The Day The Numbers Died: How Tanking Taints Everything
Some call it analytics. Some call it statistics. Some call it trivia. Others call it a waste of time. But collating and interpreting the reams of data generated by pro sports teams and its stars is now an integral part of sport.
On one hand, analysis of data is how players get paid the vast sums they receive. Terms such as player comparables and salary caps speak to the system of rewards that governs contracts and payrolls in sports. If player X and Y both hit 20 HRs with 100 RBIs they should be paid equally. The more productive a player the better his compensation.
Then there is the burgeoning field of analytics— the studies of data that govern strategies and determine how teams are built. One need only look at the radical defensive shifts employed in MLB to see the outgrowth of this statistical analysis of tens of thousands of at-bats in MLB games.
This deep dive into the numbers has grown to the point where teams are now studying how far players must run to get on and off the playing field in football before tiring. Or how often an NBA player goes to his left or right when dribbling the ball.
Then there is the historical study of data to ascertain what constitutes a player worthy of the Hall of Fame or contrasting legends from different eras to determine who should be the GOAT (greatest of all time). For much of the time this was the purview of devoted fans. Bill James is the godfather of this field which was subsequently adopted by all sports for the purposes listed above.
Vital to these applications of statistics is the concept of competition. Players trying their best at all times. Organizations fielding the best players they could. Winning being the one and only goal of a contest. Only the purity of competition assures that the resulting data has relevance and application in the sport.
The thought struck me reading a James essay about the greatest MLB managers of all time. Who belongs in Cooperstown? The piece relies heavy of data stretching back to the early 20th century. As we read we wondered, what would happen to the data if the teams or players were not putting winning ahead of all else when the puck drops or the ball is kicked off?
How would this affect the study of statistics and the analysis of ground balls versus fly balls What would happen if teams announced they were not going to put winning above all else? That they were taking a few years off from putting their best team on the field every day?
As people know we have just such a system in place today in pro sports. It has several names that disguise its purpose. Some teams call it rebuilding, some call it salary-cap redistribution. But most fans know it by its more popular— and perjorative— label. Tanking.
Losing on purpose to stock up on high draft picks— Powerball wishes for a superstar. Fielding a bargain-basement team to relieve pressure on the bottom line for a few seasons. Tossing in the towel because wining is just such damned hard work.
Fans of the Toronto Blue Jays know what we mean. Rogers, the club’s owner, has decided that the effort it undertook to win the World Series between 2015-2017 was too exhausting and costly. So in 2017 it began dumping its star players and replacing them with… someone else. This spring it jettisoned a few more names like Kevin Pillar and Russell Martin. You can anticipate a few more like Justin Smoak, Marcus Stroman and Alex Sanchez to join them in the outbound lane at Pearson Airport.
The team now stinks. The combination of never-weres and green rookies has produced a monumentally inept offence. Its pitching is borderline. The manager is a nice career baseball guy who’d never get near a competitive team.
Don’t dump on only the Jays. In MLB Detroit, Baltimore, Kansas City, Chicago WS and half a dozen more teams are just going through the motions. In front of very sparse crowds. You cans see the same charade in the NBA and NHL.
Which begs the question, what does it mean if a star strikes out 250 batters in a season when many of his victims don’t belong at his level? The same in the NBA. How genuine is the record for three pointers when it’s earned against below-replacement-level teams? Are Alex Ovechkin’s 50 or 60 goals on a par with Wayne Gretzky’s era when teams never announced they were tanking for the first-round pick.
Readers of IDLM and my new book Cap In Hand brucedowbigginbooks.ca will know that we’ve warned before about the damage to competition when winning is subordinated to salary cap needs or counting on the draft lottery to deliver a winner. The swaths of empty seats in MLB, NBA and NHL arenas speaks to it.
More than a loss of integrity, however, the tanking trend is also a loss to the romance of a sport. Debates over the GOAT in a sport, the best we’ve ever seen. And that might be the biggest loss of all.
Bruce Dowbiggin @dowbboy is the publisher of his website Not The Public Broadcaster (http://www.notthepublicbroadcaster.com). He’s also a regular contributor to Sirius XM Canada Talks Ch. 167. A two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada's top television sports broadcaster, he is also a best-selling author whose new book Cap In Hand: How Salary Caps Are Killing Pro Sports And Why The Free Market Could Save Them brucedowbigginbooks.ca is now available.