Explaining the MLB postseason tiebreakers

If two, three or four teams are tied at the end of the regular season, baseball has a plan for that. Anything more is pure chaos.

With division races and Wild Card battles in the National League closely bunched together, there is a chance the 2018 Major League Baseball regular season will not end on Sunday, Sept. 30. That’s right, it’s time to talk tiebreakers.

Since baseball expanded into divisions in 1969, the tiebreakers have all been one game to decide either a division or a Wild Card berth. The last tiebreaker was in 2013 when the Tampa Bay Rays beat the Texas Rangers to win the American League Wild Card. These games technically count as regular season contests, and all the stats count like a normal game.

The 1978 tiebreaker game between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park for the American League East was a classic and gave us Bucky F. Dent. The most memorable tiebreaker since was in 2007, when the Colorado Rockies rallied in the 13th inning to stun the San Diego Padres to win the Wild Card, with Matt Holliday sliding home to launch Colorado’s Rocktober run all the way to the World Series.

As good as some of these one-game tiebreakers have been, there is potential for so much more than just a single extra game.

With the postseason scheduled so soon after the regular season — National League Wild Card Game is Tuesday, Oct. 2, and the AL Wild Card Game is Wednesday, Oct. 3 — anything beyond a simple one-game tiebreaker could throw things into a tizzy.

Two-team tie

If there is a tie between two teams — the Rockies and Los Angeles Dodgers in the NL West, the Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers in the NL Central, or the Dodgers and St. Louis Cardinals for a Wild Card spot, for instance — the procedure is simple. Those two teams would play on Monday, Oct. 1, the day after the regular season, at the site of the team with a better head-to-head record* between the two teams.

If there is a tie between the two Wild Card teams there is no need for a one-game playoff to determine home field advantage for another one-game playoff. The team with the better head-to-head record gets to host. This happened in 2014, when the 88-win Pittsburgh Pirates hosted the 88-win San Francisco Giants thanks to winning four of their six regular season matchups.

Three-team tie

This has never happened, but would be our most likely chance at chaos, as it involves at least two extra days worth of games, which could affect the scheduling of the Wild Card games.

Three teams for one spot: Three teams tying for either a division or Wild Card spot introduces game theory to the proceedings. The team with the best record against the other two teams gets first choice at being Club A, B or C. Of the remaining two teams, the team with the best head-to-head record* between those two gets to choose from the two remaining spots. There are still games to be played but let’s take the NL West for example. If the Rockies, Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks end the year tied, at the moment Arizona has the advantage with a 17-15 record against the other two. Los Angeles owns an 11-7 mark against Colorado and if that holds they would get the second pick.

This can essentially boil down to picking between potentially hosting at least one game but needing two wins, or playing on the road and needing only one win. Club A would host Club B on Oct. 1, with the winner hosting Club C on Oct. 2.

The same A-B-C designation would apply if three teams tied for a single Wild Card spot.

*If head-to-head record isn’t enough to decide pecking orders, MLB digs even deeper into the minutiae. The next deciders, in order, are:

  1. Higher winning percentage in intradivision games (e.g. NL Central vs. NL Central)
  2. Higher winning percentage in the last half of intraleague games (e.g. NL vs. NL)
  3. Higher winning percentage in the last half of interleague games plus one, “provided that such additional game was not a game between the tied clubs.”

Have your eyes glazed over yet?

Three teams for two spots: If two teams tie for a division title, and share the same record of a team in another division for the second Wild Card spot, there are two additional games. The two divisional teams would play Monday for the division title, then the loser would travel to the team outside of their division on Tuesday for the Wild Card berth.

The most likely real-world case of this possibly happening in 2018 appears to be the Dodgers, Rockies and Cardinals, fighting for both the NL West and the second Wild Card spot. In this scenario the Dodgers would host the Rockies on Monday (by winning their regular season series) for the division, then the loser would head to St. Louis on Tuesday for the second Wild Card position. This would necessitate moving the NL Wild Card Game from Tuesday to Wednesday, meaning one of the NL West teams could potentially play five games in five days, in five different cities, culminating in the NLDS on Thursday, Oct. 4.

If three teams are tied for two Wild Card spots they would use the A-B-C designation described above. The winner of Monday’s A-B game wins one Wild Card berth, and the loser would travel to play Club C on Tuesday for the other Wild Card spot.

We came so close to this scenario in 2013, when the Cleveland Indians (91-70) led the Rangers (90-71) and Rays (90-71) with one game to go in the regular season and two Wild Card spots in the balance. A three-way tie would have meant the Indians hosting the Rays on Monday followed by the Rangers hosting the winner on Tuesday. But Cleveland ruined our fun by winning on Sunday to secure one Wild Card spot, leaving us with only one tiebreaker game.

Four-team tie

This is a lot like the three-team scenarios, but while that was as easy as A-B-C, the four-team tiebreakers involve designating teams A, B, C and D.

Four teams for one spot: Whether this is for a division or a Wild Card berth, this is the simplest quad scenario. On Monday after the season Club A hosts Club B and Club C hosts Club D, then on Tuesday the two winners play with the A-B winner at home.

Four teams for two Wild Card spots: If four non-division winners are tied for both Wild Card spots, Club A hosts Club B and Club C hosts Club D on Monday, with the winners claiming both Wild Card spots. Of those two winners, the team with the better head-to-head record is the home team for the Wild Card Game.

Three teams atop one division, plus another for a Wild Card: The team outside the division is designated as Club D here, with the three teams in the same division going through the same ordeal as above to determine A, B and C. On Monday following the regular season, Club A hosts Club B and Club C hosts Club D. If Club D wins, they get the Wild Card berth and the winner of A-B game is the division winner. If Club C wins Monday, they travel to play the A-B winner on Tuesday, with the winner getting the division and the loser the Wild Card spot.

Two teams atop one division, plus two others for two Wild Cards: On Monday we get two games — the two teams in the same division will play for the division title, while the two teams in the other division play for one Wild Card berth. On Tuesday the losers of both Monday games will meet for the other Wild Card berth.

The wildest part of almost all of these four-team scenarios is any National League tiebreaker games needed for Tuesday would necessitate rescheduling the NL Wild Card Game. Welcome to pandemonium.

Five-team tie

This would truly be chaos, but still technically possible with the Cubs, Brewers, Cardinals, Rockies and Dodgers all still closely bunched together. But the scenario is so unlikely that MLB doesn’t have an official scenario to account for this madness. An MLB spokesman said that if things go beyond a four-way tie, the commissioner’s office would have to devise a tiebreaking method.

We can all dream, I suppose.

Read more at SB Nation.

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