Tanking is prevalent in baseball, but why is it tolerated?
There’s no crying in baseball — unless you count the Major League Baseball Players Association bemoaning the death of the golden goose of free agency. But there is tanking in baseball.
What else do you call teams that aren’t actively trying to maximize their win total and are content jockeying for a high draft pick? Compared to the NFL and NBA, baseball gets a free pass. Nobody balks at intentionally bad baseball teams.
Visionary former Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie, who was hustled out of the NBA for competitive heresy, simply chose the wrong sport. In baseball, everyone Trusts the Process. Purposely going south in the standings to change a franchise’s direction has become baseball’s new pole star, and it’s not even polarizing.
It’s not tanking in baseball. Nope. It’s repackaged with Ivy League elan and analytics and rebranded as resetting, retooling, or rebuilding. It’s an acceptable plan without the stigma it carries in other leagues, especially the NBA, which has actively taken anti-tanking measures to assure public competitive confidence.
The sabermetric set can feel free to deride me, but I still enjoy engaging with baseball through boxscores. It’s part ritual and part research. This season, I’ve been confounded by the names staring back at me. Apparently, anonymity is the new “Moneyball” market efficiency. While name free-agent pitchers Dallas Keuchel and former Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel find their careers in abeyance and MLB awards a championship belt to the team that best limits salaries in arbitration, unheralded players populate unrecognizable rosters.
No sport is more easily distorted by short sample sizes than baseball. That’s why a competitively apathetic outfit like the Seattle Mariners, holders of an offseason fire sale, can win seven of their first nine games. Ignore the deception of the too-early standings. Here are some MLB tanking rankings.
The Toronto Blue Jays, Baltimore Orioles, Miami Marlins, and Detroit Tigers are full-on in the tank. The Kansas City Royals are tacitly tanking, merely fielding a representative team. The Mariners are on the outskirts of tanking and will sell off valuable veterans when their season slips away by the summer. The Texas Rangers appear ambivalent, unable to fully commit to tanking or to improving a 95-loss roster from 2018 with anything more than stopgap veterans and reclamation projects. That’s seven of 30 teams essentially engaged in some form of competitive seppuku.
Luckily for the lethargic Red Sox, 40 percent of the American League East isn’t even trying. The Blue Jays and the Orioles are emptying the tank. Toronto (salary) dumped DH Kendrys Morales in a deal the day before their season started and traded starting center fielder Kevin Pillar just five games in. Randal Grichuk, who signed a five-year, $52 million deal last Tuesday, and infielder Lourdes Gurriel Jr. are Toronto’s only players with money guaranteed beyond 2019.
The Blue Jays have some promising prospects such as Vladimir Guerrero Jr., but as is the wont of MLB teams today — and another tanking tool — they’re stashing them in the minor leagues to prevent the accrual of service time toward free agency and ensure the preservation of another precious year of team control.
Only the perpetually cash-strapped Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays (the real “Moneyball” miracle of MLB without the movie) have lower payrolls than the Orioles, who imported former Houston Astros assistant GM Mike Elias and Astros analytics guru Sig Mejdal, an ex-NASA engineer, to engineer their tank job. Who says tanking isn’t rocket science?
We have the Astros and Theo Epstein’s Chicago Cubs to blame for the virtues of tanking in MLB. By design, they were the two biggest losers in baseball from 2012 to 2014: the Astros were 176-310 (.362 winning percentage) and the Cubs were 200-286 (.412). That poured the foundation for their World Series winners and perpetual playoff contention. Such planned ineptitude enabled them to draft Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Carlos Correa and Alex Bregman.
Objectively, the tanking strategy is sound. So, the question is why this is condoned as sensible in MLB and condemned as sacrilege in other leagues?
The NBA is so sensitive to tanking talk that it altered the NBA Draft Lottery format to reduce the odds of the team with the worst record getting the No. 1 pick from 25 percent. Starting with this year’s Draft Lottery, the three worst teams all have an equal 14 percent chance. The team with the worst record could drop down as far as fifth. In baseball, winning the race to the bottom guarantees the No. 1 pick.
The argument against labeling baseball teams as tanking is that baseball teams have minor league systems, and that distilling which draft picks toiling in the minors are capable big league players is much more time-consuming and challenging than plugging in “can’t miss” NBA or NFL draft picks.
There’s some truth to this, but the sheer unpredictability of prospect evaluations shouldn’t render MLB teams immune from tanking blowback.
The New York Knicks, owners of the NBA’s worst record this season, aren’t all that different from a baseball team trying to develop its young players and discern which ones are part of the future. The Knicks have some interesting young talents such as rookies Mitchell Robinson and Kevin Knox that they’re feeding minutes.
Other NBA teams condemned as tankers don’t fit the narrative. The Phoenix Suns were playing their best player, Devin Booker, who had back-to-back 50-point games at the end of March, right up until he injured his ankle last Wednesday.
Yet, the stigma of intentionally stinking seems to stick to NBA teams, and NFL ones, more than it does MLB clubs.
Could part of the reason for that perception gap be the racial makeup of the sports? Around 75 percent of NBA players are African-American, according to The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports. In the NFL, the percentage of African-American athletes is about 70 percent. The most recent racial report card for MLB from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports, which used 2017 numbers, pegged the percentage of white players in MLB at 57.5 percent.
There seems to be some implicit bias involved when it comes to a gentler, kinder representation of prioritizing a long-term view in MLB. It’s a double-standard that aids the sport that plays double-headers.
Even if tanking is more tolerated in baseball, its pervasiveness still creates a problem. If the imbalance between the contenders and the tankers becomes too stark, the sport loses some appeal in an already oversaturated entertainment market. This was displayed last season when at one point seven teams were on pace to lose 100 games — three did, and the Tigers lost 98.
Tanking in baseball is real. So, let’s call it what it is, and either acknowledge it’s a distasteful yet successful strategy in all sports or evenly apply outrage over its employment.
Baseball’s free passes should be limited to the ones issued on the field.