clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How do MLB playoffs tiebreakers work?

New, 5 comments

With 10 AL teams still contending for playoffs, tiebreakers may be needed

Baltimore Orioles v Detroit Tigers Photo by Duane Burleson/Getty Images

The 2016 Major League Baseball season is coming down to the wire, with 10 of the 15 teams in the American League and eight National League teams within five games of a playoff spot. With so many teams so close in the standings, the possibility of a tie between two or more teams remains a distinct possibility in each league. Here is a look at scenarios in the event that multiple teams finish the 162 game season with the same record.

MLB has a complex set of rules for breaking ties to determine playoff seeding. Start with two basic criteria.

1. First determine the winner of each division before seeding wild card teams.

2. Use tiebreaker games to determine which teams win their division, or which teams make the playoffs, but not to determine home field advantage or wild card seeding. Home field is determined by the tie breaking formula..

If two or more teams are tied for first place in a division, they will play each other in a playoff to determine the division champion, just as the Tigers and Twins did in 2009. Home field belongs to the team that wins more games against the other(s) during the regular season.

Example: If the Tigers tie with the Cleveland Indians for the Central Division title, there will be a one game playoff in Cleveland. If the two teams tie with another team for the second wild card spot, the Tigers play at Cleveland for the division title first, then the loser plays a tie breaker for the wild card.

Two way ties

If two teams tie for the two wild card spots, both make the playoffs, with the team winning the season series having home field advantage. If two teams tie for the second wild card spot, there will be a one game playoff to determine which team advances to the wild card playoff game.

In order to determine where a wild card game or a tiebreaker game is played, the first tiebreaker in every situation is the head-to-head record between the teams that are tied, whether that’s two teams, or more. The second tie breaker is the record of each team within their own division, even if two teams from different divisions wind up tied. The third tie breaker is league record.

Detroit won the season series against Boston (5- 2), Houston (4-2), and Seattle (4-3). The Tigers split the season series against the Yankees (3-3), but presently have a better record in their own division. The Tigers lost the season series to Kansas City (6-10 so far), Toronto (3-4) and Baltimore (2-4, entering Sunday’s game).

Examples: If the Tigers and Boston tie for the two wild card spots, the Red Sox would play at Detroit in the wild card playoff game. If Boston is the first wild card team, and the Tigers tie with Houston for the second wild card spot, the Astros would play at Detroit, with the winner playing at Boston in the wild card playoff game.

Three way ties

In the case of three teams tying for the last wild card spot, two teams play with the loser being eliminated and the winner hosting the third team for the last spot. Two teams have to win two games, while the third team has to win one game, albeit on the road.

In the case of three teams tying for two wild card spots, two teams play with the winner getting the first spot, then the loser playing the third team for the second spot. The first two teams get two chances to win one game to qualify.

The team that comes out on top of a three way tiebreaker based on head-to-head record among the tied teams can choose its designation in the tiebreaker round.

Examples: If the Tigers, Boston, and Seattle tie for the last wild card spot, Seattle would play at Boston, with the winner playing at Detroit for the last spot. If the same three teams tied for two wild card spots, Boston would play at Detroit, with the winner being the first wild card, and the loser playing at Seattle to determine the second wild card.

Four-way ties

There are also numerous four-way tie scenarios. Four teams could be tied for the last wild card spot, or they could be tied for both wild card spots, or they could be tied for a division title and two wild card spots. Each scenario involves at least two extra playoff games.

There are far too many possible scenarios to run through all of them just yet. Each of the teams still in the playoff picture has 10 games or more against other teams in that same group before the season is over. We’ll take a look at some more specific scenarios when the field is narrowed down in the coming days.