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How to end tanking and fix baseball

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Or, global vs. local optimization and how it might help the game

Cleveland Indians v. Chicago White Sox Photo by Matt Marton/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Look: I lied.

I said yesterday that today’s article would be published tomorrow. It turns out that I’m more productive than usual. Here’s a quick recap:

In Monday’s article I talked at length about how the strategies in baseball today that are most conducive to winning can feel a little bit dull at times. Even worse, the most effective way to build a team often involves a lengthy period of “tanking”. This is when an organization is happy to field an noncompetitive team in order to stockpile higher draft picks. When combined with good talent evaluation this builds a strong pipeline for a team and gives them a better chance to compete for a World Series in the future. Crucially, many of these draft picks will be cost-controlled due to the current collective bargaining agreement and arbitration system in baseball. Young players earn far less than their true “market value”, allowing teams with payroll constraints (both real and imagined) to compete before those players become free agents.

TL;DR - the best way to build a winning team in baseball is to lose, a lot, for a few seasons. That leads to a poor product on the field, lower attendance, and zero-to-negative fan engagement.

As discussed Monday, it’s difficult to blame teams for doing this. It really is the most effective way to build a championship contender. We can’t force teams to pick a sub-optimal strategy because we feel like it will be marginally more entertaining in the short-run. As fans, we want long-run success, too.

The problem is more pronounced in the NBA. If you’re a team that is good, but not great, you get stuck. A team that makes the playoffs as an 8-5 seed picks outside of the draft lottery and cannot access the best talent available to improve their team. Furthermore, they don’t have a whole lot of incentive to spend on players in order to improve by, say, four or five wins. That likely improves their seeding by one or two spots, and they’re still going to get bounced in the first or second round by one of the elite teams in the league.

A perfect concrete example is the Atlanta Hawks, who from 2007-2017 were always good but never great, and never found a way to successfully break out of that cycle.

I thought this was a baseball website

Right.

Let’s think about a team in baseball that’s cruised around .500 for a few seasons. If they go out spend the money to acquire a 5.0-WAR player, the numbers suggest that they might win 87 games as a result. They’re probably still going to miss the playoffs, and now they’ve tied up a significant amount of money in a player that gets them no closer to their goal of winning a World Series. The more sensible route is to shed payroll, lose a lot of games for a few seasons, and stockpile talent. Once those talented players reach the league, you can then invest that payroll by buying out arbitration and extending young stars before they hit free agency.

It’s a strategy that makes a lot of sense, but is there a way that we can structure the game in order to avoid all of the intentional losing?

I discussed this with CJ Ward, who works in big data, analytics, and was single-handedly responsible for my B- in calculus during Freshman year at Ohio State. He read Monday’s article and came up with the following thoughts.

It seems that the baseball world has a pretty good sense of the optimal strategy. Intentionally using a sub-optimal strategy goes against the grain of the current analytics driven era. Taking a step off the field, the sports world has generally come to accept there are only two organizational strategies teams should use:

1. Be excellent on the field

2. Intentionally be one of the worst teams in the league until the point where #1 is viable

The worst teams don’t necessarily have an incentive to try anything new to become excellent. They just need to be bad long enough to where they can acquire young talent via the draft (much easier said than done), add in some free agents, and employ the globally optimal on field strategy. Accidentally becoming good or becoming good too early throws off the plan. The whole idea is to jump from being terrible to excellent.

The question in my mind is whether there’s a way to incentivize a team to use a locally optimal on-field strategy rather than simply pursuing the globally optimal one.

It goes without saying that I’m not well-versed in the actual mathematical intricacies of local vs. global optimization. As a concept, though, it works well for our thought experiment. Put it this way: is there a way to incentivize teams who are not going to make the playoffs to win games?

One example of this is in the English Premier League. There are typically only a handful of real title contenders any given season. However, teams don’t have the luxury of completely giving up on a season and tanking. If they do, they’re likely to be relegated to the Champions League. There are major prestige and financial implications to this. Teams in the lower half of the league table strive to make sure they can stay in the Premier League, even though they don’t have a realistic shot of winning it.

In baseball, the globally optimal strategy relates to the suck to success pathway. Tank, acquire talent, fill out the team where needed through free agency and then go for it for 3-5 seasons or so.

In order to incentivize teams to not intentionally tank their way down the standings, we’d need to provide an enticing local optimization. Or, at the very least, re-align the incentivizes around losing so that teams out of contention are more willing to experiment or invest resources in gaining a few incremental wins.

I doubt that we’ll ever see relegation in any American sport, so what options does that leave us? My idea is this: combine a few small changes together to create a baseball version of the Elam Ending. Except, rather than removing what people hate about the end of a basketball game, we’d create ripple effects throughout the entire baseball season to improve the quality of all games played. The first and most important of these:

Rethinking the MLB Draft

As it stands right now, the team with the worst record in the league is awarded the first pick in every round, the second-worst team gets the second pick, and so on. There are supplemental picks provided based on free agency moves, but that’s the gist of it. The idea behind this is that the worst team in the league is given the best chance to acquire talent that will help it win in the future.

What if, instead of allocating the picks in reverse order of wins, you awarded the top picks in the draft to the teams that lost the one-game wildcard and just missed making it into that game? The draft might look something like this:

All of the teams that made the playoffs, including the Wild Card game, are bolded in the 2020 examples above.

The thinking is this: you want to incentivize teams to win in the short-run by making that strategy align more closely with a winning long-run strategy. A team that nearly makes the playoffs is clearly making every effort to do that. You reward the teams that just missed the real postseason (I don’t count the WC game as a real ticket to the playoffs) with the first overall picks in the draft. Next, we have the teams with the best records in baseball that did not make it to the playoffs, regardless of league.

We don’t want the worst teams in baseball to get stuck in a total tailspin; there is a reason that they currently get the best picks. So, the four worst teams are awarded the next four picks in reverse order. The next four picks go to the four teams in baseball that rounded out the “top half” of the league, in order. Notice that it won’t always work out to be the 12th-15th ranked teams this season is a great example, as the Indians finished with the 8th best record and missed the Wild Card game. This creates a small shuffle, with the Phillies earning the last “top half” pick despite finishing 16th overall in the league.

From there, it essentially becomes the draft that we know (and love?). Teams that finished 16th-26th pick in reverse order, and then the teams that made the playoffs pick in reverse order of regular season finish after that.

I don’t ... what even is this?

I know - it’s a little bit confusing to look at in practice. To pull an ELI5: The most competitive teams in baseball that just missed a real chance to win the World Series will get the best picks in the draft. This gives middling teams more incentive to try and pick up incremental wins. The worst teams in baseball still get top ten picks, because we can’t just leave them out to dry. We then reward teams with records around .500 in an attempt to further mitigate the temptation to tank, and finish off the draft from there with a standard order for the rest of the teams that remain.

Don’t forget the supplemental rounds of the draft, either. It would be possible to award picks in those rounds that aren’t related to qualifying offers or free agent signings to further nudge team behavior.

Let’s think about it in practice. If you’re the Rangers, Giants, or Reds, wouldn’t you fight a little bit harder for the last month of the season in order to finish in the top half of the league? It isn’t a huge difference in draft order, but it adds some meaning to an otherwise meaningless difference between finishing just below .500 or just above .500. Maybe it makes sense to make a small trade deadline deal to give your team a fighting shot for a future star. Maybe you make slightly different decisions down the stretch to try and win a couple of extra games.

If you’re the Tigers, Orioles, Marlins, or Royals, then losing that many games is a little less enticing. I don’t think that it completely removes the temptation to completely shed payroll and lose 100+ games for a few seasons. Crucially, though, it lowers the value of doing so and gives teams in the middle of the pack a reason to build a slightly better team for the next season.

This is my first draft of the draft. It might make sense to give, say, the third and fourth best teams out of the playoffs the fifth and sixth picks in the draft. Or maybe I’m being too punitive in my punishment of the slightly very bad teams like the Rangers. Still, I feel like this will lead to a somewhat better level of competitive balance than we see today.

By giving a locally optimal outcome for teams that just miss the playoffs, we can mitigate the extent to which teams decide to “blow it all up” and take the long road back in pursuit of a globally optimal outcome.

What do you think? Would it work? Am I nuts? What are some of the other small tweaks we could make to the league in pursuit of more competitive teams? My primary goal here is to start the conversation, so let’s get at it.