There have been 12 singles tiebreakers in MLB history. Each brought nervousness and playoff anticipation even though they were played like regular season games, but Game 163 was now a thing of the past.
With the launch of the expanded playoff format in October of this year, MLB decided there was no longer room on the calendar to break a tie in this way on the sidelines. Instead, the tiebreaker rule set will now determine not only the seeding but who gets into the postseason at all if 162 games aren’t enough to determine a 12-team field. This means that the series your favorite team played back in the first half could have a huge impact on their playoff hopes.
“It’s going to be a big deal when everyone [the fans] wakes up and realizes what’s going on,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said last month.
Counsell’s team could be hit directly as Milwaukee is currently outside of last place in the National League, chasing the San Diego Padres for last place in the postseason. But the Brewers will have to catch up this year as they lost the season series to the Padres 4-3, meaning if the teams finished tied, San Diego would win and Milwaukee would be eliminated.
“We ended games against them in…early June,” Counsell said. “At the time we knew about it, but at that point there were 110 games left. There is nothing special to do.
“We knew the rule,” Consell said. “Everyone knew about it … They felt it was impossible to include a tie-break in the schedule.”
The league understands some of the angst that could arise if a team is eliminated from the Memorial Day series of the season, but says the trade-off between more teams in the mix for a playoff spot is worth it.
“We’re thrilled that more of our fans will be able to play post-season baseball as part of an expanded playoff format this year,” said Morgan Sword, executive vice president of baseball operations. “Due to the increase in postseason games, we had to ensure that the regular season ended on time.”
While the post-season format is spelled out in a recently signed collective bargaining agreement, there is leeway when it comes to the specifics of the tie-break rules, which will allow the league to study the impact and make changes if necessary. As players and teams become aware of the stakes, the new rules could also lead to a further focus on head-to-head matches.
“If they beat us more than we beat them, it should go to them, so I totally agree with the rule,” said St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol. “Our job is not to lose, so if someone did it better than us, then go home.”
This will be emphasized more starting next year when each team will only play 13 games – up from 19 – in their division. And the results of the first year of the new format already show the additional importance of beating other teams with playoff hopes in head-to-head matches within the league.
“When we played the Padres, we didn’t put the emphasis on winning those games more than any other game,” Philadelphia Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said in an email. “However, after we won the series, we discussed how big this series could become.”
The Phillies lead the Padres in the NL wildcard race, and while both teams can enter, their seed will be determined by the tie-break system if two teams have the same record after 162.
Philadelphia won its season streak against San Diego (4-3) and Milwaukee (4-2), so it would have won any tiebreak between any of those NL teams. The Brewers now understand the task ahead of them: to beat opponents above them, at least by a game, to eliminate the tie-break. Otherwise it will be a heartbreaking end to their season.
“You treat every game like an important game, but there’s a game the next day, the next day, and the next day,” Counsell said. “You have to deal with both concepts every day.”
What the new tiebreak rules look like
Since the new procedures are already affecting the finish line this season, here are the five rules that govern tiebreaks:
Personal record: Needs no explanation. And if more than two teams are tied, then the team with the best cumulative win percentage against the other teams wins the tiebreak.
Internal record: If the personal bests are tied (this can only happen between wildcard teams that have played an even number of games), then the best record in their own divisions determines the winner.
Interdivisional record: If the first two tie-breaks do not resolve this issue, then the next one evaluates the records of the teams in their respective leagues, but not including their own divisions.
Second half games within the league: If the teams are still tied on this metric, the winner will be determined by the winning percentage of each team in their league in the last 81 games of the season.
Intra-league games in the second half plus one (or more): If the teams remain tied after the first four tie-breaks, then the winner will be determined in reverse order from the final intra-league game in the first half until the tie is broken.
It should be noted that there are extreme scenarios, such as a five-team draw, for which the league does not have a definitive answer. In these cases, the clause that calls for “the discretion of the commissioner” comes into force. In other words, Rob Manfred can choose which team will make the playoffs and which won’t, although the scenario is contrived.
What does all this mean for this season’s racing?
There are a lot of close races this season so there is a chance that tiebreaks could come into play. That being said, it is unlikely that more than the first tie-break will need to be used this year in any scenario. In any case, let’s see how the new procedures will affect some of the most exciting playoff and division racing.
National League East: The New York Mets lead the season over the Atlanta Braves, 9–7. If the Braves win the last three games against New York, they will win the tie-break; otherwise, the Mets will come out on top. The winner will be the likely #2 seed and will receive a bye. The loser will go to the first round playoff series.
NL wild card: As stated above, the Brewers lose in a tiebreak to both the Padres and the Phillies, while Philadelphia wins against San Diego.
Central American League: It’s a three-team battle between the Cleveland Guardians, Chicago White Sox, and Minnesota Twins, with the two losers likely out of the playoffs.
The White Sox are currently losing tiebreakers to both teams, but they still have a chance to reverse that scenario. They will need to beat the Guardians this week in Chicago to win this season’s series, while they are 6-7 against the Twins this season with six games to play.
Cleveland had already won their season streak with the Twins, so Minnesota would have to win one more game than the Guardians to beat them for the division title.
Wild Card AL: There are more chances for a draw here. The Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays, and Tampa Bay Rays go head to head in all three wildcard places. The last two teams of the tie-break will not receive a home game in the first round to three wins.
The Mariners win a tie-break with the Blue Jays but lose to the Rays. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay is leading the season with Toronto 8-7 with four games left between the teams.
The new system and elimination of number 163 is sure to make some headlines if personal bests eliminate someone from the playoffs or say goodbye to the division winner. There are still opportunities this year.