Adam Gold (not pictured above), a graduate student from the University of Missouri, presented an interesting idea at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this past weekend that would theoretically put an end to unsuccessful professional sports teams “dogging it” at the end of the year to ensure a higher draft pick.
It’s the type of brilliance that only seems obvious after it’s first stated:
Draft order should be determined by performance after mathematical elimination.
Gold goes on to suggest:
The risk of allowing a poorly performing team to lose the top draft pick is outweighed by the benefit of eliciting intense competition, inspiring fans’ interest, and preserving sports’ integrity. If a championship can be awarded based on the result of a subset of games that have injuries, variability, and inequities, then draft order can be determined with comparable dynamic mechanics. This method of holding professional franchises accountable justifiably quantifies a minimum level of success that teams must possess.
Baseball is a little bit different from the other North American professional sports staples in that it has the fewest percentage of teams qualifying for the postseason, even if you count the new play-in game between the two Wild Card teams as a playoff game. As such, there are a lot more good teams not making the playoffs than in hockey or basketball.
For the sake of MLB’s competitive balance you would have to assign a minimum number of games played after mathematical elimination to qualify for the draft pick race, or perhaps base the order of the draft on the total number of wins after elimination regardless of games played. Another option would be to have a cut off date for eligibility.
In this sense, baseball may not be the best fit for Gold’s idea. Traditionally, the first overall pick in MLB doesn’t hold the same significance as it does in other North American sports because of the draft and signing structure. However, while performance after mathematical elimination may not be needed to ensure competitive play throughout the season, it would ultimately serve another purpose that has plagued baseball.
If we look at last season, on September 1st, with a month of baseball to go, ten teams found themselves mathematically eliminated, with four additional teams having a less than 0.1% chance of making the playoffs.
I prefer a long regular season in baseball because, given the sport’s rules and the randomness involved in outcomes, it needs more games for the true talent of a team to emerge. However, I’m forced to acknowledge that there’s a downside to a 162 game season as well. The length of the regular season increases the likelihood of a below average team playing a large chunk of what are essentially meaningless games.
The scenario that Gold describes would be a perfect remedy for fans of dead end teams checking out before the season is over. While the first overall pick might not hold the same significance as in other sports, there’s no question that the earlier a team picks, the more likely they are to attain a talented player. Consider this chart that Sky Andrecheck put together in 2009:
As a fan of ne’er do well baseball teams, I love the idea.
In addition to the opportunity to draft higher ceiling players with a strong post elimination finish, teams would also be competing for the right to protected draft picks. Under the new CBA, signing a free agent to a qualifying offer gives his former team the signing team’s first round draft pick, unless the signing team is drafting from the top ten.
While moving to such a new format isn’t likely to realistically occur any time soon, it’s fun to imagine actually going to the ballpark to see meaningful games in September even after being eliminated from the playoff race in mid-August. Maybe not ideal, but very much an improvement over the current fan experience.