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This Year’s MLB Tankfest Is Epic (And Maybe Pointless)

The 2018 MLB season could end up being defined by a lot of things, including the possibility of even more tinkering to the baseball, an epic spate of strikeouts or the disappointing performance of the league’s supposed superteams. But most likely, we’ll remember 2018 as the year tanking dominated baseball’s landscape like never before. Not only did the spectre of mass rebuilding hang over the offseason — contributing to the slowest free-agent class in recent memory — but even after the talent was reshuffled on the field, tanking has already made a major impact on the standings. Particularly the bottom of the standings.

According to our Elo projections, eight teams — the Reds, Royals, Marlins, Orioles, White Sox, Padres, Tigers and Rangers — are currently on track to lose at least 90 games, with roughly half of those teams flirting with a 100-loss pace. That’s the most potential 90-game-losers at the end of April since at least 1969,1 if we calculate past teams’ expected records using their Elo rating as of April 30 of each season.2 With just a little luck, this year could end up matching (or surpassing) the record-setting 2004 season, which had 10 teams with 90 or more losses.

Cycles of winning and then rebuilding are nothing new in baseball, but this year’s cellar dwellers may have been especially emboldened to bottom out after watching the Astros and Cubs take that route on their way to winning the last two World Series. Each team’s title run was preceded by years of spectacular losing, serving as two proofs of the idea that a controlled franchise demolition can help pave the way for 100-win seasons and October parades. In addition, the era of owners and fans being content with a ballclub that’s merely respectable is seemingly over; if you’re not contending for a championship, the thinking goes, you may as well not even try to win at all.

It makes sense, on paper. From a bottom-line perspective, buying wins that aren’t likely to tip a team over the threshold to making the playoffs is a poor way to maximize revenue. By concentrating instead on snagging high draft picks and rebuilding their farm systems, Houston and Chicago were able to use their picks on a procession of star prospects such as Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, George Springer, Javier Baez, Alex Bregman … and the list goes on.

But the Cubs and Astros might be special cases. Historically speaking, losing a ton of games doesn’t automatically lead to future success: Since 1969, the average team that lost between 90 and 100 games3 in a season ended up winning an average of 80 games five years later, with only 23 percent having at least 90 wins. By comparison, the group of teams that lost between 75 and 85 games — so, teams that started from the middle — ended up in basically the same place. They won an average of 81 games five years later, with 21 percent cracking 90 wins. In other words, clubs that bottomed out and clubs that built from a place of respectability don’t usually look that different a few years down the line.

Why? Probably the same reason that possessing a highly ranked farm system has surprisingly little effect on a team’s major-league fortunes down the road. Chicago and Houston were fortunate that so many of their top farmhands turned into stars,4 and each has supplemented its young talent with cash spent elsewhere. (That’s a model the Phillies are currently following as well, to some early-season success.) Tanking is just the first step; to make it pay off, you also have to nail everything that comes after.

This year’s extreme logjam of tankers may also make the strategy less effective. In the past, some teams were able to successfully build from the bottom because there wasn’t a ton of competition down there. It remains to be seen how well the tactic will work when almost a third of the league is doing the same thing at the same time. These copycats may have all hopped on the tank train at the wrong moment.

Either way, the result of all this tanking has been a lot of bad baseball in the early going. I’m not totally convinced it’s had more of an effect on this year’s disappointing attendance numbers than, say, the terrible weather that’s plagued much of April around the country.5 But it will probably end up affecting playoff races (as various contenders rack up easy wins against deliberately bad teams) and lead to more fans tuning out in the cities hosting these tank projects, and just at a time when baseball’s popularity was starting to creep back up again. All in the name of a strategy that might not even consistently work — despite a few high-profile successes in recent years.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. The start of the “divisional era,” when MLB expanded to 24 teams.

  2. Specifically, I ran a regression predicting a team’s rest-of-season record from its Elo rating at the end of April, and then added that expected record to a team’s actual record as of April 30 to arrive at a projected full-season record equivalent to the ones we list on our Elo-based MLB interactive. I also discarded strike-shortened seasons (like 1994 and 1995) from this analysis.

  3. Per 162 total games.

  4. Granted, not all of them did: 2013’s No. 1 overall pick, Mark Appel, quit baseball in February.

  5. Although it should be said that 2018’s average attendance has dropped even further, from 27,532 per game at the time of Jeff Passan’s article to 26,931 through April 29, even as temperatures have risen.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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