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Why Are MLB's Worst Teams Getting Worse?

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The Pirates lost 7-0 to the Cubs last night, ensuring they would have the ninth 100-loss season in team history.

They have plenty of miserable company. Pittsburgh was the fourth team this year to lose 100 or more games. The D-backs sit at 109 losses with three games to play. The Orioles have 107 defeats and the Rangers have 100.

This is not normal. This is only the third time in MLB history that four teams have lost 100 or more games in the same season.

But maybe this is the new normal. It also happened in 2019 (with a 60-game 2020 season in between). We are in the age of utter futility when it comes to bad teams. In 2019, there were also four 100-loss teams. In 2018 there were three.

There have been as many 100-loss teams in the past three full seasons (2018, 2019 and 2021) as there were from 2007-2017 combined.

Looked at from a slightly different angle the numbers don’t change. From 1966-2018, that 2002 season was the only one where more than two teams reached 100 losses. Now that number has been topped in each of the last three full seasons.

We are right now in an era where the best teams are better and the worst teams are worse than they have been in more than a half century. With more utterly futile teams, there are also more dominant ones. From 2005-2016 there were six 100-win teams in that 12-season stretch. From 2017-2021 (four full seasons) there have been 12, and the Rays could make it 13 if they win two of their final three games this weekend.

It could be a statistical abnormality, but it’s reasonable to think that the current competitive environment has encouraged teams to tank, following the example the Astros adopted a decade ago. Houston entered the 2011 season having never lost 100 games in a season. The Astros had topped out at 97 losses during their early years as an expansion team.

From 2011-2013, Houston lost 100+ games in three straight years. The Astros decided to forgo any attempt to be competitive at the MLB level. In doing so they had the No. 1 pick in the draft for three consecutive seasons (2012-2014). Helped by a rebuilt farm system, Houston went on to win the 2017 World Series and has made six playoff appearances in the seven years since. The luster of that World Series has been tarnished by a sign stealing scandal that led to significant penalties handed down by MLB.

The Cubs adopted a similar if less drastic approach that also saw the team lose a lot and then win a lot.

Many have noted that with draft spending limits and international spending strictly limited, some teams have decided that the benefit of picking at the top of the draft is worth a season (or more) of big league ineptitude.

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But there’s another economic aspect to this. With direct ticket sales being a smaller share of a team’s revenue than it was in previous decades (thanks to other revenue streams playing a larger role) teams have less economic incentive to try to be semi-competitive in a year where they see a playoff spot as highly unlikely.

The coronavirus pandemic makes 2021 attendance figures impossible to compare to other seasons. But this year, three of the four 100-loss teams will draw fewer than 13,000 fans per home game. Only the Rangers have exceeded that mark. They are averaging 26,049 fans per game, but this is the first year that fans can attend games at their new ballpark.

Attendance dips used to be an extreme deterrent to push teams to do something to better themselves. Now, revenues from other sources, and in some cases revenue sharing, can make it a more feasible economic proposition.

And the experience of the Astros and Cubs shows that teams that do pull the plug on attempting to be competitive see little if any fan backlash once they return to prominence. The Cubs did dip from averaging 3.0-3.1 million fans per game before they tanked to drawing 2.6 million fans per game during their stretch of stench. But from 2016-2018, they topped 3.2 million fans per season.

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Similarly the Astros easily posted their worst attendances of the 21st century during their three straight 100-loss seasons, but when they went to the World Series, they were back to drawing nearly 3 million fans per season. Winning makes fans forget losing pretty quickly.

It also means that teams can slash payrolls. According to Cot’s Baseball Contracts, the Orioles 2021 Opening Day payroll is just a tick more than a third of what it was in 2017. The Pirates Opening Day payroll was less than half of what the team spent in 2017. The Rangers Opening Day payroll was its lowest since 2011.

So for owners, the downsides of simply not trying to win at the major league level are less fearsome than they used to be. The fans will return when the team returns to prominence. And the MLB payroll can be slashed while the draft spending pools will be boosted (but at numbers that are a small percentage of what would be spent on a competitive MLB payroll).

But it does create problems for the game as a whole. From 2010-2017, even the worst MLB teams generally drew close to 20,000 fans per home game. Now the floor for what a bad team will draw has dropped significantly--the Marlins drew 10,000 fans per game in 2018 and 2019. The Orioles dipped to just over 16,000 fans per game in 2019. That has affected the league as a whole. From 2010-2017, the average attendance per game across the league always sat at 30,000. In 2018 and 2019 it dipped to under 29,000 fans per team per game. This year teams are averaging 18,600 fans per game (as noted before, the pandemic makes it difficult to compare 2021 attendance numbers to any other year).

The current system seems to encourage bad teams to be very bad. And that’s why the next collective bargaining agreement will likely need to take a swing at reducing the incentives that encourage teams to be non-competitive for years at a time.

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