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Finding MLB Draft Changes that Stop Tanking


Cody Christie
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Two MLB teams lost 110 games last season, and four teams lost over 100 games. So, can changes to the MLB Draft help to stop tanking?

No one is denying the Twins had a terrible 2021 campaign, but there was even less positivity surrounding teams from Baltimore, Arizona, Texas, and Pittsburgh. All four of those teams lost over 100 games, with none of them being competitive. All four will get top draft picks in each round of the 2022 MLB Draft, so is there a way to disincentivize this type of behavior from clubs?

NBA Method
Other professional leagues have tried to curtail tanking by implementing methods such as the lottery used in the NBA. With this method, the bottom three teams all have the same odds to earn the top pick, while all other non-playoff teams have at least a small shot at earning a top-three pick. 

Another thing to consider is the NBA's worst team rarely ends up with the top pick because of the lottery system. This method doesn't exactly get rid of tanking since the bottom teams are still given a better shot at the number one pick, but it is undoubtedly something MLB could consider. 

"Target Loss" Method
Ryan Fagan of the Sporting News suggests MLB develop a "Target Loss" method to help decide the draft order, which includes a draft lottery. The "Target Loss" total would be generated from the average number of losses from the 20 non-playoff teams. Whichever teams finish closest to that total would have the highest odds to get the first overall pick. 

In this scenario, last year's non-playoff teams averaged 89.3 losses. Minnesota lost 89 games, so they would have the highest odds to get the first overall pick, with Kansas City, Chicago (NL), and Colorado rounding out the top-four. Baltimore and Arizona would draft 19th and 20th because this system punishes tanking, and it's hard to argue that they were trying to field a competitive team. 

NPB Method
In Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league, every team starts by nominating a player. If only one team nominates a player, that organization gets that player's contract negotiating rights. In some instances, multiple teams will nominate a player, and then there is a random draw for who gets that player's contract negotiating rights. The teams that were not awarded a contested player get to draft again until every team has a player. 

It seems like there could be multiple players that end up teams fighting for their rights. Back in 2020, the NPB draft's first-round only saw two contested players with four teams making claims on each of the players. Even with the competition between teams, this method allows every organization to have a chance at any first-round pick. The teams with the worst record aren't guaranteed the best player in the draft, so there is less incentive to tank. 

Obviously, there are some flaws with all of these systems, but having more competitive teams is good for baseball. Minnesota has also benefited from drafting high with players like Joe Mauer, Byron Buxton, and Royce Lewis. However, both the “Target Loss” method and the NPB method would give the Twins improved chances at landing an even better player in next summer’s draft.  

Which method do you think would help stop tanking? Leave a COMMENT and start the discussion. 

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Salary/Luxury floor. It's already in discussions.

The NBA is a game where a single player can carry a team into the playoffs. Consider LeBron James recording seasons with 11.79 VORP (WAR). You might say, oh, well MLB sometimes has 10 WAR players... but that's across 162 games. The NBA has half the games making a single win worth twice as much. If you convered James' 11.79 VORP season to MLB, that'd be 23.58 WAR. Also, the value of NBA draft picks is dramatically higher than MLB picks.

https://medium.com/@burakcankoc/what-are-the-odds-to-become-an-all-star-for-each-draft-pick-2d113d6b82e5 In this analysis, a #1 pick is 63% likely to be an All Star during their career. By the #5 pick, the probability is down to about 30%. By the #10 pick, less than 15%.

Rebuilding MLB teams know the #1 pick is valuable, but how much more value over the #5 pick is less clear.

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14 minutes ago, bean5302 said:

Rebuilding MLB teams know the #1 pick is valuable, but how much more value over the #5 pick is less clear.

And it varies by year. There are years in which there is one consensus star (Bryce Harper, for example) and there are other years when any of 2-3 players could be picked first (Buxton vs. Correia).

Because basketball draftees play in the NBA immediately and are usually much more obvious, the first pick is much more valuable. There are probably data on the career WAR from #1 MLB picks vs. #2, #3, #4, etc. I'd bet that they aren't all that different, but that #1 is a lot higher than, say, #15. Tanking to get into the top 5 makes more sense than tanking to get #1 vs. #2.

If anyone has the data, please post!

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I'm not a fan of a draft lottery at all. Especially in MLB where the draft is much less of a sure thing compared to every other league.

I'm also not 100% convinced teams are actively tanking. I would agree certain teams aren't necessarily trying to win, but that doesn't mean they are tanking. Purposely tanking is bad for business. You're also betting that you hit on all of your top picks in the draft, which we all know isn't going to happen. Just look at how the Twins drafted when they were losing 90+ games every year. It wasn't good.

I would be in favor of considering a salary floor.

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Interesting ideas. But in general I like the concept of the worst teams getting rewarded with a high draft pick. Helps to create equality. (Not that MLB will ever be close to equality without a salary cap). 

Therefore the last two suggestions don't excite me that much. And I don't think a lottery really stops teams from tanking. I am also huge hockey fan. Just take a look at the Arizona Coyotes this season. They are as horrible as baseball's worst tanking teams. 

Here's another idea: How about moving down a team's pick when they have been bad for a while? Like, in the first year they finish in the bottom five they get their pick, but if they have been in that range for multiple years in a row, their pick gets moved down.

Someone would have to iron out the details but maybe that would at least stop these super long tanking rebuilds. Yes, dear Orioles, I'm looking at you...

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When the Twins were out of it we all wanted the prospects to get a shot and we hated it when players that were not part of the future got playing time.  The same is true of these other teams.  Are we supposed to penalize them for trying to rebuild their teams. I don't believe they are trying to lose.  They are trying to develop players and the practices which best facilitate getting better result in losing for a period of time.

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What do proponents of anti-taking measures think the outcome will be?  Perhaps, all teams are equally trying to win so they all end up at .500 records.  Maybe they're all trying so it comes down to luck or injuries.  Or all teams are trying to win so all 30 teams are in on the best free agent available and the free agent signs with the team that can give them the most money.  

Let's not confuse losing with tanking either.  I can understand the sentiment for wanting to penalize teams that are truly tanking, but it's seems unfair to penalize teams that are trying to win but unfortunately lose.  As disappointing as the Twins' season was, I don't think I could be convinced that they were tanking.  This past season would be that much more frustrating if there were anti-tanking measures in place.  

Honestly, I don't even think tanking is the problem.  I think it's just a symptom of the problem that is the unlevel playing field of Major League Baseball.  I like the fact that there are alternative ways to winning than just spending the most money.  Small market teams have found that they can improve their chance to win and the cost is a rebuilding period.  Ideas like anti-tanking measures seem like they're just ways to take away those alternative ways to win.  

 

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For every Harper there is a bust. With the second pick it gets worse. Alleged tanking is no guarantee of anything other than chasing fans from the stadium. The KC Royals lost 1.2 million fans by the 4th year of losing.  Their revenue per fan is over 50 a person. Losing does not replace scouting, nor is it profitable

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5 hours ago, bean5302 said:

I honestly just feel like the Luxury Tax Floor works. Same penalties for going under as going over. Tax teams under the floor and potentially take away draft picks.

 

The Twins were nowhere near a revenue floor and still were on pace for a hundred loss season. Then they got rid of much of what they spent money on.  Salary floors working is male cow dung

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13 hours ago, Sielk said:

Interesting ideas. But in general I like the concept of the worst teams getting rewarded with a high draft pick. Helps to create equality. (Not that MLB will ever be close to equality without a salary cap). 

Therefore the last two suggestions don't excite me that much. And I don't think a lottery really stops teams from tanking. I am also huge hockey fan. Just take a look at the Arizona Coyotes this season. They are as horrible as baseball's worst tanking teams. 

Here's another idea: How about moving down a team's pick when they have been bad for a while? Like, in the first year they finish in the bottom five they get their pick, but if they have been in that range for multiple years in a row, their pick gets moved down.

Someone would have to iron out the details but maybe that would at least stop these super long tanking rebuilds. Yes, dear Orioles, I'm looking at you...

Reminds me of the luxury tax, but instead of $$ related, it would be record related. Maybe they can even hold onto the pick, but get less bonus pool to work with? If a team has less than 90 losses, it resets the penalties?

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I do not believe the draft is what is leading to tanking, but other things, like signing bonus money, comp picks, and years of control of players.  The teams that "tank" are not really going out saying lets try to lose, but they are saying, lets not waste our cheap control years on our top guys when we are not ready to compete.  Keep them down and we will bring in someone else for the year.  The fact that they can get the other things helps too.

I mainly think the draft is not the issue is because even having the number 1 pick does not mean they will be a future star.  It is not like Basketball where most of the time teams hit the number 1 pick as the best in the draft, sometimes not, but history shows they are normally pretty accurate or close to it. Baseball though so often number 1 picks are not the best in the draft, some never even make the  majors or have just a short time, and guys much later in draft end up being the best player. 

Personally, if you want to fix tanking, change the way teams get to control their players.  If they did not get rewarded for sitting talent in the minors for an extra year or two because then they get to keep them into their prime for much cheaper teams would call them up sooner if they gave best chance to win. 

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4 hours ago, old nurse said:

One thing that will not change is the ultimate flow of money. Like college football, the rich get richer in your proposal. Why not call for there to be the dozen wealthy teams and let the rest wither and die

How so? The worst teams get to add more players before the best teams add one. The money is capped, so the rich can't outbid the others. The money is a bit more, but not much, than teams currently spend in a draft. 

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If the Twins are out of contention, I want them to play the young guys so we know if they can help the team get BACK into contention the following year. Because of this, I don't really want anti-tanking policies, because tanking and experimenting with young players tends to add up to the same result. 

If we want more competitive games down the stretch, how about we give a modest, but not valueless reward to the teams that stay within say 6 games of the final WC spot? Or maybe stay within 4 games of .500? Maybe like a compensation draft pick between rounds 2 and 3? It wouldn't stop the really terrible clubs from being really terrible, but it might stop the slightly below average teams from trying to move up a a mere spot or two.

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52 minutes ago, Trov said:

I do not believe the draft is what is leading to tanking, but other things, like signing bonus money, comp picks, and years of control of players.  The teams that "tank" are not really going out saying lets try to lose, but they are saying, lets not waste our cheap control years on our top guys when we are not ready to compete.  Keep them down and we will bring in someone else for the year.  The fact that they can get the other things helps too.

I mainly think the draft is not the issue is because even having the number 1 pick does not mean they will be a future star.  It is not like Basketball where most of the time teams hit the number 1 pick as the best in the draft, sometimes not, but history shows they are normally pretty accurate or close to it. Baseball though so often number 1 picks are not the best in the draft, some never even make the  majors or have just a short time, and guys much later in draft end up being the best player. 

Personally, if you want to fix tanking, change the way teams get to control their players.  If they did not get rewarded for sitting talent in the minors for an extra year or two because then they get to keep them into their prime for much cheaper teams would call them up sooner if they gave best chance to win. 

Agreed. 

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7 hours ago, old nurse said:

The Twins were nowhere near a revenue floor and still were on pace for a hundred loss season. Then they got rid of much of what they spent money on.  Salary floors working is male cow dung

Teams might still be terrible, but that's not the issue. Some team is ultimately going to draw the short straw and lose a lot of games. The Twins had what looked like a competitive roster this year, but injuries and poor play led to a bad season record.

The issue is teams not even trying to be competitive and committing to long stretches of non-competitive baseball during rebuilds. The Marlins and Pirates' of the league, if you will.

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3 hours ago, Trov said:

...The teams that "tank" are not really going out saying lets try to lose, but they are saying, lets not waste our cheap control years on our top guys when we are not ready to compete...

I think that's about half right. They're not actively trying to lose because losing reduces revenue, but they are actively saying "I don't care if we win or not because I can guarantee at least a small profit by tanking." 

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One problem with the assumption from the start...not all teams that lose 100 games or more are tanking.  Some are just flat out bad teams.  There may be reasons for this, such as a team that is in a rebuild and willing to lose a lot by playing lots of young guys with the hope/intent that they will be better/good a year or two down the road.

As for fixing it, or even deciding if it needs fixing, is way beyond my pay grade.

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I think something should be done if a team every loses 100 games - yet alone tanks it.  To have a professional team lose that many games indicates the owners have absolutely no interest in even trying, which reeks of a baseball team being "just a business" that couldn't care less for the fans who support them.  I fully support something (such as a salary cap floor) that would encourage teams to at least put a product on the field that warrants fans spending their money to see.  Yes - I know its a business, but some owners don't have to spend absolutely as little as possible to prove that.

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14 minutes ago, farmerguychris said:

I think something should be done if a team every loses 100 games - yet alone tanks it.  To have a professional team lose that many games indicates the owners have absolutely no interest in even trying, which reeks of a baseball team being "just a business" that couldn't care less for the fans who support them.  I fully support something (such as a salary cap floor) that would encourage teams to at least put a product on the field that warrants fans spending their money to see.  Yes - I know its a business, but some owners don't have to spend absolutely as little as possible to prove that.

Here are the 100 loss teams and their payrolls over the past 5 full seasons:

  • 2021 - Orioles ($45.7MM), Rangers ($84.9MM), Pirates ($35.9MM), Diamondbacks ($89.1MM)
  • 2019 - Orioles ($61.1MM), Royals ($67.9MM), Tigers ($98.0MM), Marlins ($69.5MM)
  • 2018 - Orioles ($143.0MM), White Sox ($72.1MM), Royals ($129.9MM)
  • 2017 - None
  • 2016 - Twins ($108.2MM)

I'd have to do a more thorough analysis of how to identify "tanking" teams, but 75% of the teams losing 100 games or more over the past 5 full seasons have been under the proposed $100MM salary floor owners made to the MLBPA a couple months ago. There's no doubt spending correlates with wins in sports.

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10 minutes ago, chpettit19 said:

I'm shocked at the number of people who suggest there isn't tanking in baseball...

I got the impression there is a difference in terminology here. Tanking for a higher draft pick vs. tanking (rebuild) being at the heart of it. I don't think there are MLB teams actively tanking to secure a higher 1st round draft position and I believe that's the position other people have meant when they say there isn't "tanking" in MLB. 

I didn't get the impression anybody has said they don't believe teams rebuild or go through long bouts of being non-competitive in MLB but I may have missed it in comments.

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One thing that could be done is if your team looses an average of, let's say, more than 90 games in 5 years, it is out of MLB, and some other team is created. A relegation system of sorts. For those not aware of it, when there is relegation there is as much drama at the bottom of the standing as there is at the top. 

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14 minutes ago, bean5302 said:

I got the impression there is a difference in terminology here. Tanking for a higher draft pick vs. tanking (rebuild) being at the heart of it. I don't think there are MLB teams actively tanking to secure a higher 1st round draft position and I believe that's the position other people have meant when they say there isn't "tanking" in MLB. 

I didn't get the impression anybody has said they don't believe teams rebuild or go through long bouts of being non-competitive in MLB but I may have missed it in comments.

I saw a couple that were definitely drawing the line between tanking for draft picks and tanking in general, but there were also some comments that pretty clearly, to me at least, were stating they didn't think there were any teams attempting to lose on purpose (how I'd define tanking). They pointed to lost revenue as the reason no team would tank. To me that reads as they don't see teams attempting to lose on purpose (whether for picks or rebuilding or however you want to define things) because the owner would lose money, and I disagree with that. They cut payroll so they don't lose money while they tank.

So I agree that tanking simply for a higher pick isn't really done, but rewording it as "rebuilding" is the same thing to me. Teams don't tank for a higher pick alone, but they do for more prospects, more pool money, and numerous other reasons. To me it doesn't matter if it's for a better pick or not, a front office actively refusing to field a competitive team is bad for the sport. No matter what the sport is. But it's done in all of them because it allows owners to save money while their FO takes advantage of rules meant to fix other problems that open ways to improve by being bad.

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21 hours ago, PDX Twin said:

And it varies by year. There are years in which there is one consensus star (Bryce Harper, for example) and there are other years when any of 2-3 players could be picked first (Buxton vs. Correia).

Because basketball draftees play in the NBA immediately and are usually much more obvious, the first pick is much more valuable. There are probably data on the career WAR from #1 MLB picks vs. #2, #3, #4, etc. I'd bet that they aren't all that different, but that #1 is a lot higher than, say, #15. Tanking to get into the top 5 makes more sense than tanking to get #1 vs. #2.

If anyone has the data, please post!

I did some digging on baseball reference.
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/19VfDcfllzN6AsgZouf829ldQ9eO3ZGRU/edit?usp=sharing&ouid=113796250486978022042&rtpof=true&sd=true
It appears the # 1 pick is roughly worth twice what the #5 pick in terms of WAR. In addition is roughly has a 20% increase in odds of making the major leagues. 

I am still compiling data and eventually I will maybe might do an blog post here on what I find.

 

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I think the German Bundesliga has it exactly right (or as close to exactly right as you're ever going to get).

Like every other European football league, they have promotion and relegation. The two worst teams in the league are automatically relegated (and the two best teams in the 2. Bundesliga are automatically promoted), and the third worst team in the 1. Bundesliga plays a home-and-away match against the third best team in the 2. Bundesliga (the winner is either promoted or retained, and the loser is either relegated or retained). Their television deals are set at the league level, not the team level. If you want the television revenue, you're going to need to field a team that is capable of staying in the league.

The German Bundesliga also has a 50+1 rule in place where 50+1% of each team must be owned by fans and not more than 49% can be owned by investors, corporations, etc. Yeah, they have teams like Bayern, Leipzig, and Wolfsburg who get a ton of money from outside parties (Leipzig actually breaks the 50+1 rule, to most teams' fans' consternation), but for the most part fans retain the controlling interest in their respective teams..

Like other European football leagues, there is no draft at all in the German Bundesliga. There is also no minor league system. Each team has its own academy that it signs youth players to and promotes from, and the academy teams normally play against smaller senior teams, semiprofessional teams, and/or other academy teams. The academy teams can be promoted if they win the league they play in -- unless promotion in the league puts them in the league immediately below the senior team.

There is no salary cap in the German Bundesliga, but they do limit contracts to not more than 5 years in length. Unless I'm mistaken, this includes extensions. So if we had something like this in MLB, then the longest extension we'd be able to offer Byron Buxton right now would be four years. Likewise, the longest extension we would have been able to offer Berrios last summer would have been three years. Players with six months or less remaining on their contracts are free to sign pre-agreements with other teams (again, not longer than 5 year deals). If we had something like that in MLB, then we'd really only have until around the all-star break to figure out the Buxton situation or we might be left with literally no compensation if he left.

It would be a huge, huge departure from the current system MLB uses, and none of the current team owners would take kindly to it at first, but I'd love to see what would happen if it adopted something like the German system. As it is, the German Bundesliga is an entertaining and competitive league (even if there is a competitive imbalance at the top). The stadiums are always full, none of the teams really spend their way into the poor house nor try to completely cheap out on player expense, the tickets are always cheap, the crowds are always highly engaged, and the top teams (not Bayer Leverkusen) generally make a good show of it when they play the elite teams from Europe's other leagues.

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The sad part is the Twins are part of the tanking discussion.   The need a new stadium excuse to compete is just that, an excuse.  The speculation is even underwhelming.   Unless unforseen changes are made we are in a downhill spiral for awhile.  Even in the weakest division the Twins look like a last place organization.  Reading comments here and elsewhere there is not much positivity.  Hard for the fans to get behind the FO "plans"

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