The American League wild card race couldn’t be more aptly named. With six teams bunched together, the final week of the season promises to be a frenzy. In fact, there’s no guarantee the playoff picture will be any more clear on September 29. On the contrary, it could take that entire day just to arrange the tie breakers and then several more to decide them. As a pre-emptive measure against the chaos the now seems inevitable, below is a user’s guide to the Major League Baseball playoff tiebreaker system (bold and italicized text below is excerpted from this link).
I. Two-Team Ties
Two team ties are fairly straight forward. Depending on how many playoff slots are available, the participants would play one game to break the tie, with home field the only matter to be decided. For that reason, we can push aside this mundane scenario to focus on the more intricate three-way and four-way ties that remain a possibility. However, before fast forwarding to the end of the season, we first need to take a snap shot of the contenders’ current positioning.
American League Wild Card Standings and Head-to-Head Data
Note: Light blue shading indicates games remain between the two teams. Data as of 9/18/13.
Because a multiple tie for either or both wild card positions would involve one or more teams being eliminated from the postseason, the tiebreaker process begins with the assignment of team designations. These designations are used to schedule the play-in games needed to actually determine who wins the wild card(s). When more than two teams end the season in a tie, a variety of qualifiers are used to rank clubs. Using this hierarchy, each team is given the opportunity to select their preferred designation (defined as Team A, Team B, Team C, etc).
II. Three-Team Ties – Determining Designations A, B, C
1. “All Three Clubs Have Identical Records Against One Another”
Albeit unlikely, this scenario is relatively straightforward. If three clubs end the season tied and also have identical records against each other, their intra-division records are used to break the deadlock. Should a tie still remain after applying that criteria, the highest winning percentage in the last half of all intra-league games is considered (with one game added on, if necessary, until the tie is broken). Because the current season leaves no possibility of a three-team tie with all participants having identical records, we can put aside this scenario, at least for now.
2(a). “If Club 1 has a better record against Clubs 2 and 3, and Club 2 has a better record against Club 3, then Club 1 chooses its designation, followed by Club 2.”
Note: Data is as of 9/18/13.
In this example under scenario 2(a), the Indians would get the first choice of team designation by virtue of winning the season series against both the Orioles and Rangers. After Cleveland made its selection, Baltimore would get the next pick because it had the better of Texas during the regular season. It’s important to note that the Indians would not automatically be designated as Team A, but rather, would have the first choice from among the three possible positions (see Playoff Format section for the implications of that decision).
2(b). “If Club 1 has a better record against Clubs 2 and 3, and Club 2 and 3 have identical records against one another, then Club 1 chooses its designation. Clubs 2 and 3 would follow the two-Club tiebreak rules to break their tie to pick the next designation.”
Note: Assumes KC wins 2 of 3 form Texas. Otherwise, data is as of 9/18/13.
Example 2 illustrates the only way scenario 2(b) could play out: if the Royals win 2 of 3 from the Rangers this weekend. Based on that assumption, Cleveland would once again get to pick first, but this time, Texas, by virtue of a better intra-division record, would choose second.
2(c). “If Club 1 and 2 have identical records against one another, but each has a better record against Club 3, then Clubs 1 and 2 would follow the two-Club tiebreak rules to break their tie to pick the first designation.”
Note: Assumes Texas wins 1 game from Tampa. Otherwise, data is as of 9/18/13.
If Texas beats Tampa tonight and then loses 2 of 3 to Kansas City, scenario 2(c) could arise. In this example, Texas would get the first choice of designation because of its superior intra-division record, while Tampa, the owner of a losing record against both participants, would select last.
2(d). “If Club 1 has a better record against Club 2, Club 2 has a better record against Club 3, and Club 3 has a better record against Club 1; OR Club 1 has a better record against Club 2, Club 2 and 3 have identical records against one another and Club 3 has a better record against Club 1; OR Club 1 and 2 have identical records against one another, Club 1 has a better record against Club 3 and Club 2 and 3 have identical records against one another, then:
- a. “The Clubs will be ranked by their overall winning percentage amongst the other Clubs combined. The Club with the highest overall winning percentage in that group chooses its designation, followed by the team with the next highest overall winning percentage.”
Note: Data is as of 9/18/13.
Scenario 2(d) may seem convoluted, but basically it involves a situation in which each of the three teams holds a season series edge over exactly one other. So, to establish dominance, the combined record between the participants is considered. In Example 4, the Yankees would be given their choice of designation by virtue of a superior winning percentage against the Indians and Rangers. But, what would happen if at least two of the teams still had the same head-to-head record?
Note: Assumes Yankees sweep Rays, and Rays beat Texas, giving all teams a .500 record against the other two. Otherwise, data is as of 9/18/13.
- b. “If two of the Clubs have identical winning percentages, then they would follow the two-Club tiebreak rules to break their tie to pick their designation.
- c. “If all three teams have identical winning percentages, then the tiebreak rules above (No. 1) for three clubs having identical records against one another should be followed.”
If only two clubs remained tied under scenario 2(d), head-to-head between them would break the deadlock. For three teams, the deciding factor would be the same set of criteria applied in scenario 1. Example 5 illustrates this outcome as Texas would triumph over the Yankees and Rays by virtue of a better intra-division record.
III. Four-Team Ties – Determining Designations A, B, C, D
The same criteria used to break a three-way tie (when teams have identical records against each other) apply to a four-way tie, but they are made subordinate to one additional consideration: the combined head-to-head record of each participant. In this scenario, each team’s winning percentage against the other three is ranked to determine priority in selecting designations. The charts below display the current combined head-to-head record for each team against all possible four-way tie combinations. Using this information, we can see, for example, that the Royals would currently win preference if they ended the season tied with the Rays, Orioles and Yankees.
Four-way Tie Head-to-Head Combination: AL Wild Card Race
Note: Light blue shading indicates Royals would win four-way tie with Yankees, Orioles, and Rays. Data is as of 9/18/13.
IV. Playoff Formats: Actually Breaking the Ties
Once teams choose their designation, the real fun begins. But, how important is getting to make the first selection? Below are the actual tie-breaker formats that would be used for each of the scenarios that could occur on the last scheduled day of the regular season. In addition, the implications of each designation are considered and the strategies for choosing them are examined.
1. Three-Club Tie for One Wild Card Spot:
“After Clubs have been assigned their A, B and C designations, Club A would host Club B on Monday, Sept. 30 (tentatively). The winner of the game would then host Club C on Tuesday, Oct. 1 (tentatively) to determine the Wild Card Club.”
In this scenario, the team with the first selection would likely favor Designation C, which requires only one victory to advance, albeit at the expense of a home game. Designation A would be the logical second choice, with the Designation B needing to win two games, including one on the road.
2. Three-Club Tie for Two Wild Card Spots:
“After Clubs have been assigned their A, B and C designations, Club A would host Club B on Monday, Sept. 30 (tentatively). The winner of the game would be declared one Wild Card winner. Club C would then host the loser of the game between Club A and Club B on Tuesday, Oct. 1 (tentatively) to determine the second Wild Card Club.”
This scenario would give Designation A two chances to win the wild card, including one at home. Designation B would also get two cracks at the wild card, but each game would be on the road. Finally, Designation C would only get one chance, but it would involve a home game, as well as an opportunity to rest while its opponent plays and travels the day before.
3. Four-Club Tie for One Wild Card Spot:
“After Clubs have been assigned their A, B, C and D designations, Club A would host Club B and Club C would host Club D on Monday, Sept. 30 (tentatively). The winners of each of those games would then meet on Tuesday, Oct. 1 (tentatively), hosted by the winner of the game between Club A and Club B, to determine the Wild Card Club.”
A four-way tie provides for a simple three game play-in, but that doesn’t render the assignment of designations moot. Not only are home games at stake, but so too is the opportunity to select an opponent. For example, the team winning the right to select first would probably opt for Designation A, which includes the promise of two home games. Then, once that slot was filled, each of the other teams could make their choice based on desired opponent. It’s worth noting that although Designation C seems the likely choice for the team with second priority, that club could decide to take a road game in the first round (with a potential corresponding home game in round 2) if it deemed Team A to be a preferable opponent.
4. Four-Club Tie for Two Wild Card Spots:
“After Clubs have been assigned their A, B, C and D designations, Club A would host Club B and Club C would host Club D on Monday, Sept. 30 (tentatively). The winners of each of those games would be declared the Wild Card Clubs.”
With two wild card spots up for grabs, the four-game tie becomes even more vanilla. In this instance, there isn’t much benefit to winning the designation priority because two teams get to host a home game, and only one can pick its opponent without sacrificing home field. Considering there may be a reason to eschew a home game, possibly to play a vulnerable opponent, and there’s no inherent advantage bestowed on either of the two home team designations, having the second choice is actually the most beneficial position.