As a fan, you know the feeling. Some years, everything just comes together, as if by magic. Pitchers find that extra gear, hitters come through under pressure so repeatedly you’re ready to believe clutch is a skill, and even the bit players rise to the occasion. Such was the Cinderella season of Team Entropy in 2018, the culmination of my long-running efforts to track the seemingly endless possibilities for end-of-season chaos. Last year, for the first time in MLB history, the baseball gods gave us a pair of Game 163 tiebreakers, specifically to determine which teams would win the NL Central and West crowns, and which would play in the NL Wild Card game. It was a beautiful bounty of baseball, the kind I dreamed of when I began this project in 2011.
That year, you may recall, the Rays and Cardinals snatched spots away from the collapsing Red Sox and Braves, respectively, on the season’s final day. Writing for Baseball Prospectus at the time, 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 such mayhem. I’ve returned to the concept on an annual basis, 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. More baseball in the form of final-weekend division and Wild Card races. More baseball in the form of extra innings and tiebreaker scenarios topped with mustard and sauerkraut. TVs, laptops, tablets, and phones stacked like a Nam June Paik installation so that 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.
Last year’s pair of tiebreakers was a welcome rebound from 2017, the only time in the past 15 seasons in which when there wasn’t a single playoff berth at stake heading into the final day of the regular season:
|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|
|2018||NL Central*, NL West*, NL Wild Card|
Which brings us to this year. With the Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers all enjoying leads of at least nine games, and the Twins and Braves each up more than five games as well entering Tuesday, the NL Central — where the Cardinals lead the Cubs by three games and the Brewers by seven — appears to be the only division in play. A quick peek at our playoff odds had the Braves with “only” an 88.2% chance of bringing home the NL East before Monday’s combination of their win over the Blue Jays and the Nationals’ loss to the Mets, though they’re now up to 92.6%. The Twins are at 94.4%; by comparison, the Cardinals are at 64.4%. It ain’t over, and if you turn to our ties page, you can see that there’s a 9.7% chance of the NL Central needing bonus baseball, with a 3.9% chance for the NL East and a 3.0% chance for the AL Central. Those odds aren’t out of line relative to last Labor Day when the NL West had a 10.6% chance of a tie and the NL Central a 4.4% chance.
Likewise, the Wild Card picture isn’t as bleak as it might first appear. In the AL, the Rays (81-58), Indians (80-58), and A’s (78-58) are separated by just 1 1/2 games, with the Red Sox (74-63) 5 1/2 games out of a Wild Card spot. Boston’s odds are at just 6.7%, but the chances of any tie for the second Wild Card spot are at a respectable 15.4%, with a 0.8% chance of a three-way tie for that spot, a 1.4% chance for a three-way tie for the top Wild Card seed, and a 0.1% chance that all four teams wind up tied. Things are more spread out in the NL, where there’s 3 1/2 games separating the Nationals (77-60) from the Cubs (74-63) and another 2 1/2 games between the latter and the Phillies (71-65), with the Diamondbacks (71-67), Brewers (70-67), and Mets (70-67) all within four games of the second spot. The odds of a two-way tie for the second spot are 12.6%, with those of a three-way tie at 1.6% and a 0.2% chance at a four-way tie for that spot, and even a 0.1% chance of a three-way tie for the first Wild Card spot.
At this time last year, by comparison, the odds of a tie for the second NL Wild Card spot were 18.5%, but those in the AL were just 3.4%, so it’s fair to say that we might be in better shape than in 2018. On the other hand, there’s this:
Blame the Brewers for dipping below 10% with Monday’s loss to the Astros, leaving us with fewer teams meeting that threshold at Labor Day — a common reference point 27 days from the end of each season — in any year among those we have archived. Still, we could have ties. Consider for a moment what it would take to get these seven teams to 86 wins:
Each of those clubs has had at least one stretch, and in some cases multiple ones, in which they’ve replicated the required records over a 24-, 25-, or 26-game span. And while we won’t get all of those teams winding up there after 162 games, we only need some of them to do so for bonus baseball.
As to how the knots will be untangled if they do, the basic principle is that ties for anything beyond seeding are settled on the field; if two teams wind up with the same record but only one can be division champion and the other a Wild Card (or a bystander), they play it out. When the tie involves two or more teams, breaking the tie starts with the creation of a pecking order among the tied teams first via head-to-head winning percentages among those teams (in its simplest form yielding home-field advantage for a two-team tiebreaker), then by higher winning percentage in intradivsion games, and then by higher winning percentage in intraleague games. If that doesn’t work, things get weird, using the higher winning percentage in the last half of intraleague games, then going by highest winning percentage in the last half plus one intraleague games, working backwards by each additional game until the tie is broken. How they came up with that one, Bris Lord only knows.
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. First, it’s worth tracking the head-to-head records and remaining games among teams that might end up tied. Here’s the AL grid:
|Twins||—||5-2 (0-0)||6-7 (3,3)||3-4 (0,0)||1-2 (0,3)|
|Rays||2-5 (0,0)||—||6-1 (0,0)||3-4 (0,0)||9-6 (4,0)|
|Indians||7-6 (3,3)||1-6 (0,0)||—||1-5 (0,0)||3-3 (0,0)|
|Athletics||4-3 (0,0)||4-3 (0,0)||5-1 (0,0)||—||3-4 (0,0)|
|Red Sox||2-1 (3,0)||6-9 (0,4)||3-3 (0,0)||4-3 (0,0)||—|
The numbers outside the parentheses are won-loss records, while those within are the respective totals of home and road games remaining against the opponent in question. As for what’s on the docket this week in terms of head-to-head matchups, Tuesday kicks off the three-game series between the Twins and Red Sox in Boston, while on Friday, the Twins begin hosting the Indians for another three-game set; the season series is on the line.
Here’s the NL grid:
|Nationals||—||1-3 (0,3)||4-2 (0,0)||9-5 (5,0)||2-4 (0,0)||2-4 (0,0)||6-11 (0,2)|
|Cardinals||3-1 (3,0)||—||5-7 (3,4)||2-4 (0,0)||9-7 (3,0)||2-1 (0,3)||5-2 (0,0)|
|Cubs||2-4 (0,0)||7-5 (4,3)||—||2-5 (0,0)||8-7 (0,4)||4-2 (0,0)||5-2 (0,0)|
|Phillies||5-9 (0,5)||4-2 (0,0)||5-2 (0,0)||—||3-4 (0,0)||2-4 (0,0)||10-6 (0,3)|
|Brewers||4-2 (0,0)||7-9 (0,3)||7-8 (0,4)||4-3(0,0)||—||5-2 (0,0)||5-1 (0,0)|
|Diamondbacks||4-2 (0,0)||1-2 (3,0)||2-4 (0,0)||4-2 (0,0)||2-5 (0,0)||—||2-1 (0,3)|
|Mets||11-6 (2,0)||2-5 (0,0)||2-5 (0,0)||6-10 (3,0)||1-5 (0,0)||1-2 (3,0)||—|
The Nationals just dropped the opener of their final three-game series against the Mets on Monday, though they’ve already lost that season series, should that become relevant. Likewise for the coming weekend, when the Mets host the Phillies for three; that one has already been decided. On the other hand, the season series between the Brewers and Cubs is on the line in the four-game set between the pair at Miller Park starting on Thursday.
As a way of illustrating the potential chaos at hand, let us suppose that when the rubble clears, the Nationals have claimed the first Wild Card spot and the Cubs, Brewers, and Phillies are tied for the second one, that after the two Central combatants split the aforementioned four-game series. The Phillies, with their .571 winning percentage against the other two (8-6), would have the upper hand on the Brewers (.500, 13-13) and Cubs (.462, 12-14) and would get the first pick as to which team they want to be in the following scenario: Club A hosts Club B, with the winner hosting Club C to determine the Wild Card club. The choice there really comes down to A (which must win two games at home) or C (win one on the road), and most if not all teams would probably pick the latter because of the lesser travel implications.
Now a more complicated scenario: let us suppose that the Cardinals and Cubs have tied for the NL Central flag, and both have the same record as the Mets (again, with the Nationals having claimed the first Wild Card spot). The two NL Central teams would play a tiebreaker game to determine the division champion; right now, it would be the Cubs hosting, as they own a 7-5 series advantage, but neither team has clinched yet. Either way, the loser of that game would then host the Mets, as both teams own 5-2 season series advantages on the New Yorkers. The winner of that game would claim the second Wild Card spot.
I can see you’re getting into the rhythm, bobbing your head and moving your arms a little bit. Let’s try one more, with that trio of teams and the Nationals all winding up in the same pileup. This would require three tiebreaker games: one between the two NL Central teams (host still TBD), one between the two NL East teams (hosted by the Mets), and a third between the two losing teams, with the host determined by their head-to-head records.
Is fun, no? Well, maybe not for Rob Manfred, but that’s really part of the point. More than anything, we want chaos at 245 Park Avenue. We want the solution to the as-yet-unpublished five-way tiebreaker scenarios that Sports Illustrated’s Ted Keith (my former editor) and Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carleton puzzled over a couple years back. We want extra baseball, but we know going in that, last year to the contrary, we don’t always get it. 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. Let’s hope that once again, things gets weird.
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.