For developing players hoping to make baseball a career, an important milestone is the MLB draft. A player's drafting postion impacts the number of chances an organization may give a player as they become accustomed to a higher level of play. Here at the PBLO, we hope for all of our players to become the best that they can be as they become draft-eligible. The whole minor league experience is in hopes of building a winning team on the field at the major league level, however trends on recent years have strayed away from that motto. And, it might have serious ramifications in terms of on-field performance: tanking.
Tanking, for all that are unaware, is where a team, purposefully, fields an uncompetitive team in hope of losing enough games to get a top draft pick for up-and-coming prospects. The Astros have been the face of this spread throughout the league as they went from the worst team (100+ loss seasons) in the league for several years to a dynasty of world series contenders. And this is all due to their years of manipulating the draft system. I feel that this current draft system, which is seen in almost all sports, is fundamentally flawed and can be improved upon through a simple change.
Currently, the draft system in the MLB runs on the principle that the team with the worst record should get the #1 pick and go in reverse as the teams improve. In theory, this should give these worse teams an advantage when picking prospects to get better for the long term and close the performance gap. But, in baseball, prospects are years away from the major leagues (unlike basketball where they are up the next season) so the effects of a tank are seen years down the road. This enables these teams to tank consistently until they see it paying off which goes against the gamesmanship of the sport and the wish that all teams should try their hardest to win.
So enough background information, now it’s time to share my plan. I call it: the Playoff-Elimination draft. The top pick goes to the final team that was eliminated from postseason contention. The following picks go in reverse order from when they were eliminated up until we reach the playoff teams where they would be chosen in the traditional format (some tiebreaker would be in effect, probably run differential).
I like this format because it would push teams to always try to make the playoffs and force management to have the constant motivation to improve the quality of the team they put on the field. For the entirety of the season, teams will be pushing to make the playoffs and if they fall just short, they get the first-overall pick. If they play well enough, they make the playoffs and try to win the World Series (which is what all teams strive to do). I feel that this would merge the two tiers of really good teams and really bad teams toward a middle ground of playoff hungry teams fighting for their chance at October baseball.
There is another style of the draft in a study by Lenton (2016) that could translate well to baseball. Their format is to draft the order based on the fewest games played before being eliminated from the playoffs instead of the current format of the final record. They deemed that “when you eliminate the incentive to underperform before the final day of the season, the teams’ subsequent performance improves greatly.” This one also makes sense because it expedites the process for selecting the draft order instead of management selecting their squad to lose for an entire season. This method of drafting should allow teams that have been eliminated to attempt to win because their draft slot will no longer be affected by their play.
Tanking has been a major problem in sports but has been most prevalent in the MLB and NBA. Changes to the motivation factor of tanking, the draft, seems to be the only solution short of moral value training for owners and management. The proposed changes in the draft should work in reducing the urge to tank after the team’s “window” for a championship is over. Teams trying to win are ultimately good for financial reasons and the fans as people will go to support a team that genuinely wants to win. Why would a person spend their hard-earned money to go watch a team that is putting out a sub-par group on purpose? Fans want to see their team win and will go support them even if they are eliminated from the playoffs if they know they are trying to win no matter the record of the other teams in the league. Something needs to change and they could either be drastic or slight, but we cannot keep the current format the way it is if we are going to make a more balanced and competitive league. Top prospects shouldn't have to come into the league in a losing environment from the get-go. They should have an opportunity to be right in the middle of a playoff race simply because the league is more balanced.