Wednesday, September 25, 2013

On tanking, Buster Olney, and the Astros

Buster Olney started it. In his (Insider-Only) blog post for ESPN yesterday in which the headline read "Astros' season highlights incentive to tank," Olney took the Astros task for not fielding a competitive team and how it's destroying the very fabric of baseball. Give him credit, because back in March he was trumpeting the exact same thing (you can read our thoughts on that piece here).

The interesting thing is that, once again, Olney is the one with the problem. A rival official told Olney, "They're going to be good because they're getting access to the best talent and Luhnow is a really smart guy." (emphasis Olney's) Olney admits, "In the minds of many rival evaluators - many - the Astros are playing baseball's current system to perfection."

Back in his March hand-wringing, Olney said, "Privately, rival executives really like what the Astros are doing, in stripping down the organization and rebuilding from the ground up."

Even Bud Selig, who is clearly the devil, told Brian Smith:
"I do trust the organization. Look, every organization goes through certain phases. They have chosen the path with some very qualified people. And the only way you can really build a solid organization, a solid team, is through a very productive farm system. And I think they're doing it the right way. There's no question in my mind."

Olney, typically, is providing the knee-jerk reactionary's viewpoint. He even mentions "an evaluator" who admired that the NBA instituted a lottery system to prevent rewarding teams from losing, as though MLB and the NBA are interchangeable parts. 

Olney says that the Astros could have spent more money in an effort to be competitive and chose not to do so and "what should scare Major League Baseball" is that the Astros are admired for their strategy. "Fans are paying major league prices to watch major league competition...that fan is not buying a ticket because he knows Houston is positioned to pick NC State's Carlos Rodon in next June's draft."

Here's where Olney is missing the point: No, fans aren't exactly lining up to get into Minute Maid Park. Attendance is roughly half of what it was in 2004. And - if they're even able to watch Astros games on CSN Houston - they're not doing so (while fully realizing that Nielsen ratings don't count those of us watching on Extra Innings, MLB.TV, or even fans in Houston using an IP masking service watching MLB.TV). A 0.0 rating?

Because it's not fun for people who don't follow the Astros on a regular basis to give it any thought, Olney stops his argument short of following a logical line: That there is no guarantee to what the Astros' situation is, and there is the possibility that the Astros are slowly, methodically, being destroyed. It's hard to look at attendance at Minute Maid Park, whole sections of which are representative of the television ratings (while my personal opinions of tv ratings are well-documented) and say that the Astros are reaping the benefits of a broken system.

What if Jon Singleton doesn't put it together? What if George Springer and Chris Carter combine to strike out Seventabilly times in 2014? What if Jordan Lyles can't figure it out for more than three starts at a time? Drafting in baseball is not like the lottery system in the NBA. An NBA lottery pick - more often than not - means there is an impact on the team within six months. We'll be lucky to see Carlos Correa, who was drafted fifteen months ago, by 2016.

And besides, if/when the Astros start winning again, how long will it take for fans to start returning to Minute Maid Park? Two years? Three? And if you think that DirecTV and UVerse didn't see that the Astros/Indians game drew a 0.0, and are now tripping over themselves to get CSN Houston on board for $3/subscriber....

Olney is short-sighted, discounting the immense risk that the Astros are taking. The Astros are not providing a blueprint for teams that want to save a few bucks and get a higher draft pick, as Olney alleges. The Marlins? you ask. Hell no. Jeffrey Loria goes out of his way to find new strategies for screwing over his team, fanbase, and probably the government, too.

But of course, like crows attracted to shiny things, here came Peter Gammons:
And then, not to be outdone by a ridiculously tired narrative, Jayson Stark:
I guess we can forget that the Cubs signed Edwin Jackson to a four-year $52m deal this past off-season, and have a $75.5m payroll to go 65-97 (closer to the Astros than they are the Angels in the standings), and are 24-48 against the NL Central, the division that will have three playoff teams. Oh, yes, the Astros are 25-50 against the AL West, meaning that the Astros and Cubs have the same inter-division winning percentage. Cubs Factor?

Sure, the Rangers are helped by beating the Astros 16 out of 18 games. But they're in a Wild Card race in part because they're 13-19 against the AL Central. Cleveland is in line for a playoff berth in large part because they're 16-2 against the White Sox. Atlanta is 26-12 against the Marlins and Nationals.

Bad teams all end up in the same place - at home in October. Good teams beat those bad teams. It's how it works. The Astros are bad. Really bad. We're going to see video clips of the Blocked Bunt and Butt-Slide for years to come. But to hammer the Astros, link them to Pete Rose and Joe Jackson (As Olney did in March), and to maintain this tired TEH ASTORS narrative is as reckless as CSN Houston playing chicken with 60% of televisions in the Houston area. The real damage the Astros are doing is to their own franchise, it has nothing to do with the rest of Major League Baseball or Buster Olney.