There have been 12 single-game tiebreakers in MLB history. Each of them brought the nerve and anticipation of a playoff matchup despite being played as regular-season games — but Game #163 is now a thing of the past.
With an expanded playoff format rolling out this October, MLB decided there wasn’t enough room on the calendar to end ties off-game this way. Instead, a set of tiebreak rules will now decide not only the seeding, but who overall gets into the postseason if 162 games isn’t enough to determine the 12-team field. That means the series your favorite team played in the first half could have a big 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 directly affected, as Milwaukee is currently on the outside of the last National League wildcard spot and is chasing the San Diego Padres for that final postseason spot. But the Brewers need to gain some ground this year as they lost their season streak to the Padres 4-3. So if the teams finish with the same record, San Diego is in and Milwaukee is out.
“We finished the games against them … in early June,” Counsell said. “We were aware of that at the time, but there are 110 games left at this point. There isn’t much to do.
“We knew the rule,” Counsell said. “Everyone knew … They didn’t think it was feasible to fit a tiebreak game into the schedule.”
The league understands some of the fears that could exist if a team is eliminated by a season series played around Memorial Day, but says the trade-off of more teams in the mix for a playoff spot is worth it.
“We’re excited that more of our fans will experience postseason baseball as part of the expanded playoff format this year,” said Morgan Sword, executive vice president of baseball operations. “Due to the increased number of postseason games, we had to make sure the regular season ended on time.”
Although the post-season format is specified in the recently signed collective agreement, there is discretion when it comes to the details of the tiebreaker rules, allowing the league to study the impact and make changes if necessary. As players and teams recognize the stakes, the new rules could also lead to a further emphasis on head-to-head matches.
“If they beat us more than we beat them, it should be theirs, so I totally agree with the rule,” said St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol. “Our job is not to lose, so if someone did that better than us, you go home.”
This will be more prominent starting next year, when each team will only play 13 games — out of 19 — in their own division. And results in the new format’s first year are already showing the importance of beating other teams with playoff hopes in head-to-head matches within the league.
“When we played the Padres, it wasn’t like we put more emphasis on winning those games compared to other games,” Dave Dombrowski, president of baseball operations for the Philadelphia Phillies, said in an email. “However, after we won the series, we discussed how big this series could become.”
The Phillies are just ahead of the Padres in the NL wildcard race, and while either team could get in, home field advantage will be determined by the tiebreaker system if the two teams have the same record after 162. With the new format, this means that the loser of the tiebreak in the best-of-three first round does not get a home game.
Philadelphia won its season series against both San Diego (4-3) and Milwaukee (4-2), so would win any tiebreak between those two teams. The Brewers have now understood the task: beat the opponents above them by at least one game to make the tiebreak out of it. Otherwise, it will be a heartbreaking end of the season.
“They treat every game as an important game, but the next day and the next day and the next day there’s a game,” Counsell said. “You have to deal with both concepts every day.”
This is what the new tiebreaker rules look like
With the new procedures already impacting the home stretch of this season, here are the five rules governing tiebreakers:
Head-to-head record: Self-explanatory. And if more than two teams have a tie, then the team with the best combined win rate over the other teams wins the tiebreaker.
Intradivision record: If the head-to-head records are tied – this would only happen between wildcard teams that have played an equal number of games – then the best record within their own divisions will determine the winner.
Interdivision record: If the first two tiebreakers don’t settle it, then the next ranks the teams’ records within their own leagues, but excluding their own divisions.
Second Half Intraliga Matches: If the teams are still tied at this point, a winner will be determined based on each team’s win percentage in their own league over the last 81 games of the season.
Second Half Intraleague Games Plus One (or more): If the teams remain tied after the first four tiebreaks, a winner is determined by working backwards from the last Intraleague game of the first half until the tie is broken.
It should be noted that there are extreme scenarios such as B. Five-team ties for which the league does not have an exact answer. In these cases, a clause that requires “discretion of the commissioner” applies. In other words, Rob Manfred could decide which team makes the postseason and which doesn’t — although the scenario is far-fetched.
What does all this mean for this season’s races?
There are a lot of close races this season, so there’s a chance the tiebreakers will come into play. That being said, there is no chance of having to use more than the first tiebreaker in any scenario this year. Anyhow, let’s take a look at how the new procedures affect some of the more exciting playoff and division races.
National League East: The New York Mets lead the season series against the Atlanta Braves 9-7. If the Braves win the last three games against New York, they win the tiebreak; Otherwise, the Mets will come out on top. The winner will likely be number 2 and get a bye. The loser will host a first round playoff series.
NL wildcard: As mentioned above, the Brewers lose a tiebreak to both the Padres and the Phillies, while Philadelphia wins one to San Diego.
American League Headquarters: It’s a three-team dogfight between the Cleveland Guardians, Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins, with the two losers likely to be eliminated from the postseason.
The White Sox are currently losing tiebreakers against both teams but still have a chance to flip that script. They need to beat the Guardians in Chicago this week to win this season’s series, while this year they’re 6-7 against the Twins with six games left.
Cleveland already won their season streak with the Twins, so Minnesota would need to win one more game than the Guardians to beat them for the division title.
AL wildcard: A draw has the best chance here. The Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays are neck and neck for all three wild card spots.
The Mariners win a tiebreak with the Blue Jays but lose one to the Rays. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay leads the season series with Toronto 8-7 with four games remaining between the teams.
The new system — and the elimination of Game #163 — is bound to grab some headlines when head-to-head records bounce someone out of the playoffs or give a division winner a bye. This year still has all possibilities.