Image credit: Jorge Soler watches a homer sail into the Camden Yards bleachers. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
How bad can a tank job get in 2018? The answer, apparently, is historically bad.
After an offseason where “tanking” was the word on everyone’s mind, Major League Baseball is on track to see a nearly unprecedented amount of losing.
Since adopting a 162-game schedule in 1961, MLB has never had more than two 110-loss teams in a season. It is currently on pace to tie that record.
In that same time, MLB has never had more than four 100-loss teams in a season. It is currently on pace to tie that record as well.
Despite last winter’s repeated sentiments from Commissioner Rob Manfred that we were seeing nothing more than the natural cycle of teams resetting and players coming and going, we are seeing something new.
With roughly a month left in the season, teams have lost games at a rate as bad as any in the last 50 years.
“I don’t know if I’d use the phrase breaking point,” Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak said earlier this season, when the outlook appeared even worse. “Maybe the right way to say it is it might be like a backlash where, if you’re looking at an 81-game home schedule and fans feel like 15 of those games are not relevant, that would be scary. But I don’t think we’re close to that yet.”
In the 162-game era, MLB has had two teams with 110 losses in the same season only once—in 1969, when the Expos and Padres both went 52-110 as expansion franchises.
The Orioles (on pace to go 47-115 entering Friday) and Royals (48-114) are decidedly not expansion teams. Only the O’s—who signed Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner and re-signed Chris Tillman in the offseason—can legitimately claim to have even attempted to be competitive in 2018.
That MLB is on pace to tie its record of 110-loss teams is just the start. If the White Sox (on pace to go 61-101) and Padres (62-100) maintain their current clips, MLB will also tie the number of 100-loss teams it has ever had in a season (four, 2002).
The cascade of losing at the bottom has not been reciprocated with an outpouring of winning at the top. There are currently two teams on pace to win 100 games—one fewer than last year.
The fact we’re this late into the season and the losing clips haven’t evened out reflects a fundamental shift in how front offices are thinking about the game—namely, that losing and losing big is ok.
“Every organization now has the ability to have big picture view in a way that I don’t think was always apparent,” said one American League pro scouting director, who asked not to be named. “What I mean by that is front offices have more information to make better decisions about what tomorrow is going to bring. It’s helped organizations ask better questions of, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Where are we?’ That’s what I think is happening amongst all of baseball. It’s a dividend of more information.”
The current status, with a potentially record-tying amount of 110-loss and 100-loss teams in the same season, is a stark reversal from recent years.
In the last four seasons combined, there was only one 100-loss team—the 2016 Twins. In those four seasons, 19 different teams—nearly two-thirds of Major League Baseball—made the postseason, including those same Twins one year later.
The reason for the largely intentional nosedives is the precedent set by the Cubs and Astros. Both franchises made moves designed to bottom out, collected high draft picks and top prospects, and years later emerged as World Series champions.
But not all rebuilds work. And for those attempting, the landscape now is much different than it was for the Cubs and Astros.
When the Cubs and Astros both began their selloffs, there were no hard bonus slots in the draft or hard caps on international signings as there are now.
Teams weren’t limited by hard slot amounts in the drafts preceding the 2012 Collective Bargaining Agreement, and from 2009-2011 the Astros were able to draft and go over slot to sign a vast collection of talent, including George Springer, Dallas Keuchel, Mike Foltynewicz, Vince Velasquez, Delino DeShields, Kikè Hernandez and Nick Tropeano.
Under an international system where teams could spend an unlimited amount of money one year in exchange for restrictions in future years, the Cubs spent tens of millions in the first part of the decade to sign Jorge Soler, Eloy Jimenez, Gleyber Torres and Jeimer Candelario, among others. The Astros did the same to sign Jorge Guzman, Albert Abreu, Franklin Perez, Michael Feliz and Teoscar Hernandez, who would all be used in key trades.
Teams are no longer able to replicate those splurges. The 2012 CBA put hard caps on draft bonuses, and the 2016 CBA placed strict limits on teams’ international spending. Teams are trying to emulate the Cubs and Astros, without the same tools for a rebound available to them.
“I do think the landscape has changed with the most current CBA,” Mozeliak said. “Trying to take the model of a complete rebuild might look a lot different than what you’ve seen in the past, and I’m not sure anybody knows exactly what that looks right now.
“I certainly think the challenges are different because you can’t just follow that previous roadmap. This next generation of how to think about getting yourself back on top is going to look different.”
Where it goes from here is unclear. A “tank tax” is one idea to deter teams from taking their current track. Maybe the market solution of not all rebuilds working out prevents teams from trying it to this level in the future.
Or maybe this is the new reality, and Major League Baseball and its fans just will have to adjust their expectations for how many teams will be truly horrible in any given year.
Whatever happens in the future, the present is not normal. The current torrent of losing is nearly unprecedented in the 162-game era.
As it stands right now, 2018 is on pace to be remembered as the year of the “L.”