Beyond the Scoreboard: Plenty in the Tank


Tanking in Baseball may be frowned upon, but there seems to be a method to the madness. (Courtesy of Flickr)

Jimmy Sullivan, Sports Editor

The ultimate distinguisher between the “haves” and “have-nots” in baseball — the playoffs — will have started by the time you read this.

Ten teams — the Nationals, Brewers, Rays, Athletics, Cardinals, Braves, Dodgers, Yankees, Twins and Astros — will compete for a championship on the national stage. Four of those ten teams won 100 games, a number that was traditionally considered a high-water mark for greatness over a six-month season. Houston and Los Angeles, in another harbinger of their dominance, won their respective divisions by ten or more games.

However, when you see such dominant play on the top end of the spectrum, you know that equal futility exists on the opposite end of the spectrum. Baseball is no different.

We say this because, for the four teams that won over 100 games, four others — the Orioles, Tigers, Royals and Marlins — lost over 100. For its part, Major League Baseball has tried to take steps to discourage “tanking,” which, in sports parlance, has come to mean the systematic or intentional losing of games in order to benefit a team’s chances of winning in the future.

One of these steps is the so-called “luxury tax,” which severely penalizes teams for spending lavishly on their players. MLB’s luxury tax threshold will climb to $210 million in 2021. Moreover, this luxury tax has absolutely no effect on the four teams I just mentioned because they possess an average payroll of just over $75 million.

But here’s the real problem with tanking: when done right, it works.

One of 2019’s 100-win teams, the Astros, lost an average of 108 games from 2011-13. The team was, to put it politely, an embarrassment. However, Houston’s saving grace during this period was having a top-two pick for five straight drafts, a feat that even the Cleveland Browns would be proud of. With these selections, Houston chose players such as Carlos Correa, George Springer and Alex Bregman. Bregman and Springer are both in the American League MVP discussion after having career years.

Other assets from outside the organization include pitchers Justin Verlander and Gerrit Cole, both of whom were acquired with assets the Astros picked up in the time period in which they were tanking. One of the two right-handed hurlers will win the 2019 American League Cy Young Award.

Point being, without one of the worst three-year stretches in the history of sports, the Astros would not have put themselves in position to win their second championship in three years. Of course, we’ve also seen tanking go wrong — just look at the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, who may not win a game this season and whose best players reportedly want out of “the process.”

Why, however, would you have such a moral aversion to tanking when you see its potential?

It likely traces back to our upbringings. Whether you played a sport or not, you were always taught that winning was good and losing was bad. An “A” on your next test far exceeded an “F.”

Doing a good job was always better than doing a bad one. All of these things are true, but as we grew up, we found out that things weren’t so black and white. Ironically, the clarity between winning and losing, succeeding and failing, is a big reason why so many people, including myself, love sports. The scoreboard never, ever lies.

But sometimes in life, you have to go down to shoot back up. You have to hit rock bottom before you can hit new heights. Sports is the same way, but watching your team lose for years on end as ownership tells you to “be patient” and “look to the future” is painful. That’s why we don’t like tanking, even though it can work.

Let’s stay in baseball for another example. At the MLB trade deadline, the Arizona Diamondbacks, despite dealing star first baseman Paul Goldschmidt to the St. Louis Cardinals in the offseason, were just 3.5 games out of a playoff spot at an astonishingly average 54–55. Instead of loading up for a possible run to a playoff spot, Arizona traded the hottest commodity on the market, starter Zack Greinke, to the Astros for four prospects.

Arizona’s general manager, Mike Hazen, said that his team wasn’t in a great position to win the World Series, with a 10-team playoff format, a wild card game to get through and a tough Dodgers team waiting on the other side of the one-game playoff.

On the other hand, my beloved New York Mets were behind Arizona in the standings and went in the other direction, trading two highly-regarded prospects for Blue Jays starter Marcus Stroman.

Are the Mets definitively better-positioned for the future than the Diamondbacks? They may be, but neither made the playoffs. Only one team “tried,” but both teams achieved the same result and Arizona finished just one game behind New York. And the Diamondbacks have four prospects to show for it while the Mets have a depleted farm system from a calendar year’s worth of pushing their chips to the center of baseball’s table.

So if your team is tanking, don’t sweat it. There’s a method to the madness, born out of precedent and probabilities, that makes it more likely than not that the process will pay off.