Team Entropy 2021: Let’s Get Wild

This is the second installment of this year’s Team Entropy series, my recurring look not only at the races for the remaining playoff spots but the potential for end-of-season chaos in the form of down-to-the-wire suspense and even tiebreakers. Ideally, we want more ties than the men’s department at Macy’s. If you’re new to this, please read the introduction here.

Heading into July 4, at the exact midpoint of their season, the Yankees were just 41-40. Beset by injuries and underperformance, they even scraped .500 before the fireworks could go off, losing the first game of a holiday doubleheader to the Mets before rebounding to take the nightcap. From July 4 until now, they’ve gone 39-24, good for the second-best record in the entire American League, and good enough to vault them back into contention for a playoff spot, though not enough to catch the Rays, who have gone 42-19 in that stretch.

Within that impressive hot streak are two shorter, diametrically opposed streaks, however. From July 4 through August 27, the Yankees went 35-11, the hottest 46-game span of any team in the majors all season, and one capped by a 13-game winning streak, tied for the majors’ longest. The tear vaulted them from sixth in the AL Wild Card race, five games out of the second spot, and into the Wild Card lead, three games ahead of the second Wild Card team (the Red Sox), and 6 1/2 games ahead of the race’s third-place team (the A’s). Since then, however, the Yankees have skidded to an AL-worst 4-12 record, and they’ve now got company; at 80-64, they’re a game behind the Wild Card-leading Blue Jays (81-63) and in a virtual tie with the Red Sox (81-65).

That skid — aided by the Jays going 38-25 from July 4 through Monday, and 15-2 while the Yankees have gone 4-12, a situation that Ben Clemens detailed on Monday — has created quite a pileup in AL Wild Card race, where five teams are separated by just 2 1/2 games from top to bottom. The NL Wild Card race is similarly tight; while the second-place team in the NL West (currently the Dodgers) is head and shoulders above the rest of the group, five other teams are separated by just 3 1/2 games top to bottom. The chances of getting bonus baseball in each league — a do-or-die game just for the right to play in the do-or-die Wild Card game — are a bit better than one in six. As to how the various scenarios will be disentangled, that’s a job for the latest Team Entropy 2021 installment.

It turns out that the NL Wild Card race has a bit more urgency to it, in that the teams involved play just eight head-to-head games for the remainder of the season, all of them within the next week; that total jumps to 14 if we count the Braves, the only division leader who could plausibly wind up in such a scrum. Thus I’ll turn my attention to the Senior Circuit first:

NL Wild Card Contenders Head-to-Head Records & Games Remaining
Team Record Reds Padres Cardinals Phillies Mets Braves
Reds 75-69 1-6 10-9 4-2 3-3 3-4
Padres 74-69 6-1 3-0 (0,3) 2-4 3-4 1-1
Cardinals 74-69 9-10 0-3 (3,0) 3-4 3-2 (0,2) 1-6
Phillies 72-71 2-4 4-2 4-3 8-8 (0,3) 9-7 (0,3)
Mets 72-73 3-3 4-3 2-3 (2,0) 8-8 (3,0) 8-8 (0,3)
Braves* 76-66 4-3 1-1 6-1 7-9 (3,0) 8-8 (3,0)
Games remaining between each pair of teams in parentheses, in format (Home,Road). Yellow cells denote that team has clinched the season series.
*Currently lead NL East by 4 1/2 games.

Aside from two more Cardinals-Mets games in New York on Tuesday and Wednesday, the only remaining matchups between the Wild Card contenders are between the Padres and Cardinals and the Phillies and Mets, both from Friday to Sunday of this coming weekend; throw in the Braves’ season-ending homestand against the Phillies and Mets for three apiece and you’ve got your list of what to watch for. The rest of these races will boil down to a whole lot of scoreboard watching.

Of these teams, the Padres — who are currently amid an 8-20 skid that included’s a sweep by the Dodgers this past weekend, and who haven’t posted a winning month since June — have by far the most difficult road ahead, as every team they face over their final 19 games is a contender. This run is bookended by four- and three-game series at Oracle Park agains the Giants, plus this weekend’s trip to St. Louis, three apiece against the Giants and Braves at Petco Park, and then three more against the Dodgers in Los Angeles before heading back to San Francisco. Their opponents’ weighted winning percentage of .548 is 33 points higher than the next-highest NL Wild Card contender (the Mets) and 89 points higher than the one with the easiest schedule, the Phillies. The Pads’ odds of claiming that Wild Card spot are just 27.5%, less than half of what they were on August 11 (76.3%).

Meanwhile, the Phillies only remaining games against teams above .500 are the three against the Braves from September 24-26. Before that they host the Cubs, visit the Mets, and host the Orioles and Pirates (the latter for four games instead of three); after visiting the Braves, they close against the Marlins for three. It probably won’t be enough, as they have just a 6.8% chance of beating traffic to claim a Wild Card spot, which is even less than their 8.8% chance at winning the NL East. Then again, those odds are more than triple what the Mets’ are (2.1% Wild Card, 2.3% division). Beyond the Cardinals and Phillies, the Mets must visit Boston (two games) and Milwaukee (three games), return home for four against the Marlins and then close against the Braves.

The favorites to grab that last Wild Card spot are the Reds, at 43.3%, though even they have been taken down a peg; their odds were as high as 71.0% on August 27, at which point they had just peeled off a 20-10 run. Since then, they’ve bellyflopped to 4-10, bookending series losses to the Cardinals (understandable) with series losses to both the Tigers and Cubs (wut). Their best news is nine remaining games against the lowly Pirates (though only three at home); they also host the Dodgers for three and the Nationals for four, and visit the White Sox for a pair. Their opponents weighted winning percentage of .464 helps to give them a leg up on the Padres.

Rounding out the field is the Cardinals, with just 18.5% odds thanks to a tougher road that features a .510 oppo win percentage. After the they’re finished with the Mets, they host the Padres, then close out with seven games apiece against the Brewers and Cubs, with four-game series against both coming on the road.

As to how this all gets detangled in the case of ties for that second Wild Card spot, if the tie is between two teams, home-field advantage for a Game 163 play-in goes to the team with the better record in head-to-head play. If that doesn’t settle it, the team with the better record in intradivision play gets the nod; among these teams, the Reds (39-28, .582 winning percentage) lead the pack, followed by the Phillies (38-29, .567), Mets (34-32, .515), Cardinals (31-31, .500) and Padres (30-34, .469). If that doesn’t settle things, the advantage goes to the team with the better record in intraleague play, then the one with the better record in the last half of intraleague play, then in the last half plus one game… until the tie is broken.

If the tie involves three teams, what happens next is the determination of a pecking order via which teams select their positions for a scenario involving multiple tiebreaker games. What’s used first — and here I think I’ve actually messed up the order of operations for the past couple of seasons, but I’m fixing it now — is a determination of which teams among the tied ones have won their respective season series. Spelling it all out is too wordy for this introductory article (“If Club 1 has a better record against Clubs 2 and 3, and Club 2 has a better record against Club 3, then Club 1 chooses its designation, followed by Club 2” is just the first of four bullet points) but the general concept is to whittle three teams to two and then use the tie-breaking procedures from the paragraph above.

Once the pecking order is established, teams draft their designation for 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 tie-breaking scenarios can either choose a shot at two home games, or limit themselves to one road game. 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, and still has to win the Wild Card game to continue.

To use an example here, let’s suppose the Reds (Club 1), Cardinals (Club 2), and Padres (Club 3) finish with the same record, that after the Redbirds attain a season series split against the Friars by sweeping their upcoming three-game set. The relevant portion of the tiebreaker is this: “If Club 1 has a better record against Club 2 [Reds 10-9 over Cardinals], Club 2 and 3 have identical records against one another [Padres 3-3 against Cardinals] and Club 3 has a better record against Club 1 [Padres 6-1 over Reds]…”

Under that situation, the three teams are then ranked by their combined winning percentage against the other two teams in the knot, which in this case would mean the Padres choose first on the basis of their 9-4 record (.692 winning percentage) against the other two, with the Cardinals second (12-13, .480), and Reds third (11-15, .423). The Padres might reasonably decide to be Club A or C, with the Cardinals probably taking whichever of those two is left, sticking the Reds with the Club B designation — and this is just to determine who faces the Dodgers or Giants in the do-or-die Wild Card game!

If four teams finish tied, then they’re ranked by their combined head-to-head records; my past mistake was in starting with this step in three-way ties as well, which seems intuitive enough. Once the pecking order is established, teams draft for spots in the following scenario: Club A hosts Club B and Club C hosts Club D, with the A/B winner hosting the C/D winner.

As for five-way ties, in 2017 both my editor at Sports Illustrated, Ted Keith, and Baseball Prospectus’ Russell Carleton independently tried their hands at designing five-way tiebreakers, while MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince reported that the Commissioner’s office would create a five-way plan with input from the Competition Committee if the need became clear in the final weeks. There’s been no word as to whether they came up with a satisfactory resolution, however. The ties page of our Playoff Odds doesn’t offer any hope of any such scenario happening, as opposed to a four-way tie for the second NL Wild Card (0.4%) or either of the AL Wild Card spots (0.1% apiece).

Speaking of which, let’s look into that:

AL Wild Card Contenders Head-to-Head Records & Games Remaining
Team Record Blue Jays Yankees Red Sox Mariners A’s
Blue Jays 81-63 10-6 (3,0) 9-10 2-4 5-2
Yankees 80-64 6-10 (0,3) 6-10 (0,3) 5-2 4-3
Red Sox 81-65 10-9 10-6 (3,0) 2-3 (0,2) 3-3
Mariners 78-66 4-2 2-5 3-2 (2,0) 8-4 (3,4)
A’s 77-66 2-5 3-4 3-3 4-8 (4,3)
Games remaining between each pair of teams in parentheses, in format (Home,Road). Yellow cells denote that team has clinched the season series.

There aren’t a ton of head-to-head games left between these teams, but unlike in the NL, they’re spread out over the final two weeks, starting with the Red Sox visiting Seattle for two more this week (the Mariners won on Monday night), then with the A’s hosting the Mariners for four from September 20-23, the Red Sox hosting the Yankees for three from September 24-26, the Mariners hosting the A’s for three from September 27-29, and the Blue Jays hosting the Yankees for three from September 28-30.

At this writing, the Playoff Odds strongly favor the likelihood of both AL Wild Card teams coming from the East, with the red-hot Blue Jays (71.1%) taking over the lead, followed by the Red Sox (62.1%), and Yankees (55.3%) all an order of magnitude higher — and then some — than the A’s (4.4%) and Mariners (4.0%). The Red Sox, who have already clinched their season series over the other two East contenders, have the easiest remaining schedule of the group, with a combined winning percentage of .469; after facing Seattle they host the Orioles, Mets, and Yankees (their only other opponent apart from the Mariners above .500), then close on the road with three apiece in Baltimore and Washington.

The Yankees have the next-easiest schedule (.494), but as Monday’s win over the Twins — a comeback from a 5-0 hole after three innings — showed, absolutely nothing comes easily for them. Next up comes three in Baltimore, but the Yankees have only gone 9-7 against the miserable Orioles. The Red Sox are 9-4 against the division’s doormats, the Blue Jays 11-5, and the Rays 18-1, so yes, it’s conceivable that hapless Birds will wind up as the spoilers. After their trip to Camden Yards, the Yankees host Cleveland and Texas, and the rest of the way it’s a serious grind, as they then head to Boston and Toronto before finishing at home against Tampa Bay. Good luck with that.

The Blue Jays are right in the middle, quality-of-opponent-wise (.505), with seven games against the Twins (four on the road) and three hosting Baltimore offset by six against Tampa Bay and three hosting the Yankees; that said, an 11-7 home-road split is a favorable one for a team in these circumstances.

As befits two teams that entered Monday tied, the A’s (.514) and Mariners (.509) have very similar opponents the rest of the way — in part because they play each other seven times, four of them in Oakland. The A’s have just seven home games remaining, with a trio in Houston from September 24-26 their only others; that homestand is bookended by three-game series against the Royals and Angels this week and then the Mariners and Astros next week. The Mariners, after hosting Boston, head to Kansas City, Oakland, and Anaheim, then finish at home against the A’s and Angels. The schedule favors them even if the odds don’t.

Tie-wise, one team could clinch the top spot, with two, three, or four teams in the second spot; things would then be untangled as outlined above. Suppose that the Blue Jays get the top seed and the other four teams wind up tied; using only the head-to-head records they’ve compiled to date, the order would be Red Sox (15-12, .556), Mariners (13-11, .541), Yankees (15-15, .500), and A’s (10-15, .400). With the Red Sox (Club A) and Mariners (Club C) each picking home games, that would leave the Yankees the choice of a short road trip from the Bronx to Boston to face an opponent that generally lives rent-free in their collective heads versus a cross-country flight to face an opponent whose hearts they often break. The bet here is they’d choose the extra travel, leaving the Boston/Oakland winner to host the Seattle/New York winner.

The world isn’t yet ready to offer us a five-way tiebreaker for two spots, though you’d figure that the only sensible way out of that might be to have the top two teams by combined head-to-head records play one game to determine the home team for the Wild Card game, and then the other three teams play two games (A hosts B with the winner hosting C) to determine the visiting team. If four teams tie for the two spots, Club A hosts Club B and becomes the Wild Card host, with Club C hosting Club D to yield the Wild Card visitor. If it’s three teams tied for two spots, Club A hosts Club B, with the winner becoming the Wild Card host, and the loser hosted by Club C to determine the visitor.

Got all that? Don’t worry, we’ve still got a few weeks before the quiz.





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.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

It’s not often that you get to draw a direct line between a personnel move and the standings, but the A’s will be haunted by the curse of Marcus Semien for quite some time. Can you imagine what the standings would look like with Semien on the A’s instead of the Blue Jays?

I’m still rooting for the Mariners here. There’s no rational way to predict they’ll make it at the expense of the other teams, but it’s such a scrappy, unexpected team. Definitely an underdog, definitely my favorite this time around in the AL.

MikeS
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MikeS

Semien only signed for 1/18. The A’s are cheap and maybe he wouldn’t have taken that from Oakland, but you would think they are kicking themselves for not making that very short term commitment.

Ben DePetris
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Ben DePetris

“The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal reported, citing sources, what Semien was offered by the A’s: A one-year, $12.5 million deal with $10 million deferred in 10, one-year installments of $1 million each. ” They gave him a weird offer I don’t know how they could’ve not offered 1, 18

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

The A’s offered him a deal with that total value, except it was deferred over a period of something like three years. He would have only been paid something like $3M or $4M in 2021, with the other $14-15M coming the next couple of years. This was clearly a ridiculous offer but it gives you a sense of the payroll restrictions ownership put on the front office. A good reminder that being cheap can at the wrong time has consequences; we’re talking about a team that would be challenging the Astros for the division and in the pole position for the wild card.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Update: See Ben DePetris’s comment–I must not be remembering this accurately.

Smiling Politely
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Smiling Politely

A playoff race would have done a LOT more to secure their new housing complex/stadium, as opposed to years of dealing away your stars…