Remember when tanking ruled MLB? Those days might be over

Two years ago, before baseball had become consumed by the scandal of scurrilous teams trying too hard to win, we had the simmering crisis at the opposite end of the spectrum: teams not trying hard enough.

Back then, “banging the trash can” might have meant what the Marlins had just done over the 2017-18 offseason: They traded four of their best players (Christian Yelich, Giancarlo Stanton, Marcell Ozuna and Dee Gordon) in one winter, turning a second-place team into a nearly certain last-place team. They tore it down. They tanked.

They weren’t alone. Roughly a third of the league’s teams that winter had done nothing to improve, or had actively gotten worse, solidifying the standings before the first game had been played. According to FanGraphs’ playoff odds at the time — which depend on both current standings and projected estimates of each team’s underlying talent — the Marlins’ chances of making the playoffs dropped to 0.0% three days into the season, and five other teams joined them at 0.0 by the end of April. Though the lack of competitive effort was confined to front offices — players still tried their hardest on the field — Scott Boras invoked the precedent of the 1919 White Sox: “We kicked people out of the game when they tried to not win.”

Back then, I wrote for ESPN The Magazine about the sport’s slow and then fast embrace of tanking since Branch Rickey pioneered it in the 1950s and concluded that “terribleness had been weaponized” and that we were “seeing surrender strategy taken to extremes.” It was a bleak outlook.

A lot can change in two years. Or a lot can stay the same. Was that bleak outlook right? Where do we stand on tanking? Let’s check in on some of the trends, data, outcomes and predictions we described in that Mag piece.

1. What I wrote then: “‘Moneyball’ is now synonymous with the willingness to lose games, without shame, for years at a time, to build something far off in the future. We’re only now seeing the surrender strategy taken to its extremes.”

Where we stand now: We were, it appeared, seeing more teams embracing tanking, richer teams embracing it and better teams embracing it, and the teams that embraced it were doing it with fulsome bear hugs. Is that still true?

While it can be hard to know whether teams are bad on purpose or because they’re just terrible, we can say this: Since we wrote that article just before the 2018 season, we’ve seen the bottom tier of teams get worse than they’ve been at any point since at least baseball’s last expansion, in 1998. The bottom five teams last year averaged an incredible 105 losses. In 2018, the bottom five averaged 103 losses. Both of those would be the most for the bottom five since at least 1998. (On average, the bottom five teams lost 98 games apiece in that time frame.)

Again, though, we can’t say for certain that the Blue Jays (95 losses), Royals (103), Marlins (105), Orioles (108) and Tigers (114) were trying to lose, or aggressively not trying to win. But:

  • Those five teams had all cut payroll, by an average of $62 million from the 2017 payrolls — about 40%.

  • Of the 50 largest free-agent contracts signed the previous winter, none was landed by any of these five teams. The Tigers’ signing of Tyson Ross — for a total guarantee of only $5.75 million — was the biggest expenditure any of these teams made.

  • As it stands now, all five teams’ payrolls are set to be lower again this year (despite a bit more significant action by the Blue Jays and Marlins this offseason).

Those are telltale signs of teams that are not just bad but uninterested in being even a little bit better.

Coupled with the rise of a handful of superteams, that has given baseball its least competitive balance in decades. At Baseball Prospectus, Rob Arthur found that the gap between the best and worst teams was already larger in 2018 than in any season since 1954. And then 2019 got even worse.

2. What I wrote then: “Baseball’s commissioner, Rob Manfred, has argued that it’s a ‘self-checked strategy … the more people adopt the strategy, the less likely it is to be successful … only one guy can get the No. 1 pick.'”

Where we stand now: Whether Manfred is right about the causal relationship — that more teams tanking means dividing up the tanking pie into smaller slices of tank — it is clear the perceived inevitability of future success following full teardowns has taken a huge hit. Back in 2018, we were coming off three consecutive World Series won like clockwork after deep, stark rebuilds: the Royals, Cubs and Astros, who made losing now to win later look so predictable that Sports Illustrated predicted their title three seasons in advance, to the year. The Astros’ World Series was (in part due to widespread cheating that was revealed only years later but also) explicitly a bet on the predictability of the whole thing. They welcomed the shame of those losses because they knew, on a longer timeline, that baseball’s unpredictability could be tamed.

But since then it has been harder to tame. The same year the Astros won the World Series, there were five teams we might have described as anti-competitive — not good and not, for that season, trying to get good: the Padres, Reds, White Sox, Brewers and Phillies. They were projected at FanGraphs to win the fewest games entering that season, each had cut payroll at least 25% from peak payroll (without adjusting for inflation), and none had signed significant free agents the previous winter. All of them seemed clearly to be punting 2017, with expectations of consolidating and getting good in 2018 or 2019.

But unlike the Astros and Cubs, who zoomed from the bottom to the top as if it were guaranteed, those five teams have had mixed results in the years since. The Padres are exciting and did build one of the best farm systems ever, but they have finished in last place in each of the past two years, despite having already added Eric Hosmer (before 2018) and Manny Machado (before 2019). The White Sox finished 28½ games out of first place last year, and (like the Padres) are interesting for their youth but nothing close to inevitable. The Reds finished last in 2018 and (with a franchise-record payroll) finished fourth in 2019. The Phillies’ top prospects from the rebuild era have mostly busted spectacularly, and despite adding Bryce Harper last year they still haven’t had a winning season since the rebuild. They, like the Reds and Padres, fired their manager.

And then there are the Brewers, the undeniable victor from this group. They went from a position of apparent tanking entering 2017 to the seventh game of the NLCS in 2018 and another postseason appearance in 2019. They’re the team a GM can still point to and claim inspiration from. But even the Brewers aren’t nearly the prototypes the Astros and Cubs were: Despite lousy preseason projections in 2017, they turned out to be pretty good that year, just missing the playoffs. That suggests their great post-tank success is less about the benefits of tanking and more about the benefits of cannily acquiring and developing a bunch of really good overachievers. Furthermore, despite this success, the Brewers aren’t a superteam with a long window for success, in the model of those 2016 Cubs or 2017 Astros: They were easily the weakest postseason team last year, and they project to be somewhere around .500 this year.

Indeed, of the five teams we just ran down, none projects to be a superteam. The ZiPS projections for 2020, at FanGraphs, have the Padres, Brewers, White Sox, Phillies and Reds averaging 82 wins this year; the PECOTA projections at Baseball Prospectus offer an average of 81. None of the five teams projects at either site to win more than 87 games. Three years after these teams all hit a clear trough, none — not even the big-market Phillies — is all that good.

3. What I wrote then: “In fact, this decade there has been no statistical correlation between the standings in one season and the standings three years later; everything gets totally reshuffled as teams swap spots in the Success Cycle. In a league in which economics has so often been destiny, that’s an extraordinary achievement, and it has arguably saved competitive baseball in small markets.”

Where we stand now: That fact — that there was no statistical correlation between the standings in one season and the standings three years later — served two purposes. First, it provided some proof that the tanking strategy was successful. It was evidence that the benefits of being bad really did show up in the future and that teams embracing terribleness were, in fact, using that terribleness effectively, to reset the standings that were otherwise unfavorable to them.

It was also an argument in favor of tanking being, in at least one way, positive for the game. Rather than bad teams sinking into literally decades of losing — as the Pirates, Royals, Tigers and Rays had done in the 1990s and 2000s — teams that found themselves at the bottom could now find their way back. Failing franchises are bad for the sport, but failing franchises had become quite rare. (There are, of course, many arguments against tanking being good for the game.)

That trend — the three-year reshuffle — held true for the next two years. Last year’s standings had no correlation to the 2016 standings, and five no-good 2016 teams — the Brewers, Twins, Braves, A’s and Rays — made up half the playoff entrants in 2019.

However, 2020 looks poised to thwart that. The correlation between 2017 records and 2020 projected records is substantial, as nearly every good team from 2017 remains good and most bad teams from 2017 remain bad, or at least mediocre. If PECOTA’s projections for 2020 were all to come true, the change from 2017 to 2020 would be the smallest three-year turnaround this century. Even with the ascendance and acceptance of tanking, the bad teams over the past three years have stayed stuck in ruts, rather than ascending gloriously from them.

4. What I wrote then: “… a place agent Scott Boras described this winter as ‘destructive to our sport.'”

Where we stand now: More fans go to baseball games when they think those games matter. In MLB’s ideal world, the standings would show two kinds of balance:

  • Parity within seasons, i.e. most teams in the race late into the season, with few outright disasters who are 20 games out by mid-May.

  • Parity across seasons, i.e. most teams can offer their fans a few playoff appearances each decade and consistent hope in at least the mid-term.

Tanking is the imperfect compromise. As we noted, it costs baseball a lot of in-season parity, creating worse bad teams and more lopsided standings. (Over the past two years, 40% of team games have been played with playoff odds below 5%, a spike from previous seasons.) But as we noted, it has over the past decade coincided with — and perhaps caused — across-season parity.

However, if the 2020 projections come true, MLB is going to be in a worst-of-both-worlds scenario. A bunch of teams are going into the season with practically no hope of competing: Eight teams enter the year with a less than 1% chance of making the playoffs, according to PECOTA, with six of those teams’ odds rounding down to 0. And the year-to-year parity that tanking has provided is also breaking down, perhaps heralding a new underclass of teams that get really bad with no promise they’ll claw back up.

The bottom line is that it costs baseball a lot of attendance. At Baseball Prospectus, Rob Arthur built a model that estimates each day’s attendance based on weather, ballpark, day of the week, month and each team’s likelihood of making the playoffs. Arthur writes, “Teams with low playoff odds — specifically, those below about 10 percent — see exponentially lower attendance, on a per-game basis, than those that are in contention. The difference is fairly massive, with an impact approaching 8,000 fans per game going from playoff odds of 0 percent to 50 percent.” Attendance leaguewide has dropped by nearly 5 million fans since 2015. According to Arthur’s model, about one-third of that dip is due to there being more teams playing more games with no playoff chances.

5. What I wrote then: “Losing no longer counts as losing; it is a vehicle for hope. It took decades, but baseball beat that terrible, honest feeling that comes from losing.”

Where we stand now: The argument we made in 2018 was that widespread tanking represented not just a strategic shift but a philosophical one: Losing no longer felt bad because it could be rebranded as part of a smart process. If there was no shame in losing 105 games — or some other strong incentive — then we would continue to see teams embrace it as a nearly foolproof path to glory.

There’s some evidence that we didn’t reach that point and that teams in the past few years have seen tanking not as an obvious step on the way to success but something to be avoided, to be planned around and to be embraced only when disaster has already struck. It’s clear the Royals, Orioles and Tigers have been actively noncompetitive over the past two seasons and will be this year as well, but none of the three tore down to get terrible. They got terrible organically, while they were still mostly trying, when their constructed rosters simply collapsed. Then they decided they had no choice but to accept their failures and make some use of them.

Meanwhile, we’ve seen the middle- and middle-front of the pack take previously unprecedented steps to either resist the siren song of tanking or preempt the need for it. In some cases, this has been good for competition: Last year, the Reds, Giants and Diamondbacks were all sellers at the trade deadline, with single-digit playoff odds. But none of the three tore everything down. Rather, they sold and bought, keeping credible rosters on the field in case a miracle landed on them. Instead of following the tanking-to-win philosophy by seeking the pole closest to them — the bad one, as the Mariners did following a pretty good 2018 season — they sought a middle ground and a basic competitiveness.

The less encouraging side of this might be observed in the strange behavior of three borderline playoff teams. This offseason, the efforts of the Red Sox, Cubs and Indians have each been focused on unloading a superstar. The Red Sox, despite projecting to be a fringe playoff team, traded Mookie Betts (and David Price) to save money and get a little bit younger. The Cubs have been reportedly shopping Kris Bryant, and the Indians have been shopping Francisco Lindor, even though each club projects to have about a 50-50 chance of making the playoffs. The efforts are framed around saving money but could also be seen as these teams wanting to ensure they stay in the upper half of the league — if not the tippy top — rather than be forced eventually into the long and ugly rebuild. It’s a fairly boorish means of staying permanently competitive, and arguably wrong on the logic — the Nationals were in a similar situation after 2018 and held firm, and they went on to win the 2019 World Series — but it might at least reassure us about one point: Teams do dread the shame of a full teardown. They recognize it comes at a great cost.

In short:

  1. When teams get bad in 2020, they get really, really bad. As bad as bad teams have ever been, and by all appearances they do it with some intentionality. That’s tanking!

  2. But they can’t count on emerging like the sort of superteams that won the 2016 (Cubs) and 2017 (Astros) World Series. Tanking is not, as one might have feared after 2017, a cheat code. For every Braves there’s a Phillies, for every Twins there’s a White Sox.

  3. Indeed, the one industry benefit of teams tanking as a strategy — giving cities a reliable way out of even longer periods of unintentional terribleness — might be on the verge of disappearing, if this year’s projections are any indication.

  4. Overall, it’s probably costing the sport a lot of money.

  5. And even if tanking offers some hopelike qualities for a hopeless front office, it is still unpleasant and something to be avoided at most costs. Other than the 2018-19 Mariners, we haven’t really seen teams in the past two years rushing headlong at last place, at least until they were already there.

In shorter: Tanking’s still real, but everybody’s a lot less giddy about it.