Every time the Knicks step onto the court these days, it’s clear — their strategy isn’t based on trying to win games this season. Their strategy is completely about the future. They won’t use the word, but everyone knows what they are doing. It’s called tanking.
The issue of tanking has become one of the most compelling subjects in sports. While it may have originated decades ago, it feels as if it’s more prevalent now than ever. It’s a polarizing philosophy that engulfs organizations, media coverage and fan bases.
That prompted The Post to explore this fascinating subject. In this ongoing series, we’ll examine how and why tanking became so prominent, reveal how fans view the strategy and propose our solutions to fix it.
Before attempting to solve a problem, you had better fully know what the problem is — and if it is a problem.
I was asked by my bosses to offer solutions to combat tanking in the major leagues. I began the project believing I knew what tanking was.
By the time I was done talking to more than a dozen people in the game from both labor (the union and agents) and management, I was not quite sure I had a clear definition of what tanking was. I do think too many teams comfortably accept losing — in part because there are too many benefits for failure — and that behavior needs to be discouraged. What appears separately both online and in Friday’s edition of The Post are my three proposals to address this.
In this online piece, though, I was hoping to take you through some of what I discovered in the process and some thoughts on those discoveries.
Right now teams are losing 90 or more games per season at about the same frequency as in the past. Last year, though, eight teams lost 95 or more — as many as in the three previous seasons combined, and the most since Major League Baseball expanded to 30 teams in 1998. So are we in a phase of extreme losing? Maybe. But also consider there were three 100-loss clubs last year and four in 2002. So perhaps part of this is cyclical.
Because a drill down on the 100-loss clubs does not offer tanking clarity.
The Orioles won an AL-best 444 games from 2012-16, registered a club-record payroll for 2017, fell apart that September, ignored the signs that they were a collapsing team and invested heavily in free agency prior to last season, with disastrous results (107 losses). They weren’t tanking last year. They are now. But with a horrible roster and poor farm systems, what would be the sense of any kind of significant investment, especially playing in the same division as the Yankees, Red Sox and even the Rays?
The Royals produced the AL’s best record from 2013-15 (winning it all in 2015), registered a club-record payroll for 2016, fell apart that September, ignored the signs they were a collapsing team, registered another record payroll in 2017, finished 80-82, and only in the past two years began to financially retreat. In the past this was viewed as a normal cycle of open window, go for it; closed window, rebuild your talent base.
The White Sox have been in payroll retrenchment the past two offseasons, but this year are trying for — among others — Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. Perhaps the problem, as much as anything, is incompetence, not tanking. The White Sox have the majors’ most losses over the past six seasons — and that’s not all by tanking design.
Now, consider the 2018 Rays. They returned just two of their top 11 in positional Wins Above Replacement, and of their 16 pitchers who had a positive WAR in 2017, only four were still with the team after the July 31 trade deadline. That should define tanking — except Tampa Bay won 90 games.
In the past, many organizations would delude themselves they were good and make an emotional add of a veteran or two, believing that would put them into contention. Now, with more precise computer modeling, teams can better gauge their likely win range. If it is, say, 70-73 wins, most teams see limited value in spending to try to get to 78-80. The same number of teams, thus, are losing 90-plus games as in the past, but many understand their plight beforehand and — if smart — can plan accordingly.
Conversely, a savvy organization such as the Rays could cut payroll, but fixate on an area such as run prevention with depth, defense and usage patterns, in order to be better than public perceptions.
The solution for eradicating the NBA’s tanking problem
Three ways MLB can discourage teams from tanking
Why tanking in the NFL is barely existent
Overhauling the draft process would solve NHL’s tanking issue
So, do we fully know what tanking is? Are we getting more of it than in the past? Is it enough that we should do something about it?
I believe MLB has a greater problem with a perception of all-out tanking. The bigger issue, to me, is too many teams not doing all they can to maximize winning, in part because the punishment-reward system does not do enough to motivate greater efforts to win as much as possible.
And more fans than ever are on board with the losing, seeing the process (In the case of the NBA’s 76ers, “The Process.”) as a wise strategy. Of course, not every team that sinks to the bottom is going to rise to the top, as the Cubs and the Astros did.
Here are some questions to think about:
The union is clearly concerned that teams are not investing in free agency as in the past. But that is a matter of conflating an increase of payroll with an attempt to succeed. But the failure of the Orioles and Royals (and many others) and the success of the Rays show these are not always synonymous. We constantly think Team A is not trying because it does not delve deeply into free agency and that Team B is trying because of outlays, but history near annually shows the folly of that thinking.
Last offseason, for example, the Cubs spent the most in free agency, to mainly disastrous results (Yu Darvish, Tyler Chatwood, Brandon Morrow). The Phillies and Padres were next and did not even get to .500 and either have or want to get rid of most of their significant expenses.
Yet even with all of that, I believe serial failure must be addressed because in a professional sport, constant losing should — at a minimum — not be rewarded in any way. There is a need for some engineering to punish repeated failure, whether that failure is through incompetence or as a result of strategy — because it is not always clear what is causing it. And rewarding success should also be on the menu.
One area I focused on was the draft. First, you have to come to peace with the fact the draft is a made-up event. It was configured to let the teams with the worst records pick first. But that format was man-made, not delivered by a burning bush. The draft could be arranged in any way to produce best outcomes.
So, let’s come to the realization the draft is not a panacea. Nearly 40 percent of drafted players in the majors last year (390, or 39.7 percent) came from the 2011-13 drafts.
Kris Bryant is the only true difference-maker to date from the first 31 picks of the 2013 draft. Carlos Correa was taken first in 2012 and the best player taken in the top 17 picks was Kevin Gausman. Should any team be tanking for Kevin Gausman?
But here is what stands out. Pick No. 32 in 2013 was Aaron Judge and one reason the Yankees could gamble on a 6-foot-7 player was because they had three picks between 26 and 33. In 2012, the Brewers got nothing from picks 27 and 28, but landed Mitch Haniger at 38. In 2011, the Rays had 10 picks between 24 and 60 and pretty much bombed on nine of them, but got Blake Snell at 52.
As Bill Belichick has shown by trading down in the NFL draft for larger stockpiles, drafts are so inexact that bundles of picks have the greatest value. Which is why my proposal recommended ways to get teams that are succeeding — particularly low-revenue teams — a greater pile of picks in the top 50.
Mainly, in my recommendations I tried to appreciate what will motivate organizations — namely that losing big more than two straight years should become unacceptable to all (not just fans and the union, but MLB as well). Failure — particularly serial failure — should not be rewarded.
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