With all the blabbing about the fire sale of the Miami Marlins, and less so with the Pittsburgh Pirates, does the philosophy of ‘tanking‘ in Major League Baseball work? Can it come to fruition the same way it does in the National Football League or the National Basketball Association?
The biggest and most obvious difference in those sports is the vast majority of players you’ll draft in the NFL or NBA are ready to play (even start) the following season. Not only that, players are more of a ‘sure thing’ in those leagues; you’re more likely to hit on a player since the pool is much more shallow than it is in baseball.
While in MLB, there are several levels to break through before you’re actually ready to play in the top-level.
Now, I understand the angle of ‘tanking’ to accumulate funds and eventually splurge on some free agents or wanting to make your team younger. I can follow that train of thought (sort of) but we are going to go on the premise that teams are doing it to grab top-level draft picks through each round.
Yes, the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, after many seasons of horrid baseball, are now World Champions thanks to patience and a great analytics department. Let’s just break even and apply this to your average front office.
According to research done by Cork Gains of Business Insider back in 2013:
“After three years, we will probably only see about 15% of this year’s draftees in the big leagues. And for most players, it will take 4-6 years to make it to the highest level”.
Let’s take a more recent peek at draft success within the first five rounds of the MLB draft. We only go that deep because, honestly, after that point (and even five rounds is a reach) it’s mostly a crap shoot and I’d venture to guess no team has any sort of advantage over the other.
I’m using five years as its reasonable to expect, even with a high schooler, to reach the big leagues within that amount of time. Of players drafted in 2017, none have reached the majors; no surprise there. In 2016 just one player drafted, third-round pick Austin Hays of the Baltimore Orioles, has made it to the majors. We ought not to reference that year, either.
The 2015 draft is when we start seeing results.
In the 2015 draft, out of 165 players picked in the first five rounds, 7% have made it to the big leagues.
It goes without saying the list grew considerably in 2014 and it follows that it would in subsequent drafts. Out of rounds one through five in 2014, we have 19% currently in the majors.
Let’s investigate the success rate by round, referencing research done by Mike Rosenbaumof Bleacher Report.
So the first round, you’re likely to get two out of every three players in the majors, then 50/50 in the second round. However, this chart is no reference for success or failure for the player once they do reach MLB.
The standard deviation of success rate drop-off is 4.96%, with a variance of 24.6%
Here, we’ll observe the first overall picks since 2006 and their yearly average WAR from all MLB seasons.
The first-overall pick in this era yielded about 50% averaging WAR over 3.2 (we’ll get to the context in a bit).
Lastly, let’s look at the cumulative WAR of rounds one through five, starting at 2011 to 2015. As mentioned before, there was just one player who reached MLB that was selected in the first five rounds during the last two years.
So the chart lends itself to logic; the older the year, the higher the cumulative WAR. But, there is still a lot we don’t know yet as there are still players in the 2011 draft toiling in the minors, yet could break into the big leagues in the next year or so.
Yet, something funny happens. There is a spike in WAR once we get to round 5. As noted, the majority of WAR from that round in 2011 comes from Mookie Betts. Could we infer that later rounds will increase as well? Probably not, as the random variation would likely be all over the place player to player. But it’s not a stretch to assume that you can find just as much value in later rounds as you can in the first couple.
Obviously, the bigger success stories come from the first round. But, keep in mind that’s just one player. On a team of 25 guys, it’s less likely that this player can turn an entire franchise around by themselves. In the NBA its possible, or the NFL where a quarterback can pull a team out of mediocrity within a year or so.
I’ll average the first round pick WAR to get an idea of what a team who continually ‘tanks’, could expect to get out of first rounders for the next several years.
Again, this isn’t concrete information but it’s enough data to get a rough inference. If you ‘tank’ for several years, and get a high first round pick, you can expect to get a players who will average a WAR of about 3 (after about five years); the average WAR of a number one pick (using the data in the ’06-’16 chart) is a little better than 2.
So you’ve got a good shot to get a player considered decent or, at best, above average.
The following chart give some context on WAR for those unfamiliar.
Is it really worth ‘tanking’ in baseball? In, say, five years of mediocrity, how often can you expect to hit on a player in the early rounds (average 2.5+ WAR)? Again, in the first round (’06-’16) chart above, you’ve got a 50/50 shot. Is it worth driving your franchise into the ground with those kinds of odds?
Like I’ve said before, we are using a small amount of data that is on a sliding scale (the older the draft, the higher the WAR). Since it would take roughly 3-5 years for an organization to acquire draft picks that could break into the league and help push the team into championship contention, it’s not too far of a reach. Meaning you can expect your first couple of picks per year to start normalizing WAR after a couple of seasons…if they reach the majors at all at all.
So is ‘tanking’ worth it? Allegedly to the Marlins and Pirates, it seems to be. They have highly paid analysts and I’m a lowly blogger, so they know better than I do. But, with the information I’ve been able to acquire, it doesn’t seem as though stockpiling high picks will benefit an organization enough to risk losing fans, revenue, and respect in MLB in the short term.