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.

Comments (22)

  1. I remember reading about something similar in the KHL (I think?) a while back. They basically have two sets of playoffs: the actual playoffs, and then a sort of Toilet Bowl for the rest of the teams, but instead of competing for the championship, they’re competing for draft position. Definitely a neat idea.

  2. The problem with this solution to dogging it is that it forgets about the dogs. Following playoff elimination, there’s no incentive (postseason) to inspire the current roster to perform. In fact, perversely, playing harder to increase a team’s draft slot actually might work against the interests of the current roster. Do you really want to help your team draft the superstar youngster that might end up taking your place?

    • I didn’t think about that, but again, it’s a bit different in baseball considering the likelihood of a draft pick making the active roster right away is exceedingly rare.

    • GM: “You’re all basically terrible, but we need you to play hard so that we can, if all goes well, fire you. Any questions?”

    • What do you even mean? Are you suggesting that players currently try harder after they are eliminated from playoffs because it means they won’t be able to draft a superstar youngster to replace them?

  3. I think it works much better in NBA. Didn’t realize tanking was such an issue in MLB? With set pitching rotations and low marginal value of a single game, I think tanking is much more difficult.

    Had an unrelated question on FIP. Was reading Jonah Keri team previews and saw that he used predicted pitcher FIP as his stat of choice. I was always under the impression that FIP aimed to show a pitcher’s true performance level regardless of results. In that case wouldn’t it be pretty useless in predicting success for a given year?

  4. Like Ray says, the NBA is the probably the only league where the toilet bowl concept (love the name btw) could actually work. The typical MLB draft pick can take anywhere between 3-5 years before they are ready for the big club. In that window, the GM and half the roster can be gone, so really, where is the incentive?

    The NBA draft on the other hand has a much more immediate impact on the success of a given team. One player can change the dynamics of the team, especially if the top draft choices are game changing athletes.

    I mean, God bless the Houston Astros and everything. I can see the concept of playing for something in September. I just think that professional pride and screwing the hopes and dreams of division rivals are much stronger incentives. Not to mention playing for a job or a contract. The Orioles had no trouble getting up for game 162 against the Red Sox.

    • That’s why I write about it solving a different problem rather than lack of competition. It would make the last two months of the year interesting for fans of the bottom teams. I think in general this is more of a problem in baseball than other sports.

      • It could be that the fan who follows the MLB draft finds those games interesting for other reasons. Draft slotting doesn’t seem like it would be enough to get the casual fan to tune in.

        And what GM/Manager wants a rule change that could give the owner another reason to fire them?

  5. Using the NBA analogy, why not reward the team with the best record (winner of the toilet bowl) a guaranteed number 1 pick instead of using the ping pong ball lottery?

    For baseball, the winner(s) of the toilet bowl (by order), would be allowed more slot money for draft picks? That is something that a team can play for (more of an immediate incentive).

  6. Imagine the sponsorship opportunities MLB could have with a toilet bowl race. You have the pennant races, the wildcard races and the toilet bowl races, brought to you by Moen.

  7. Correct for the division-heavy schedule, and we might be on to something.

  8. Makes more sense in sports other than baseball because in baseball you have the September callups. Sure the Bluejays are out of it, but hey lets see what Lawrie, Alvarez, Loewen and Carreno can do. In the current system teams do that, and at least that’s still kind of exciting. If you told baseball teams they had to win to get a better draft pick we’d get less September call up fun.

  9. But isn’t the purpose of rewarding high draft choices to poor performing franchises to give them more talent to win? I don’t see how this does anything but hurt the franchises that need the talent the most. Could we have a team like the Rays emerge as quickly after years of placing dead last, or would their rise require an additional step, getting consistently eliminated but with a team more capable of winning games past the point of elimination? Seems like that would take a lot of excitement out of their 2008 performance (which would probably have had to have occurred in 2015 or 16 or something). Just a weird thing, practically.

    Also, just from an optics standpoint, if I’m MLB, I’m not sure I want teams openly playing to lose by planning on getting eliminated and playing for draft picks, even if that’s the most they could realistically aspire to.

    • Just having high picks is no sure thing, as the Pirates and Orioles can attest. Why reward incompetence?

      Consider the high percentage of free market capitalists among sports ownership groups, they certainly love a good handout.

  10. This, and similar draft order issues in other North American pro sports, is simply solved: relegation. The Europeans figured this out beautifully. Demote your three worst teams to a Tier II liga and you create excitement at the bottom of the standings as well.

    Yes, I realize it would require the type of culture shift that is impossible at this point, but I still like it. The Japanese did an interesting thing. With the sports that originated in North American (e.g. baseball) they follow the NA approach. With sports that originated in Europe (e.g. football) they include tiered leagues and relegation.

    Then instead of complaining that the Jays never made the playoffs again since 1993, we could have crowed that they were never relegated either.

  11. Oh and yes, as the worst relegated team you get the first draft choice, but you’re playing in a lower tier so there’s the carrot and the stick.

    • I understand the concept of the tier 2 league – here in Scotland that championship is derisively called the ‘Diddy Cup’, but right now there is one league and one championship to play for. In the Scottish Premier League there are 2 teams anyone cares about, and the rest just fight not to be relegated, or try to be promoted, and it’s as boring as hell.

      Flawed as it is, I like the current draft system. It allows for the worst teams to have a chance at the highest rated amateurs, while still rewarding good scouting and analysis. I don’t think any true fan of baseball wants to have the top draft pick but it’s a decent consolation prize for enduring a terrible season.

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