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“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.

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Jeff F
1/23
Or eliminate the anti-trust exemption re MilB players/teams/affiliations and their media contracts. Free the minors to become actual leagues again - with their own incentives to both win/scout (and sign their own players to long-term contracts which they can then sell/transfer like soccer for an additional revenue stream). Promotion/relegation is the best way to prevent pure tanking (read- raking in money from other teams while starving team on the field) while allowing rebuilding. It works for pro sports (mainly soccer) in most countries and it would work here too (if NCAA ever has to pay its athletes). Without that change, most other proposals do little more than enrich the owners while diminishing the sport. It may well be that TRUE MLB competition is only 24 teams in any particular year - with many of those (and some AAA-level teams if things change) in more of a '5 yr win cycle' where they often transition from one league to another. So shrink the big-boy-pants league and free the others. Competition works. It is is just perverse that an industry that acknowledges that in one of its 'activities' is allowed to prevent it in all other activities.
lipitorkid
1/23
I have a lot of questions about the idea above, but I wonder if this would result in AAA baseball being the equivalent of college football which, if it did, would make a lot of money for minor league baseball.
dave t
1/24
No, it wouldn't work well at all with how the economics of U.S. sports have evolved, particularly the importance of TV money (both national and local TV money). It also ignores the way that the economics of MLB are very much bolstered by revenue sharing and equally shared central fund money (not only national TV, but merchandising, streaming, league sponsors, etc.). It is, in my view, a vastly oversimplistic way of looking at things that simply says "Ooh, a lot of soccer leagues have this structure, why don't North American sports?" without any consideration of the history of how these systems evolved and where they are at today. And I'm pretty sure that it overstates the importance of the baseball anti-trust exemption to the minor league structure, because the NHL also has a fairly extensive system of minor league affiliates and the NBA has a limited minor league system with the G League.
Jeff F
1/24
This is nonsense. MLB fights anti-trust because that allows it to control the top 5000+ players (without paying most of them) and dick around with minors teams/leagues/cities in order to rentseek and kill competition. Absent that - and with the ability to actually have media contracts, any minors league that is semi-pro or above could be profitable. Yes - a team that is relegated would probably transfer bigger veteran contracts to the remaining/promoted MLB teams - but that's what they do now anyway in a rebuild. The sports system here evolved BECAUSE of the anti-trust exemption - and NFL/NBA (with NCAA in both cases) followed MLB's relo rentseek and cartelized draft coordination with player feeder system in order to control the player universe beyond their actual field roster. THAT is what changes with actual competition. Obviously MLB owners would resist that change - but so what. Fans would generally prefer 'rebuilds' that involve seeing games where their team can win rather than just seeing the NYY/LAD come to town
lipitorkid
1/23
I like the 8 teams, and I like the three, all-home, mini series, but I have just two concerns. 1. Seeing 4 teams in the playoffs with sub .500 records just seems wrong. How often would that happen in baseball vs. other sports? 2. Some teams almost never make the playoffs so even though it's just one wild-card game, one team's fanbase is happy to actually go to a playoff game. This would rarely happen if all of the games were home games for the best teams in the first round.
John Hicks
1/23
I think you have some intriguing ideas here. Something has to be done to prompt teams to try harder to win.
Noel Steere
1/23
My objections: 1) Winning your division is now meaningless. 2) "Permanent" home field advantage isn't nearly enough to overcome the vagaries of having to win two out of three games. You also don't want to cheapen excellence in the regular season. I can't remember where I read it, but someone suggested taking a page out of the Korean League, where the "Play-in" game is a doubleheader at the team with the better record, where the team with the worse record needs to win *both* games to advance. I honestly don't think "tanking" is a problem, per se, so I'd prefer the solution above to be applied to the current format, granting the first Wild Card spot a significant advantage (bet Pirates fans would have appreciated it). But for the love of God, at least implement it in the godforsaken format you've suggested above.
Joseph Dolney
1/23
The simplest way to stop tanking is to eliminate the draft bonus pools. Under the current system, revised slightly by the most recent labor agreement, the 1.1 pick usually gets a team 2 quality players because the pick value is so high. Eliminating the pool means that there won't be as much of a difference between the 1st and 10th picks. A key factor is that MLB needs to keep the compensation pick if teams fail to sign a top pick, which allows teams to draft players perceived to be difficult to sign. This helps prevent talent slipping to good teams like Rick Porcello going in the late 20's instead of the top 5. The draft pools also penalize small market teams for having success, see the Pittsburgh Pirates current situation. Their main way of acquiring talent is through the draft. Their bonus pool was lowered between the 2014-2016 drafts and now their farm system has suffered. The big market teams won't be able to outspend the small market teams because players could still be picked by someone else. For example, I still believe that Josh Bell had a pre-draft deal with a team that didn't have a 1st round pick in 2011. The Pirates drafted him anyway and offered him $5M. At that point, Bell had to decide between $5M or re-entering the draft in the future. Even if he had agreed to a higher number with a another team, $5M is still an excellent bonus. It would also fix the Brady Aiken situation when Houston lost at least one other prospect because they could agree to terms with him.
John Hicks
1/23
Joseph, Bell wrote letters to all 30 MLB teams saying not to draft him because he was going to college first. Then the Pirates drafted him anyway and dangled the 5 mil. I think MLB changed rules because of that. Your point, however, is right on target!
newsense
1/23
This may provide too much of an incentive for mediocrity. One way to compensate would be to raise the value of winning in the regular season by getting rid of the Divisions so that the pennant becomes a big achievement. If the playoff seeding is entirely by record then the Division titles don't mean anything anyway. This would also point toward a more balanced schedule, say two games vs. every team in the other league and 9 against every team in your own league; that makes 156 games!
Charles Carr
1/23
Well, if you really want to devalue attending games, this is the way to do it. Why stop at any particular number for games in a season, or teams in the postseason? Why not just have regular season champions, and then a tournament?
Lance Rinker
1/23
Great thoughts, Russell. Instead of trying to alter the playoff structure, the number of playoff teams, or anything like that - IMHO, I think there are three areas in which change could take place and we'd actually get the results we desire as fans and professional observers. 1. Reduce the length of service time on an MLB active roster required before a player is eligible for free agency. Take it from the current six years to four. This would mean in any given year there would be more than a handful of younger, promising players teams would be willing to pay something resembling fair market value without getting the short-end of it with over-30 free agents. 2. Put a salary floor in place. This could be done in a way that wouldn't seem completely unreasonable to the owners and would absolutely delight the players union. Whether the floor is a set number (say, $60MM) or it is based on regional economics is up to MLB and MLBPA. I view putting a salary floor in place much like how the DH was put in place. That turned out pretty alright. Think about it like this. Players like Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Brian Dozier, Charlie Blackmon, and many other premium players would force their current teams to make decisions now about locking them up long-term or letting them hit free agency. Every year would be a good year for free agency. 3. Allow the trading of all draft picks. I don't understand why this isn't allowed to begin with. Sure, some teams could make stupid decisions but it's more than likely the majority of teams wouldn't. Furthermore, this would help smaller market teams expedite the rebuilding process because they could either trade high-value draft picks for high-value performers on the field, or trade their own best players for high-value draft picks from contending clubs.
dave t
1/24
Interesting ideas, but IMO trading draft picks would only make extreme rebuilds (or "tanks") even deeper. At least now teams often target prospects who can be expected to reach the majors in 2 or 3 years. With the ability to trade for more draft picks, which I assume would come with their associated bonus slot values, low-revenue teams might well target trading away established players to build up "wave" drafts, perhaps with the idea of having a huge prospect class hit at the same time to maximize a 4-year window of team control. The salary floor could help a bit with fielding a competitive team, or it could just be filled by calling up the Dodgers or Yankees and agreeing to obtain a bad contract (e.g., Gonzalez or Ellsbury) plus draft picks to relieve those big revenue teams of luxury tax burdens.
Edward Sherwood
1/24
What do we want to fix here? Overall were the Astros good or bad for baseball? Despite years of tanking I think they were good overall. Ask their supporters. If free agency was after 4 years we would just see a movement of talent to big clubs even younger, less completion and overall a poorer fan experience.
Jeff F
1/24
Ask their supporters? Which ones? - the 37,000 avg attendees/game in 2006/7? the avg 21,000 avg/game in 2012/4? The 29,000 of the last two years? That's a lot of fans who missed the WS season because rebuild years in the current system are very unpleasant
Edward Sherwood
1/25
But how does a shorter period before free agency make that less unpleasant? It seems to me smaller clubs would have less chance of ever competing
Lance Rinker
1/25
Wouldn't it stand to reason that with more player movement, and a greater number of quality free agents in their prime there would be a bit more to go around and small to mid-market organizations would have a shot to lock up young players in their prime and not worry about overpaying for 30+ aged players, leading to eating the final years of some of those deals.
dave t
1/26
For "supporters", how about asking all the people in Houston who watched the World Series on TV, where games were getting a 33.3 local rating / 55 local share in the Houston market? http://www.chron.com/sports/astros/article/World-Series-TV-ratings-increasing-by-the-game-12314336.php As for the slow to return attendance level - which will almost certainly be a lot better in 2018, BTW - that actually provides some business rationale for why there's probably going to be some reluctance to follow the model of extreme rebuilds. There is actually, at least in a lot of markets, a business difference between bottoming out at merely bad, as a 70 or 75 win team with some recognizable players, and fully gutting the roster and losing 110 games. The latter has more impact on taking away fan interest and driving away season ticketholders, and drawing people back will naturally tend to lag success in building a winning team. Not every team is the Cubs, who would draw over 2.5 million people even when the team is terrible due to Wrigley and the "lovable losers" tradition. I'm sure that other teams watch and notice how quickly fan support does or doesn't return to other teams that go the route of full teardowns. The "good playoff chance or bust" math of baseball-focused writers at BP doesn't necessarily mirror the business-side math for every somewhat aging team with a projection of winning around 75 games.
dave t
1/24
I don't like this idea much because it so devalues the regular season. I also question part of the premise that "tanking" or, more neutrally, "extreme rebuilds" are just motivated by the draft picks. That's one of the benefits for a team, but a big part of it is simply trading away any useful player with a couple years or less of team control remaining for whatever prospect return can be had. The draft picks are helpful, but they're only a part of the strategy. (The NBA, by contrast, is highly focused on the draft picks, even with a lottery, because one player can so dramatically change a franchise's fortunes. The expectation difference between the #1 overall NBA draft pick and a pick even 5 places lower is also absolutely massive many years in the NBA.) One idea could be to add a weighting to the revenue sharing formula so that revenue sharing recipients don't just receive money weighted by local revenue but also with some weighting given to winning percentage (and/or payroll). This wouldn't be perfect, as one could imagine a situation where a low revenue team that is truly dreadful ends up stuck in a bad situation because it's low revenue, loses a lot, and truly would struggle to afford to increase payroll much. Rinse, lather, repeat, year after year. So perhaps this additional weighting factor in revenue sharing should only consider winning percentage. I see the business reality of a baseball team as a big part of the real issue. It's not actually true, business-wise, to say that every win for a below .500 team has no value, because a run-of-the-mill bad 70 to 75 win team will typically draw better attendance than the 2013 Astros. The marginal value per win, business-wise, is just far less for a below .500 team than for a team on the cusp of a wild card spot or a division title, so teams respond rationally to those incentives. Maybe it would be tough to weight this formula in a way that calibrates the revenue-sharing incentive correctly, but it would be an additional incentive not to gut the major league team completely.
tearecrules
1/24
I think this is a problem which is going to sort itself out in short order. The Astros tank job was Carlos Correa's broken leg being a bit worse or Casey Close being a little less butthurt from falling short of a WS. And all it cost them was a the better part of a decade in lost attendance and razing their relations with their fan base to the ground. Winning cures a lot of sins, but it took a trip to the WS to get them back into the top half of attendance. And as more teams try it gets less and less likely for any one to succeed.
matt lawson
1/24
I'm not sure where I heard this idea I'm about to propose, but I should note that it's crazy and probably will never work for a lot of reasons. Basically the premise is that at some point around the trade deadline you declare GOING FOR IT! or GOING FOR DRAFT PICKS! The catch is that you submit your intentions in a sealed envelope to the league offices, so you aren't quite too sure what your competitors are doing. The schedule will remain the same BUT from this date forward.... it's a race to win as many games forward in your "division". So the tanking teams now have a playoff for the #1 draft pick. The highest win total from the "tank" teams gets the #1 pick. The crappiest team gets the bottom of the draft BUT ahead of the "GO FOR IT" teams. Maybe it's pick #8? Maybe it's pick #20. The other teams will be going for it as per normal. Pennants will still matter, more wins the better, blah blah blah. I guess what I'm getting at is the GM's on the bubble will have to make a calculation about their chances in the World Series vs the chances of that #1 slot. Could be very interesting. Could be very dumb. I'm fully aware of that. I think the worst case scenario would be a team "NOT GOING FOR IT" and running away with the draft pick. That would doesn't seem like it would be a smart idea though. To finish this rambly post up.... the reason I really like this idea is because it gives everyone an incentive for winning as many games as they possibly can.
tearecrules
1/24
I love the idea Matt. Of course I also want to watch the world burn so take that for what it's worth. I'd seen a similar-in-spirit thought somewhere which might be more workable. Basically it involved the team's winning percentage after they were mathematically eliminated from their division. Apply some sort of weighing based on the number of games played so some team that goes 90-72 but gets the WC isn't going to get the first pick because they went 4-0 after being eliminated from their division. It rewards teams for not just throwing in the towel and collecting their revenue sharing while also getting struggling teams a chance at some help. A big drawback, aside from the feasibility, is it's not exactly easy to determine the right values and it would screw a bad team in a bad division; a scenario where a 65ish win team where the division winner goes like 84-78 might not be eliminated until a month after a 65ish team in a division with a 100 game winner.