Tanking, the act of a team deliberately depressing payroll, is reported to be one of the hot button issues holding up progress toward a new Collective Bargaining Agreement.
But here’s the thing: Recent performance indicates that tanking is often a positive strategy for Major League Baseball teams
Not only is it a logical action for teams not positioned to win in the short term, but the practice has a track record of enabling teams to improve their contender status, often in as few as one or two seasons.
There’s no generally agreed on definition of “tanking,” so we’re going to examine the implications of a couple. One potential definition is as follows: A team is tanking if its Opening Day payroll is at least 1.4 standard deviations below the major league average.
By that standard, nine teams have been tanking over the past 10 full seasons (that is, since 2011, and excepting the short season of 2020). The nine are: 2013 and 2014 Houston Astros, 2014 Miami Marlins, 2016 and 2017 Milwaukee Brewers, 2019 Miami Marlins and Tampa Bay Rays, and 2021 Cleveland Indians and Pittsburgh Pirates.
How did those extremely low payroll teams do in the seasons immediately following their tanking? The answer is, not bad at all.
Leave out the 2021 Indians and Pirates as too recent to consider. The 2013 and 2014 Astros became a playoff team in 2015, and a World Series winner within just three years. The 2016 and 2017 Brewers played playoff-level ball in 2018, and again in 2019 and 2021.
The 2019 Tampa Bay Rays reached postseason that same season, and did it again in 2021. As a note, they also won the AL pennant in 2020, but we’ve excepted that short season result from consideration for this purpose.
In short, of seven tanking teams between 2011 and 2019, five played at least one postseason game within three seasons, and one won the World Series … and that doesn’t count the 2020 AL champion Rays.
There is a second potential definition of “tanking.” By this definition, a team can be judged to be tanking if its Opening Day payroll ranked among the bottom five in MLB. That designates 50 teams since 2011 (excepting 2020) as tankers.
How did those 50 teams do? Again, pretty well actually.
Of the 50, 34 played at least one postseason game with four seasons, and 29 did so within just two seasons.
- The 2014 Chicago Cubs had MLB’s third-lowest Opening Day payroll. Within two seasons, they were World Series winners.
- The 2015 Astros had MLB’s second-lowest payroll that season. Within two seasons, they won the World Series.
- The 2017 Atlanta Braves had MLB’s fourth-smallest payroll. In 2021, they reign as World Series champs.
This tanking conversation generally revolves around four teams. The Rays have been among the five lowest-paid teams nine times since 2011; the Pirates and Athletics reached that classification seven times, the Marlins six times.
Yet the Rays have made five postseason appearances since 2011, capped by that 2020 World Series appearance. The Athletics have done so six times, the Pirates three times.
If these teams are tanking, how are they performing so well?
The answer lies at the heart of the problem of viewing tanking as an issue. There is a widely held perception in and around baseball that money correlates with winning. That perception is demonstrably false.
I call this the drunken sailor syndrome. The foundation tenet is that any idiot can spend a lot of money; genius lies in using it well. In only two seasons since 2011 has the correlation between a team’s payroll and its win total exceeded 41 percent. That’s a tepid correlation at best.
If we think about it at all, this reality should be obvious. The Atlanta Braves won the 2021 World Series with the game’s 15th-highest payroll. The Mets, Phillies, Nationals, and Angels averaged just 75 victories despite payrolls that averaged $185 million, an amount that was $57 million above the Major League average. All four were among MLB’s 10 most aggressive spenders.
Since 2011, three World Series winners – the 2015 Royals, 2017 Astros and 2021 Braves – have emerged from among the game’s 15 lowest paid teams. That’s as many World Series champions as sprang from among each season’s five biggest spenders. The average payroll position of a post-2010 World Series winner? It’s ninth.
In short, tanking may be offensive to the MLBPA, but it is often an effective and logical team-building tactic. Beyond that, it is founded on an invalid premise: namely, that spending money correlates strongly with winning. That correlation generally is moderate at best.