Baseball’s playoff format is just fine, including the tiebreakers. Mostly.

Thearon W. Henderson

For the first time, baseball has had a play in before a wild card playoff before the division series. Under present circumstances, the format is as good as it gets



The Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers played a thrilling game in Arlington on Monday night after the regular season. It was a do or die contest for both teams. The Rays now go to Cleveland to play the Indians in another do or die, wild card playoff game, with the winner of that game facing the Boston Red Sox in the traditional style five game series.

The Rays and Rangers each finished the regular season with the same record after 162 games. So, they played a game 163 to determine which team advances. This is exactly how it should be done. Major league baseball, to their credit, will not have a team eliminated from the playoffs, nor will they hand out a division title, based upon a tie breaking formula.

Other sports, such as the NFL, would use a formula to determine which teams win their division or to determine which teams make the playoffs, if they have the same record in the regular season. In baseball, such matters are decided on the field.

MLB only uses a tiebreaker formula to determine where a playoff game is played. In this year’s scenario, no two division winners, nor two wild card teams in the same league, finished with the same record, except for the Rangers and Rays. So they had an extra playoff. But they had to determine where the playoff game was played, so they turned to the tie breaker formula. Texas won four of the seven games between the two teams during the season, so the play off game was played in Texas.

Can this formula be improved? I don’t think so. Given a five team playoff per league with the two wild cards, MLB is right to have a one game wild card playoff, and right to determine which teams win their division or qualify for the wild card spot on the field. And they’re right to let a formula determine which team(s) qualify for the wild card playoff. Should they play an extra game just to determine where the playoff game should be played? I don’t think so.

Should there even be a second wild card team? I think so. I like having five teams in each league- or ten of the 30 MLB teams, in the playoffs. I like the fact that teams that don’t win their division have to go through an extra layer of playoffs to qualify for the league division series. I’m okay with them having a one game elimination. There should be a significant advantage for teams that win their division, and the current format provides that.

Under the previous format, one wild card team qualified for the playoffs, and they were placed on equal footing with the three teams who won their division. They came in second, often a distant second, over a 162 game schedule, and were given equal status, other than having to open the playoffs on the road. I like that they now have to do a bit more, and put their season on the line, while at the same time expanding the format to include two more teams.

Under the previous format, if two teams finished in a tie for the division title and one would otherwise qualify as a wild card regardless, they didn’t have a playoff. They weren’t going t have a playoff to determine which was the division winner and which was the wild card. But now, there is enough of an advantage in winning the division, that they will decide that matter on the field, even if the loser is still a wild card team. That’s the right way to do it.

And what about the tie breaker formula, which is only used to determine home field advantage? The formula is used whenever teams finish the regular season with the same record, to determine the home field either between the wild card teams, or teams playing for one wild card spot, or between division winners.

The first tie breaker, for home field, is head to head record. The Rangers won four of seven, so the game is played in Texas. What are the alternatives? They could flip a coin, as they have in the past. They could use league record. They could go in alphabetical order, in which case we’d probably have the Arlington Rangers, or maybe the Anaheim Ang...well, let’s not go there. Head to head record is the best tiebreaker. As it is in the NFL with playoff survival, not just home field, on the line.

Fortunately, the current format using head to head record breaks the tie the vast majority of the time. I found that, when I made a chart showing the winners of a tie breaker when there were still six teams in contention for two wild card spots in the American league, that the tie would be broken by head to head record in all twenty three team scenarios, and in all but one two team scenario, that being between the Royals and the Rangers, who split their season series, 3 - 3. Even then, those two would have to wind up in a two team tie for only the last wild card spot, in order to need to go past head to head records to break the tie.

The current formula record picked a winner without having to go past head to head record in all but one wild card scenario involving either two or three teams. I should point out that, in the event of a three way tie, where one of the teams has beaten the other two head to head, that winner gets the home field. Where there is a "rock, paper, scissors" effect, where A > B, B > C, and C > A, the cumulative head to head record of the three teams broke every possible three way tie for the wild card, in both leagues.

The current schedule, where teams in the same division play each other an odd number (19) of times, and most teams in the same league play each other seven times, will result in breaking the tie on head to head record.

There was one scenario, however, where a three way tie might have yielded a controversial result. That was in a potential tie between Detroit, Boston, and Oakland. The Tigers won 4 of 7 from Boston, The A’s won 4 of 7 from Detroit, while the A’s and Boston split 3- 3. No team had beaten the other two, and the three teams each had a cumulative record of 10- 10 amongst themselves.

In that scenario, the Tigers had the best intra-division record, followed by the A’s, followed by the Red Sox. So, Detroit would have hosted the wild card team (imagine the Indians vs Tigers!) and the A’s would have hosted Boston in the league division series. What? They use the Tigers’ record in the AL Central, and Boston and Oakland’s records in their own division as the next tiebreaker? Even though they’re playing totally different teams? Yes, they do.

In fact, they would use intra division record to break a tie between Oakland and Boston, who had split their season series head to head. That’s just not right. Even though it only determines the playoff match ups, and home field, a team’s own division record should not be used to break a tie among teams in different divisions. League record would be better. Or even flip a coin.

Well, it didn’t happen. In fact, baseball has done worse. Remember that the Tigers opened the best of five game series against Oakland last year at home, even though the A’s had "home field advantage" with three home games. In 1972, for example, the five game series opened in Oakland with two games, and then three were played in Detroit. The A’s had the better record during the season, but they simply alternated home field advantage from East to West, just as they did in the World Series, regardless of record.

Also in 1972, the first player strike resulted in the Tigers playing one more game than the Red Sox, and they finished half a game ahead. Boston’s season was over. But both teams knew that going in. It was decided on the field. Then there’s the All Star game deciding home field advantage. That certainly didn’t help the Tigers last year.

Baseball could eliminate wild cards altogether if they’d go back to a two division format, which might happen if they contracted. Or they could go to four divisions, NFL style, if they expanded by two teams. They could also keep interleague play to a certain segment in the season if they had an even number of teams in each league. But those decisions are based on which markets can support a franchise. For now, we have two 15 team leagues.

There are many ways to break a tie. The best way is to decide it on the field. Baseball does that. In terms of deciding home field advantage, head to head record is the best method, and baseball does that too. It settles the issue almost all the time. When it doesn’t, they should probably not use intra-division record as the next tiebreaker. Maybe go to the last game played between the two teams during the season. No system is perfect, and every system can be improved. But baseball is as good as it gets.

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