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.