The Boston Celtics won the NBA draft lottery on Tuesday night, thanks to a 2013 trade with the now-decrepit Brooklyn Nets, who finished with the league’s worst record. Such a scenario could never happen in Major League Baseball, which neither allows trading picks nor has a lottery, though both ideas get floated from time to time.
The hope of a lottery is that it reduces the incentive of teams to "tank"—to be bad intentionally, generally by stripping down their rosters and payrolls in a rebuilding process. With so many MLB teams going through rebuilding programs in recent years, hand-wringing over those intentional plunges into 95-or 100-loss territory has been common, never moreso than when the Astros received the first pick an unprecedented three straight times from 2012 to '14, after losing at least 106 games in each of the previous three seasons.
When the NBA originally introduced its lottery system, in 1985, each non-playoff team had an even chance of winning the first pick, but in 1990 that was changed to a more equitable system where each team's odds were weighted by its relative ranking of worst record, with the worst team having 11 chances out of 66 to get the first pick, the second-worst having 10 out of 66, and so on, with the 10th-worst team having just a 1-in-66 chance. Today the system is significantly more complicated, involving 1,001 combinations of four numbers drawn in true lottery fashion, with the worst team having a 25% chance of getting the top pick, the second-worst team a 19.9% chance and the 10th through 14th teams having a 1.1% chance or less. Only the first three picks are determined via lottery, with the rest in reverse order of won-loss record.
The lottery does function as a way to stimulate interest in the draft. ESPN televised the NBA's lottery on Tuesday and will do so for the actual draft on June 22. Major League Baseball, which has sought to make its draft a marquee event, began televising its first round in 2007 and presumably would televise the lottery as well. Still, that draft doesn't exactly do big ratings; according to Sports Media Watch, last year's first day drew an estimated 279,000 viewers, down 9% from the previous year but up 20% from two years prior. That's an order of magnitude smaller than the NBA draft (3.7 million in 2015), the no-lottery NFL draft (4.3 million over three days in 2016) or even a typical ESPN Sunday Night Baseball game.
Presumably, MLB and the owners of the 30 teams have better ways to make money than by creating a lottery system that at best might draw the interest of a couple hundred thousand viewers, but that's a secondary concern. The real question is whether the lottery is simply a snazzy solution in search of a problem. Tearing down expensive teams, winning or otherwise, in order to change directions has been going on for a century. Longtime Philadelphia A's owner/manager Connie Mack broke up a powerhouse that had won four pennants and three championships from 1910 to '14; by 1916, the team set a still-standing record with a .235 winning percentage (36-117). Mack's selloff lightened his payroll and gave him room to bring in younger players, but it didn't guarantee him the pick of the litter; the amateur draft wasn't introduced until 1965 and it took until 1929 for the A’s to win another pennant.
The 1998 Marlins are perhaps the best/worst example of how a teardown can pay off via the draft. Broken apart after their surprising 1997 World Series win because of owner Wayne Huizenga’s desire to turn a profit rather than maintain a payroll that ranked seventh out of 28 teams the year before, they finished 54-108 and drafted Josh Beckett with the No. 1 pick the following year; he turned out to be the World Series MVP in 2003, when the team won the World Series again.
But other clubs conducting fire sales and teardowns weren't so obviously successful. The 1993 Padres, who notoriously traded stars Fred McGriff and Gary Sheffield in midsummer, finished 61-101, which only got them the third pick in 1994 (they chose pitcher Dustin Hermanson) and, after an NL-worst 47-70 record during the strike-shortened season, the second pick in '95 (they chose catcher Ben Davis). Neither pick yielded much value to San Diego, though the club's broader rebuilding process—which included acquiring closer Trevor Hoffman from the Marlins in the Sheffield deal — helped it reach the postseason in 1996 and the World Series in '98. The 2012 Marlins, who traded pitcher Anibal Sanchez and infielders Omar Infante and Hanley Ramirez at midseason after a big free agent buildup the previous winter, lost 93 games and picked sixth the next year (taking third baseman Colin Moran, who has all of nine major league games under his belt), then went 62-100 and chose second in 2014 (Tyler Kolek, a high school pitcher whose career has been stalled by April 2016 Tommy John surgery).
The Cubs, who went 61-101 in 2012, merely got the third pick the following year (taking third baseman Kris Bryant) and the fourth pick after a 96-loss 2013 (catcher Kyle Schwarber). Both were instrumental in their 2016 World Series championship, but that was also a matter of drafting well within a larger plan that also required trades, international signings and free agents—not to mention some luck in surviving the postseason — to come to fruition. The aforementioned Astros hit on just one of their three first-round picks, when they took future AL Rookie of the Year shortstop Carlos Correa in 2012; pitchers Mark Appel (chosen in 2013 and now scuffling with the Phillies' Triple A affiliate) and Brady Aiken (taken in 2014 and now pitching for the Indians' A-level affiliate) are no longer with the Houston organization. Nevertheless, the Astros made the playoffs in 2015 and they currently have the best record in baseball, but that success owes to a cohesive plan that goes beyond getting the No. 1 pick.
That said, part of Houston’s success was using the slotting system—which was implemented in 2013 and gives each team a predetermined pool of money to spend based upon the draft order—to their advantage. By signing Correa for just a $4.8 million bonus instead of the slot value’s $7.2 million, they were able to sign supplemental first-round pick Lance McCullers Jr. and fourth-rounder Rio Ruiz to above-slot bonuses that steered them away from college commitments.
Correa’s success in the majors notwithstanding, the first pick isn't all it's cracked up to be. Ken Griffey Jr. (1987) is the only one to reach the Hall of Fame, although Chipper Jones (1990) will soon become the second and Alex Rodriguez (1993) and Joe Mauer (2001) could wind up there too. On the other hand, 23 of the 52 players to be chosen first overall have produced 10.0 WAR or less, and 14 have produced 1.0 WAR or less, though both of those counts include the past four 1/1 picks—Appel, Aiken, shortstop Dansby Swanson (drafted by the Diamondbacks in 2015 but traded to the Braves six months later) and outfielder Mickey Moniak (2016; Phillies)
Considering only the drafts from the 30-team era (1998 to present), the overall number one picks have produced the most value, but not by a wide margin over the second picks. The average yields drop off after that, albeit in uneven fashion, as this breakdown of average WAR by pick shows:
All of those averages include players whose careers are still in progress, including 1-1 picks Bryce Harper (2009), Stephen Strasburg ('10) and Gerrit Cole ('11). The spike at No. 5 owes to J.D. Drew, Mark Teixiera, Ryan Braun and Buster Posey, all of whom have produced at least 35 WAR in their careers, while at No. 7, it's Clayton Kershaw and Troy Tulowitzki running up the score with at least 44 WAR apiece. The point is that in any given draft, the No. 1 pick doesn't always yield the most value, in part because drafting in baseball is an inexact science and also because true talent isn't the sole factor in drafting; financial considerations and differing organizational needs and philosophies come into play as well. The chances of landing a standout at No. 1 are higher, but examples of All-Stars and potential Hall of Famers can be found all over the draft board.
Rebuilding isn't fun. Losing teams suffer at the gate, particularly in more fickle markets, and they earn less revenue, which is why they tend to cut payroll in order to keep their bottom lines in order. Not only does fan interest often wane during those periods, but the process can generate hostility from elsewhere (how many anti-tanking articles have been written about the Astros in recent years?). The industry-wide realization that mediocrity in the form of a 70-something win team doesn't pay off, that it's better to be at or near the bottom, is what drives teams to go full stinko, but if too many in the same league do it at once—arguably the case in last year's NL, with the Braves, Brewers, Padres, Phillies, Reds and Rockies all amid such cycles — it can compromise the league's competitive balance. Even then, however, not everybody can lose 100 games. Does rewarding, say, the fifth-worst team (which this year would be the Phillies, who were 71-91 last year) with a chance to pick ahead of the Reds (68-94, picking second next month) or the AL's Twins (59-103 without deliberately rebuilding) make sense?
I don't see that it does. Building through the draft is challenging enough as it is, and throwing an artificial wrinkle into the process via the lottery doesn't make it easier to turn a bad team around, particularly in conjunction with the recently-implemented cap on international spending as well as the draft, not to mention the ongoing efforts to penalize teams that sign qualifying free agents. Baseball has enough problems without creating another one for the sake of television or a half-baked method of shaming teams trying to turn their fortunes around. Adding the lottery just isn’t worth the gamble.