Tanking in professional sports is not a relatively new phenomenon. You may remember the 2011 Indianapolis Colts taking a dive for Stanford gunslinger Andrew Luck. This year, you could find tweets from the fan base of every sub-par NBA team with the hashtag TankForZion.
Baseball, as it always does, operates a little bit differently. Losing games just to obtain a higher pick would be ludicrous considering how much of a crap-shoot the MLB draft is. Instead, teams with no chance to make a run will trade away their established talent for a group of prospects that may as well be a sleeve of scratch tickets.
This process has had two equal and opposite short-term effects; the good teams get better, and the bad teams get worse. Having 100 wins or 100 losses used to mean your team did something special. One meant you were the team to beat in October, the other meant your fans were wearing paper bags on their heads.
In 2018, there were three 100-win teams and three 100-loss teams. This was only the second time that’s happened since free agency began in 1976. In 2019, there were four of each. Eight teams did what an average of just two teams usually do. Since 2017, four teams have had a season run differential of +250, while only three happened in the 40 years prior. These aren’t outliers, this is a trend.
MLB franchises now operate in extremes; you’re either a buyer or a seller. The Yankees need a strategy that can differentiate them in the way that money did in the pre-luxury tax era. If we take a deeper look at the Core Four, we can learn some lessons. That team went on an absolute tear in the late ’90s, winning four titles and peaking in 1998 with their historic 114-win season. They had a wealth a young home-grown talent, just like they do today.
Throughout the 2000s, they were still a good team – averaging 97 wins per season – and there were a couple of years in which they could have won it all. However, they never put together that overwhelming machine they had the decade prior.
In 2009, they were able to finally acquire the right mix of star power to get the gang one last ring. In the years that followed, management tried to scrap together big names well past their prime, all while putting little emphasis on prospect development. It was a low risk, low reward strategy that resulted in a steady decline. Rock bottom was 2013-2016 in which they averaged a paltry 85 wins and a single wild card game loss.
I understand hindsight is 20/20, but I also understand history repeats itself. They already have their young, homegrown core, complete with the camera-ready face of the generation (seriously, does Judge just watch old tape of Jeter interviews?). Now, it’s time to assemble some short-term supporting actors that can push them over the edge. No long-term mega-contracts that end in disappointment and resentment (*cough* Ellsbury *cough*), but short-term accessories that can give this new core the jolt it needs.
It’s time for management to take some risks while protecting the future. In my next few articles, we’re going to take a data deep dive into what type of moves can be made to bring the Yankees to that next level. We’ll start with everyone’s favorite topic; starting pitching.