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The masochism of catastrophe: Tanking edition

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I was sitting in the public library on Thurmon Street just now, trying to figure out just how bad the 2019 Detroit Tigers and Baltimore Orioles are, historically speaking.

The answer is: really really bad.

Five worst individual seasons for major league teams over the past half century:

2003 Tigers: 119 losses

2018 Orioles: 115 losses

2019 Tigers: 114 losses (projected)

2004 Diamondbacks: 111 losses

2019 Orioles: 110 losses (projected)

I detect some sort of subtle pattern here.

Over the past few weeks, Tiger fans have been agonizing over the prospect that the team might somehow manage to pass the Orioles down the stretch, thus losing out on the #1 overall pick in next June’s draft.

The Tigers have heroically beaten back this threat, by carefully avoiding anything resembling a winning streak, even as the Orioles have continued to lose at an historically impressive rate. (see above table).

This stirring competition to achieve negative glory raises a subject that I haven’t thought about much at all, which is this:

As professional sports become more analytically sophisticated all the time, it would seem to follow that the incentives for tanking — that is, for more or less trying to lose in the short term, because of the benefits a worse record will provide in the longer term in the form of better draft picks — must become clearer, and thus more tempting.

For example, suppose you’re an NFL franchise that, early in the season, realizes it has has no realistic prospect of making the playoffs. Every win from that point on is a negative input in regard to acquiring the highest possible first round draft pick (and also hurts, though not nearly as much, later in the draft).

Already, 12 minutes into the current season, you have talk of hopeless teams like the Dolphins and Jets “tanking for Tua” (that is, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, the projected top pick in next spring’s draft.) Given that a franchise quarterback is incredibly valuable, while the value of going 4-12 rather than 3-13 is close to nil from any utilitarian or even deontological perspective, such talk is both inevitable and eminently reasonable.

The NBA has addressed this problem with a draft lottery, but that’s only a partial and kludgy solution to an endemic problem.

So, tanking. How should we think about it, regulate it etc?

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