Breaking Down AL Wild Card Tie Scenarios

Things are setting up for an exciting final week in the American League Wild Card race. With the Orioles and Athletics unable to break away from the Angels and Rays — just two and three games behind Oakland respectively, and another half game behind Baltimore — it could be a wild seven days for Team Entropy. MLB will need to get its contingency plans in place, as there are a number of scenarios that lead to three or even four-team ties:

The cases in black preclude involvement in any tie. Every other result for each team leads to at least the possibility of involvement in a three or even four team tie after 162 games. Then, of course, the question becomes just how likely each possibility is.

To answer the question, I employed a tool out of the Bill James toolbox: the log5 method. Given winning percentages for teams A and B, this formula gives you the expected winning percentage.

For an academic breakdown of the method, check out this paper.

For this exercise — and it is strictly an exercise — I am taking the third-order winning percentages published at Baseball Prospectus. I prefer third-order winning percentage because it adjusts for schedule and for quality of win.

Neither team has a particularly easy schedule, playing at least one playoff team in the final two series. Baltimore and Tampa Bay play each other to close the season; Tampa Bay also has three games remaining against Chicago in their penultimate series. Both Oakland and Anaheim have to face Texas. Oakland has an advantage as the only team to host both its series — Baltimore and Tampa Bay have one home and one road while the Angels close on a six-game road trip.

With the matchups all plugged in, here’s what the log5 method spits out:

Tie 88 Wins 89 Wins 90 Wins 91 Wins 92 Wins Total
Four-Way N/A 0.0001 0.0014 0.0014 0.0001 0.0029
BAL/OAK/LAA N/A 0.0003 0.0042 0.0064 0.0012 0.0121
BAL/OAK/TBR N/A 0.0003 0.0060 0.0161 0.0054 0.0277
BAL/LAA/TBR N/A 0.0013 0.0071 0.0046 0.0003 0.0133
OAK/LAA/TBR 0.0002 0.0050 0.0140 0.0059 0.0002 0.0254
Total 0.0002 0.0070 0.0327 0.0343 0.0072 0.0815

It should be noted that there is one other possibility not listed on the chart. If Chicago wins out, Detroit goes 4-2, Oakland goes 0-6 and Anaheim and Tampa Bay both go 2-4, that would put all five teams at 88 wins, requiring an AL Central tiebreaker with the loser entering a four-way tiebreaker with the other three teams. The odds for that scenario come out to roughly 0.00000005. So, we can hope.

Still, Team Entropy has a good number of outs. All four of the three-team tie combinations have at least a 1% chance of occurring, and the overall 8.15% odds puts us at just over a 1-in-12 chance for at least one play-in game to get into the play-in game. The best semi-realistic scenario? Probably a tie at 90 wins between Oakland (2-4), Anaheim (4-2) and Tampa Bay (4-2). In this case, Baltimore adds to the fun at 90 wins 23% of the time and claims the first Wild Card unchallenged 65% of the time, requiring the other three all to battle it out for one spot. Chaos reigns!

One final note: the new format actually decreases the odds of a one-game playoff prior to the official postseason — there’s a 16 percent chance that Baltimore and Oakland tie atop the Wild Card standings. Such a race would have its own interesting aspects, to be sure, and there could be an argument to be made that the new format is robbing us of some drama in that sense. For Team Entropy, though, I’m not sure that matters — the new format isn’t robbing us of any extra baseball.

As it is, chaos is still more than prepared to reign in the American League as the calendar flips from September to October. I, for one, will not be standing in its way.

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32 Responses to “Breaking Down AL Wild Card Tie Scenarios”

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  1. Bob Loblaw says:

    What about two way ties for the second wild card? Shouldn’t those be considered as well?

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    • Ralph says:

      I think those aren’t decided by a playoff, its head-to-head record. I think. The whole thing is very confusing and potentially ridiculous.

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      • Ralph says:

        Actually thinking about it even further I think I’m wrong. I think head-to-head record only determines home field advantage if two teams tie for both wild card spots…

        I think I’m just going to stop thinking about it so I don’t get even more confused.

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      • fresheee says:

        And when you say home field advantage you mean the team with the “advantage” will play on the road, right? Sorry, still trying to figure out what the MLB thinks home field advantage means.

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  2. Ralph says:

    Hmmm…shouldn’t your scenarios take into account the possibility of the Yankees being in the wild card mix too? They are only a game up on the Orioles.

    In fact there are a few scenarios in which Texas could become involved too, especially since the Rangers play against the other wild card contenders.

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    • Jonathan says:

      This. Considering the Yankees wrap up the season against sub-.500 teams, their odds of clinching the division are good (Especially with the O’s and Rays finishing the season against each other).

      I haven’t done the math, but it probably has something to do with that O’s, Rays series. With the Yanks up on the Rays and Angels by four games in the loss column, there may be a situation already where the Yankees have effectively clinched by virtue of schedule, if not by numbers alone.

      In either case, it probably should be addressed.

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  3. Brandon says:

    I’m still rooting for a 5-way tie, including the NYY.

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  4. Marty says:

    HI thought that if Baltimore gets 1st WC and, say, Oakland and LAA tie for the 2nd, then you would have a play in game to get into the play in game. Getting into the playoffs has never before been decided by head-to-head record, so now all of a sudden it will be to determine wild cards?

    Your scenario then implies that only if three teams tie for the 2nd WC there would be a second play-in game. Which makes even less sense because how are three teams going to play each other? Or will one of the three be eliminated based on head-to-head record? Or am I totally misinterpreting this entire post?

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    • Jonathan says:

      “Getting into the playoffs has never before been decided by head-to-head record, so now all of a sudden it will be to determine wild cards? ”

      Getting in has not, but seeding has. The Yankees and Red Sox tied for the division in 2005 and the Yankees were awarded the division on basis of head-to-head record.

      As for head-to-head determining playoff entry, in situations like we may not end with a choice. The biggest obstacles to this scenario are that we’re looking at six teams vying for four playoff spots on opposite coasts. Having to run a play-in in the event of even a four way tie between Oakland, LA, Tampa and Baltimore is a logistical nightmare on its own, add in the fact that it’ll involve coast to coast travel and you’ve got worst case scenario for scheduling.

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      • Jonathan says:

        Note that as someone on the outside looking in, I find this situation to be one of the coolest things I have ever seen in baseball. From the inside, I bet the drama’s palpable, but damned if I would care for the stress involved.

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      • tigerdog says:

        Under the old system, they used head to head record as a tie breaker to determine which team was the division winner, but only if the loser of the tie breaker would be guaranteed a playoff spot as the wild card.

        Under both systems, they won’t exclude a team from the playoffs based on tie breaking criteria, but they will use them to determine home field advantage.

        Under the new system, they won’t use tie breaking criteria, such as head to head records, even to determine which team is division winner and which is a wild card, because the advantage now is so much greater.

        Every division winner will be determined on the field. If their record is even, they play a tie breaker on October 4 (assuming a 2 way tie). If two teams are tied for the two wild card spots, they’ll determine the home field using tie breaking criteria, but they won’t bounce a team out of the playoffs without a game to do that.

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      • MikeS says:

        I have been talking about this since the second WC was announced. Records cluster in the middle. The more teams you allow in, the more likely there will be a tie (or even a three or four way tie) for that last spot. It is not hard to imagine a scenario where Tampa has to fly to Oakland to play game 163, to Baltimore to play Game 164 and then to Anaheim to play the WC game before playing the Yankees. Or some other 10,000 mile odyssey. If not this year, then in the next few. Sooner or later, something crazy like this will happen and at least one team (all of them?) will be sitting around waiting for an extensive play-in to get started and the careful timing that MLB planned out will be out the window.

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    • Evan says:

      There are different scenarios for a multitude of situations. The various tie breakers (H2H, division record, league record) only determine home field advantage or choice of designation in scenarios involving >2 teams.

      You can read about it on MLB:

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      • John Thacker says:

        Right, tie breakers are only used in situations where playing another game would lead to infinite recursion. E.g., if you play a game to determine home field for the WC game, how would you determine home field for that game?

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  5. Chris G says:

    Baltimore sweeps Boston and gets swept by Tampa Bay — 92 wins
    Tampa Bay sweeps Chicago and Baltimore — 92 wins
    Los Angeles sweeps Texas and Seattle — 92 wins
    Oakland wins 1 against Seattle and sweeps Texas — 92 wins
    Yankees win 2 of last 6 — 92 wins
    Texas loses last 6 — 92 wins

    Two three way ties for the East and West and both wild cards.

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    • Jonathan says:

      I would kill to see this happen. There is no accounting for how much of a nightmare that would be to sort out.

      Also it means the Sox probably get a protected pick (This scenario would end with the Blue Jays pass us in the standings, I believe). Bonus!

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    • Spike says:

      pure bliss to see MLB have to deal with a mess of this magnitude!!

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    • tigerdog says:

      Works for me. “Tampa sweeps Chicago” means the Tigers are almost certainly AL Central champs, and would host the second seed for the first two games of the LDS.

      Let’s see how this scenario plays out.
      First, choose the division winners
      3 way tie for AL east
      3 way tie for AL west
      Chicago plays a tie breaker at Detroit, Verlander vs Sale, loser to the wild card pool

      Texas plays at Anaheim, winner hosts Oakland. Winner advances, losers both to wild card pool. I guess they use the division tie breaker game as one of the wild card playoff games? Not sure.

      It goes like that because in head to head records, Oak > LAA, while both teams are currently 8- 8 vs TEX and the sweeps give them the advantage. Oak chooses a bye, but has to play the final game away. LAA gets second choice and takes home field.

      Let’s say Tex wins at LAA, and Oak wins at Tex. Oakland is West champ. LAA and Tex are in the wild card pool. But wait! Tex just beat them, AT Los Angeles of Anaheim! I believe, I’m not sure, but that game won’t be held against the Angels as far as wild card consideration.

      Anyone care to break down the east?

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    • Steve says:

      Can I just get the scenario where Baltimore, LA, and OAK get 93 wins, and Yankees win 2 of last 6?

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      • tigerdog says:

        If Yankees win 2 more, they have 92 wins, so the O’s win the East.

        The Angels can’t get to 93. They have 86 with 6 to play. Most they can get is 92.

        I ran the scenario above in the AL West with all three tied at 92 wins.

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    • MikeS says:

      You, sir, are incredible.

      In this scenario, Bud Selig falls over dead after declaring that the winner of the futures game, the College World Series and the Little League World Series have some bearing on who gets home field advantage for the weak of play-in games.

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  6. tigerdog says:

    I just wrote a piece at blessyouboys about the tiebreakers and never once mentioned probabilities. Just who wins in the case of two or three teams being tied. That’s the difference between lawyers and statisticians or engineers, I guess. It’s about probability vs possibility.

    I feel kinda weird being interested in this stuff at all. I get upset with sportscasters that throw up their hands and say “it’s too complicated to explain”. No, it’s not. With a little effort you can figure it out and explain it in easy sentences to the masses.

    FWIW- I live in So Cal, and they’re all melting down about the Angles and Dodgers out here. Angels in particular because they had such high expectations. Talking about dumping Scoscia, even though they might win 90 games, and are playing at a .600 clip since May.

    Bottom line:
    Tiebreakers are used to determine home field, never a division winner, even if the loser of the tie breaker would be a wild card anyway. Division winners are decided before wild cards are chosen.

    Tie breakers are
    1. Head to head record
    2. Division record if teams are in the same division
    3. League record in the past 81 games (since about 4th of July)

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    • MrSugarpenis says:

      Regarding tiebreakers, this says it doesn’t matter whether they are in the same division:

      Determining Home-Field Advantage in Two-Team Tiebreakers

      1. Head-to-head winning percentage during the 2012 regular season.
      2. Higher winning percentage in intradivision games.
      3. Higher winning percentage in the last half of intraleague games.
      4. Higher winning percentage in the last half plus one intraleague game, provided that such additional game was not between the two tied clubs. Continue to go back one intraleague game at a time until the tie has been broken.

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      • tigerdog says:

        Intradivision means same division. Interdivision means between divisions.

        In any case, all the contenders in the east and west divisions conveniently can settle this with head to head record, except NYY and Oakland, at 5-5.

        Oak > TBR
        Oak > Balt
        LAA > Balt
        TBR > LAA
        TBR > TEX
        NYY> TEX
        NYY> LAA

        There are no intradivision games between teams from different divisions. Would they use the Yankees record in the East and the A’s record in the west, for example to determine home field for a potential wild card showdown?

        If so, the A’s have a better winning pct in the west than the Yankees have in the east, and that gap would only get bigger if the A’s were to make up the two games to tie New York.

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  7. Steve says:

    Some of these scenarios are impossible, since the Rays an O’s play eachother to end the season

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  8. Dave in GB says:

    As an O’s fan, I’m just thrilled not to be rooting for the 1st draft pick this time of year.

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  9. David K says:

    “It should be noted that there is one other possibility not listed on the chart. If Chicago wins out, Detroit goes 4-2, Oakland goes 0-6 and Anaheim and Tampa Bay both go 2-4, that would put all five teams at 88 wins, requiring an AL Central tiebreaker with the loser entering a four-way tiebreaker with the other three teams.”

    I thought the one-game playoff to determine a division winner counts as a 163rd regular season game. Given that, the loser of a 1-game playoff would have a WORSE winning % than the other teams they were tied with, given the extra loss. Wouldn’t that disqualify them from a wild card playoff then? That doesn’t seem fair though, so maybe that isn’t the rule, but does anyone know for sure?

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    • tigerdog says:

      I don’t see that in the new rules, but I know for sure in the old rules, when there was a game 163 to determine the division winner where they were in a tie with a club from another division, they played the division tie breaker, then the loser played the wild card tie breaker. I don’t imagine that is changed, but I don’t see it expressly stated.

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  10. CatcheroftheWry says:

    So the Yankees need only go 2-4 to guarantee a playoff spot?

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  11. tigerdog says:

    If MLB were to schedule an odd number of games between each opponent (meaning, however, that one team would play more at home) the head to head tie breaker should be all they need to determine home field.

    They could also stipulate that if there are two wild card teams in a three way tie or more from the same division, they’d play each other in the tie breaker, rather than having coast to coast travel for a tie breaker, to be followed by the great wild card show down.

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  12. AJP says:

    Mind melted

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