Losing to Win: Tanking, and its role in Major League Baseball

Everybody wants to win. It doesn’t matter if it’s playing baseball, racing bikes, skipping stones, Monopoly, throwing darts, or anything that requires competition. When an individual, or a team, sets out to compete, the end goal is to come out victorious. People like to win, and even if they can’t physically compete, they still root for teams and want to see them succeed. Of late, however, in professional sports (where one would imagine winning is the only thing that matters), there has been a trend growing that involves teams winning, but in a rather unusual way — by losing. This is a method called tanking, and it is beginning to make its way to the MLB, which is drawing a lot of mixed feelings from players and fans alike.

For those who are unaware, tanking involves a team losing in order to begin rebuilding for the future. They aim to try and acquire a top-three draft pick for multiple years, and then develop the acquired talent before they can contend again. Tanking also sees the team trade away any major names they have, as well as clearing up as much salary space as possible. They then call up a bunch of top prospects that they have had in Double-A and Triple-A, and use their first few years developing them into leaders to stabilize the team when the new, even younger guys make it to the show. In an ideal world, these teams would be contenders again for a while after enduring a few short, terrible seasons.

This is a technique that the Houston Astros have executed perfectly. Once the Astros lost Craig Biggio, Lance Berkman, and a few other key guys from their 2005 World Series run, they realized they were in trouble. They had limited talent on their roster, and began to go down hill fast. After multiple 100-pluss loss season, they were rewarded with high draft picks, including two #1 overall selections. All of this paid off in 2015 when they went to the ALDS, losing to the eventual World Series champion Kansas City Royals in five games. The Astros were once the laughingstock of the league, and now they are a legitimate contender after developing so many young prospects over the few years they were bad.

From an owner’s perspective, this is a brilliant strategy on paper. Have young guys eager to play major-league baseball on the field for next to nothing, save some cash for those superstars you’ll need to sign later on, lose for a few years, then start to get good again and have the ballpark full of fans happy to see their team win again. Can’t lose, right? But once the team starts to flunk, jobs become shaky, players don’t want to sign with the team, big names want out quickly even if they know about the rebuild process. Why would they want to waste their talent on a team they know they won’t win? As easy as it is to assume that fans will return to the park as soon as the losing stops, that’s not exactly how it works. The Astros turned off so many fans during their years of futility that their playoff-bound team still finished in the bottom-ten of the league for attendance. The Philadelphia Phillies and Atlanta Braves, at one point two of the league’s best-drawing teams, finished 24th and 25th in attendance last season.

Tanking is a very interesting subject. It does offer positives to finishing dead last year after year, but to most baseball fans spoils the integrity of the game. As a Yankees fan, I have never had to experience my team in a rebuild. I have always known them as an above-average team who always has talent on the field and competes no matter what. But I am friends with a lot of Philadelphia Phillies fans, and they are in favor of the tanking phenomena because they are on the decline (or because Philly sports fans have already been abused enough by the Sixers of the NBA) and need help.

Tanking is terrible for Major League Baseball. It gives teams an excuse to lose, which is not the purpose of the organization. Rebuilding efforts have always been a part of baseball’s history, but such blatant attempts to lose close to 100 games are a recent trend. Major League Baseball is supposed to showcase the greatest level of baseball competition in the world, but tanking now allows teams to give up for a few years. Having owners, general managers, and managers put nine guys on the field that they know aren’t the best nine to be out there is a crime. They are basically handing over victories to other teams, which late in a season could shake up divisional and Wild Card races. Entering the 2016 season, at least four National League teams will run a bare-bones squad out on the field, with several others also on the verge of beginning an epic tear down.

Major League Baseball teams that tank are robbing fans of seeing their team do the best they possibly can, robbing other teams of fair competition and possible playoff spots, and most importantly are robbing the great game of baseball from all its rich history and the principles it stands for. Tanking should be addressed by baseball’s front office, and hopefully can either be stopped or severely limited.

One Response

  1. David_N_Wilson

    I think it’s likely that, coming from a background as a Yankees fan, your perspective is a little skewed here. A lot of teams have no option now, or likely in the future, of slinging around the kind of money NY does to buy a team year after year. The process of breaking down a team and rebuilding it isn’t new, and it isn’t something from “recent years” – it’s just something that someone mentions every few years, and then suddenly a bunch of people who had no interest in the subject yesterday are filled with outrage over.

    The insinuation that I don’t like in the anti-tanking arguments is that teams are losing on purpose. They are fielding the team that they have, not adding expensive band-aid players that could do no more than shift them over .500. They are trading off players who are valuable currently, but who will no longer retain that value to the team, or to other teams, by the time a rebuild process is complete. Fielding a team that is slightly less good than one you could cobble together through trades and free agency – a team that is not going to really contend, but is just not going to be as bad as it would be without those trades and free agents, is bad business. With the team that they DO field, though, they are still playing the best baseball that they can.

    Fans will be no happier with a mediocre team than a bad one, and, in the long run, most fans understand that – particularly in smaller markets – the process of rebuilding is a multi-year experience. Rather than get up in arms over this, fans ought to get involved, get behind it, watch the development of the new, young talent the draft picks bring in, and cheer as their team begins to win again.

    Also, just curious, how does a team “tanking” rob another team of a playoff spot? All of the teams in their division get an equal chance to win off of them… seems to me that their decision not to try and contend for a couple of years actually prevents them from playing the role of spoiler without any real chance of winning themselves.

    Baseball is a business, and there’s no way the league needs to – or really even has the right to – dictate to owners and teams how they go about building their lineup. I doubt if you owned a bar and the government told you you had to stock really expensive liquor even though your business was just starting out, and no one was going to buy it, would sit well with you… business is business, and to win, sometimes you have to take a few years of lumps.


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