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Should baseball adopt ties?

Save extra innings for the playoffs

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins
Ties are as equitable as a nice handshake
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Ties in sports are as American as baguettes and socialized medicine. Yet three of the five major American/Canadian sports use some form of ties* to avoid excessive regular-season overtime, and for good reason. At their best, ties shorten game times, reduce injury risk, improve the quality of play in subsequent games, and provide an equitable resolution for two evenly-matched teams. Basketball doesn’t use ties, but its high-scoring nature really negates the need.

But what if baseball decided to adopt ties? I decided to investigate further as a thought experiment. Full disclosure: as a long-time hockey and soccer fan, I’m quite comfortable with ties, but I didn’t know what I’d find when I started exploring the possible implications of introducing ties to baseball.

*The NHL now uses a shootout to decide a game’s winner after a 5-minute overtime, thus doing away with ties in the strict sense. But as the NHL still awards points in the standings for overtime or shootout losses, the system functions as a tie in the sense of rewarding teams for being tied at the end of regulation.

From 1994-2016, on average, 185 American League and 221 National League regular-season games have gone to extra innings per year, 8-9% of total games (all data in this story from Baseball Reference). What is the purpose of allowing these games to go 10 or more innings? Players get tired and pitching staffs get worn out, affecting the quality of play in subsequent games and potentially increasing injury risk. Fans have to choose (whether live or on TV/radio) between sticking with an already long game for an uncertain amount of added time, or giving up without a clear resolution. Stadium employees, local police, and other related workers have to work overtime, in essence (do they get paid for that?). What clear argument, other than The Purity Of The Game, is there for insisting on playing more baseball than necessary in the regular season? Adopting ties after nine innings would do away with all that, offering a clear resolution to games and ensuring that everyone involved could better fit baseball into their life.

There is also the consideration that affects baseball uniquely - the quality of play. In soccer and hockey, there’s a strong inclination for weaker teams to “play for the tie”, essentially playing defense and killing the clock. This is generally boring to watch and is a strong argument against ties. However, this doesn’t apply to baseball, in which time has no meaning and each team is given equal, independent chances to score (are we sure this is an American sport?). There would be no such thing as “playing for a tie”, as there would be no conceivable reason to reduce your offensive efforts and no practical way to increase your defensive posture. Thus ties would not change the way the game is played, a significant benefit compared to other leagues.

But what would adopting ties actually do to the structure of baseball? How would it change the standings and playoff teams? How would we compare teams across past seasons (baseball’s relative historic stability is one of its greatest assets to the analytically minded)?

How would ties in baseball work?

Some sports combine ties with a points system, as in soccer (3 points for a win and 1 for a tie) or hockey*, using these points to determine standings. This would be awfully disruptive in baseball, but there’s an easier way: the system used by the NFL. Ties are rare in American football, but even this paragon of macho competition recognizes that too much regular-season overtime is a drag rather than a thrill. After enough scoreless overtime has passed, a tie is declared. Winning percentage (w%) rather than wins is used to determine standings, calculated by counting any ties as half-wins. Thus the formula for w%, which in baseball is currently Wins/Games, becomes the only slightly more complicated [Wins+(Ties/2)]/Games. After this, everything else would work the same for baseball: playoff teams are each division leader and the next best two teams (all by w%), and all other tiebreakers (like head-to-record) are unaffected.

The only real adjustment would be in the lexicon: broadcasters, journalists, and fans are used to using “wins” as the default comparison for teams, but would have to shift to “w%”. It’s solely a question of word choice, as “wins” are still just shorthand for “w%” (calculated the old way). So, for example, instead of talking about needing 90 wins to make the Wild Card game, we would talk about needing a .555 w% instead. In the old system, that’s the same as 90-72, but in the new system teams with a W-L-T record of 85-67-10 or 87-69-6 would both have w% of .556 and potentially qualify. Shifting to w% as the core reference for a team’s success also helps compare teams across eras: it’s more relevant to compare the w% of teams from 1954 (154-game season) and 2016 (162-game season) than to compare their total wins.

Ties in baseball: AL 2014-2016

To find out how this would look in practice, I decided to test my theory on the last three years in the American League, which I chose because this is a Royals site, and to halve the necessary data analysis. I converted all extra-innings games into ties (subtracting them from the original win-loss totals), and calculated a new w% using the formula above. Playoff teams are in bold.

2016: The only meaningful change here is that Baltimore and Toronto (the two AL Wild Card teams) are no longer tied, with Toronto finishing clearly ahead. But since Toronto held the tiebreaker and hosted the Wild Card game against Baltimore anyway, there is no practical change.

2016 AL final standings with ties applied after 9 innings

Team (original standings) Original w% W L T New w%
Team (original standings) Original w% W L T New w%
BOS 0.574 86 65 11 0.565
BAL 0.549 83 71 8 0.537
TOR 0.549 85 64 13 0.565
NYY 0.519 80 75 7 0.515
TBR 0.420 64 91 7 0.417
- - - - - -
CLE 0.584 88 61 12 0.584
DET 0.534 81 71 9 0.531
KCR 0.500 74 78 10 0.488
CHW 0.481 70 77 15 0.478
MIN 0.364 53 93 16 0.377
- - - - - -
TEX 0.586 89 61 12 0.586
SEA 0.531 77 68 17 0.528
HOU 0.519 74 70 18 0.512
LAA 0.457 74 84 4 0.469
OAK 0.426 63 88 11 0.423

2015: Originally, Houston beat New York in the AL Wild Card game (only to lose to the Royals in the Division Series), but with ties, LA wins the second AL Wild Card spot and travels to New York instead. Now the butterfly flaps its wings: do the Royals beat the Angels or the Yankees in the Division Series and go on to win the World Series? Luckily we don’t have to adopt ties retroactively. In the original standings, LA only finished one game behind Houston, in part due to their worse extra-innings record (5-7 vs. 8-6). Convert all those games to ties, and LA comes out ahead.

2015 AL final standings with ties applied after 9 innings

Team (original standings) Original w% W L T New w%
Team (original standings) Original w% W L T New w%
TOR 0.574 85 63 14 0.568
NYY 0.537 83 66 13 0.552
BAL 0.500 75 76 11 0.497
TBR 0.494 78 69 15 0.528
BOS 0.481 71 77 14 0.481
- - - - - -
KCR 0.586 85 61 16 0.574
MIN 0.512 77 71 14 0.519
CLE 0.503 76 76 9 0.500
CHW 0.469 63 81 18 0.444
DET 0.460 65 79 17 0.457
- - - - - -
TEX 0.543 83 70 9 0.540
HOU 0.531 78 70 14 0.525
LAA 0.525 80 70 12 0.531
SEA 0.469 66 73 23 0.478
OAK 0.420 61 84 17 0.429

2014: Originally, Detroit finished one game ahead of Kansas City for the division title; with ties, the Royals and Tigers end up tied by w%, but as Detroit held the tie-breaker (head-to-head record), they would still have won the division and the Royals would still have hosted the Wild Card game. But now the butterfly unfolds: Seattle, who originally finished a game behind Oakland for the second Wild Card spot in part due to a worse extra-innings record (4-7 vs. 13-8), now finishes well ahead and travels to Kansas City for the Wild Card game. I wouldn’t trade the original WC game (a 9-8, 12-inning comeback Royals win over Oakland) for almost anything, so again, let’s be glad this isn’t retroactive.

2014 AL final standings with ties applied after 9 innings

Team (original standings) Original w% W L T New w%
Team (original standings) Original w% W L T New w%
BAL 0.593 82 60 20 0.568
NYY 0.519 77 71 14 0.519
TOR 0.512 78 71 13 0.522
TBR 0.475 69 75 18 0.481
BOS 0.438 61 80 21 0.441
- - - - - -
DET 0.556 84 66 12 0.556
KCR 0.549 84 66 12 0.556
CLE 0.525 72 69 21 0.509
CHW 0.451 67 81 14 0.457
MIN 0.432 64 85 13 0.435
- - - - - -
LAA 0.605 88 57 17 0.596
OAK 0.543 75 66 21 0.528
SEA 0.537 83 68 11 0.546
HOU 0.432 64 87 11 0.429
TEX 0.414 65 90 7 0.423

In these three years, at least, adopting ties makes minor but significant changes. Two wild card teams are different, but in both cases by a narrow margin (each only missed out by one game in the original standings). Teams are rewarded for what they do in the first nine innings rather than in extra innings.

Is it worth it?

However, there’s still a strong argument for the status quo here. Ties might be more equitable and efficient, but are they a solution in search of a problem? According to my calculations, any given team plays around 30 extra innings of baseball per regular season, about 2% of the total. If you consider the average inning to last about 20 minutes, that’s less than 10 total extra hours of baseball per team per season. So it’s very easy to dismiss this whole idea as unnecessarily disruptive. Yet the benefits aren’t as easily quantifiable: more certainty for fans, players, and workers; healthier players; better play. Adopting something that wouldn’t change much also means it wouldn’t be overly disruptive. It’s not likely to happen, but it was a fun thought exercise, and I for one am open to the idea. Leave extra innings for the playoffs, where the drama is worth the cost.