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The Tiebreak Breakdown Down-low

All you ever needed to know (and probably what you didn’t need as well) about MLB’s tiebreaking procedures.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Los Angeles Angels
An umpire explaining, politely and in great detail, the tiebreaking rules to Scott Servais.
Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

So, after a late-game collapse by both the Indians and the Blue Jays, the Mariner win yesterday did basically nothing to help the squad’s playoff positioning. Oops.

With just four remaining, the M’s are two out of the second wild card spot and three games out of the first wild card. And with so many teams still alive heading into the final four games of the season, we here at Lookout Landing decided to give you a breakdown of what the rest of the season needs to look like for this team, and more specifically, what might happen in the event of a tie. Here goes nothing!

SCENARIO ONE: Two-way ties

This one is simple. Should the Mariners tie with any one other team for the second wild card spot, they would play a one-game playoff with that team on Monday, Oct. 3, a day before the Wild Card Game itself. Home-field advantage would be determined by head-to-head record, meaning...

  • Blue Jays - tied the season series 3-3, so it would come down to the second tiebreaker, which is intra-divisional record. Since the M’s are three games behind the Jays, should the two teams finished tied, the Mariners would have to have a better divisional record, meaning the game would be played at Safeco.
  • Orioles - won the season series 6-1, so a tiebreaker would be played at Safeco.
  • Tigers - lost the season series 4-3, so a tiebreaker would be played in Detroit.
  • Astros - lost the season series 11-8, so a tiebreaker would be played in the bandbox the ‘Stros call a ballpark. Man, I hate the Astros.
  • Yankees - since the Yankees are four games back of the Orioles with four left, it’s impossible to finish in a two-way tie with the Yankees.

Now, the Mariners could also finished tied for the first wild card spot, should things break down in just the right way. In such a scenario, there’s no tiebreaker game, and instead the above tiebreakers would be used to determine the home field for the Wild Card Game.

SCENARIO TWO: Three-way ties

Now we’re getting somewhere!

The most likely scenario would be a three-way tie for the second wild card spot, though it’s theoretically possible that there could be three teams tied for the first spot. Under these rules, the three teams involved use a permutation of the tiebreaking procedure above to enter a “draft.”

In this draft, teams select which spot they would like. Let’s focus on the WC2 tie (and this section is explained nicely on If the Mariners, Orioles, and Tigers all tie for WC2 behind Toronto, then the tiebreaker to determine draft order would be combined head-to-head. Since the M’s are 9-5 against these squads, while the other two are 6-8, they would get the first selection. They then get to pick one of two options:

  • Play at home on Oct. 3 and Oct. 4, and should they win both, play on the road in the Wild Card Game (which is scheduled for Oct. 4, so I assume that in this scenario it would be delayed by a day). Obviously, that second tiebreaker game on 10/4 is dependent on winning the first contest.
  • Play on the road on Oct. 4, and should they win, play on the road in the Wild Card Game.

My guess is the M’s would select to play on the road on 10/4, since even a 60% chance of winning both those home games would mean that they have a 36% chance of advancing to the Wild Card Game, a number surely lower than playing a single road game on 10/4, especially when one considers bullpen rest, etc.

Should the Mariners finish in a three-way tie for WC1, then it works in much the same fashion with a bit of a twist. Assuming the same teams are involved, the Mariners would choose to host the Orioles on Oct. 3. If they win that, they become the host for the Wild Card Game. If they lose, they travel to play at the Tigers on Oct. 4; a loss there ends their season, while a win would mean they travel to Baltimore for the Wild Card Game. Basically, they’d get two bites at the apple, and winning either game would give them a playoff bid.

Got it?


Well, what comes next is even more complicated...

SCENARIO THREE: Four-way ties

Actually, it’s not that bad.

Using the tiebreakers above (1. head-to-head. 2. intradivisional record. 3. intraleague record), the teams would be ranked 1-4. The teams then get to select their overall spot, but basically it means that teams 1&2 will choose to host a tiebreaker game and teams 3&4 will be playing at these teams. The winners of the games will then play one final tiebreaker (or, if tied for the WC1 spot, the Wild Card Game) to determine the winner.

Think of this as a simple four-team tournament, with tiebreakers determining who gets slotted in which seeding position.

One thing to keep in mind about all of these scenarios: Because the M’s throttled the Orioles 6-1 for the season, they would have a large advantage in the tiebreaking process should the O’s be included; however, Houston has an advantage over the Mariners in, I believe, every single tiebreaking situation, so being tied with the Astros would not be ideal.

All of this sets up...

SCENARIO FOUR: The Ultimate Five-Way Tie

This is the Holy Grail of playoff ties. Just imagine:

Borrowing from Rany Jazayerli, I decided to calculate the odds of these events happening. Though Rany used a simple coin-flip method and the binomial theorem, I used FiveThirtyEight’s projections as the odds of each result happening. Once multiplied against each other (and taking into account the fact that three of the Orioles’ losses would come against the Yankees, meaning I shouldn’t double-count them), the chances of this happening are 0.000471, or .05%.

So, yes, there’s a minuscule chance that we could find ourselves in a couple days with a five-way tie. But the MLB rule on this is fantastic, since it operates quite differently from a four-way tie:

  1. One representative from each team would fly to the MLB Commissioner’s Office in New York to draw straws. The team with the short straw would be automatically eliminated.
  2. The other four representatives would then be sorted into two pairs of two based on the tiebreaking rules as described above. We would then have a “super-game,” where the Team-Pairs combine forces to create the best 25-man roster possible among their two 40-man rosters and then take each other on. This game would be hosted at the home stadium of the team not participating, so as to compensate them for missing the playoff (they get to keep all the gate receipts, minus travel costs for the two team-pairs).
  3. The winning Team-Pair would then split back into their own teams and play each other for the second wild card spot, with the game hosted at the stadium of the fifth team (again, further monetary compensation for the team missing the playoff).

Of course, the M’s don’t want to leave their season up to the whims of short straws and a team-pair playoff. For them, the playoffs start today. There’s effectively zero wiggle room. With playoff odds already hovering around 10%, any loss would put postseason hopes on life support at best.

So let’s go get a win.