurance policy for regression.
        The Phillies have legitimate prospects that are within 2 years of an MLB debut at 6 of 8 fielding positions. The positions which they dont have a clear cut prospect for (1B and 2B) are often landing places for prospects who can hit, but can not field well enough to stick at their original position. It would make no sense for them to make a long term commitment to 30+ FA that plays 3b, SS, OF, C, or SP.
        Which great FA’s did they really pass on to earn the label of tanking? Heyward obviously wanted to go to the Cubs, i doubt we ever had a chance to land him. Upton and Davis don’t impress me all that much considering the contracts they are looking for. Leake probably makes sense, but paying a 2 or 3 SP that much isn’t wise for a rebuilding team with a half dozen potential 2 or 3 SP’s in the high minors. I will say that Daniel Murphy, on the three year deal he just signed, would have improved the Phillies without significantly hindering their future plans.

  3. Romus

    December 24, 2015 06:50 AM

    I believe the only owner I am aware of that purposely tanked was Rachel Phelps with the Cleveland Indians. 🙂

    • Bob

      December 24, 2015 09:45 AM

      Also, the Judge.

  4. Anthony

    December 24, 2015 08:15 AM

    I do not believe the Phillies tanked or purposely lost in 2015. We had many positions that were question marks. For example, in previous years you knew Victorino was definitely your center fielder and Jimmy Rollins was your everyday short stop. What do you do when you have a lot of question marks? You play guys to see how they perform in certain positions to see what you have to work with.
    If the Phillies were putting guys out there that were obviously not major league players then I would agree and think they were tanking (purposely losing). This is completely different then putting guys out there to see if they can be major leaguers given the opportunity.
    I understand tanking means a lot of different things to a lot of people, this is just my opinion. I just can’t help but think that finally after complaining and wanting change, we finally got it and now people need to complain about something else.

    • Bob

      December 24, 2015 08:36 AM

      Which is worse: losing by sheer incompetence or losing by design to improve the team in the long run? Why should a team be rewarded for mismanagement and, in the case of tanking, looked at derisively for enacting a long-term strategic vision? It’s a funny thing when making terrible decisions is lauded but engaging in a thoughtful building process is chastised.

  5. 100Bucks

    December 24, 2015 08:24 AM

    The term “tanking” is now commonly used to describe when a team’s owner and GM purposefully field a team that is not talented enough to compete in the standings.
    As far as the Phillies tanking in 2016, I am against it. Bill describes all of the reasons why #1 pick in MLB is not as good as #1 pick in NBA. I will add another reason that Bill missed – Trout (the best player of this generation) was drafted late in the first round by a team with 90+ wins. The Angels never tanked after winning the WS and then landed Mike Trout in the draft.

    • Bob

      December 24, 2015 08:33 AM

      The purpose of tanking is to increase your chances of getting viable major leaguers through the draft. By picking first, you increase your chances because the pool of available players is larger. And you get to pick first in each subsequent round meaning that each round you will have a larger pool of players to choose from than other teams. Getting lucky at a later stage in the draft is not a good process to emulate.

      • Romus

        December 24, 2015 12:48 PM

        Bob….oddly the 2.1 pick has been very poor, almost as bad as the Rule 5 1.1 picks (Phillies this year with Tyler Goeddel). Not sure why this happens.
        Only two of significance in the 2.1 Rule 4 category…OFer Carl Crawford and pitcher Jarrod Washburn. Plenty of 2nd round picks that have done well…but for some strange reason 2.1s have not fared well over the years. Josh Bell of the Pirates still has a chance.

      • 100Bucks

        December 24, 2015 04:36 PM

        The Phillies in 2015 did something that the Sixers failed miserably to do – they signed and kept veteran players to maintain professionalism on the field and be competitive in games – if not the standings. I hate what the Sixers are doing because it is failing and it had very little chance of not failing.
        The Phils on the other hand, need to continue to build with young players but they also need to sign legitimate veterans who can still play a little bit. Not Heyward, that was never realistic, but 2nd tier FAs who can provide leadership and contribute on the field.

      • ASK

        December 25, 2015 09:36 AM

        It is also to get more bonus slot money, more international pool money and a better pick in the Rule 5 draft. That being said, I don’t think that the Phillies tanked last year nor do I think that they are tanking this year. Last year, after starting 29-62, they finished 34-37 and almost cost themselves the 1st pick. This year, they have acquired a few veterans (Hellickson, Morton, Hernandez and maybe Bourjos) who they hope will (1) not embarrass the team at the big league level like some of the pitchers who started some games the last few seasons, (2) allow the prospects to stay on the farm until they’re ready and (3) rebound to the point where they can bring an asset at the trade deadline. That’s not tanking, that’s smart rebuilding. If they end up with the worst record in MLB again, so be it.

      • Steve

        December 25, 2015 03:40 PM

        Just read about the kid, very interesting. I think its time to make the big splash in the IFA. I was a little disspointed we didnt go after Guerrero or Mondesi last summer, but hopefully Ortiz develops the way they think.

  6. Gil

    December 24, 2015 08:53 AM

    Matt Klentak’s additions to the roster indicate that the Phillies want to improve the team for 2016.

    Buchanan and Asher would be ticketed for the starting rotation for 2016 if the front office wanted to facilitate losing more games. Hellickson and Morton aren’t terribly exciting additions, but they will probably make the team better until Thompson and maybe VV arrive. That’s a clear path to go from an improved rotation to an even stronger one. Doesn’t sound like a team that wants to lose games.

    Also, the Phillies are about to graduate a large, rich class of prospects next season, and these additions, while likely inconsistent, will almost certainly make the team better. Even trading Giles is an indication that the the Phillies want to win games, for the pitchers they received in return can help significantly improve the team in 2016 and beyond.

    Ownership has issued the mandate to rebuild the franchise so that it produces a consistent winner annually more often than not, and to do it as quickly as good sense allows. Andy MacPhail has indicated contention not before 2017, but likely 2018 or later. This doesn’t sound like a team looking to lose games. It sounds like a team in the early stages of executing a plan.

    • Bob

      December 24, 2015 09:03 AM

      The point the anti-tankers make is that the Phillies have enough revenue to go sign Davis, Cespedes, Murphy, Smardijza, and Cueto, and add a bp piece or two.

      C – Rupp/Ruiz
      1B – Davis
      2B – Murphy
      3B – Franco
      SS – Crawford
      LF – Cespedes
      CF – Herrera
      RF – Gordon

      SP1 – Cueto
      SP2 – Smardijza
      SP3 – Nola
      SP4 – Eickoff
      SP5 – Hellickson
      CL – Giles

      The Phillies could realistically field a lineup like that if they open the check book. Would it make sense to do that? Some people say yes. I say no. We’d run into the same situation we did in the past where Rollins, Utley, Howard, Lee, Halladay, et al. all got old at the same time and crippled this franchise for years.

      Instead, the Phillies have determined that they have a serious talent deficiency in the upper minors in terms of pitching depth and have sought, as they should, to remedy the situation by making sensible trades, signing sensible deals, and allowing their youth to develop. In my mind, the latter scenario is the path to long term success.

  7. Bob

    December 24, 2015 08:54 AM

    It’s obvious that players’ agents asked Buster Olney to write that teams were tanking. Davis, Cespedes, Murphy, Gordon, et al. are looking for huge pay days. When you have a large market team (4 or 5) who have spent in the past decade not make any offers and thereby not drive up market prices, i.e. no bidding wars, agents will chirp.

    The agents don’t care one way or the other whether teams win. Fans do, but agents don’t. The agents’ goal is to extract as much money from the market as possible for their clients. Olney likely has sources who are agents who are pushing their agenda. They’ve found a soft target to rile up fans to put pressure on their hometown teams by placing a negative connotation on the term tanking. We’re seeing the same thing with the Sixers.

    • Romus

      December 24, 2015 12:51 PM

      Very good and insightful point.
      You get the Crashburn Pulitzer Award for today.

    • JohnVegas

      December 25, 2015 01:22 PM

      I agree I think almost all of this is just agent belly aching. They see a team like the phillies that could probably comfortably add an extra 100+ million in pay roll sitting around not even bothering.

      But the way free agency is set up in MLB it doesn’t make sense for teams that are going to be bad to add money and lose draft picks. Agents should be mad at the system that doesnt let their clients hit FA until they are 30 not mad at teams that are a few years away from competing that have no need for over priced 33 year olds that season.

  8. Dr. J

    December 24, 2015 02:37 PM

    Olney is obviously creating mere click-bait with his article; just trying to jump on the Anti-Sixers bandwagon that has been getting wide media attention as of late. You’re better than that, Buster.

  9. Matthew

    December 24, 2015 03:07 PM

    I don’t know. I just read the piece by Stolnis and I can’t argue with what he’s saying at all. I had the same thought process before I read his response to Olney. What exactly were the Phillies supposed to do? They would have had to sign like 5 premier free agents to try and be somewhat competitive. They have just about nothing as far as position players.

    As Stolnis has said, it’s called “rebuilding”. I also agree that Olney is talking out of both sides of his mouth and I love the examples Stolnis gives right from Olney’s own pen. He states they should move on with the correct rebuiklding then criticizes them when they FINALLY do so.

    Honestly, what $20 million plus free agents were going to sign here with no foundation in place? They could have signed several of them and MAYBE been a 80+ win team. They have too many holes to pretend that signing a few guys would have helped much. Tp put it simply, Olney’s premise is absurd and he’s an absolute hyprcrite.

  10. Steve

    December 25, 2015 07:13 AM

    Is anyone saying the Yankees are tanking? How about the Mets? The Phillies have been more active this offseason in impoving their roster than either of those teams.

  11. Andreas

    December 25, 2015 08:41 AM

    Bill, I would like to thank you very much for that piece. And here is why:
    I don’t live in the US and English is not my native language (yes, there are Phillies fans over here, although not too many) . Now lately I increasingly read all kind of stuff about tanking. I consulted all kinds of dictionaries, both online and printed and all I found was what I already knew or at least was able to guess. But what “tanking” really means was a little bit foggy. I mean, stacking the Minor League system with talent is no big deal so why all that fuss?
    And now you defined what tanking exactly means, at least for you. And the best thing: It seems I was not absolutely alone since different people seem to understand tanking in different ways. It was not all that clear right from the start.
    Having said that I would like to add one thing: I understand that trading all those verteran players is part of the business and probably was necessary. Just one more reason I never could even think of being involved in front office stuff. But man, I hate to see Jimmy Rollins with a blue hat, it just does not look right.

  12. glovesdroppa

    December 25, 2015 12:08 PM

    The phils played better after trading utley, jroll, pap, etc. How could they be tanking if the team actually improved?

  13. JohnVegas

    December 25, 2015 01:19 PM

    I consider tanking to mean you lose games on purpose to better your draft position. Since that doesn’t even make sense to do in baseball I wouldn’t say any baseball team is tanking. I don’t think it’s a term that fits for baseball.

  14. Steve

    December 25, 2015 02:22 PM

    The Phillies shouldve tanked in September of 2012 to keep those darn Cardinals out of the playoffs….

    • glovesdroppa

      December 25, 2015 02:56 PM

      So F’n true!

  15. Pencilfish

    December 28, 2015 01:44 PM

    “many draft picks are ready to contribute at the NBA level immediately”

    You must mean “lottery picks” not “draft picks”. Non-lottery or 2nd-rounders are generally marginal contributors, and many are released (or remain unsigned) before the beginning of the season.

    “Thus, if a team gets to pick the best player in a draft, it can set itself up for many years of success. Needless to say, tanking is an attractive option for struggling basketball teams.”

    Best player in a generation, yes (ie, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Stephen Curry, etc), but not all lottery or even 1st-overall picks work out that way (ie, Sam Bowie and Greg Oden). Look no further than the Sixers, who have tanked a few years in a row with no encouraging results so far. In fact, the worst NBA teams (in terms of season record) in the past few years have remained abysmally bad (ie, 2010 New Jersey Nets, 2012 Charlotte Bobcats, 2009 Sacramento Kings, 2007-2011 Minnesota Timberwolves, etc).

    While more so than baseball, tanking is not a sure ticket out of NBA purgatory. In fact, I would argue being lucky is better than having the 1st pick overall in MLB or NBA.

  16. Thomas Ritter

    December 30, 2015 09:10 AM

    Is it really “tanking” when the realization is to compete for a division title, you HAVE to overspend on the budget. I’m of the belief that all teams are cyclic, and the Phillies cycle of contention is on the bottom side. I’d rather see them do a “Houston” and build the farm,stock up on as many prospects as possible, weed out the lesser-performers, then enhance the core when their performance dictates. By then, the Mets won’t be able to afford their pitching, the Cubs will be older, the Marlins still won’t have the resources to make a move, the Nationals & Braves will be the class of the NL East and the Phillies will be in a better position to determine if they open the pocketbooks and go for it or continue with the current trend. In 2 or 3 seasons, the mistakes of the post-2008 title will be forgotten and the product on the field should be younger and at least more exciting. The speed of the current roster is probably the best in recent memory and should be exploited. Force mistakes and be aggressive. At the very least, the games would be exciting if not winnable.

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