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October 2, 2012

Overthinking It

The Tiebreak That Would Bring Baseball to its Knees

by Ben Lindbergh

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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).

“To be perfectly honest, considerations for tiebreakers do not go that far,” Feeney said. “It’s not there anywhere. It’s probably something that would have to be determined.”

Chilling words. By the time a fix for a five-way tie would have to be determined, it might already be too late.

As Feeney pointed out, tiebreakers get complicated with three teams involved, and we don’t even have two-way ties all that often. A five-way tie is the senior vice president of scheduling equivalent of a boogeyman under the bed. Still, I asked her if she would be willing to speculate about what a five-way tiebreaker might look like.

“Once you design the designations, I guess you’d have A, B, C, D, and E. That’s hard to say, because I don’t know if they’d decide to do it like the three-team and have B play A at A, and C play the winner. If you were doing that, and you have A, B, C, and D, you have A hosting B, and C hosting D on the same day, and then the winners play each other. Now whether or not, if you have to go to an E, if E gets to wait until both those games are over and then play the winner, I don’t know. People would have to talk about that to see if that was fair.

“They’d probably do something similar to the four-team, but I’m not sure if it would be A, B, and C, and then D and E, playing. I mean, we’re talking minimum three days for the five-team tie. You could have a couple of games on the same day, but you’re talking minimum three days, if not more.”

You may not have understood much of the preceding two paragraphs. Then again, you don’t have to. The looming specter of a five-way tie is Feeney’s burden to bear. So is she concerned about MLB’s lack of preparedness?

“By the time it happens, I’ll be long gone,” she said.

You and I probably won’t be around either. But do we want to leave our children or our children’s children or our unrecognizably evolved even-more-distant descendants to wonder why we never took the time to think about them? Just as it makes sense to scan the skies for one-in-a-million meteor strikes, it makes sense to plan for the worst (or, depending on your perspective, the best) possible outcome of a pennant race. Assuming we statheads don’t succeed in our quest to suck all the fun out of sports, we can expect about a billion more baseball seasons before the sun becomes too hot for liquid water to exist on Earth, at which point even Omar Vizquel will be forced to retire. In one of those seasons, five teams might tie for a division title. Will we be ready?

Thanks to Katy Feeney for not hanging up on me or reporting me to the BBWAA board when I asked her ludicrous questions about five-way ties. 

Ben Lindbergh is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ben's other articles. You can contact Ben by clicking here

Related Content:  Playoffs,  Major League Baseball,  MLB,  Baseball,  Tie,  Tiebreaks,  Katy Feeney

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