We live in interesting times, and despite Major League Baseball’s supposed problems — a lagging pace of play, an excess of strikeouts and homers coupled with a shortage of balls in play, a glut of teams in rebuilding mode, service-time manipulations, and so on — we’ve generally been blessed in recent years with down-to-the-wire suspense when it comes to races for playoff spots. Thanks in part to the expanded Wild Card format (which has its critics and, admittedly, its flaws), only once since 2003 has the full playoff picture been determined before the season’s final day. Unfortunately, it was last year that broke the streak.
|Year||Playoff Spots At Stake|
|2004||NL Wild Card|
|2005||AL East, AL Wild Card, NL Wild Card|
|2006||AL Central, AL Wild Card, NL Central, NL West, NL Wild Card|
|2007||NL East, NL West, NL Wild Card*|
|2008||AL Central*, NL Wild Card|
|2010||AL East, AL Wild Card, NL West, NL Wild Card|
|2011||AL Wild Card, NL Wild Card|
|2012||AL East, AL West|
|2013||AL Wild Card*|
|2014||AL Central, AL Wild Card, NL Central, NL Wild Card|
|2015||AL West, AL Wild Card|
|2016||NL Wild Card|
Amid the drama of the 2011 races, which saw the Rays and Cardinals snatch spots away from the collapsing Red Sox and Braves, respectively, on the season’s final day, I coined the phrase “Team Entropy” — taking a page from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that all systems tend toward disorder — to describe the phenomenon of rooting for scenarios that produced end-of-season chaos. I’ve returned to the concept on an annual basis since then, tracking the possibilities for end-of-season, multi-team pileups that would require MLB to deviate from its previously scheduled programming.
The idea is that, if you’re a die-hard fan of a team trying to secure (or avoid blowing) a playoff spot, flag-waving for your squad of choice generally takes precedence, but if you’ve embraced the modern day’s maximalist menu of options that allow one not just to watch scoreboards but also to view multiple games on multiple gadgets, you want MORE BASEBALL in the form of final-weekend division and Wild Card races. You want extra innings and tiebreaker scenarios topped with mustard and sauerkraut. You want TVs, laptops, tablets, and phones stacked like a Nam June Paik installation so you can monitor all the action at once, and you want the MLB schedule-makers to contemplate entering the Federal Witness Protection Program instead of untangling once far-fetched scenarios. Welcome to Team Entropy, friends.
The first thing to know about Team Entropy is that we don’t always win. Not since 2013 has there been a Game 163 tiebreaker, despite a number of close calls. As with so much else in life, Team Entropy is about the journey as much as the destination, the friends and the strange bedfellows we met along the way by rooting for once-hated rivals to beat that other team we really don’t like. So with the waiver trade deadline and Labor Day having passed, it’s worth a look at the landscape to appreciate the possibilities in play.
While FanGraphs only has archives of past playoff odds going back to 2014, already we can see that this year offers a mix of the very good and not-so-good when it comes to Team Entropy’s prospects. For each of our archived seasons, I counted the number of teams that, as of Labor Day — a common reference point 27 days from the end of each of the seasons in question — had at least a 10.0% chance of making the playoffs:
This year brings us the slates with both the fewest and the most such teams within this narrow range, which alas doesn’t even cover the entirety of the Two Wild Card Era. In the AL, there was only a 5.7% chance through Monday that the sixth-best team, the Mariners, would crash the party. As of Wednesday morning, they’re down to 4.8%. Their 14-18 record since August 1, coupled with Oakland’s 20-11 record in that span, has reduced Seattle’s odds by nearly 54 percentage points during that interval. The A’s are now projected to win 94 games, which would mean going 11-11 the rest of the way; to tie them, the Mariners would have to go 17-6. Long story short: there’s not a lot of entropy to be had in the Junior Circuit unless the A’s (83-57) and Astros (86-53) wind up tied, preferably with the Yankees (87-52) involved, too.
In the Senior Circuit, on the other hand, eight teams had at least a 25.2% chance as of Labor Day, and two days later, the floor for those eight is still 24.1%. Both the Braves’ lead over the Phillies in the NL East and the Cubs’ lead over the Brewers in the NL Central were trimmed from four games to three on Tuesday night, while the West features a three-team race for the top spot between the Rockies, Dodgers and Diamondbacks, with the last two teams one and two games out of the second Wild Card spot, respectively.
That eight teams in the NL still have a reasonable shot at a playoff spot means that the forbidden fruit — a tie for which MLB has not yet revealed an official solution — is still on the table. Granted, MLB has never actually needed to untangle even a three-way tie, but they have had to plan for that contingency and many others. There are rules in place as to how several different scenarios involving up to four teams would be sorted out, starting with a pecking order determined first by head-to-head winning percentage for each team against all of the other tied teams. If that doesn’t work, the order is determined by the higher winning percentage of the tied teams in intradivision games. If that hasn’t settled things, it’s onto the higher winning percentage in intraleague games, and if that doesn’t work, things get weird, using the higher winning percentage in the last half of intraleague games, then by highest winning percentage in the last half plus one intraleague games, working backwards by each additional game until the tie is broken. Probably as the league is determining teach team’s intraleague record around the last half plus 17 games, the GMs of the two teams will be driven to duel with pistols at 10 paces. As I said, though, we haven’t gotten there yet.
After the pecking order comes a draft of sorts, to decide which team plays where when (“…with Club C traveling to face the winner of the game between Clubs A and B to determine who advances to the Wild Card Game…”), but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Last year, both my editor at Sports Illustrated, Ted Keith, and Baseball Prospectus’s Russell Carleton independently tried their hands at designing five-way tiebreakers. Via MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince, the league’s current plan is for the Commissioner’s office to create a five-way plan, with input from the Competition Committee, if the need becomes clear in the final weeks. That’s chaos worth rooting for, if only to see how quickly Rob Manfred tries to squeeze in a pitch clock.
Over the next three-plus weeks, I’ll track the progress of the various scenarios via intermittent updates, but for the moment, it’s enough to consider what it would take to get to such a logjam. Setting a target at 90 wins, a nice round number, would require the eight NL contenders to do this:
For kicks, we can also pretend that the Nationals (21-2), Pirates (22-1), and Giants (22-0) still have a chance to join the fun as well. Finally, I’ll leave you with my version of the Big Board for the NL, showing the head-to-head records between contenders (for use in the event of tiebreakers) along with the number of games remaining between those pairs at home and on the road; as you can see, there are a limited number of games remaining between contenders, but a lot is riding on them since few season series have been clinched. You’ll want to practice figuring out who gets to choose A, B, C and D designations based on head to head records if, say, the Brewers, Cardinals, Dodgers, and Rockies all tie for the two Wild Card spots.
|ATL||—||7-5 (4,3)||3-3||3-4||3-0 (3,0)||1-2 (0,4)||2-5||2-5|
|PHI||5-7 (3,4)||—||2-4||3-3||4-3||2-4||2-1 (0,4)||4-3|
|CHC||3-3||4-2||—||9-6 (3,1)||7-9 (3,0)||2-2 (0,3)||3-3||4-3|
|MIL||4-3||3-3||6-9 (1,3)||—||8-8 (0,3)||5-1||5-2||3-4|
|STL||0-3 (0,3)||3-4||9-7 (0,3)||8-8 (3,0)||—||3-3||5-2||3-0 (4,0)|
|ARI||2-1 (4,0)||4-2||2-2 (3,0)||1-5||3-3||—||7-5 (3,4)||9-7 (3,0)|
|COL||5-2||1-2 (4,0)||3-3||2-5||2-5||5-7 (4,3)||—||6-7 (3,3)|
|LAD||5-2||3-4||3-4||4-3||0-3 (0,4)||7-9 (0,3)||7-6 (3,3)||—|
As a lazy man, I’ll simply describe the AL table without building it. The Yankees own a 5-2 series advantage over the Astros and a 3-2 advantage over the A’s, with one remaining game against the later on Wednesday night in Oakland. The Astros and A’s are done with head-to-head games, with the defending champions winning the season series 12-7. In the event of a three-team tie, the Astros would host the A’s to determine the AL West champion, and the loser would play the Yankees. If that loser is Houston, then New York hosts, and likewise if it’s Oakland and the Yankees beat them once more on Wednesday. If those two teams wind up 3-3 against each other, chances are the Yankees would still play hosts, as they currently own a 34-26 record against the AL East while the A’s are just 30-34 against the AL West. Both teams will wind up with 78 such contests, meaning that between the two teams, the A’s are effectively be six back with 14 to play.
It’s fun, right? I’ll be back in about a week with another glimpse into the chaos.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.