“Tank” is the new four-letter word in baseball. Sure, people say it, but they should feel a little bit ashamed of themselves for doing so. After all, we don’t want to accuse teams of tanking when they are merely rebuilding. But tanking—or perhaps just accusations of tanking—has become all the rage in baseball and it isn’t that hard to figure out why. Young, cost-controlled (meaning, pre-free agency) talent produces results for teams at about half the price of actual free agents. Resources for obtaining these young, cost-controlled players are allocated to the teams that finish with the worst records at the major-league level.
If you’re not going to win, you might as well lose. And if you’re going to lose, you might as well lose a lot to get something out of it. And if you’re going to lose a lot, you might as well lose cheap. There’s no glory in a .500 season. There’s no anything in a .500 season. And not that we’re accusing any specific teams of having tanked over the past few years, but … maybe it’s not such a bad idea.
It’s a sly irony that the idea of high draft picks and other player acquisition goodies going to low achievers is meant to encourage parity within a league. Perhaps in a league like the NFL or NBA, where draftees are in the starting lineups for their teams within six months of being picked, it makes sense. The problem is that in baseball, a team might draft a high school hotshot, but they won’t see him on a major-league mound for four years or so. If the goal is to infuse talent right away into a cellar-dweller, it doesn’t work in baseball. That’s part of why baseball rebuilds tend to come with general managers who talk about five-year “success cycles.” It’s going to be a while before this works.
On top of that, while the rules that created “cost-controlled” players were originally meant as a way for ownership to control payroll, it quickly became the preferred way for teams that were really bad to get better. “Build around a core of young, talented guys on their way up” is probably the oldest strategy in the book, and if you can find some good young’uns, you can keep them around for six years at relatively cheap prices. When I was growing up in Cleveland in the late 1980s, it meant the Indians trading away franchise favorites like Joe Carter and Julio Franco, even though the Carter trade brought back Sandy Alomar and Carlos Baerga, and then signing young, unproven players like Manny Ramirez and Jim Thome to long-term speculative deals. Those Indians went on a tear in the mid-to-late-1990s, but in 1991, they went 57-105. Let’s just say that even though it all turned all right, it wasn’t fun to live through as a fan.
In days of yore, general managers weren’t stupid. They could probably take a look at their roster in January and see a sub-.500 team even back then, but eventually the time came to make a decision to sign a couple of questionable free agent contracts, or even on whether to let a couple of still-decent guys go. They might have made that decision out of some sense of social responsibility or perhaps they were suffering from an all-too-human case of Optimism Bias, which is exactly what it sounds like. Baseball (and sports in general) romances the idea that “anything can happen” and all you really need is a playoff spot. Maybe through some series of unforeseen improvements and lucky bounces, the team ends up over-performing by six or seven wins. If you’ve built a .500 team on paper, that maybe sneaks you into the playoffs. If you’ve stripped everything down to a 60-win team, it doesn’t matter if fortune smiles on you.
Much has been made of how the “new school” general manager is a Wall Street-trained MBA who just happens to be running a baseball team. It might just be that we now have the computing power to really quantify how much of a chance there is to have that kind of fortune. Or perhaps the change came in the fact that the person in the chair was trained to look at those sorts of computations through a lens of dispassion. Maybe the reason that tanking is so prevalent now is that it’s technologically possible.
There have been several suggestions for eliminating the tanking problem. Most of them fall into two categories. One is the idea of removing the link between having the worst record and having the most dollars to spend in player acquisition. Perhaps teams that finish below a certain threshold (75 wins?) wouldn’t get any extra money, and perhaps the draft order can be determined by lottery. That would at least remove the incentive to go for 100-plus losses.
The other category is to suggest that MLB fundamentally overhaul its entire economic structure. Perhaps the time required to reach free agency can be shortened, to dissuade teams from trying to stockpile prospects. Perhaps free agency could be eliminated. Perhaps free agency should be universal. Maybe there could be a salary cap or a salary floor.
Maybe we’re over-thinking this. I can think of a much simpler solution that doesn’t fully solve the tanking problem, but probably gets a good chunk of the way there: expand the playoffs. Reduce the regular season to, say, 156 games and take eight teams per league to the playoffs. They are paired into simple single-elimination brackets and seeded 1 through 8, by record. The first round of the playoffs is a best-of-three series played entirely at the home ballpark of the higher-seeded team. The winners of those series can then enter into what we now know as the best-of-five LDS, and then the best-of-seven LCS.
To give you some idea of what that might have looked like in 2017:
|Matchup||American League||National League|
|Seed 1 vs. Seed 8||Cleveland (102-60) vs. Kansas City (80-82)||Los Angeles (104-58) vs. Miami (77-85)|
|Seed 2 vs. Seed 7||Houston (101-61) vs. Tampa Bay (80-82)||Washington (97-65) vs. St. Louis (83-79)|
|Seed 3 vs. Seed 6||Boston (93-69) vs. Los Angeles (80-82)||Arizona (93-69) vs. Milwaukee (86-76)|
|Seed 4 vs. Seed 5||New York (91-71) vs. Minnesota (85-77)||Chicago (92-70) vs. Colorado (87-75).|
Someone out there has already said in their head that it’s not fair to allow a team that won 100 games to be subject to the randomness of a very short series against a team that didn’t even get above .500. Yes. This most definitely cheapens the idea of a playoff spot. That’s the entire point.
It takes a lot of investment to even get a team to the level where they can contend for a Wild Card. And under the current rules, the teams that get there have a roughly 50 percent chance of being the one to move on to the next round. A lot of teams are probably asking themselves whether pouring a lot of resources into a season and perhaps ending up with a 50/50 coin flip for advancing to the next round makes sense.
In this case, we present a slightly different risk-reward equation. Even if we assume that we have a series where, between the difference in talent and the home-field advantage, the higher seeded team would win 60 percent of all games, the lesser team still has a 35 percent chance at winning two of three. That’s part of the beauty of baseball. In basketball, which also has a 16-team playoff, no. 7 and no. 8 seeds have upset their higher seeded opponents just 10 times in the space of 35 years. In baseball, you actually have a decent chance of advancing. And it’s a lot easier to build an 81-win team than an 88-win team. There would simply be a greater incentive to say, “Hey, I think we have a chance, so why tank?”
A big part of the incentive to tank is that baseball playoff spots are really hard to come by, and if you can’t snag one, the rest of the incentives are at the bottom. Changing the rest of the incentives might be tough, but if we can change the part where “they’re hard to come by” maybe that would go a good way toward incentivizing going for it. Or at least not incentivizing not trying.
And as an added bonus, that weekend of three-game series would be fun. Baseball would be playing a half-slate of games and they’d all be make-or-break. The league would probably love the television ratings. The players might appreciate the shorter regular season schedule and the ability to say “I was in the playoffs.” All you really have to do is get past the fans who will shriek about how this is a violation of the sanctity of the game.