Globe iconLogin iconRecap iconSearch iconTickets icon
news

MLB News

Explaining postseason tiebreaker scenarios

@castrovince
September 3, 2019

When Major League Baseball instituted the dual-Wild Card system before the 2012 season, it was pretty widely assumed that there would be years in which a cluster of clubs with identical records would require, essentially, their own tournament to decide who advances to the one-and-done Wild Card round. To date,

When Major League Baseball instituted the dual-Wild Card system before the 2012 season, it was pretty widely assumed that there would be years in which a cluster of clubs with identical records would require, essentially, their own tournament to decide who advances to the one-and-done Wild Card round.

To date, though, that’s yet to happen. We’ve had just one Wild Card tiebreaker game -- a 2013 tilt between the Rays and Rangers to decide the second American League Wild Card slot -- since this format was initiated.

How to determine playoff tiebreakers

We did, however, have two division tiebreakers last season -- in the National League West (Dodgers over Rockies) and NL Central (Brewers over Cubs). So at least lovers of standings chaos were somewhat satiated.

As tends to be the case this time of year, we’ve got a wide assortment of tiebreaker possibilities to ponder in both leagues in 2019. The goal here is to lay out the most realistic ones remaining and how they would be settled.

MLB standings

Scenario: Two teams tie for a division title

The classic divisional push. It’s still a strong possibility in the NL Central, where the Cubs and Cardinals finish the season with seven of their last 10 games against each other.

If the Cubs and Cardinals were to finish the season tied atop the Central, they would play a one-game tiebreaker on Monday, Sept. 30. Home-field advantage would go to the club with the better head-to-head record* (as of this writing, that’s the Cubs, 7-5). The winner of this game would advance to the Division Series round, while the loser would either head to the NL Wild Card Game or head home, depending on whether it qualifies for the Wild Card.

*Note that if the head-to-head matchup is a draw (the Cubs and Cardinals play each other 19 times, so that’s not possible in that particular case), home-field advantage in all scenarios listed below goes to the team with the better intradivision record or, failing that, the team with the better intraleague record.

Scenario: Three teams tie for a division title

This, too, is a mathematical possibility in the NL Central. Were the Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers to be deadlocked at season’s end, each would receive an A, B or C designation. Club A would host Club B on Sept. 30, and the winner would host Club C the following day. The winner of that game would be the division champ.

Think of this almost like a draft, and the team with the "first pick" can choose the scenario it likes best. A team might rather play two games than one if it gets to host both, which is why a team might choose to be Club A over Club C. On the other hand, a team could choose Club C designation if it wants to rest a certain pitcher and take its chance in one winner-take-all game, even if it is on the road.

Selection order would be based on the head-to-head records (i.e. Cardinals’ combined winning percentage vs. Cubs and Brewers, Cubs’ combined winning percentage vs. Cardinals and Brewers, and Brewers’ combined winning percentage vs. Cardinals and Cubs).

Also of important note here: If all three of these teams were tied not just for the division but for the second Wild Card spot, then the loser of the second game would be declared the Wild Card club.

Scenario: Two teams tie for best record in the league or Wild Card

This would not involve any extra games. If the Astros and Yankees finish tied for the best record in the AL, the team with the better head-to-head record (the Astros, 4-3) would get home-field advantage throughout the League Championship Series round. (Remember that home-field advantage in the World Series is now determined by best regular-season record, not the All-Star Game result.)

As for the Wild Card, if, say, the Rays and Indians were the only two clubs in AL Wild Card position at season’s end and had identical records, they would not play an extra game to determine who gets home-field advantage in the Wild Card Game. It would go to the team with the better head-to-head record (the Rays won the season series, 6-1).

Scenario: Two teams tie for the second Wild Card spot

If, for example, the Cubs and Phillies tied for the second NL Wild Card spot, they’d have to play each other Sept. 30 for the right to advance to the NL Wild Card Game the following day. Home-field advantage would go to the team with the better head-to-head record (Phillies, 5-2).

Scenario: Three teams tie for two Wild Card spots

If the Indians, Rays and A’s were all tied, the three teams would choose/receive A, B and C designations. Club A would host Club B, and the winner would advance to the Wild Card Game. Club C would then host the loser of the game between Club A and Club B to decide the other Wild Card team.

Again, the three designations are decided by head-to-head records. The A’s went 9-4 against the Rays and Indians, the Rays went 9-5 against the A’s and Indians, and the Indians went 2-11 against the A’s and Rays. So the A’s would have first pick of designation and the Rays second.

This would present a fun dilemma for the club with the first choice. Would the A’s prefer two shots at advancement (one at home, and, if that doesn’t go well, one on the road as Club A), despite the impact that might have on their pitching with yet another sudden-death game looming in the Wild Card Game proper? Or would they prefer to take their chances on a single home game (as Club C) for a chance to get to the Wild Card Game?

Scenario: Three or four teams tie for one Wild Card spot

Now we’re talking. And as of this writing, this is still a possibility in both leagues.

In the three-team tie, we’d have to have the three teams choose/receive their A, B and C designations, with Club C traveling to face the winner of the game between Clubs A and B to determine who advances to the Wild Card Game.

In a four-team tie, we’d have to add a D designation to the mix. Club A would host Club B and Club C would host Club D, and the winners of each of those games would then face each other in the home park of the winner of the game between Club A and Club B to determine who goes to the Wild Card Game.

Scenario: Five or more teams tie for one Wild Card spot

This could still happen in the NL. As of this writing, MLB does not yet have an official procedure in place for such an unusual -- and, yes, highly unlikely -- scenario. The Commissioner’s Office, with input from the Competition Committee, would come up with a plan if the need becomes clear in the final days of the season.

Scenario: Two teams tie for a division title, plus a tie with club outside division for a Wild Card spot

If the Cardinals and Cubs finished in a tie atop the NL Central and a third club -- let’s say the Phillies -- tied them for the second NL Wild Card spot, the following would happen: The Cardinals and Cubs would play a tiebreaker game Sept. 30, at the home park of the club with the better head-to-head record. The winner would become the division champ, and the loser would face the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park (in this scenario, MLB has determined that the team from the other division gets home-field advantage in the second tiebreaker game, regardless of the head-to-head record) the following day to determine the winner of the second Wild Card spot.

Scenario: Two teams tie for a division title, plus a tie with club outside division for two Wild Card spots

Same as above, except this time the second game (Phillies vs. loser of Cardinals-Cubs) would be the NL Wild Card Game, with home-field advantage determined by the two-team tiebreaker system mentioned earlier.

Scenario: Two teams tie for a division title, plus a tie with two clubs outside the division for two Wild Card spots

Let's take the above and add a fourth team -- the Nationals -- into the mix. Two games would take place Sept. 30 -- the Cardinals-Cubs game to determine the NL Central winner and a game between the Phillies and Nats to determine who advances to the Wild Card round. The losers of those two games would then face each other (with the same tiebreaker rules applied to determine home-field advantage) to decide who faces the winner of the Phillies-Nationals game in the NL Wild Card Game (again, with the same previously stated home-field advantage rules applied).

Scenario: Three teams tie for a division title, plus a tie with a club outside the division for one Wild Card spot

If it’s Cubs, Cardinals and Brewers all knotted up at the top of the NL Central and the Phillies are holding the same record, they would go to the A, B, C and D designations (Club D would be the club outside the division, so the Phils). On Sept. 30, Club A would host Club B and Club C would host the Phillies. It’s too soon to know how the head-to-head matchups would finish or what designation clubs would choose, so let’s randomly assign the Cardinals as Club A, the Cubs as Club B and the Brewers as Club C.

If the Phillies beat the Brewers, they would be declared one Wild Card club. The winner of the game between the Cubs and Cardinals would be declared the NL Central champion.

If the Brewers were to defeat the Phillies, the winner of Cardinals-Cubs would then host the Brewers. The winner would be declared the division champ and the loser would be declared the Wild Card club.

Scenario: Three teams tie for a division title, plus a tie with a club outside the division for two Wild Card spots.

Same setup as above, except: If the Phillies beat the Brewers in the first “round,” the loser of Cubs-Cardinals would host the Brewers to determine the second Wild Card club.

Alternatively, if the Brewers beat the Phillies, they would face the winner of Cardinals-Cubs to determine the NL Central champion. The loser of that game would be declared one Wild Card club, while the loser of Cubs-Cardinals would host the Phillies to determine the other Wild Card club.

Scenario: The two World Series teams have the same regular-season record

In case you forgot, World Series home-field advantage is now tied to regular-season records. If the Yankees and Dodgers, for example, were to face each other in the World Series and had identical regular-season records, home-field advantage would go to the club with the better head-to-head record in 2019. In this case, that would be the Yankees, who beat the Dodgers in two of three meetings in August.

Had the clubs not met in Interleague Play, the second tiebreaker would be division record. If that were also a tie, the tiebreaker would be intraleague records (the NL club’s record vs. NL teams and the AL team’s record vs. AL teams).

Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.