September 7, 2017
Let's Design a Five-Way Tiebreaker
It could happen. I mean, it’s possible in the sense that it isn’t impossible. And is it ever fun to think about. For those of us who like to poke and prod at the edges of baseball just to see what will make it finally cry uncle, the idea of a massive tie for a playoff spot and the chaos that it would create is the forbidden fruit that we all hope to add to our lunch at some point. What if five teams ended the regular season tied for one playoff spot? Hooray Team Entropy! (Thanks, Jay Jaffe!)
MLB has had its share of memorable tiebreakers. The call of Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” ends with frantic cries of “the Giants won the pennant!” because it ended what was then a three-game tiebreaker series for the lone National League playoff spot for the 1951 season. (This was before divisional play and the idea of the “Championship Series.”) Somewhere out there, a lone Padres fan is still frantically searching for Matt Holliday’s home address and swears that he will bring a ball to finally tag him out, and the Padres-Rockies 2007 game will be continued 10 years after it ended.
When the second “Wild Card” was added to the MLB playoff format, the idea was that it would be fun to have that sort of one-game, win-or-go-home event every year, and it has largely succeeded. But there’s a bit of hidden math that came along with it that might eventually (and inadvertently) bring us even more of the chaos we crave. In most seasons, there a couple of good teams in the league, a couple of bad teams, and a bunch of teams that are scrunched together in the middle. In general, teams on the good side of that ledger are rewarded with a playoff spot (sorry, 1993 Giants). But the more playoff spots that baseball adds, the more likely it is that they will be reaching back into that giant cluster of mediocre teams.
It’s rare that two teams finish with 100 wins in a season, but two teams finishing with 86 wins? Yeah, that happens. What about three? But the dirty little secret about all this fantasizing about chaos is that ... MLB has never actually had even a three-way tie situation. They have official written procedures for how it would handle a three-way and a four-way tie, but they’ve never had to use them. The four-way tie situation, however unlikely, at least has the aesthetically pleasing resolution that the four teams can play a single elimination tournament against each other. The three-way tie situation doesn’t feel as fair, because one team could theoretically “win” only having to have play one game.
Baseball is clearly aware of the unfairness of the three-way system. They do penalize the team that will only play one game by requiring that their game be played on the road, but even with home-field advantage taken away (the home team wins about 54 percent of all baseball games), they are playing that game after an off day on which their opponent had to play a win-or-go-home game. It hardly seems fair.
Still, the closest set of circumstances I could find that might have produced a three-way tie-breaker was in 1996. That year, the Yankees, Indians, and Rangers won their respective divisions, and the Orioles finished at 88-74 to snag the Wild Card spot. But had the second Wild Card policy been in effect that year, it would have found the Red Sox and White Sox sitting at 85-77. The Mariners finished the season at 85-76, having had a canceled game against the Angels that was never made up (because under the rules at the time, it was meaningless). Under the current rules, the Mariners would have made that game up, and if they had lost, would have entered a three-team playoff for that last Wild Card spot.