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.

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

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Bob Loblaw
9 years ago

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

9 years ago
Reply to  Bob Loblaw

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.

9 years ago
Reply to  Ralph

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.

9 years ago
Reply to  Ralph

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.