I’ve gone on record that my favorite day of the year is the first day of the MLB Draft. While my wife doesn’t like to hear such talk around the holidays, I stand behind it. Since 2001 (the Mark Prior draft), I’ve followed the draft and have done so passionately for over a decade. But the current system is inherently flawed and it significantly affects amateur players, major league organizations, and the game itself. For a review of how the draft operates, see the Chicago Cubs MLB Primer. While it is geared towards the Cubs 2021 draft, it covers the background of the current system. I’ll tackle one improvement that MLB should explore in future drafts.
An Incentive to Lose
Players play to win the game. Fans watch games to see their team try to win a ballgame. Unfortunately, once a team is no longer in playoff contention, the current system encourages teams to lose every game the rest of the year to improve draft position. In paraphrasing Ricky Bobby’s enigmatic character, If you ain’t [in] first, you’re [better off in] last. The system pays to tank. Not only are teams awarded higher picks, but the bonus pool system described above also provides extra overage flexibility. The Chicago Cubs are prime examples of using this tanking method. From 2012-2015, the Cubs picked 6th, 2nd, 4th, and 9th while bringing in Albert Almora, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Ian Happ. All four players contributed to playoff teams.
And with a more recent perspective, the draft that exists in its current form incentivizes teams to lose big. Four teams project to lose 100 or more games (Orioles, Diamondbacks, Rangers, and Pirates) and nine teams projected to lose 90 or more. From 2005-2011 there was not a single year where nine or more teams lost 90+ in a season. It’s always possible that this year is an aberration, but tanking is rampant and makes baseball unwatchable after July.
A Possible Path Forward: the Draft Lottery
The Premise: Teams try to win
Truly remarkable, I know. But right now, can you blame organizations for hoping to lose games once they know they won’t be in playoff contention? There’s almost nothing worse for an organization consistently failing to make the playoffs while picking 14-17th in the draft. To change that, teams need to have incentives to try to win. The way to do that is to provide an opportunity to secure a higher first-round pick to teams that win. Enter the MLB Draft Lottery.
Leagues like the NBA, WNBA, and NHL use a lottery to dissuade tanking, but (in my opinion), their method is flawed. Teams that lose more have better odds of receiving a top pick. While it prevents teams from guaranteeing a top pick, it still increases the probability that they’ll receive one. So let’s change that. Run a draft lottery with reverse odds for all non-playoff teams. Non-playoff teams that win the most games have the highest odds of securing a top-four pick.
The following scenario presumes a few things. First, playoffs are expanded in the new CBA. I selected a total of 16 playoff teams to run the scenario, though I am not personally a fan of that high a number. Second, I’m not including any teams who failed to sign their first-round pick in 2021 for clarity’s sake. Three, I only evaluated the 14 teams with the worst records. I did not project who would finish in 1st/2nd in a division or how MLB would run an expanded playoffs.
Reverse Standings as of 8/21/21
Respective odds of winning #1 pick
- LAA: 14%
- NYM: 14%
- CLE: 14%
- DET: 12%
- COL: 10%
- KCR: 9%
- WSN: 8%
- MIN: 6%
- CHC: 5%
- MIA: 3%
- PIT: 1.5%
- TEX: 1.5%
- ARZ: 1%
- BAL: 1%
A team’s odds of securing a top 4 pick are in reverse order of standings of all non-playoff teams. The rest of the draft plays out in normal order. For example, if the Angels and Indians finish with 86 wins and 84 wins, respectively, missing the playoffs, they would have the best odds (14% each) of the top pick. Odds decrease with a worse record. The Orioles and D-Backs would only have a 1% each of winning the top pick. In the hypothetical, Los Angeles (Angels), Cleveland, Kansas City, and Miami all miss playoffs and receive picks 1-4 in the draft via lottery. The Orioles, D-Backs, and Pirates finish with the three worst records.
The hypothetical Top 14 in the 2022 Draft would be the following (based on records as of August 21, 2021):
The incentive is there to compete. Instead of teams hoping to lose, every single game matters. Competitive games are played until the last game of the season. And fans and front offices no longer have to hope for losses in secret. However, teams that are just overmatched (like BAL and ARZ) aren’t buried, but there is a big difference between the fifth pick and the first overall pick. Now the calculation is how can teams buy more even in a losing season.
A lottery adds excitement and intrigue to the draft and it can help to improve tanking, but it is far from the only measure needed to address competitive balance and improve situations for players and teams. Future parts of this series will address bonus pools and market size of clubs.