Fixing baseball with Win Improvement

In the aftermath of the story that broke overnight on Monday that Major League Baseball were considering significant changes to their play-off structure for 2022, there was the predictable mix of reactions. Some people hated it because they just hate change, some people hated it because they recognise a terrible idea when they see one, some people hated it because it looked more like an attempt to distract people from the Astros sign-stealing story rather than an actual good idea and some people… actually liked it.

For that group, some will undoubtedly like it because being contrarian in the face of a storm of dissenting opinions gets you valuable attention, but of those who attempted to put forward an argument in favour, one I read a lot was “it will give teams less of a reason to tank” because a middling 75-80 win team would have an easier path to the play-offs simply by the virtue of their being more play-off slots.

Arguing this at face value isn’t especially the reason for this piece, but I will say that said argument on the face of it is rather flawed. While on the surface it’s technically correct it would have a lot of unintended consequences – namely you may actually see teams on the whole spending less money – if the play-offs are easier to sneak into then why bother spending money to shoot to win 90 games when you can try and create a much cheaper 82-83 win team and be at no major disadvantage for the rest of the season? But that’s not why I’m here.

The big elephant in the room, one that, despite most people knowing they seem reluctant to say – is that the reason so many teams tank is that they are incentivised  to do exactly that. Yes there is a premium on being great – teams like the Yankees, the Astros and the Dodgers definitely see a benefit in being an elite side financially – and if you’re capable of putting up 100 wins every season it’s certainly more preferable than winning 60 games. The same is also true for the next “tier” of teams, those who are very good who can push 90+ wins in a season – looking recently at teams like the Nationals, the Braves, the Rays, the A’s and others who’ve hit or cleared that mark multiple times recently. For those teams too, being very good, if not great, is certainly better than being terrible.

But the issue lies below that. There is a divergence in baseball – those who are either great or are striving to be such, and those aren’t. And the problem if you aren’t, is that being “good” in 2020 doesn’t really get you anywhere. A team like the Mariners, who’ve spent much of the past decade and a half attempting to be good and failed a lot of the time have actually spent more money, with nothing to show for it, than a lot of other small market teams. And eventually there became a point where the powers that be there said “This isn’t worth it”, better to be terrible for a few years in an attempt to become very good rather than just simply keep ploughing money in and being good.*

*whether the Mariners were actually good over the last 15 years is another question entirely.

Good baseball teams end up deciding that being good is worse than being bad. Because there is very little downside to being bad – you’re not going to get relegated, you’re not going to be penalised and, while crowds generally do dwindle, TV contracts are a such that providing you can slash payroll enough you can survive perfectly happily even with lower attendances.

And who can blame them? While the last two World Series winners were, admittedly, adverts for just spending lots of money, if a team is looking for a blueprint of how to be good you don’t have to look too far at what the Astros and the Cubs have done in the past decade. Between 2010 and 2014 the Cubs went five years without a winning record – bottoming out at 61 wins in 2012 before slowly climbing back out of the hole. Their reward – a team that won over 90 games in each year between 2015 and 2018 and, critically, the 2016 World Series.

The Astros tank was even worse (or better, depending on how you look at it). Winning 162 games across THREE years between 2011-2013. Their reward, after a few middling years following, is a team that since the start of 2017 has won 310 games, nearly double what they won at their worst in the early part of last decade.

And how did these teams do it? Well, let’s put aside the obvious current issue with the Astros, they did it by tanking. Lose games, finish with one of the worst records in baseball and your reward is… a high pick in the annual amateur draft. Accumulate a few of these – as both teams did, pick well and, when you finally decide it’s time to start trying again, you have some elite and, importantly, elite cost-controlled talent to build your challenging side around.

It’s not to say it’s as simple as that – you have a bigger tendency to remember rebuilds that worked than the many that haven’t – but we’ve now got a situation where you tend to divide Major League sides less between those who are good and those who are bad, but more between those who are trying and those who aren’t. And while relegation, as fun as it might be, will never happen in any American sport, and ideas like salary floors and other ideas are well intended, one of the critical elements that encourages a team to tank (other than the few reasons not to) is that losing games means a higher draft pick, and a higher draft pick means better players. If you can change this, you might be able to change baseball for the better.

Let me introduce you to “Win Improvement”. A suitably dodgy sounding phrase to describe how I would decide the order of picks in the Amateur Draft. We’re not going to reward teams for winning, we’re not going to reward teams for losing either, we’re going to reward teams for winning more.

Here’s the basics of how it would work. As it stands currently, results in 2019 decide the 2020 draft order. In this idea, the results in 2018 and 2019 would decide the 2020 draft order. Take a team’s win total in 2019, subtract their win total in 2018 and you get what I’m calling their “Win Improvement”. If your team won 90 games in 2019, having won 80 games in 2018, their Win Improvement is +10. Conversely, if, as the Red Sox did, you won 84 games in 2019 following an 108-win season in 2018, your Win Improvement is -24. Simply order teams from the highest to the lowest win improvement, and the team with the best improvement one year to the next gets the number one pick.

Here’s how it would look for 2020:

Now, you might just outright panic at that list. The 101-win Twins getting the first pick? Then the Dodgers? It’s certainly an odd system to look at to begin with, and some of the outputs are very different to what we’re used to currently. But we should remember 1) that this is kind of the idea, we’re rewarding teams for winning/being better and 2) if this system were to be implemented, teams would probably change their approach knowing the rules were different. So let’s try and look at some examples of what this could mean, some specific to the numbers above, and some more general.

The Twins, a team with a big win improvement
The Twins get the #1 pick. Their reward for putting up 23 more wins than in 2018 is the first pick of the draft. A team that does well, gets rewarded. The Twins wild record over the past four years – 59, 85, 78 then 101 win seasons, would actually see them get the #1 pick twice under this system.

The Red Sox, a team with a huge negative win improvement
Yes, this one is a bit weird. The Red Sox end up with the lowest pick mainly because they did so well in 2018, a fall was quite likely and theirs was the biggest. Like I say, this solution has some random consequences, but, conversely, the Red Sox win improvement between 2017 and 2018 (+15) would’ve seen them drafting third the previous year. So over the two years under this system, they draft 3rd then 30th rather than 30th then 17th. So they’ve still done better out of trying.

The Tigers, a team who was already bad and under the current system got significantly worse
A reminder here that if the rules were on Win Improvement, the Tigers likely would have gone into 2019 aiming to go below their 64-win 2018. But this is a good symptom of the new system, the 2019 Tigers, to help improve their draft position, would actually have to make an effort to win games, get above 64 wins, rather than simply losing as much as they can to secure that No.1 spot.

The Yankees/Astros – consistently great and a win improvement near zero
So, right now the Yankees and the Astros would get two of the lowest three picks of the 2020 draft, much like 2019 as they’ve both won 100 games in each of the past two seasons. As it stands right now, consistently being great consistently gets you a bad draft spot. Under win improvement, they end up near the middle. The Yankees would draft 14th, rather than 28th, and the Astros would draft 12th, rather than 30th. In both cases, if you can maintain your record at an elite level, you won’t draft near the top but you’d get a much better shake than you do under the current system.

Cubs/Brewers/Angels – teams who are actually trying, just had a down season
The Cubs and the Brewers both won over 81 games anyway – their draft slot isn’t great either way. The Angels have done a bit, but again, if they can turn a 72-win season into an 85-win season, then chances are their draft slot in 2021 could be top 3-4. Not that the Angels should need any extra incentive to win, but it would give them more of a reason to go for it more quickly.

So there’s a few quite specific examples, but the general trends (after a couple of years for teams to get settled) I believe would be these:

– Teams who are already good are rewarded for getting even better. Fairly simple idea, and one that some won’t like, but a team like mine (the Braves) who after a rebuilding process have been putting up positive win improvement numbers for each of the past few years, would draft pretty high each time.

– Teams who start the process as a 60-win team, would be able to make gains quickly – but by being better, rather than worse. If you’re the Tigers coming off a 47-win season, your draft position would be bad. Wanna get out of that – win 57 games. Granted, that would work either way. But the next time, wanna get another good pick the following year – then you’ve got to win 67 games. You could still game the system, but you game it by getting better year-on-year.

– Tanking isn’t impossible, but it’s a lot harder. So how could you actually tank under this system? I’ve had multiple people say to me, “teams will still tank, just in different ways”

– but I don’t know how easy this would be. The way to get a good pick would be to somehow have a crap season, then follow it with a noticeably better one. I don’t know how easy that is to do intentionally. You could do it by accident quite easily – have a lot of injuries one year, if those players return and you win 15 more games you get a good pick. But doing it intentionally, certainly for 2-3 years in a row, involves: being good, then being really bad, then being OK, then being good again.

– It would, ultimately, turn the draft from a system where bad teams get good picks to, for the most part, teams are assigned picks slightly more randomly. If teams started trying, you’d likely get rid of the extremes a bit more, then a team that happened to lose eight games more would end up with a lower draft pick. But all roads here, to me, point to teams trying to win more and those who don’t, trying to take quick steps to rectify that. This proposed system isn’t all good, but it’s more good than bad, which is more than I can say about the Major League right now.

Thanks to Tom from BF&N for doing the spreadsheet work here and saving me a job. Argue this with me, and many of my other bad opinions, on my Braves UK account over at @BravesInTheUK. And read the Mets thread!

Bob kindly put this work together and sent it into Bat Flips and Nerds through Twitter. If you want to get involved, please use the “Contribute” button above, or hit us up on Twitter. Our DMs are always open.

One comment

  1. An intriguing idea…

    I do like the thought of rewarding those that are trying to get better with the higher picks, thereby enabling them to get even better until, in theory, they plateau and then others can come up and nab the higher picks as the most improved team.

    One potential downside that occurs to me though is unintentionally penalising those who’re unlucky with injuries.

    For example – if you had a fairly middling season because you’re starting rotation wasn’t great, you go out and through trade and free agency signings you acquire 3 upgrades to your starter rotation at a decent increase in payroll and then two of them end up injured for significant time. You run the risk of having a worse season not because you weren’t trying but through blind luck. If you don’t have the payroll space to bring in more replacements for these injured players you could see your draft stock decrease even though you were trying to win more games (rather than being compensated by seeing it go up like you would in the current system).

    Playing devil’s advocate to myself though I suppose if they remained fully fit the season after you’d see a much more pronounced increase in the number of wins and your draft stock could soar relatively speaking, so maybe it would all even itself out…

    As I said – an intriguing idea!

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.