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A draft lottery won’t stop teams from tanking

Winning must be incentivized and spending mandated.

MLB: Detroit Tigers-Media Day Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

One of the most contentious issues in the current round of collective bargaining is the issue of teams “tanking”, or not making an effort to field a competitive team and failing to spend on player salaries. The players’ association has made it clear that there will be no new CBA without addressing this issue.

Much of the focus has been on teams tanking to get higher draft picks. There are two problems with this approach. First, outside of being able to acquire multiple top three overall picks, it won’t work. Second, follow the money and you’ll find more likely motives.

As we prepare our arsenal of anti-tank weaponry, we plan to attack the system that financially disincentivizes winning, and rewards losing with the very best draft picks. This is the rationale behind proposing a draft lottery for the highest draft picks,

To the extent that teams do try to improve their draft position, it is initially helpful to know exactly how valuable the prized picks are. We looked at MLB’s amateur drafts over a 51 year period, from 1965 through 2015 and focused on the players selected with the first 20 picks in the first round each year. We compared the number of players who “made it” to the major leagues, and the average WAR for those players for each overall selection.

Here is the chart showing the success with each overall draft slot, ranked by rWAR.

rWAR by Draft slot,1965- 2015

Overall MLB Percentage Total WAR Avg WAR MLB Avg
Overall MLB Percentage Total WAR Avg WAR MLB Avg
1 46 92 1102.4 22.04 23.96
2 46 90 725.8 14.23 15.78
3 43 84 619.4 12.15 14.41
4 34 67 590.8 11.58 17.38
5 39 76 418.4 8.21 10.73
6 38 75 593.4 11.63 15.62
7 38 75 426.9 8.37 11.23
8 34 67 294.1 5.77 8.65
9 34 67 294.6 5.78 8.66
10 45 88 499.4 9.79 11.1
11 37 73 280.4 5.5 7.58
12 34 67 316.2 6.2 9.3
13 29 57 368.1 7.22 12.69
14 39 76 303.4 5.95 7.78
15 38 75 286.4 5.62 7.54
16 37 73 309.4 6.07 8.36
17 35 67 336.9 6.61 4.63
18 31 61 179.7 3.52 6.38
19 38 75 387.6 7.6 10.2
20 31 61 400.2 7.85 12.91

* MLB average includes only players who made it to MLB

What we see in this study is that there is a noticeable difference between the first overall pick, which averaged 24 WAR, and later picks. The second overall pick averaged 15.78 WAR which was the second highest slot average. The third slot averaged half a win better than the fourth, and after that, it’s a scramble.

Chances of drafting a player who will make it to the majors is pretty good in the first round, but the first overall pick has a 50 percent chance of yielding a 30 plus WAR player, while the second or third overall slots provide just a 20 percent shot, based on selections from 2001 to 2010. The chances of finding a superstar are mostly random after the first overall pick.

We see a gradual decline in the average WAR numbers as we move later into the first round, but the graph looks more like a roller coaster than a steady downward slope. So, if a team is deliberately losing games to get a better pick, other than from number one overall, they’re going to a lot of trouble with a questionable chance of success.

There have been a few examples of teams dwelling at the bottom of MLB for multiple seasons, getting high first round picks, until they eventually turn it around, but those are exceptions.

  • The Washington Nationals scored Steven Strasburg and Bryce Harper with back to back overall no 1 selections in 2009 and 2010 and turned that into a World Series title.
  • The Houston Astros chose Carlos Correa first overall in 2012. They drafted Mark Appel and Brady Aiken both no 1 overall in 2013 and 2014, but Appel was a bust and Aiken didn’t sign. Alex Bregman was picked No 2 in 2015, contributing to the team’s sustained success, if not so much to their lone World Championship.
  • The Chicago Cubs picked Kris Bryant second and Kyle Schwarber fourth. Javier Baez was picked ninth. Their high picks were marginal contributors in 2016. Now they’ve been traded as they enter free agent eligibility.
  • The Minnesota Twins picked Byron Buxton 2nd, X Stewart 4th, Nick Gordon 5th, Tyler Jax 6th, and Royce Lewis first with a run of five top six picks within six years, but they have yet to produce.

The Tigers hope that Casey Mize (1st), Riley Greene (5th), Spencer Torkelson (1st) and Jackson Jobe (3rd) will form the core of a contender for a sustained run.

These are all examples of teams that were bottom dwellers for a long period of time before netting the top picks that helped them rise to the top. The Astros actually went bankrupt and had an ownership change. They, along with the Cubs and Nationals, revamped their front offices before building, rather than rebuilding their rosters.

The more likely scenario is that teams refuse to spend money just because they want to make more money. The sharp decline in value after the first few picks makes tanking for draft picks a risky play at best. There is also little evidence that teams that pick near the top of the draft repeatedly ever cash those picks in with a high caliber winning baseball team. Some do, while many others are simply mediocre to bad, year after year, rapidly turning those top picks into trade bait as soon as they become even the tiniest bit expensive compared to the league minimum salary.

There are a number of ways to remove the draft pick incentive for losing. MLB owners proposed a lottery among all non playoff teams for the first three draft picks. Players proposed prohibiting teams from getting a top five pick in consecutive years, and basing the draft order 60 percent on win percentage and 40 percent on market size.

In a system where 10 out of 30 teams qualify for the playoffs, with a weighted draft lottery among the other 20 teams for the first five picks, a total of 210 tickets go into the drawing. The team with the worst record has 20 tickets- or ping pong balls, the second worst has 19, and the 20th worst team has one ticket. So the worst team has a 9.5 percent chance of the first overall pick and the 20th reverse seed has a 0.047 percent shot.

The lottery picks could include the first three picks, or the first five, or the whole thing could be a lottery. Based on the data that we see here, the incentive to tank for draft picks disappears after the first few picks. But that’s just one small part of the anti- tank arsenal.

Removing what incentive remains by having a draft lottery could help, but tanking for draft picks is not the main reason that teams don’t spend money on players. Getting those picks often doesn’t affect a team’s success or failure that much even when they land really good young players. Teams too often use those young talents as temporary promotional items, never committing to putting a good team around them and building a winner. By itself, a draft lottery won’t stop tanking. Teams must be required to spend revenue sharing dollars on payroll, and winning must be incentivized while draft incentives for losing are removed.

Stay tuned for ideas on revenue sharing.