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The Joe Sheehan Newsletter: Tiebreakers
Vol. 15, No. 92
August 31, 2023
It’s no secret that most of the changes MLB has made to baseball over the last five years have alienated me. I still enjoy the game on the field and most of the ballpark experience. Watching what these players can do, how much better they can get, is fascinating. Analyzing and writing about the game still gets me going. It’s undeniable, though, that what baseball wants for itself and what I want for baseball are two different things. It has felt for a long time like I believe in baseball more than baseball believes in itself.
One way this has manifested is in the introduction of tiebreakers. For most of baseball history, ties were settled on the field, and those tiebreaker games (or series, in the NL) have a glorious history. Danny Galehouse, Bobby Thomson. Bucky Dent. Randy Johnson. Settling ties on the field was one of the many ways in which baseball was exceptional, different from the sports that settled ties with a piece of paper in the league office.
When MLB introduced wild cards, it took one small step back from that, agreeing that ties for seeding would not require a tiebreaker game. In 2000, the A’s finished the season 91-70, the Mariners 91-71. With both teams having clinched playoff berths, however, and the A’s holding a 9-4 edge in the season series, the A’s weren’t tasked with playing a makeup game that could have dropped them into a tie for first. They were awarded the NL West title, the Mariners given the wild-card slot. A year later, the Astros and Cardinals tied for first in the NL Central at 93-69, and again, the Astros were just granted the division title.
Until 2012, this didn’t matter much. As was often noted, there wasn’t much difference between being the wild card and being the division champ -- you were playing a best-of-five playoff series regardless. Starting in 2012, with the added wild-card team and a one-game playoff, it mattered a great deal. In 2018, the Rockies and Dodgers tied for the NL West title and played a one-game playoff for the division. The Dodgers won. The Rockies lost and fell into the Wild Card Game, which they won.
Five years later, two teams once again tied for a division title, and with the playoffs now expanded to six teams per league, determining who finished first was quite important. For the first time ever, though, a tie that determined playoff advancement was not settled on the field. The 101-61 Braves were deemed NL East titlists and advanced to the Division Series. The 101-61 Mets were called a second-place team and played in the Wild Card Series. The difference? The Braves went 10-9 against the Mets in 2022.
If you think it’s no big deal, I’d recommend looking at everything that has happened to the Mets since then. For want of a playoff game, the ship was lost.
The switch from settling ties on the field to settling them through tiebreakers is MLB running away from another one of the things that made it great, made it special, made it baseball. It’s an effect of baseball turning itself inside out in the pursuit of national-television money, a pursuit that has left no time for the chaos of an unscheduled winner-take-all game.
It’s also required the tracking of an entire new set of information. Over on Slack, we’ve been talking a lot about the chance that the Padres would get their act together and steal a wild-card berth...speaking of taking an entity more seriously than it takes itself...and it was pointed out to me that the Padres don’t need to tie some of the teams ahead of them, they need to be one game better. Repeat this process for a couple dozen combinations of teams, and I have another reason to hate these new rules. I really do not want to have to remember who is a half-game up on whom for the next month, or do it every September for the rest of my life.
So for myself as much as for you, I’ve done the legwork in advance of today’s four-game schedule. Here’s every tiebreaker for every reasonable potential tie as they stand on the morning of August 31. Some are locked in, some can still change, and we’ll track those as we come down the stretch. Records in parens are the head-to-head between the teams.
Win: Mariners (4-2), Blue Jays (10-3)
Undecided: Astros (1-2), Rays (6-3), Rangers (3-3)
The Orioles’ lead in the AL East has been shaved to 1 1/2 games, but unless the Orioles are swept by the Rays at Camden Yards in two weeks, they’ll keep a half-game cushion thanks to the tiebreaker. The Orioles have played better against the Rays this year than they have in a while, and I, for one, think that should be a topic of discussion on their broadcasts.
Should the Orioles fall into the wild-card mix, they’ll have edges on the Mariners and Blue Jays, and possibly the Astros and Rangers. In the case of a tie with the Astros or Rangers, the next tiebreaker is record within your own division, which at this point is too close to call. Do not ask me about the third tiebreaker until at least September 28.
Tampa Bay Rays
Undecided: Orioles (3-6), Astros (3-3), Mariners (1-2), Blue Jays (4-3)
As mentioned above, the Rays will need to sweep a four-game series to snatch the tiebreaker from the Orioles. That could be the difference between being the #1 seed and being the #4 seed. This is similar to Mets/Braves last year, when the Braves swept the Mets in the penultimate series to tie for first place and win the tiebreaker. The final game of that series was the first 2 1/2-game swing in baseball history.
Again, the second tiebreaker is intra-division record, and all these teams have so many divisional games left that you can’t make reads on this tiebreaker yet, with one exception. Check back in three weeks.
The Rays have, by far, the toughest remaining schedule of any playoff contender.
Toronto Blue Jays
Win: Astros (4-3)
Lose: Orioles (3-10)
Undecided: Mariners (3-3), Rangers (1-2), Rays (3-4)
The Blue Jays are 12-25 against the AL East this season, which is the difference between challenging for the division crown and barely hanging on in the wild-card race. At this point, their series with the Rangers beginning September 11 may be as big as any of the AL East games left on their slate. That 12-25 AL East mark also means they’ll likely lose a tiebreaker to the Mariners, and to the Rangers if they don’t sweep that series.
The AL Central teams have no wild-card chance. The Guardians hold the tiebreaker 6-4 right now, with three games left between the two in Cleveland starting Monday. The Guardians, five games back, probably need to sweep; if they take just two of three, though, they’ll make up not just a game, but effectively a game-and-a-half. Wednesday’s 5-2 Guardians win in ten innings injected the tiniest bit of drama back into this race.
For two teams in the same division, they have disparate schedules remaining. The Twins have the fourth-easiest, the Guardians the 14th-toughest.
Win: Astros (8-2)
Lose: Orioles (2-4)
Undecided: Rays (2-1), Rangers (1-5), Blue Jays (3-3)
As I have mentioned a number of times, the Mariners’ final ten games of the season comprise seven with the Rangers and three with the Astros, so the AL West, and its tiebreakers, will probably be in doubt for another month. The Mariners have locked up the tiebreaker over the Astros, however, a nice thing to have in pocket heading into that stretch.
Lose: Mariners (2-8), Blue Jays (3-4)
Undecided: Orioles (2-1), Rays (3-3), Rangers (6-4)
The Astros are effectively an extra half-game behind the Mariners. They go to Arlington next Monday for what has to be the biggest Astros/Rangers series in history, needing to avoid being swept to retain the tiebreaker. A home series against the Orioles beginning September 18 also looms large.
The Astros have the easiest remaining schedule of any contender, with nine of their last 27 games coming against the A’s and Royals.
Win: Rays (4-2)
Undecided: Orioles (3-3), Astros (4-6), Mariners (5-1), Blue Jays (2-1)
In addition to those final seven games with the Mariners over the season’s last ten days, the Rangers have that series next week with the Astros and a sneakily critical four-game trip to Toronto. The tiebreakers make strange bedfellows; the Rangers would really like the Orioles to hang on in the AL East, so the Rays -- over whom they have the tiebreaker -- drop into the wild-card pool.
The Braves and Dodgers have locked up their divisions and are playing for seeding now. The Braves are up four games on the Dodgers in that race but have lost two out of three to them this year. The teams kick off a four-game series tonight in Los Angeles that will go a long way to determining the #1 seed. If the Dodgers split, they effectively gain a half-game. If they take three of four, they cut the Braves’ lead to 1 1/2 games.
It’s not like I needed more incentive to watch the two best teams in baseball play this weekend, but it turns out there are some stakes here beyond just being a possible NLCS preview.
Win: Diamondbacks (4-3), Cubs (5-1), Reds (4-3)
Lose: Giants (2-4)
Undecided: Marlins (5-5), Brewers (1-2)
The Phillies are three -- effectively 3 1/2 -- games up on the Cubs and five up on the pack, so in all likelihood, they’ll be the #4 seed and top wild card on the NL side. If they need it, though, they have edges on the Cubs, Reds, and Diamondbacks, and they could still gain an edge on the Marlins and Brewers.
Win: Diamondbacks (4-2), Cubs (4-2)
Lose: Giants (3-3)*
Undecided: Reds (3-3), Phillies (5-5), Brewers (0-0)
*the Giants have such a big edge in intra-divisional record that we can give this one to them.
The Marlins have quietly slipped under .500 but are still just three games out of the final wild-card slot, which could be taken with as few as 83 wins. They could also potentially have a tiebreaker edge over everyone but the Giants. Also, bizarrely, they haven’t played the Brewers yet. The Marlins have a seven-game road trip to Philadelphia and Milwaukee starting next Friday that will probably determine their fate.
Win: Reds (10-3)
Lose: Diamondbacks (2-4), Giants (2-5)
Undecided: Cubs (5-5), Phillies (2-1), Marlins (0-0)
The Brewers’ situation is shakier than it looks, as they lose tiebreakers to the Diamondbacks and Giants, could yet lose tiebreakers to three other teams, and only hold a tiebreaker over a Reds team that’s probably going to leak under .500.
Lose: Phillies (1-5), Marlins (2-4)
Undecided: Reds (4-5), Brewers (5-5), Giants (2-1), Diamondbacks (0-0)
The Cubs got two massive wins the last two days, enabling them to keep contact with the Brewers (three games back) and keep the NL Central tiebreaker in play. They finish the season with three games in Milwaukee. Prior to that, they have series at Cincinnati this week, a homestand next week with the Giants and Diamondbacks, and a trip to Arizona in the season’s final week. You can’t say they don’t control their own destiny, at least outside of the NL East teams. The Cubs/Diamondbacks games are as big as anything left on the schedule.
Win: Diamondbacks (4-2)
Lose: Brewers (3-10), Phillies (3-4), Giants (3-4)
Undecided: Cubs (5-4), Marlins (3-3)
The Reds have dropped 17 of 27 and are barely holding on, their thin pitching staff and young offense undercutting them in the second half. As bad as it’s gotten, though, they’re a game out of the final wild-card slot and the one tiebreaker they hold is against a Diamondbacks team they’re reasonably likely to tie. The Reds go to Wrigley Field this weekend for a four-game series starting with a Friday doubleheader; a split locks up the tiebreaker over the Cubs, and anything worse than that could augur the end of a fun run.
San Francisco Giants
Win: Reds (4-3), Marlins (3-3)*, Brewers (5-2), Phillies (4-2)
Undecided: Diamondbacks (6-5), Cubs (1-2)
*far better intra-division record
This is a very good board, and it could get better in series at Wrigley Field next week and at Chase Field September 19-20. Those are the only games the Giants have left against this pool, with a lot of Padres and Dodgers games left on the slate. That trip to Arizona, which won’t even last 24 hours, is one of the biggest series left this season.
Win: Brewers (4-3)
Lose: Reds (3-4), Marlins (2-4), Phillies (3-4)
Undecided: Giants (5-6), Cubs (0-0)
As long as I’ve been doing this, I should know better than to spotlight a team before they go on the road against the Dodgers. That sweep hurts the Diamondbacks, but their season is still in front of them with that quick two games against the Giants and seven home-and-home contests with the Cubs. Their five-game homestand against those two teams starting September 15 is their Alamo.
San Diego Pad...
...no, even I can't any more.