October 2, 2012
The Tiebreak That Would Bring Baseball to its Knees
With three days remaining in the regular season, there were still three divisions—AL East, AL Central, and AL East—where we could conceivably have seen a two-way tie for first place. With two days remaining, we're down to one potential two-way tie (AL East), not counting the NL wild card. A two-way tie would mean baseball this Thursday, the day after each team plays its 162nd game and the day before the wild-card playoffs. Baseball on Thursday is better than no baseball, and a two-way tie is better than no tie at all. But breaking a two-way tie is distressingly simple: all it takes is a one-game playoff. True fans of Team Entropy crave more chaos. We want more teams to tie.
Add another team or two to the mix, and the playoff picture becomes much more complex: it takes nearly 2000 words to summarize all the scenarios for three-team and four-team ties on MLB.com’s profoundly puzzling “How to determine playoff tiebreakers” page. There are A, B, C, and D designations, 36 uses of the word “tentatively,” and three sentences that contain the phrase, “highest winning percentage in the last half plus one intraleague game, provided that such additional game was not between any of the tied Clubs.” You can’t read the whole page without ending up in the fetal position in front of your computer, feeling your hold on sanity slipping.
However, there’s one obvious omission from this otherwise exhaustive catalog of playoff possibilities: the tie-breaker scenarios on MLB.com stop at four teams. Divisions, on the other hand, do not. So what would happen if five teams were to tie?
Yes, it’s extremely unlikely. It’s rarely come close to happening, and maybe it never will. But the people who run baseball teams are getting smarter. FIELDf/x is about to give all 30 teams equal access to measurements of every movement players make on the field. A few measures intended to promote competitive balance have already been adopted, including the luxury tax, revenue sharing, draft-pick compensation, and bonus pools in the amateur draft. Let’s say an international draft appears in a future CBA. And let’s also say that a salary cap comes next. Baseball might not be better, but it would be more balanced. Play enough seasons, and it’s not entirely inconceivable that in one of them, all five teams in a division would finish with identical records.
Surely Major League Baseball has planned for this eventuality. Naturally, the solution wouldn’t be on the same website, since actually reading the rules for a five-way tiebreaker might melt your face off. But Bud Selig must have top men working on it right now, or secret plans locked away in a warehouse. The man who let an All-Star Game end in a tie wouldn’t sit around and wait for a whole season to end the same way. Or would he?
I asked Katy Feeney, Major League Baseball’s senior vice president of scheduling and club relations, if the Commissioner could be capable of such complacency (though I didn’t phrase the question quite like that).