Explaining postseason tiebreaker scenarios

September 28th, 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, 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.

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.

Scenario: Two-team tie for the division, plus a tie with club outside division for two Wild Card spots

This is still a strong possibility in the NL, where the Cardinals, Brewers and Nationals all entered the final weekend of the regular season within one game of each other.

First things first, we’d have to settle the NL Central. As would be the case in a straight two-team tie for the division (with no third team outside the division involved), the Cardinals and Brewers would have to play a division tiebreaker tilt on Monday (3:09 p.m. ET on ESPN). That game would be held at Busch Stadium, because the Cardinals have the head-to-head edge, 10-9.

The winner of that game would be the NL Central champion and would move on to face the Braves in the NL Division Series, which begins Thursday.

The loser of that game would face the Nats in the NL Wild Card Game, which takes place Tuesday. Whoever loses the NL Central tiebreaker would host the NL Wild Card Game, because both the Cardinals (5-2) and Brewers (4-2) hold the head-to-head edge over Washington.

You might be wondering why the Nationals wouldn’t get to host the NL Wild Card Game, because whoever loses the NL Central tiebreaker would then have a worse regular season record than Washington by half of a game. The answer is that while Game 163 does count toward the regular season statistics and will ultimately be reflected in the team’s final record, MLB does not penalize clubs for losing a tiebreaker game when it comes to determining home-field advantage in the playoffs. Only the 162-game schedule would factor in that equation, so the Nats and Brewers/Cards records remain tied and the head-to-head outcomes are the deciding factor.

Scenario: Three teams tie for two Wild Card spots

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

The three designations are decided by head-to-head records. The A’s won the season series against both teams (4-3 over the Rays, 5-1 over the Indians), and the Rays won the season series over the Indians (6-1). So the A’s would have first pick of designation, the Rays second and the Indians would take whatever is left over.

One would assume the A’s would prefer two shots at advancement (one at home, and, if that doesn’t go well, one on the road as Club A), but there might be appeal to Option C -- resting their pitching staff for a day and then hosting a club that would be playing in its third city in as many days and will have just flown cross-country overnight.

Once the two Wild Card teams are set, the home team is determined by head-to-head record. So the A's would host the Rays or Indians, and the Rays would host the Indians.

Scenario: Two teams tie for a division title

As mentioned above, If the Cardinals and Brewers were to finish the season tied atop the NL Central, they would play a one-game tiebreaker on Monday. Home-field advantage would go to the club with the better head-to-head record* (that’s the Cardinals, by the slimmest of margins, 10-9). The winner of this game would advance to the NLDS, while the loser would head to the NL Wild Card Game vs. the Nationals.

*Note that if the head-to-head matchup is a draw, 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: 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 A's and Indians, or A's and Rays, 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 A's won their season series against both the Indians and Rays; the Rays won the season series over the Indians, 6-1).

Scenario: Two teams tie for the second Wild Card spot

If, for example, the Indians and Rays tied for the second AL Wild Card spot, they’d have to play each other Monday for the right to advance to the AL Wild Card Game the following day. Home-field advantage would go to the team with the better head-to-head record (Rays, 6-1).

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).

The Astros and Dodgers did not play each other this season, so if they finish with identical records, Houston would get home-field advantage based on its intradivision record (currently 53-20) being better than that of Los Angeles (currently 48-25).