The Houston Astros tanked to get where they are today. There’s no way around it.
In the two years before 2011, Houston averaged 87 losses. Before 2011, the last time the Astros had lost more than 90 games was 1991. But in 2011, the Astros purged payroll and began losing with a dogged focus. They averaged 108 losses per season between 2011 and 2013. Averaged. Not even the 2004-2006 dumpster fire of the Kansas City Royals could average quite that amount of losing.
Two years after their final year of tanking, they made the playoffs. Two years after that, they won 101 games and made the World Series.
The result of the World Series is inconsequential. Houston has emphatically proved their point and validated their trio of lost seasons. This year, their top five position players by overall production—Jose Altuve, Carlos Correa, George Springer, Marwin Gonzalez, and Alex Bregman—were all homegrown players. All five will return for next season, and four will return for at least two more seasons. In addition, those five will cost less than $20 million combined in 2018.
That payroll flexibility allowed them to spend big to acquire Brian McCann, Carlos Beltran, and Josh Reddick to plug some holes and add depth. That same flexibility allowed them to acquire future Hall of Famer Justin Verlander and take on his engorged salary ($20 million for each of 2018 and 2019 after the Detroit Tigers’ kickbacks), and their farm system strength provided the ammunition for the trade. In return, Verlander won the ALCS MVP award and will start in Game 2 of the World Series.
Nobody likes losing 100 games a season. It’s anathema for TV ratings and game attendance. And nobody likes to hear the term ‘tanking’. It’s often seen as giving up, playing the system, or engaging in some underhanded way of business dealings. Perhaps some see tanking as a breach of the social contract between the team, whose job is to try and win as many games as it can, and the fan, who will reward that effort with passion, loyalty, and the almighty dollar.
That is hogwash.
A team owes no loyalty to its fans on a day-to-day basis, and neither does a fan owe that to his team. Nothing about tanking is outside the rules.
Rather, tanking, as evidenced by the Astros, is merely the execution of a simple conclusion: not all wins are equal. Winning 75 games versus 70 games does you no good. Winning 80 games versus 75 games does you no good. But winning 90 games versus 85 games? That’s the difference between playoffs and no playoffs.
Tanking is simply recognizing that wins in lost seasons are utterly useless in the long term and, more than that, actively work against the long term. Tanking does not mean losing as many games as possible ‘just because’, nor does it mean trying to fail upwards in grabbing the top spot in the draft. Ultimately, tanking is just a reasonable assessment of what is valuable for a rebuilding team. The discomfort that anti-tankers experience is merely a cognitive dissonance between what they think should be the reasonable answer for what is valuable to rebuilding teams (wins) and what actually is valuable (everything but wins).
Because professional sports are filled with hypercompetitive personalities, though, tanking is not a given even when it should be. That’s understandable. And, of course, being bad does not guarantee success. Tanking is not easy, and it takes a concerted, patient, deliberately skilled effort not to screw it up.
But tanking works. Look at these Astros. Look at last year’s Chicago Cubs, everyone’s postseason darlings even though they tanked just as hard as Houston. And even look at the 2015 Royals, the products of accidental tanking. Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, and Danny Duffy didn’t magically materialize from beneath the Kauffman Stadium bleachers. They are a direct result of the 2004-2006 Royals, the failing Royals. Kansas City didn’t mean to tank, but tank it functionally did, and a World Series trophy sits in zip code 64129 because of it.
So the next time you hear somebody belittle tanking in the same breath as celebrating teams built on tanking, just shake your head and think of the Astros, Cubs, or Royals. World Series and postseason glory lasts a long time.