All it takes is one glance at the Major League Baseball standings to induce a sudden case of whiplash, or perhaps severe motion sickness. Just zoom from the top to the bottom of the American League East, where a gap of nearly 30 games separates first place from last, and see if your stomach doesn’t shoot up into your throat.
As the 2018 season careens toward its 81-game midpoint, the sport is witnessing a sort of extreme stratification unseen in its recent history, its teams increasingly separated into two groups — the great and the awful — with a shrinking middle class.
It is almost certainly an outgrowth of the practice that has come to be known as tanking — loosely defined as shedding payroll, hoarding young players and rebuilding via the high draft picks that are the reward for losing the most games —and it may be fueling the most alarming trend in the game so far this season: the steepest drop in attendance the game has seen since the aftermath of the 1994-95 players’ strike.
Over the past 15 years, the league has never seen more than two 100-loss teams in a single season. In three of the past four seasons, including 2017, there were none. This year, three teams — the Baltimore Orioles (on pace for 115 losses), Kansas City Royals (114 losses) and Chicago White Sox (109) — entered the weekend on pace to shatter the 100-loss threshold, and two more, the Miami Marlins and Cincinnati Reds (both on pace for 99 losses), were on the doorstep.
A similar separation is occurring at the top of the standings. Only six times in history, and once in the past 15 years, have there been three 100-win teams in a season, and never has there been four. But this year, the New York Yankees (on pace for 113), Boston Red Sox (107) and Houston Astros (107) entered the weekend well ahead of 100-win pace — with run-differentials that suggest they won’t regress by much — while the Seattle Mariners (99) were just a tick below, and the Milwaukee Brewers (96), Atlanta Braves (95) and Chicago Cubs (95) were within striking distance.
You could probably guess what this dynamic has done to pennant races. In the AL alone, four teams (the Yankees, Red Sox, Astros and Cleveland Indians) had odds of 95 percent or better or reaching the postseason (as calculated by FanGraphs) entering the weekend, while six teams had odds below 1 percent and three others were below 7. The only races left to care about are the AL East division title — with the loser of the Yankees-Red Sox duel relegated to the wild-card game — and the second wild card.
A year ago, it was a far different story, with only two AL teams (through June 21) showing playoff odds of 95 percent or better (Houston and Cleveland) and only one team (Chicago White Sox) below 1 percent. The Minnesota Twins, incidentally, had playoff odds of 10 percent, according to FanGraphs, but surged in the second half to earn the second wild card — the kind of memorable, late-summer charges that could become obsolete in an era of extreme stratification.
Meanwhile, leaguewide attendance, which was already on a slight but steady decline for more than a decade, is down nearly 7 percent over the same date a year ago — which, if it were to continue, would represent the sharpest one-year drop since 1995, the first year after the strike — with 19 of the league’s 30 teams seeing year-over-year declines at their home stadiums entering the weekend.
While the brutal weather in the eastern half of the U.S. in April and May is almost certainly responsible for a large chunk of that decline, some of the biggest percentage drops have come from teams that either have domed stadiums (Toronto, Tampa Bay) or play on the West Coast (Oakland, San Francisco). That has led MLB to acknowledge for the first time that the lack of competitiveness across the game may be affecting the sport’s bottom line.
“We are concerned that there’s something more to it than the weather,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said last week following MLB’s quarterly owners’ meeting. However, curiously, Manfred also blamed “negative publicity” surrounding tanking — as opposed to the practice itself — as being “problematic in terms of attendance.”
But fans don’t need the media to tell them their teams are noncompetitive. It isn’t the publicity; it’s the act itself.
(Interestingly, in the case of the Orioles, who are on pace to be the sport’s losingest team since the 2003 Detroit Tigers went 43-119, there was no tanking at all. The Orioles were actually trying to win in 2018, spending $73 million this winter on multiyear deals with pitchers Alex Cobb and Andrew Cashner — which makes this year’s disaster even tougher to stomach.)
Clearly, as shown by the examples this decade of the Washington Nationals, Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros, the process of tanking can work for individual teams — provided it is done smartly. But for the industry as a whole, it has become a nightmare.
When prominent agent Scott Boras railed against the practice this spring, calling it the “noncompetitive cancer” taking over the game and saying it “damages the brand of baseball,” it was largely dismissed as the maniacal ramblings of someone just looking out for his clients’ interests. But he may have been more prescient than we thought.
At some point, baseball is going to have to do something to rein in the practice of tanking. To this point, the issue has always been the union’s problem alone, with Manfred defending the practice as recently as this spring. In February, union leadership filed a grievance accusing four teams — the Marlins, Tampa Bay Rays, Pittsburgh Pirates and Oakland A’s — of failing to spend its revenue-sharing funds on improving their clubs on the field.
The grievance has yet to be heard, and with the current labor agreement running through 2021, there isn’t any momentum toward finding a solution.
But what the numbers have shown in the first half of 2018, both in the standings and at the gate, is that the problem is bigger than we thought, and it is no longer the union’s alone. It is becoming a crisis, and it belongs to all of baseball, including the owners.
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