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The wildest wild card scenarios

Let’s clear up some confusion

Texas Rangers v New York Yankees Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Every year about this time everyone looks at 3-6 teams bunched up around the wild card and says, "Boy, it sure looks like we could end up with a bunch of ties at the end of the season, this year! How do those work again?"

Usually the ties don’t pan out, instead of playing even against each other a couple of the teams really turn it on and knock out the rest of their opponents. But just in case this year is the year, let’s take a look at some of the scenarios that could happen. If you want to look at the full list of rules, they can be found here.

To summarize, in the case of a two-team tie breaker these are the the factors for determining home-field advantage:

  1. head-to-head winning percentage
  2. Highest winning percentage against division opponents
  3. Highest winning percentage against league opponents
  4. Highest winning percentage in the second half against league opponents
  5. Keep adding one game to the last number until one team is better than the other

You’ll note that, according to these tie-breaker rules, the games later in the season do matter more than the ones earlier in the season. Take that you pop-tart-eating nerds who insist all wins count the same!

For three teams the procedure is much the same, with just an extra step and modified for having an extra team.For four or more teams, it's very similar to three teams except you drop the head-to-head step. Here's a few examples using the real records of the teams named as of Saturday, but pretending as if they were tied for one or more playoff spots.

Kansas City has home advantage over Houston because they have won more of their head-to-head games. Similarly Seattle has home advantage over the Royals for the same reason.

For a three-way tie the first thing you do is see if either team had a winning record against both of the other teams. Suppose that Kansas City, Seattle, and Houston were all tied. Kansas City has a winning record against Houston but a losing record against Seattle, Houston has a winning record against Seattle, but a losing record against Kansas City, and Seattle has a winning record against Kansas City but a losing record against Houston.

So then the next step is to compare overall winning percentages between the three teams: Kansas City is a combined 7-7 against Houston and Seattle, this year; Houston is 11-9; and Seattle is 9-11. So Houston would get first choice of designation. Now you do the normal head-to-head/two-team rules between Seattle and Kansas City, so Seattle picks their designation next.

If, instead, there had been a tie between the Royals, Tigers, and Astros the Royals would get the first pick because they have a winning record against both teams. Then Detroit would get the second pick because they have a winning record against Houston.

Had there been a two-way tie after the second step, the head-to-head tie breaker would have been used between the two teams. Had there still been a three-way tie you would jump to step two in the list above, but on all three teams instead of two, then progress from there.

If there were a four-or-more-way tie, it's still similar but again slightly different. For example, in a tie between Kansas City, Seattle, Houston, and Boston you skip the first step of seeing if any of the teams beat all the others and go straight to comparing common winning percentages: Royals 11-9, Mariners 12-15, Astros 13-14, Red Sox 11-9. If three teams had tied, you would use the three-team tie breakers to determine the top pick of the four, but only two teams tied so we use the two-team tie breaker. In this scenario, the Royals get the first designation pick because they had a winning record against Boston.

They keep it simpler than the three gamer when this many teams are involved, so instead of re-figuring the tie-breakers for the remaining three teams they just continue to use the ones already calculated. Boston would get the second pick, then the Astros, then Seattle.

You may have noted repeated use of terms like ‘designation’ and ‘pick’. That’s because, unlike NFL tie-breakers, these rules don’t just determine who is in and who is out, or who has home field advantage. There can be various, complicated scenarios based on the number of tied teams and the playoff spots up for grabs.

If two teams are tied and there is only one playoff spot up for grabs, the rules above are applied to determine home-field advantage for the one-game playoff, no scenarios needed. Similarly it works if two teams tie for the division lead with a record that is also good enough to qualify for a wild card spot, the winner of the one-game playoff moves on as the division champ and the other must play in the wild card. It’s not explicitly stated in the rules, but I think it’s safe to assume that if two teams tie for both wild card spots that the rules will be used to select home field advantage but there will be no additional playoff game.

If three teams are tied for one playoff spot, this is where the designations start coming into play. Each team will select designation A, B, or C in the order described above. Team A will host team B for a playoff game and then the winner of that game will host team C. This brings some strategy into play for the team with first designation pick. If you pick A then you get home-field advantage throughout the process, but you have to win 2 games. If you pick C then you only have to win one game, and against a weakened opponent but you have to do it on the road.

It actually gets less interesting if there is a division spot and a wild card up for grabs in a three-way tie. You pick designations the same way, A still hosts B, and then the winner of that game hosts C. Whoever wins that second game gets to be the division winner, but the loser still gets to be the wild card entrant. In such a scenario you would always select designation C because it guarantees a playoff spot of one sort or another as well as only having to play one game.

It gets interesting again in a three-way tie for a division and both wild cards. Designations are picked the same way. The winner of A vs B hosts C for the division. The loser of the first game is the first wild card entrant and the loser of the second is the second wild card entrant. So you can pick A and guarantee yourself at least home-field advantage all the way through the tie-breaker process as well as the wild card or you can pick C and try to take the division in a single road game but know that you will be the road team in that game as well as in the wild card if you lose.

If two teams were tied for the division with a record good enough to win the wild card, which is also tied with a pair of teams outside the division for the wild card a head-to-head playoff game would be played for the division first. Then a head-to-head game between the out-of-division wild card hopefuls. Finally a head-to-head game would be played between the loser of the division game and the winner of the out-of-division game to determine who actually gets the wild card spot.

If, somehow, four teams tied for a division lead, then the scenario is pretty familiar. A would host  B and C would host D, keeping in mind that the best team by tie breakers would choose A and the second best would choose C, not B. The winners of the first game would host the winner of the second game to determine the division winner. If a single wild card were up for grabs then the loser of the second game would get that spot. If two wild card spots were available then the losers of the first two games would meet to determine the second wild card.

There may be a couple more scenarios, but those are most of them and you should now have a pretty good idea how it works. As per usual these scenarios seem anywhere from merely feasible to incredibly likely right now, but there have only been four in this millennium. Still, it’s fun to think about, though quite complex. If you have any more questions go ahead and ask them in the comments.  I'll keep an eye out, as always, and the other brilliant Royals Review readers will probably be around to answer anything I miss.