Friday, December 4, 2020

Tanking Is Ugly, and Doesn't Always Work

Interesting piece by Sam Miller on about the Phillies' failure to reap the full benefits of tanking. It's a really good piece, and not behind a paywall, so I recommend you take a look at it. What interested me in particular about it was that it runs contrary to the belief of many around baseball that tanking is some sort of automatic route back into contention. I remember there was an article by Daniel Kaplan in The Athletic back a month ago that I responded to rather vigorously in a post of my own. Basically, Kaplan was taking a contrarian view to the idea that the Mets under Cohen were primed to succeed. Citing the success of the Yankees and a somewhat bizarre idea that the location of Citi Field in Queens doomed the Mets' chances of having good attendance, Kaplan went on to cite an unnamed source to suggest that tanking and rebuilding was the way to go:

“Part of the problem is that they are in New York, and they got an 800-pound gorilla to compete with,” said a finance source familiar with the Mets balance sheet, referring to the rival Yankees. “Now, Stevie’s got more money than the other owners. But the Yankees revenues are twice what the Mets revenues are. You can either deficit spend until he gets tired of it. Or you can slowly try to rebuild a team like the Ricketts did” when they bought the Chicago Cubs. 
“But to do that, you got to be willing to do what the Ricketts did, which is have 100-loss seasons in a row,” which happened because of investment in the farm system and not free agency, the source said. “When they were doing that they were getting killed in the media. Killed. And is he willing to do that? … But, you know, it’s the smart thing to do. The smart thing to do is to sit the fans down and explain to them that, ‘Over the long run, we want this to be a very competitive team. And it takes time, we don’t do it in a year.’ But good luck telling that to Mets fans. And the expectations that everybody has are very, very high.”

I won't rehash all of the problems that I had with Kaplan's whole piece. I did a pretty thorough job debunking those arguments in my original post and my thinking hasn't changed on the subject. I have to say, though, the idea that tanking is some kind of magical cure for any team that isn't immediately and obviously a contender is disturbing. I've read stuff by Kaplan before, and he's a pretty smart guy, but if he wasn't just trolling with that piece he was really, really off base with it. The idea that a large market team with a solid base of talent and money to spend couldn't build into a competitor without burning everything down is just ludicrous.

But it's more than that. While tanking has indeed worked for the majority of teams that went that route, it's a truly ugly thing to watch happen. It goes against everything that engaging in competitive sports should be about. It affects the competitive balance of the sport, and it's a real drag for fans of a team to live through while it's happening, even if things eventually go right. There's something particularly disturbing about it when teams in pretty large markets like the Astros, Cubs, and Phillies choose to go that route.

It's not illegal under the current rules of the game. Indeed, it's the best way to get back to contention if your major league roster is weak and your farm system lacks prospects. If you're in that position, which is where the Phillies were back a few years ago, then you can justify tanking as the best and quickest route back to being a solid team again. It still sucks, but certainly justifiable. The Wilpons didn't turn a real contender over to Steve Cohen after the sale, but they didn't give him a worthless pile of ashes, either. Why it should even be thinkable to consider tanking when there are other logical and less destructive ways forward is just plain wrong.

MLB teams do a pretty good job of making their finances quite opaque, but it's pretty obvious that teams benefit financially from running up the white flag for multiple seasons. Sure, attendance will go down quite a bit, but they'll still sell tickets, and the tv money doesn't stop. Having a bunch of schmucks on your roster will guarantee you a bad record and some high draft picks, but it's also a pretty cost-effective way to run a ball club. You could see why it's an attractive option to clubs beyond just for the opportunity to rebuild a farm system.

It's somewhat easier to sell to fans these days because there have been notable successes such as the Cubs and Astros for team officials to point to as justification for going the tanking route. Now the Phillies offer a cautionary tale against going that route, and I have a feeling that they won't be the last suboptimal tanking result.

Miller offers up as the primary reason for the Phillies' lack of success prospects not panning out. The minor league talent the Phillies accumulated from purposeful losing didn't all fully develop. They weren't able to turn enough of them into quality major leaguers to augment the roster and use as trade chips. I don't have any inside knowledge of Philadelphia's scouting and development to make a judgment as to where they went wrong, but picking the right guys and developing them all the way just isn't all that easy. The primary idea behind tanking is to have a pipeline jammed full with prospects to make your own team better at a low cost and have extra as trade chips. When that doesn't happen, your whole tanking benefit goes up in smoke.

So now their fans lived through some bad times hoping for a light at the end of the tunnel that never really came. They traded talent for Realmuto and now might not be a favorite to hold onto the player. They spent pretty good money on Jake Arrieta to pitch as a top-of-the-rotation guy and he gave them 3 years of ERA+ of 104, 96, and 90. He was just above average the first year and below for the final 2. Maybe they've had some bad luck, but they haven't helped themselves, either.

Again, speaking as someone just looking at the organization from afar, the Phillies don't seem to be particularly well-run, and as someone who has been a Mets fan throughout the Wilpon era, I have a pretty good idea of what a poorly run organization looks like. You know, it might have been a smart move for the Mets to have tanked when they moved on from Omar Minaya, but with the Wilpons there it probably wouldn't have gone any better for the Mets than this rebuild went for Philadelphia. Tanking isn't a magic bullet, you still have to have the right people making mostly the right moves, or it's just a waste. And then it takes some good luck besides, and that wasn't something the Mets had an overabundance of in the Wilpon years, either.

Honestly, I would have been so disappointed if the Mets had finally sold, only to see them decide to tank it as Kaplan advocated in his piece. I hope that one thing that comes out of the next basic agreement between MLB and the Players Association is some kind of rule changes that would discourage this approach. I'm getting mighty tired of watching teams losing on purpose, and it's not a panacea for poorly run organizations anyway. If a team that's struggling does the right thing and puts the right people in charge with a solid and coherent game plan, they're going to turn it around. It might take an extra year or two without shameless, blatant tanking, but it will happen.

Thanks for stopping by here today. I'm still hoping to be writing about a big signing sometime soon. We'll be producing new content throughout the offseason. Please stay safe, be well and take care.

 Follow me on Twitter @MikeSteffanos

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