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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

14 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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BP staff member Russell A. Carleton
BP staff

I guess it would have to be a 3-team tiebreaker running concurrently with a 2-team tiebreaker and the winners would play each other. Even more fun if it was a 5-way tie for the second wild card. Elimination baseball!

Oct 02, 2012 08:24 AM
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Yeah, that was what Katy seemed to speculate. But then you'd have one team sitting and watching for a while the other four teams fight among themselves. As she said, that might be interpreted as unfair.

Oct 02, 2012 13:13 PM
 
Agent007

If two teams in the same league (say, Washington and Cincinnati, Texas and New York/Baltimore) end up with the same record, how do they determine which team would get the extra home game in the championship series (wild cards not included)? And I assume the wild card team with the best record is the home team for the one-game elimination match...

Oct 02, 2012 08:48 AM
rating: 0
 
crile2

any chance we can petition the MLB to keep the astros is the NL central for the opportunity of a 6 way tie? sure it's probably more likely to win the lottery 3 times in the same week while also getting struck by lightening at the exact moment you win each time while adam dunn goes 4-4 with 4 singles each night but what example would we be setting for the children if we were to give up on such a dream?

Oct 02, 2012 08:56 AM
rating: 9
 
backbrush

Why stop at 5 Ben? How about an 11-team tie for the second wild card? Seems like something to worry about.

Oct 02, 2012 09:15 AM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Believe me, I have. In fact, my first question to Katy concerned what would happen if every team went 81-81.

Oct 02, 2012 13:09 PM
 
Otisbird

One thing I always wondered about tie-breakers is that, assuming the following scenario where 2 teams in a Division are tied for 1st (say O's and Yanks) are also tied with a non-division team for (I guess the second) wild card spot (say the Rangers), the teams in the same division (O's and Yanks) play an official 163rd game to determine the division winner. Technically, doesn't the loser have a worse record/winning percentage than the other team and would no longer be tied with the other wild card team (Rangers)?

Oct 02, 2012 10:24 AM
rating: 0
 
delatopia

I believe this was MLB policy for a while but was yanked before it actually was employed. It's unfair to the two divisional rivals that they're forced into the playoff and the other team gets to skate in when it's no better, so the divisional rivals play to decide the division and then the loser and the other team play. One team shouldn't be automatically eliminated on the basis of being in the same division as another team it's tied with.

Oct 02, 2012 12:07 PM
rating: 0
 
Otisbird

I understand the "fairness" argument, but that kind of gets undermined with unbalanced schedules, no?

Oct 02, 2012 13:05 PM
rating: 0
 
Bob Shore

It was employed once. The Yankees made the playoffs as a wild card team while (if memory serves) the Angels and Mariners played off to determine the winner of the American League West.

Oct 02, 2012 17:04 PM
rating: -1
 
Bob Shore

It's not true that we've never come close to a five-way tiebreaker. With two days left to play in the 1973 regular season, the correct combination of wins and losses (starting with the Cubs sweeping two doubleheaders from the Mets, and bearing in mind a makeup game between St. Louis and the Padres) would have resulted in a five-way tie for the National League East title, among all division teams except the Phillies. By my lights, that's pretty close.

Oct 02, 2012 17:02 PM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

That is close! Thanks.

Oct 02, 2012 17:04 PM
 
BP staff member Ben Lindbergh
BP staff

Changed "never" to "rarely." I'm surprised a plan wasn't drawn up shortly before or after that close call.

Oct 02, 2012 17:06 PM
 
andrewmswift

Eliminate the team with the worst run differential and have a four-team playoff. 1-4, 2-3 (also sorted by run differential).

Oct 03, 2012 09:18 AM
rating: 1
 
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