Many people will argue that 2016 was one of the most memorable seasons in baseball history since the long-suffering Chicago Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years. However, for many baseball fans it was a year filled with misery. Eleven teams finished 20 games or more out of first place in their division. To compare, in 2006 there were only four such teams.
So why are there so many miserable teams right now? Because many teams have embraced tanking, and it’s ruining baseball.
Now, tanking can be an effective strategy. Just ask the Cubs who went 346-464 from 2010 to 2014. They turned the focus away from winning and instead traded away their veteran players for young, highly-rated prospects. Many of these young guys became cornerstones of the 2016 World Series team, such as Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and Jake Arrieta.
But tanking is hardly a sure thing. The Houston Astros lost 100 games from 2011 to 2013, then lost 92 times in 2014. But they collected a bunch of young players and in 2015 they made a remarkable improvement and made the playoffs as a Wild Card team. Success, right? Well, last year they won two less games and missed the playoffs. You would expect your core of young talent to be getting better each year. Instead, the Astros stagnated.
Also, baseball scouting is notoriously unreliable. Highly rated prospects frequently don’t develop into good professional players, and lowly rated ones often become everyday starters.
A few years ago FanGraphs analyzed every player who had a WAR (a measurement of how good a player is compared to an average player) greater than three from 2012 to 2014. Now 52 percent of players with a WAR greater than three were at one point listed in Baseball America’s top 50 best prospects list. But 33 percent never even appeared in the top 100 on those same lists. So yes, highly rated prospects are more likely to become reliable pros, but there are plenty of guys who go under-the-radar who end up just as good.
Tanking exists in every professional sport, as any fan of the Philadelphia 76ers knows far too well. So, is it any worse when it happens in baseball? Yes. In the NBA and NHL, teams play 82 games while in the NFL they only play 16. But in the MLB, there are 162 games in the regular season. So teams that tank are asking their fans to buy tickets for 81 home games to watch a team that has virtually no chance to make the playoffs. But at least you get to watch a bunch of 19-year-olds who may be good in three years while paying eight dollars for a hot dog!
Yes, tanking can be an effective strategy as the Cubs’ World Series championship proved. But it’s hardly a sure thing, and purposefully gutting your team is a disservice to fans. There are ways teams can acquire young players and still field competitive teams. But as long as the league does nothing to dissuade tanking, there will be a lot of fans watching miserable teams this season and for many more to come.
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