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Tanking isn’t like it used to be

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The Royals have been bad, but they have not taken the extra step towards tanking

Lucas Duda #52 of the Kansas City Royals reacts after striking out during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on July 21, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Royals 5-4.
Lucas Duda #52 of the Kansas City Royals reacts after striking out during the ninth inning against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on July 21, 2019 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Indians defeated the Royals 5-4.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The 2021 Kansas City Royals have been a bad team, let’s not make any excuses. On pace for 90 losses, the team has suffered a pair of truly awful losing streaks along the way—an 11-gamer in early May, and a 9-game skid in late June.

But the Royals don’t hold a candle to the worst teams in baseball. A few weeks after the Royals stopped their 11-game streak, the Baltimore Orioles topped it with a magnificently terrible 14-game losing streak of their own. And as I type this now, the Baltimore Orioles are in the midst of a 17-game losing streak. Seventeen games!

And that’s not even all. The Arizona Diamondbacks beat the Royals’ 11-game losing streak with a 13-game losing streak at the end of May, and like the Orioles topped it later in the year with a 17-game losing streak of their own. Honorable mention goes to the Texas Rangers, who have a nine-game and an 11-game losing streak of their own this year, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, who have five separate losing streaks of six or more games.

While there’s not much of a functional difference between losing 99 games and losing 100, humans are drawn to big round numbers, and losing 100 games is a rather ignominious accomplishment for a baseball team. All four of the aforementioned teams are on pace to do so.

Of course, there’s a benefit to being bad. The MLB Draft is the single best way to add talent to an organization, and the worst teams pick at the top of the draft. It’s true in every sport that expected player production falls further and further in the draft, but it is especially true in baseball, where the effect is exponential and falls extremely quickly.

Graph: Net WAR by Draft Pick, pre-Free Agency from 1991 through 2005

Worse teams also have bigger bonus pools available, which allows them a greater chance to select and sign players with high bonus demands later in demand.

As a result of both of these factors, there is an incentive for noncompetitive teams to not just be bad, but to be really bad. The practice of doing so is called “tanking,” and it is a widespread practice among fellow American sports where promotion and relegation does not exist. Without the looming specter of being relegated down to a lesser league, there’s very few negative long-term consequences for being really, really terrible.

But the interesting thing about tanking is that, as more and more fringe teams choose non-competitiveness, the benefit for doing that goes down. Furthermore, the amount of losing that teams have to do in order to reap the benefits gets higher and higher, causing a sort of vicious cycle where the good teams also see their win totals balloon as they beat down the ones who are tanking.

If it feels like more teams are tanking, especially at the very bottom of the league, you’d be correct.

How much losing does it take to net a top pick?

Year 100+ Loss Teams Most Losses 5th Worst Team Losses
Year 100+ Loss Teams Most Losses 5th Worst Team Losses
2021 4* 111* 95*
2020 2** 110** 94**
2019 4 114 95
2018 3 115 98
2017 0 98 94
2016 1 103 93
2015 0 99 94
2014 0 98 92
2013 2 111 96
2012 2 107 94
2011 1 106 91
2010 2 105 95
2009 1 103 97
2008 2 102 93
2007 0 96 91
2006 2 101 92
2005 1 106 93
2004 2 111 94
2003 1 119 94
2002 4 106 96
2001 2 100 96
2000 0 97 93

*season still in progress

**extrapolated from shortened season

The most striking statistic is that, over the last four years—and if this year’s season ends today—there have been 13 teams with a winning percentage to equate to 100 or more losses. Meanwhile, there were 13 teams total to do that from 2006 through 2017. And the number of 100+ loss seasons is just one statistic. There are more:

  • From 2000 through 2017, the worst team in the league averaged 103.8 losses; since 2018, the worst team has averaged 112.5 losses.
  • From 2000 through 2017, the average loss count of the 5th worst team was 93.8; since 2018, the average loss count of the 5th worst team has been 95.5.
  • From 2000 through 2017, the average loss count of the 10th worst team was 87.6; since 2018, the average loss count of the 10th worst team has been 88.3.

In other words, it has been marginally harder to get a top-10 pick recently, decently harder to get a top-5 pick recently, and significantly harder to get the first overall pick recently.

So, what does this all mean—especially for the Royals this year? Well, first of all, it doesn’t forgive the Royals’ performance in 2021. Kansas City entered this year with ambitions of being on the competitive fringe, if not perhaps a slam dunk contender. At this point, it would be a feat if the Royals lost fewer than 90 games. When you make moves to improve and that’s the most you can say, well, that does not exactly reflect well on your team or your strategy.

However, it does perhaps act as a defense of the Royals’ refusal to tank recently. To be sure: honestly and correctly understanding where your club stands in its rebuild cycle is still important, which, the Royals have not done. And there are other benefits to tanking beyond simply getting a higher draft position; getting legit prospects for veterans that aren’t going to help you can absolutely speed up a rebuild.

But to secure a spot in the top two or three draft positions, lately you have to think about losing 110 games. You’ve got to be really bad to lose 110 games, and in my opinion, there is a huge difference in baseball quality for a 95-loss team as opposed to a 110-loss team. At some point, the juice is just not worth the squeeze. Baseball is, ultimately, entertainment, and you’ve got to be competent enough for people to buy your product.