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American League playoff scenarios and tiebreakers

Here is a breakdown of the most likely playoff scenarios and tiebreakers as the American League season draws to a close.

Patrick McDermott

If the Detroit Tigers hang on to win the American League’s Central division, they will probably start the American League division series (ALDS) at Baltimore. That could change if the Baltimore Orioles manage to pick up 2-1/2 games and catch the Los Angeles Angels for the league’s best record. In that case, the Central division winner would start the best of five ALDS series in Anaheim.

If the Tigers finish the season tied with the Royals for the division title, there would be a game 163 tiebreaker, to be held at Comerica Park in Detroit, on Monday, September 29th.

Should the Tigers lose the division to the Kansas City Royals, they would then be in line for a wild card playoff spot. They are currently four games up on the Seattle Mariners, with just five games to play this season. Any combination of two Detroit wins and/ or Seattle losses clinches at least a wild card spot for the Tigers.

In the wild card race, the Oakland A's and Kansas City Royals, both one game behind the Tigers, currently have dibs on the two wild card positions. Should the Tigers finish with the same record as the A's, and both are wild card teams, then the Tigers would host the wild card game. The winner would then advance to the ALDS against the team with the league's best record.

Major league baseball will use tiebreaker games to determine which teams win their division, or which teams make the playoffs, but they will not play a game to determine home field advantage. Home field is determined by the tie breaking formula.

That means that any tie for the division crown must result in a one game tie breaker to determine the division champion. Likewise, if two or more teams tie for the second wild card playoff spot, there will be a tiebreaker game (or multiple games) to determine the wild card qualifier. If two teams tie for the two wild card spots, a formula, starting with head to head record, is used to determine home field advantage. 

In the case of a two team tiebreaker, the first criteria is the head to head record between the two tied teams during the regular season.  In that regard, the Tigers hold tiebreakers over the Royals and the A’s, but Seattle holds the tiebreaker over Detroit.

It just happens to be the case that this criteria will break every possible remaining two team tie in the American League this year. It helps that most teams play an odd number of games against each other, so it's not possible to split the season series.

The potential two team tiebreakers would be sorted out like this:

Detroit over Kansas City, 13 games to 6
Detroit over Oakland, 5- 2
Seattle over Detroit, 4- 2

Kansas City over Oakland 5- 2
Seattle over Kansas City 5- 2
Seattle over Oakland, 10- 9
Baltimore over LA Angels, 4- 2

So, based on the above tiebreakers, if there is a two way tie for the two wild card spots, the above formula is used to determine where the two teams will play the wild card game.

If the two teams are tied for the second wild card spot, the formula is used to determine where the tiebreaker game will be played, with the winner of the tiebreaker game playing at the first wild card team in the wild card play-in game.

What about three way ties?

If there is a three way tie between Detroit, Kansas City, and another team, there will first be a tie-breaker at Detroit to settle the Central division. The loser would then either host Oakland in the wild card game, or travel to Seattle.

If there is a three way tie for the two wild card spots, and no tie for the division title, it would be decided like this:

Detroit- Oakland- Seattle, 3 way tie:
A: Detroit plays at Seattle, winner is the first wild card.
B: Oakland plays at loser of Detroit/ Seattle, winner is the second wild card
C: Winner of game B at Winner of Game A is the wild card game 

Kansas City- Oakland- Seattle, 3 way tie:
Same schedule, substitute KC for Detroit

The above scenarios assume that Detroit or Kansas City has won the central division outright, and is not part of a four team tie.

How about a four way tie?

The Tigers, Royals, A’s, and Mariners could all finish with the same record. In that scenario, the Royals would play at Detroit to determine the division winner. Oakland would play at Seattle, with the winner being one of the wild card teams, and the loser playing the loser of the Tigers vs Royals game to determine the second wild card team.

Such a crazy scenario for the Tigers might go like this: 

Sept 29: Royals beat Tigers at Detroit
Sept 30: Tigers win at Seattle (Tigers win wild card spot)
October 1: Tigers beat Oakland at Detroit in wild card playoff
October 2: Tigers play league division series opening at Anaheim

Yeah, better to beat Kansas City and just win the division.

The ALDS begins October 2nd, with or without tiebreakers.