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September 10, 2003

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Playoff Tiebreakers but Were Afraid to Ask

Breaking Down the Scenarios

by Christian Ruzich

With three weeks left in the season, it's the most wide-open playoff race in years. Half of the franchises in Major League Baseball are within three games of a playoff spot, and fans in places as unlikely as Kansas City, Miami, and the north side of Chicago are starting sentences with "If the postseason started today."

Of course, having so many teams in contention leads to lots of questions. What if the Yankees and Red Sox end up tied for the AL East lead? What if they have the same record as the Mariners? What if the Cubs, Cardinals and Astros end up tied for the NL Central lead? What if five teams tie for the Wild Card? Inquiring minds want to know.

Many of these questions can be answered by reading through the playoff tie-breaker scenarios that Major League Baseball used to have on its Web site, but those rules have a couple of serious flaws:

  1. Understanding them is about as easy as filling out a 1040 long form.
  2. Major League Baseball has changed them, but hasn't told anyone yet.

Using the most current information from MLB, here are the possibilities. Additional reporting was conducted to fill in some of the gaps MLB left out.

AMERICAN LEAGUE

According to the East Coast Bias Handbook, we have to start with the AL East. If the Red Sox and Yankees tie for the division lead, what happens will depend on whether those teams' record is better, worse, or the same as the record of the second-place team in the West (right now, the Mariners).

If the Yankees and Red Sox' record is worse than the Mariners', the two AL East team will play one game for the division title, at a location to be determined via coin flip. Twenty-five years after Bucky Dent, Red Sox Nation might find themselves angrily cursing Luis Sojo.

If the Yankees and Red Sox finish tied, and with a better record than the Mariners, there would be no playoff, as both teams would make the postseason. The division title would go to the team who won the head-to-head season series, while the other team would be the Wild Card entry. The Yankees took the season series 10-9, clinching it behind David Wells in a game that might turn out to be more important that anyone realized at the time.

What if New York and Boston tie for the division lead and have the same record as the West runner-up? Something like this, for instance:


New York   95-67  .586   Oakland    96-66  .593
Boston     95-67  .586   Seattle    95-67  .586

In the past, Boston and New York would have faced off in a one-game playoff, with the winner taking the division and the loser going home. The Mariners would have been awarded the Wild Card title, by virtue of having the best non-division-leader record. For example, if the Red Sox had beaten the Yankees in a playoff, then the final season standings would have looked like this:


Boston    96-67  .589    Oakland   96-66  .593
New York  95-68  .583    Seattle   95-67  .586

It always seemed unfair that only two of the three teams would have to play an elimination game, and one team would qualify for the playoffs without having to play their way in. Luckily, it never came to pass.

In a shocking display of common sense, Major League Baseball decided not to stop after one game, but will force all the teams with the same record to play at least one elimination game. Rather than scheduling tee times, the loser of the Yankees-Red Sox playoff game would now play the Mariners (at a coin-flip determined location) to see who is awarded the Wild Card playoff entry.

These games will be regular-season games, just like previous playoff games have been. Teams will be able to use their expanded rosters, and individual stats will count towards players' regular-season stats, just like in past years. There is one significant difference, though. Reached for an interview last week, Dominick Balsamo of Major League Baseball took great pains to point out that MLB would not consider these games to be regular-season games for the purpose of determining division and Wild Card winners. That is, rather than adding these games into the regular season won-lost records, MLB will simply use the results of the playoffs to determine who advances.

MLB is apparently worried about a situation where, after completing a playoff series, a team might not qualify for the playoffs despite having a higher winning percentage than a team that made the playoffs. This fear is unfounded, though--there is not a single situation where this can happen this season--and MLB would be better off just calling these games regular-season games, the way they always have.

Moving to the AL Central, a two-way tie would be determined by a normal one-game playoff. A three-way tie is a little messier; it would be determined by a two-game playoff. The three teams would be seeded based on their combined record against the other two teams, which currently stand at:


White Sox  16-10  .615
Royals     16-15  .516
Twins      13-20  .394

The White Sox play the Twins five more times and the Royals seven more times, but let's assume that the teams remain in this order. The White Sox would get first choice in a two-game playoff where Team A plays at Team B, and the winner hosts Team C. Once the White Sox make their pick (most likely Team C), the Royals would make theirs (Team B), and the Twins would be Team A. This would set up a Twins-Royals game in Kansas City, with the winner hosting the White Sox to determine the division champion.

In the AL West, the situation is the same as in the East. Seattle is up 7-6 in the season series, but there are six Mariners-A's games left on the schedule, so that race is up for grabs, too.

As far as the AL Wild Card race goes, it's going to be the second-place team from either the East or West. If the second place teams in those divisions end the season tied only with each other, they'd play a one-game Wild Card playoff, just as the Cubs and Giants did in 1998.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

Over in the National League, the only division race still undecided is the NL Central. A two-way tie would be resolved the same way it would be in the AL East race. But if the Cubs, Cardinals, and Astros all end up tied, what would happen depends on how the teams' record compares to the record of the best second-place team in the other divisions (currently the Phillies).

If the NL Central teams tie for the division lead and their record is worse than the Phillies' record, the Cubs, Cardinals, and Astros would play a two-game tournament with A-B-C seeding as described in the AL Central race.

Currently, their combined head-to-head records look like this:


Cubs       17-16  .515
Astros     14-14  .500
Cardinals  14-15  .483

This is another division which is far from settled, as the Astros and Cardinals hook up six more times before the season ends, but as it stands now the Cubs would be Team C, the Astros Team B, and the Cardinals Team A.

If the three Central teams end up with a better record than the Phillies, they'd play the same two-game tournament, but the loser of the second game (Cubs vs. the winner of Astros/Cardinals) would be the Wild Card entry.

Just like in the American League, the most convoluted scenario involves the division leaders tying for the lead with the same record as the also-ran in the other division. If this happened, the Cubs, Cardinals, and Astros would play a two-game tournament and the winner would be declared the NL Central champion. Then, the two remaining teams would play another two-game tournament with the Phillies, and the winner of that tournament would become the Wild Card entry. We'd get four playoff games over four days and the start of the Division Series pushed back by at least one day. Everyone would be happy, except Fox.

Even if there isn't a tie atop the NL Central, there's a chance of a tie for the Wild Card. A two-team tie results in a one-game playoff with home field determined by coin flip. A three-team tie results in a two-game tournament, seeding determined by combined head-to-head record or, in case of a tie, by lots drawn at random out of Bud Selig's toupee, turned over and used as a hat.

A four-team tie would result in a March Madness (October Oddness?) set-up: the four teams would be seeded randomly and set up in brackets. Team A would play Team B, Team C would play Team D, and the winners would meet to determine who gets the Wild Card berth.

That's as far as Major League Baseball's doomsday scenarios go. But what would happen if Philadelphia, Florida, Montreal, Arizona, and Los Angeles all ended the season with the exact same record? Asked how they would break a five-way tie, the friendly, patient folks in the Major League Baseball office were forced into hypothetical territory. Pending consultation with and approval by the player's union, what might happen is that the team with the best combined head-to-head record of the five (currently Florida) would get a bye. Then, the other four teams would play bracketed elimination games. The winners of those two games would then join the Marlins in a two-game tournament, with Florida automatically designated as Team A. The winner of that tournament would take home the coveted Wild Card trophy (or gold watch, or whatever it is they get). Four games later, we'd finally have a Wild Card entrant.

So there you go. Just like MLB's plan to determine the Expos' future, the playoff tiebreaker scenarios are convoluted, hard to follow, and not always intuitive.

The difference here is that there is no obviously better way to break the ties. Major League Baseball should never go to any sort of strength-of-schedule system the way the NFL does, and using one-, two- or even four-game playoffs, even though it might mean pushing the postseason back a day or two, is the best solution. It might be hard to understand all the permutations, but MLB has managed to get this one right.

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