Are MLB teams tanking?

Richard Hershberger

Richard Hershberger is a paralegal working in Maryland. When he isn't doing whatever it is that paralegals do, or taking his daughters to Girl Scouts, he is dedicated to the collection and analysis of useless and unremunerative information.

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17 Responses

  1. Slade the Leveller says:

    I don’t know about the ‘Stros, but the Cubs tank strategy paid off in 2016 due to the confluence of several key events (for want of a better word). First, their prospects bore fruit at a historically high rate. Their infield is set for a decade or more with guys either traded for young or developed. Typically, a prospect is, at best, a AAAA player who bounces between the minors and the majors until the parent club finally gives up on him and either trades or outrights him.

    Second, they met 2 very depleted teams on their way to the NL pennant. The Giants were running on fumes and barely made the playoffs, with their second half collapse signalling the end of their first half of the decade brilliance. The Dodgers pitching staff was mostly injured, allowing the Cubs to make easy work of them. (Chicago outscored L.A. 31-17 in a 6 game series.)

    The Cubs have the most patient fans in the world. Who else would put up with a century of futility? It’ll be interesting to see what they can do in 2018 without a true leadoff hitter for the second year in a row.Report

    • PD Shaw in reply to Slade the Leveller says:

      I posted before seeing your post, which I largely agree with but I don’t think the Cubs are set for a decade. They have young controlled talent that is about to become pretty expensive, they are approaching the luxary tax threshold which teams appear to take seriously, and they essentially have no prospects in the system after the Chapman and Quintana trades.

      This isn’t a knock on the Cubs, the team is one of the best in baseball, but there was a price to pay for maximizing the probability of a WS win, which is part of why I think baseball is interesting.Report

      • Slade the Leveller in reply to PD Shaw says:

        The Cubs’ infield decade begins in 2015. Bryant at 3rd is 26 (kind of a strikeout king, but that doesn’t seem to matter these days), Javier Baez at 2nd is 25 (finds it impossible to lay off the low and outside third strike, but his glove more than makes up for his plate shortcomings), Anthony Rizzo at 1st will turn 29 this season (excellent fielder and batter, should be HoF material), and Addison Russell at SS just turned 24 (good fielder, decent at the plate). They’re all working pretty cheap right now. Heck, Bryant won WS MVP making barely above the league minimum. But, big paydays are on the way.

        You’re right, they have pretty much cleaned out their farm system. It’ll be interesting to see how the Darvish pickup pans out. He didn’t distinguish himself on the mound last fall, and 6 years is a long contract for a pitcher.Report

        • PD Shaw in reply to Slade the Leveller says:

          Service rules give teams six years of player control, so a strategy of concentrating youth for a run is usually going to open up a six year window.

          Teams can play service time games, which both the Cubs (Rizzo) and the Astros (Springer), to get seven years. Putting a harder cap on service time is probably something that should be looked at. Probably all teams are doing this to some degree, its just more obvious when elite talent is still down on the farms while lesser talent is promoted.

          OTOH, both the Astros and Cubs were a mixture of starting players making league minimum balanced by more expensive veterans. After three years at minimum, they start making 10 to 20 times as much, so there is less cheap talent to balance free agent. So, maybe the window is somewhere btw/ 3 and 7 years.Report

          • Slade the Leveller in reply to PD Shaw says:

            I was thinking more in terms of player longevity than service time. The Cubs have a very deep pocketed owner who is willing to spend for the talent his GM would like to see on the field, so the team control concept is out the window.

            When free agency was becoming a thing in the mid-70s Charlie Finley proposed making all players free agents, which would have really driven down salaries. Owners stuck in the reserve clause mindset of the time shot him down.Report

            • PD Shaw in reply to Slade the Leveller says:

              It’s so much the ownership’s willingness to spend. Baseball now has a de facto salary cap, there are increasing penalties for exceeding competitive balance (or luxury) tax threshold (this year, $197M). The Cubs are at around $185M payroll, which gives them space to add payroll during the season if they wish. But the big spending teams mostly got under the threshold this year because the penalties are serious, particularly the redistributive part.

              I think this is part of the reason Richard is proposing minimum team payroll. The big spending teams already have their disincentive for spending too much, and the Dodgers and Yankees slashed payroll this offseason. But the smaller market teams don’t have incentives to spend more.Report

  2. PD Shaw says:

    I think a lot of teams are more aware of their windows of opportunity, a concept which I prefer to tanking. The Cubs, for example, got most of their World Series position player talent by trading veteran plays for prospects (future talent), rather than benefiting from first round draft picks themselves. And while these are not unrelated avenues for acquiring talent, trades distribute value between teams and the Cubs traded existing talent for future talent and when that future talent hit its window of opportunity, the Cubs reversed themselves and traded future talent for existing talent. The attraction of draft picks is they don’t cost anything in players or prospects, so tanking is complete upside particularly in small team sports like basketball. Trades are usually between teams with different needs, either in terms of positions or timing and largely are self-policing.Report

  3. Michael Cain says:

    Consider the Colorado Rockies. If I recall the numbers correctly, they’re typically a top-10 team for attendance and a middle-of-the-road team on payroll. They’ve been to the World Series once (where they were horribly outclassed by one of the big-money teams), and that required an historic 14-of-15 end-of-season run just to make the playoffs as a wild card. Every year the complaint by the sports-radio talking heads is that until the Monforts (owners) go, mediocre is the target.

    I suspect it’s a fairly unique situation, though. It’s >500 miles to the nearest city with a MLB team. Denver is a big summer tourist destination, and hitting Coors Field is on many visitors’ to-do list. Huge numbers of people moving here over the last 30 years means many visiting teams have a small but enthusiastic fan base here.Report

    • Richard Hershberger in reply to Michael Cain says:

      On the other hand, the small-but-enthusiastic fans moving in from elsewhere theory has crashed and burned with both of Florida’s teams.Report

      • Perhaps just locals interested in seeing the more famous teams and players? Certainly when the Yankees or Boston are in town, the ticket prices go up and the games get sold out. I saw something the other day suggesting that 2018 attendance at Coors Field would dip because neither the Yankees nor Boston will play in Denver this year. I seem to recall reading about a similar thing with the Nuggets in the NBA: nightly attendance is more about who they’re playing than anything.Report

        • Richard Hershberger in reply to Michael Cain says:

          I don’t have actual data, but this strikes me as atypical, and probably not the sign of a healthy fan base. Coming out to see the divisional rival would be healthier.Report

  4. Slade the Leveller says:

    If they can’t sell competition, all that would be left would be to sell spectacle.

    Or, in the Cubs case, the park.Report

    • 25 years on, the Rockies make their money on the experience. I know several people who go to games regularly. None of them go because they think the Rockies will be competing for championships. They go to spend an afternoon/evening at the ballpark.Report

      • Slade the Leveller in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Huh, I would not have guessed that. IIRC, the Rockies were in the hunt pretty deep into the season last year.

        I know that the adding a couple wildcard teams has made making the trade deadline buy/sell decision tough for some GMs.Report

      • Richard Hershberger in reply to Michael Cain says:

        This is essentially how minor league baseball markets itself. It is surprising on the major league level, if only due to the cost. Come to think of it, what do you mean by “regularly?” Season tickets, or a couple of times a year, or somewhere in between?Report

        • Maribou in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

          @richard-hershberger Even as far away as the Springs, I know people who go to Rockies games 5-6 times a year for those reasons – and they’re adding a 3-4 hour commute to the game itself.

          Those same people also usually go to our minor league games down here, far MORE regularly, which you really have to be into for the present moment since they keep changing out who our team actually IS so you just get attached to one team and then they switch out completely…

          I will say I was fascinated when we had the Brewers farm team down here, and they did really well, to see MILWAUKEE fans who came all the way down to the Springs to root for “their” farm team and their favorite prospects. Superfans always amaze me.Report

        • It’s Denver, with a team in the top league in most of the professional sports (football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse,…), plus minor league teams scattered up and down the Front Range. Everyone but the Broncos markets the experience, and pretty steep discounts on even small multi-game ticket packages.

          Keep in mind how much of the population is new. When we moved here 30 years ago, the state population was 3.3M. As of the middle of 2017, the estimate was 5.6M. Essentially all of that growth has been packed into the Front Range urban corridor.Report