Team Entropy 2021: Six Ways to Sunday

This is the sixth 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.

As noted in the boilerplate introduction above, it is the primary goal of the Team Entropy project to root for extra baseball beyond the 162-game regular season. While the complicated scenarios involving more than a single isolated head-to-head tiebreaker game may be farfetched, appreciating the sense of possibility for greater things as events unfold is part of the package. This is as much about the journey as it is the destination, which so often remains abstract. There have been just three winner-take-all tiebreaker games played since I began this project in 2011.

The secondary goal of the Team Entropy project, and part of appreciating that sense of possibility, is to have at least some portion of the playoff picture at stake on the final day of the season. On that note, we have already achieved some level of success, as we enter the final day of the 2021 season with four teams still battling for the two AL Wild Card berths — one of which is attempting to make its first postseason in 20 years — and with the NL West title still in doubt as teams with 106 and 105 wins attempt to avoid a do-or-die Wild Card game.

Mariners’ play-by-play announcer Davie Sims summed up our collective arrival at this precipice of possibility with his call of Mitch Haniger’s eighth-inning go-ahead hit against the Angels:

When I filed my Team Entropy report on Friday morning, the Yankees were firmly in the drivers’ seat as far as the AL Wild Card race went, holding a two-game lead over the Red Sox and Mariners and a three-game lead over the Blue Jays. By losing a close one to the Rays on Friday night, 4-3, and then getting trounced on Saturday, 12-2 — both characterized by some curious pitching choices by manager Aaron Boone — they surrendered a good deal of that control, though they head into the season’s 162nd game with the knowledge that they’re guaranteed at least one more, either via a tiebreaker game (and perhaps two) or the Wild Card game itself.

Likewise, the Red Sox are in the same situation after beating the Nationals in a couple of hard-fought games on Friday (4-2) and Saturday (5-3) that nonetheless spotlighted their wobbly bullpen, which surrendered all of those runs after starters Eduardo Rodriguez and Tanner Houck departed following five shutout innings (perfect innings, in the case of the latter). The Blue Jays are one game back after withstanding a late Orioles rally to win 6-4 on Friday and then pounding them 10-1 on Sunday on the strength of five homers — by cool kids Bo Bichette, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Teoscar Hernández, Danny Jansen and George Springer — and a combined two-hitter anchored by Alek Manoah.

The Mariners, who entered Friday night’s game tied with the Red Sox for the second AL Wild Card spot, with just under a 30% chance of making the postseason, could not keep pace. They lost a 2-1 heartbreaker, failing to capitalize on both a leadoff triple in the seventh inning and a leadoff double in the ninth. Needing a win on Saturday night against the Angels, they surrendered leads of 1-0 and 3-1, both built by Haniger hits. An eighth-inning three-run homer by Jared Walsh looked as though it might seal their fate, but the plucky bunch notorious for its negative run differential rallied for three runs in dramatic fashion. And so we enter Sunday with this:

AL Wild Card Contenders Head-to-Head Records
Team Record GB Yankees Red Sox Blue Jays Mariners
Yankees 91-70 9-10 8-11 5-2
Red Sox 91-70 10-9 10-9 4-3
Blue Jays 90-71 1 11-8 9-10 2-4
Mariners 90-71 1 2-5 3-4 4-2
Yellow cells denote that team won the season series.

The possibility of a four-way tie for two spots is still on the table — can you believe it? For that to come to fruition, both the Yankees and Red Sox would have to lose, while the Blue Jays and Mariners win. If that holds, the teams will draft spots for the following scenario: Club A hosts B for one Wild Card spot, while Club C hosts Club D for the other spot. The draft order is based upon each team’s combined head-to-head record against the other three, which shakes out with the Red Sox first (24-21, .533), followed by the Blue Jays (22-22, .500), Yankees (22-23, .489), and Mariners (9-11, .450). With the Red Sox and Blue Jays almost certainly choosing to be the host teams, the Yankees get to choose their tiebreaker opponent, knowing that if they win, they may well have to face the team they bypassed in the actual Wild Card game.

As for who gets to host the Wild Card game, it comes down to the head-to-head records between the remaining teams, meaning that Boston would host the game if they’re in it, while the Blue Jays would only host the Yankees, the Yankees would only host the Mariners, and the Mariners would only host the Blue Jays.

Our Playoff Odds give the four-way tie a 6.2% chance of happening. If we don’t get that, we can still wind up with three-way ties for the second spot (17.7%), or for the top spot (8.3%). The scenarios for how they play out differ. Directly from the MLB tiebreaker protocol page:

Three-Club Tie for One Wild Card Spot:
After Clubs have been assigned their A, B and C designations, Club A would host Club B. The winner of the game would then host Club C to determine the Wild Card Club.

Three-Club Tie for Two Wild Card Spots:
After Clubs have been assigned their A, B and C designations, Club A would host Club B. The winner of the game would be declared one Wild Card winner. Club C would then host the loser of the game between Club A and Club B to determine the second Wild Card Club.

In the case of the former, if only one of the Yankees and Red Sox win on Sunday while the other team loses, and both the Blue Jays and Mariners win, we’ll have a three-way tie for the second spot. If it’s the Yankees above the fray, clinching home-field advantage in the Wild Card game, the pecking order for drafting spots would feature the Red Sox first (since they won their season series over the other two teams) with the Mariners choosing second (because they won their series with the Blue Jays) and the Blue Jays taking the leftovers.

If it’s the Red Sox above the fray, the other three would be ranked on the basis of combined winning percentage within the scrum, since each owns the upper hand in one season series but not both. That would shake out as Blue Jays (.520, 13-12), Yankees (.500, 13-13), and Mariners (.462, 6-7). Note that in this scenario, Club B is playing for the right to host Club C; that last spot may be a desirable pick because it requires only one game to get through, not two.

If three teams tie for two spots — a scenario that can happen if the Yankees and Red Sox both lose, while only one the Blue Jays or the Mariners win — the format is just a bit different. One order would be Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees, the other Red Sox, Yankees, Mariners. In this case, Clubs A and B play, with the winner getting one Wild Card berth, and the loser being the road team, not the home team, in the game against Club C. Somewhere along the way in this series, I’ve almost certainly conflated the two scenarios, for which I apologize; there are a lot of permutations to track, and we’re all working on short rest here.

If our hopes for some kind of three-way tie don’t pan out, we’ve still got various two-way tie combinations for the second spot, with the hosts of those games determined by head-to-head records. The Blue Jays would host the Yankees, but would be the visitors against the Red Sox. The Yankees would host the Mariners, as would the Red Sox.

Got it? You’re forgiven if not, but from 3 pm ET onward while every team plays, you’re likely to have these scenarios repeated back at you ad nauseam. As for the other battle at stake in the National League West, that one is simple enough. If the Dodgers win and the Giants lose, the two teams play Game 163 on Monday to determine the NL West champion, with the loser hosting the Cardinals in the Wild Card game for the chance to renew hostilities with their longtime rivals in the Division Series.

That possibility alone is bonkers enough. The fact that it’s taking a back seat to the multitude of possibilities in the AL is testament to just how incredible this situation is. For those with a dog in the hunt, this is sure to be a stressful Sunday. For the rest of us, this is about as close to the promised land as we might get. Enjoy!

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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Brian Johnson
Brian Johnson

Thanks for all the work you do on this! M’s record and GB should be 90-71, 1 GB.

Meg Rowley

Yup! Updated.