Not for nuthin’: MLB’s misguided outrage

There’s a groundswell of unease taking hold of Major League Baseball (MLB). Both executives and pundits alike are expressing concern that the league is facing a problem that, if not addressed, could jeopardize the integrity of the game and ultimately lead to a loss of fan confidence. When Jayson Stark of ESPN wrote about the sport’s dilemma in January, an unnamed team official stated, “I’ve never seen the game so messed up.”

What predicament could possibly be so troublesome that it would spur such pessimistic commentary from a baseball official? Believe it or not, tanking in baseball.

For the casual sports fan, “tanking” carries a negative connotation and is typically used to characterize a strategy to “tank” games or seasons by deliberately building a non-competitive roster. Essentially, lose today in order to have a brighter tomorrow.

Baseball’s “tankers”
Those who believe that tanking is “a thing” in MLB, generally point to a couple of organizations — the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs — as recent examples of clubs that tanked their way to the top.

After languishing at the bottom of the standings for several years, both teams started anew in 2011 by hiring new front office personnel who set out to overhaul their respective rosters. Five years later, Houston and Chicago are now poised to be serious postseason contenders in 2016 and beyond.

The success of the Astros and Cubs has helped ignite concerns that other clubs are now adopting the tactic of tanking. The teams most frequently referred to as “tankers” are the Philadelphia Phillies, Atlanta Braves, Cincinnati Reds, and Milwaukee Brewers. All of these organizations have been shedding payroll and trading veterans for prospects; each projects to do poorly during the upcoming season, according to FanGraphs projections.

Why the anxiety?
The heart of the matter is how the appearance of intentional losing could damage the reputation of MLB. Joel Sherman of the New York Post points out that baseball has vigorously worked to safeguard its integrity ever since the Black Sox Scandal. As Sherman notes, a key principle to protecting the league’s brand is advancing the expectation that every team is trying to win every game.

The integrity of baseball isn’t all that’s at stake, apparently. The simple pleasure of watching MLB games is at risk according to Jeff Gordon of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Gordon opined that the Cardinals try to win every year and that “Our National Pastime would be far more enjoyable if every other team shared that ambition.”

Based on the passionate outcry from these insiders and others, a casual observer might conclude that baseball is facing a new threat as ominous as the previously mentioned Black Sox Scandal, the lost 1994 postseason, or the steroid era. Fortunately for the sport and its fans, what’s going on in baseball is neither new, nor a threat to the game.

Not for nuthin’
I respect the writers I’ve mentioned, but the term “tanking” is hyperbolic click-bait that’s led to misplaced outrage. In reality, the types of overhauls performed in Houston and on the north side of Chicago aren’t new to MLB. Why is that so hard to see?

The Braves, Brewers, Phillies, and Reds have made the unpopular move of announcing to their faithful that are they’re in a rebuilding phase — that’s not tanking. By being upfront, these clubs aren’t impinging on the integrity of the game and they’re not permanently damaging their relationship with fans.

A review of league standings and playoff participants over the last decade points to something far more questionable than a few teams “blowing up” their rosters and starting over — prolonged inferior performance by teams not mentioned during tank-talk. Please, give me an opportunity to show you why I feel this way.

Clunking
Why haven’t the caretakers of the baseball’s reputation, who’ve decried the pitfalls of tanking, been equally vocal about the long postseason droughts of the Seattle Mariners, Miami Marlins, San Diego Padres, Chicago White Sox, and Colorado Rockies?

These “clunkers” have been out of serious contention for much longer than the accused tankers — several have failed to enact a clear-cut plan to become relevant again. Isn’t “clunking” worse for MLB than the “tanking” that’s allegedly going on?

If maintaining competitive balance and fostering credibility with baseball fans are truly key objectives for the guardians of the game, shouldn’t complicity mediocre organizations be the targets of more scrutiny? In a couple of cases, clunkers have produced an inferior on-field product for over a decade. Look at the postseason drought “leader board” to see what I mean.

Longest MLB Postseason Droughts
Years Team Last PO Appearance .500 or better seasons (since 2011) Est. 2016 Payroll
14 Seattle Mariners 2001 ALCS
One $141M
12 Miami Marlins 2003 World Series
Zero $64.4M
9 San Diego Padres 2006 NLDS
One $102.5M
7 Chicago White Sox 2008 ALDS
One $127M
6 Colorado Rockies 2009 NLDS
Zero $109.9M
5 Minnesota Twins 2010 ALDS
One $108.2M
4 Arizona Diamondbacks 2011 NLDS
Three $99.9M
4 Philadelphia Phillies 2011 NLDS
Two $101.5M
4 Milwaukee Brewers 2011 NLCS
Three $63.4M

It’s somewhat ironic that alleged tankers receive so much attention, although the Marlins blew up their roster after winning the 2003 World Series and haven’t been back to the postseason since.

Two of the current teams viewed as tankers — the Phillies and Brewers — have made a combined seven postseason appearances since the Marlins and Mariners last played October baseball — which was during the first presidential term of George W. Bush. Yet, the overhaul of the Phillies is more detrimental to the sport? I bet the baseball fans in the Pacific Northwest and south Florida would disagree.

One could contend that the Mariners and White Sox, unlike some of the team listed above, have been willing to spend money. That’s true. However, neither club has been able to buy a winning roster.

Then, there are the Padres and Rockies. Neither projects as contenders this year, nor do they appear to be heading towards a cure for their perpetual case of the doldrums. How can anyone be anxious about so-called tankers when so many other teams have been second-rate — or clunking — for so long?

How bad is it, really?
So, just how “messed up” is baseball right now? Based on the statements from the pundits, you’d expect to discover that the number of 90-loss and 100-loss teams has been steadily climbing, right? Well, not really.

A Decade of Losing
Year # of 90-loss teams 100-loss teams
2006 6 TBD/KCR
2007 8 None
2008 7 WSN/SEA
2009 7 WSN
2010 7 PIT/SEA
2011 9 HOU
2012 8 HOU/CHI
2013 6 HOU/MIA
2014 6 None
2015 7 None

The number of bad teams has remained relatively the same over the past decade. It’s also worthwhile noting that there hasn’t been a 100-loss team during the last two seasons. That’s the first time since 1999-2000 that MLB has gone two consecutive seasons without a 100-loss team. Perhaps, the sky isn’t falling.

With that said, I’m sure that seeing the above table further infuriates the fan bases of the Mariners and Marlins. They are the only two franchises listed that haven’t returned to the postseason since their last 100-loss season.

Everyone does it, right?
When discussing tanking, both Sherman and Gordon emphasized that it’s critical for MLB teams to present their best roster for the entire season. That’s a noble thought, but what about the clubs that start the season believing they have a shot at the playoffs until reality sets in?

At the start of last season, the Detroit Tigers were — once again — serious postseason contenders. When things didn’t work out as planned, the team opted to become “sellers” at the trade deadline. Detroit traded ace David Price, closer Joakim Soria, and star outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to three postseason contenders.

On July 31, the Tigers were 3.5 games away from the second wild card berth with 58 games remaining. Yet, they traded away three of their best players. Why doesn’t that doesn’t that constitute a tank job? Where’s the outrage?

When Detroit signaled they were sacrificing 2015 in order to be better in the future. I don’t recall any writers or executives decrying the impact of their moves on the competitive balance of their remaining schedule. Yet, some pundits fretted when the Phillies traded away their ace — Cole Hamels — to the Texas Rangers at the same trading deadline?

To be fair, both Price, Soria, and Cespedes were about to become free agents, while Hamels is under contract until 2020. So, there’s a distinction between the players’ situations. Nevertheless, Detroit could’ve kept all three players, tried to win as many games during the remainder of 2015, and then attempt to retain all three. After all, they’re a “win-now” type of ball club. Right?

Instead, the Tigers opted to deal players and finish poorly and “earn” a top-10 protected draft choice, just like the Phillies.

The Boston Red Sox took a similar stance in 2014. The club dealt pitchers John Lackey, Jake Peavy, Jon Lester, Andrew Miller, outfielder Jonny Gomes and shortstop Stephen Drew at the deadline when they were hopelessly out of contention.

Yes, Boston picked up Cespedes, outfielder Allen Craig, and reliever Joe Kelly in the deals. However, didn’t the “Sawx” symbolically throw in the white towel for 2014 when they parted ways with their ace and their best reliever? Why wouldn’t that be tanking?

Some may argue that the Red Sox and Tigers are win-now teams, unlike to the tankers expected to sink to the bottom this year. That may be true, but Boston’s 2014 purge didn’t lead to a winning 2015.

What if Detroit suffers a similar fate and is out of contention by mid-July? Will they sell again? How many years does a team have to be a seller at the deadline before they’re a tanker?

Don’t get me wrong. The Tigers and Red Sox made wise choices by being sellers at the deadline. So did the Phillies in dealing Hamels. To me, these deals are all the same. Teams are taking advantage of an opportunity to improve their rosters for the future, even if it means not fielding the best roster possible for the current season.

One last thought on building the best roster possible for the entire season. If maintaining the highest level of quality on the field is paramount, why does the league permit their teams to dilute their major league rosters by expanding from 25 to 40 players on September 1?

Reality check
As for that executive who had never saw “the game more messed up,” I didn’t need to look back decades for examples of when baseball was less competitive. Try five years ago.

In 2011 — the year that the Astros and Cubs changed leadership and started their alleged tanking — the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals franchise ended a 30-year playoff drought. The Nats weren’t alone in enduring postseason futility at that time. The Baltimore Orioles (14 years), Toronto Blue Jays (18 years), Pittsburgh Pirates (19 years), and Kansas City Royals (26 years) were still in the midst of their postseason droughts.

Since then, the Orioles, Pirates, Blue Jays, and the Royals have reached the postseason, just as the Astros and Cubs did in 2015. So, no, the game isn’t more messed up than ever.

Finally
Clearly, fans in Atlanta, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia aren’t ecstatic with the thought of watching their team plod through successive losing seasons. I’m sure that game attendance will suffer and fan patience will eventually wear thin.

At least teams that are attempting to kick-start themselves provide some measure of hope to their respective fan bases. It’s certainly a better alternative than what’s been transpiring in Seattle, Miami, Denver, San Diego, and the south side of Chicago.

Baseball teams mired in mediocrity for extensive periods will eventually see their fans migrate away and become infatuated with other options on the sports menu, such as NFL preseason or professional soccer. Seattle is an excellent case study of that phenomenon.

Only time will tell if teams, like the Mariners, can re-earn the trust of those who walked away or never became interested due their failure to be relevant for so long. When you look at it from that perspective, “tanking” for three to five years and then becoming a sustainable winner doesn’t seem so bad anymore, does it?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Luke Arkins

Luke is a native New Yorker, who grew up a Mets fan. After the US Navy moved him to the Pacific Northwest in 2009, he decided to make Seattle his home. During the baseball season, he can be seen often observing the local team at Safeco Field. You can follow Luke on Twitter @luke_arkins
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