Team Entropy 2021: Back to (Somewhat) Normal

Less than four weeks remain in the 2021 regular season, and while the coronavirus pandemic continues due to the Delta surge, MLB is back to some semblance of normalcy (though don’t tell that to the Red Sox). We’ve got a 162-game regular season, a comprehensible 10-team postseason format, the possibility of actual tiebreaker games being played if necessary — all of which were off the table last season — and no neutral sites. We’ve got some real playoff races as well, with the potential to produce end-of-season chaos.

Welcome back to Team Entropy. If you’re new here, don’t worry, I’ll catch you up.

A decade ago, during the wild 2011 races that resulted in the Rays and Cardinals snatching 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 such mayhem. I’ve returned to the concept annually, 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 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 (though alas, the dastardly Manfred Man will still be mucking up those tiebreakers if they go past nine innings). You have TVs, laptops, tablets, and phones stacked like a Nam June Paik installation so you can monitor all the action at once. You want the MLB schedule-makers to contemplate entering the Federal Witness Protection Program instead of untangling once-far-fetched scenarios. If all that sounds familiar, you’re one of us.

Since we’re close to normalcy as far as format goes, you can forget everything I tried to cram into your head regarding last year’s three-tiered, 16-team system; hopefully, we need never speak of it again in this context. We’ve had a pretty good thing going this way, at least when it comes to taking things down to the final day of the regular season:

At Stake Heading Into Final Day of Season
Year Playoff Spots At Stake
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
2017 Pfffffffft
2018 NL Central*, NL West*, NL Wild Card
2019 NL Central
* Resulted in Game 163 tiebreaker

As for this year, the Rays, White Sox, and Brewers lead their respective divisions by at least nine games, while the Astros are up by 5 1/2 games. By our Playoff Odds, all of those teams have at least a 96.8% chance of retaining the top spot at this writing. Move along, nothing to see there.

That still leaves two divisions in play. In the NL East, the Braves (74-65) lead the Phillies (71-69) by 3 1/2 games and the Mets (70-71) by five games. In the NL West, the Giants (90-50) lead the Dodgers (88-53) by 2 1/2 games. Neither race is the second coming of the 1967 American League race, particularly with a sub-.500 team in the picture in the NL East, but it’s something.

But wait, there’s more! At this writing, five AL teams — the COVID-ridden Red Sox (80-62), supersliding Yankees (78-62), surging Blue Jays (77-62), scuffling A’s (76-64) and upstart Mariners (76-64) — are separated by three games in the Wild Card race from top to bottom, with the last of those teams vying to end a 20-year playoff drought. In the NL, the loser of the Giants/Dodgers race will claim one Wild Card spot, thus producing a scenario where a team with the majors’ second- or third-best record plays a do-or-die game (more on that momentarily) while four other teams, namely the Padres (74-65), Reds (74-67), Cardinals (71-68), and Phillies (71-69), are within 3 1/2 games of each other for the right to visit the NL West powerhouse that winds up on the short end of the division battle.

All told, that’s seven teams in each league with odds of at least 10%. I usually start this series just after Labor Day, but even running a few days later this year, that total of 14 teams matches the 2017 season as the most we’ve had at that juncture since at least 2014. Of course, one look at the table above tells you that year turned out to be the only one that lacked final-day suspense. Nothing’s guaranteed.

Speaking of the Playoff Odds, there’s a fun little page you’ll want to reacquaint yourselves with, showing the odds of two or more teams winding up tied after 162 games. At this writing, the odds of a two-way tie in the NL East are 8.7%, while in the NL West, the odds are 12.3%, For the second Wild Card spot, the odds of a two-way tie are 17.2% in the AL and 15.3% in the NL. What’s more, three scenarios for three-way ties have a 2.0% to 2.4% chance, namely for the top AL Wild Card spot, or the second AL Wild Card spot (it can’t be both), and for the second NL Wild Card spot. There’s even action to the right of the decimal for the four-way ties for those three scenarios, with 0.1% for ALWC2 and 0.2% for the other two. So yes, I’m saying there’s a chance.

Rather than plunge too deep too quickly, in the remainder of this installment I’ll stick to the two division races in play, and leave the Wild Card mayhem for my next installment. First up, a look at the NL West, where just over a week ago the Dodgers finally caught up to and briefly overtook the Giants after chasing them for two and a half months. The defending champions have since gone 2-3 to restore some separation; within that dip, they lost two of three to the Giants and thus the season series. The Giants’ 10-9 advantage means that if the two teams end up tied after 162 games, they’ll play a one-game tiebreaker in San Francisco just to see which team wins the division and thus the NL’s top seed, and which hosts the Wild Card game… the winner of which gets to play the NL West winner! In other words we could get a Dodgers-Giants tiebreaker, the Wild Card game, and then a Dodgers-Giants Division Series, the first-ever postseason matchup between the two longtime rivals (1951 was a tiebreaker series, settle down).

Looking ahead at the schedule, the Dodgers have 12 remaining home games and nine road games, with a .503 opponents’ weighted winning percentage. They host the Padres for six more games, three this weekend and three from September 28-30; they’ve also got three-game home series with the Diamondbacks next week and the Brewers over the final weekend of the season. Their one remaining road swing consists of three-game sets against the Reds, Rockies, and Diamondbacks. As for the Giants, they have 13 games at home and nine on the road, with seven games against the Padres and three apiece against the Braves and Diamondbacks comprising the Oracle Park portion of the schedule and three apiece against the Cubs, Padres, and Rockies the traveling portion of it. It’s a slightly harder slate thanks to the Padres, with a .511 combined opponents’ weighted winning percentage. As of September 9, the Playoff Odds finally favor the Giants in the race; it’s now about a 56-44 margin.

As for the NL East, the Braves have an 80.1% chance of bringing this home. Here’s the table of relevant tiebreaker stuff:

NL East Contenders Head-to-Head Records and Games Remaining
Team W L W-L% GB IntraDiv Braves Phillies Mets
Braves 74 65 .532 38-29 7-9 (3,0) 8-8 (3,0)
Phillies 71 69 .507 3.5 38-29 9-7 (0,3) 8-8 (0,3)
Mets 70 71 .496 5 34-32 8-8 (0,3) 8-8 (3,0)
Games remaining between each pair of teams in parentheses, in format (Home,Road)

There’s not much separation when it comes to head-to-head games, which means that there’s a lot riding on their remaining matchups if tiebreakers are needed. If you’re inclined to circle dates on the calendar, note that the Phillies visit the Mets for three next weekend (September 17-19) while the Braves host the Phillies September 28-30 and then the Mets October 1-3. Good times.

Despite the fact that neither of their two remaining series against their direct competitors are at home, the Phillies have a clear advantage when it comes to the schedule. Not only do they play 13 of their remaining 22 games at home, but their opponents’ weighted winning percentage is just .455. They’ve got three-game sets against the Rockies, Cubs, and Orioles, plus a four-game set against the Pirates, all at Citizens Bank Ballpark. Road-wise, their other series besides the two against their direct competition is a thee-game season-ender against the Marlins.

The Braves have the next-easiest schedule, with a .492 opponents’ weighted winning percentage. The breakdown is 13 home games (three apiece against the Marins and Rockies, plus the two previously mentioned ones) and 10 road games. Those all come as part of a rough West Coast swing that sees them visit the Giants for three, the Diamondbacks for four, and then the Padres for three.

As for the Mets, their opponents’ weighted winning percentage is .520. About the only thing going in their favor is that 13 of their remaining 21 games are at home; beyond the aforementioned Phillies series, they come against the Yankees, Cardinals, and Marlins (the last is a four-gamer). Their roadwork beyond the final trip to Atlanta isn’t easy, with two against the Red Sox and three against the Brewers.

If you’ve read this far, you’re waiting for the payoff regarding tiebreakers. The whole megillah is here, but we’ll leave the Wild Card-related scenarios out of this for now. If two teams wind up tied, the tiebreaker game will be hosted by the team with the better record in head-to-head play on Monday, October 4, but as noted, none of the three teams has clinched that advantage yet. Simple enough, right?

If all three teams wind up tied, breaking the tie starts with the creation of a pecking order via head-to-head winning percentages among those teams, then by higher winning percentage in intradivsion games. Based on the current intradivision records, that would leave the Mets as the third team in the pecking order, with the Braves-Phillies head-to-head record determining the order of the other two. If all three teams somehow do wind up with the same combined head-to-head records (say Braves 10-9 over Phillies, Phillies 10-9 over Mets, and Mets 10-9 over Braves, leaving all teams at 19-19 within the trio) and the same intradivision record, then the pecking order is determined by the highest winning percentage in the last half of intraleague games. If that doesn’t settle things, they turn to winning percentage in the last half plus one game, working backwards one game at a time as needed until the tie is at least narrowed to two teams. How they came up with that one, Bris Lord only knows.

Once the pecking order is established, teams draft their designation for placement within the following scenario: Club A hosts Club B, with the winner hosting Club C. In other words, the team in the catbird seat as far as tiebreaking scenarios can either choose a shot at two home games (Club A), or limit themselves to one road game (Club C). The team with the short straw in the three-way tiebreaker is actually Club B, which in a best-case scenario has to win not one but two road games just to get into the playoffs.

The scenarios become even more complicated if one of these teams winds up in a potential Wild Card position, but right now the odds of that are slim enough (Phillies 5.1%, Braves 2.2%, Mets 1.1%) that I won’t crowd your heads. Trust me, you’ll need the space for the Wild Card scenarios coming in my next installment.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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2 years ago

I’m still waiting for this sort of scenario:

– Marlins win the NL East with the best record, Padres win the NL West, Dodgers are the 1st WC.
– Phillies, Mets, and Giants all tie for the second wild card.
– Mets season ends at home, they play game 163 in SF, 164 in Philadelphia, the WC game in LA, and open the NLDS in Miami after the equivalent of flying half way around the world in less than a week.

2 years ago
Reply to  MikeS

As a Mets fan, I can tell you the least probable part of that scenario is the Mets tying for a Wild Card. I’d probably take Marlins to win the division over that,