Team Entropy 2021: Thinning the Herd, Slightly

This is the third 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.

We’re now inside of two weeks remaining in the 2021 season, and in both leagues, the playoff herds have thinned. With the Mets and Mariners both slipping in the Wild Card standings of their respective leagues, it appears that Major League Baseball’s heretofore unpublished five-way tiebreaker protocol will remain under wraps for another year, and time is running out for some other teams. Even so, there’s still a lot in play.

NL West and NL East

For starters, the race for the NL West flag is very much alive. The Giants won nine in a row from September 5-14, turning what had briefly been a tie with the Dodgers — which they broke with a season series-clinching win to kick off the streak — into a 2 1/2-game advantage. But after beating the Padres twice to start their four-game set at Oracle Park, the Giants lost the last two game of the series, and took “only” two of three agains the Braves this past weekend. Meanwhile the Dodgers split four games with the Cardinals in St. Louis, swept six games from the Padres and the Diamondbacks at home, and took two out of three from the Reds in Cincinnati, trimming the gap to a single game.

Both teams were idle on Monday, and now the defending champions visit Colorado and Arizona for three-game sets this week before returning home to close out the regular season with three-gamers against the Padres and Brewers. The Giants visit the Padres and then the Rockies for three apiece, then close by hosting the Diamondback and Padres. The Playoff Odds have ever so slightly tilted back to the Dodgers, 50.5% to 49.5%, but a stiff breeze could undo that pretty quickly.

The potential end-of-season scenario for these two teams hasn’t changed. If they’re tied after 162 games — the odds of which are currently at 16.1% — the Giants will host the tiebreaker, and the winner will be crowned division champion and get the NL’s top seed, while the loser will host the Wild Card Game; whoever wins that will turn around and play the NL West champion in the Division Series.

Meanwhile, with the Braves losing five out of six to the Marlins, Rockies, and Giants from September 11-18, the gap in the NL East shrank to a single game. It’s back up to three now, but I still get to run the table:

NL East Contenders Head-to-Head Records and Games Remaining
Team Record GB Braves Phillies Mets
Braves 78-70 7-9 (3,0) 8-8 (3,0)
Phillies 76-74 3 9-7 (0,3) 10-9
Mets 73-77 6 8-8 (0,3) 9-10
Games remaining between each pair of teams in parentheses, in format (Home,Road). Yellow cells denote that team has clinched the season series.

The Phillies, who just took two of three from both the Cubs and Mets, have the NL’s second-easiest remaining schedule the rest of the way, with a weighted opponents’ winning percentage of .448. They’re in the midst of hosting the Orioles — who have done their part to play the spoiler in the AL East, and beat the Phils at Camden Yards on Monday — and Pirates, the latter for four games instead of three, then finish with three apiece in Atlanta (where they can clinch the season series with a single win) and Miami. The Braves (.512 oppo win percentage) are in the midst of visiting the Diamondbacks for four and then the Padres for three before returning home to host the Phillies and Mets. I’m humoring the Mets here, because with odds of just 0.4% — all for the division, as they’ve slipped below the visibility threshold in the Wild Card race — New York is barely relevant. They do close against Atlanta; before that, the visit Boston for two and Milwaukee for three, then host Miami for four.

If the Phillies and Braves do end up tied (8.8% odds), the winner of the season series would play host to a Game 163 tiebreaker while the loser would, in all likelihood, go home. If somehow the two teams do finish 162 games with the same record as the second Wild Card team, the division-deciding tiebreaker wouldn’t be considered as breaking that tie. Instead, they’d become part of whatever Wild Card tie-breaking process is on the table. For example, if the Braves, Phillies, and Cardinals all finish at 86-76… You know what? I’m getting ahead of myself.

NL Wild Card No. 2

NL Wild Card Contenders Head-to-Head Records
Team Record GB Cardinals Reds Padres Phillies
Cardinals 80-69 9-10 3-3 3-4
Reds 79-73 3 10-9 1-6 4-2
Padres 76-73 4 3-3 6-1 2-4
Phillies 76-74 4.5 4-3 2-4 4-2
Yellow cells denote that team has clinched the season series.

Let’s backtrack a bit. By beating up on the Padres and Reds, the Dodgers did their share to clear up the Wild Card picture, which gained additional clarity as the Cardinals swept six games from the Mets and Padres, running their winning streak to eight straight. The Cardinals don’t have the easiest road ahead, in that six of their remaining 13 games (plus the one they won on Monday night, stretching their winning streak to nine) are against the Brewers, first as part of a four-game series in Milwaukee. They follow that with three against the Cubs in Chicago, then return home to host the Brewers and Cubs for three apiece. Their Playoff Odds, which were 7.9% as of September 11, and 36.0% on September 16, have skyrocketed to 79.6%.

By losing series to the Cardinals, Pirates, and Dodgers, the Red have dropped their odds from 52.9% to 14.4%, and losing Jesse Winker after a premature one-game return from his intercostal strain didn’t help (never believe a team when they say they think a player can return from an intercostal strain in 10 days). They do have the easiest remaining schedule, with a .440 weighted opponents’ winning percentage; that’s thanks to a pair of three-game series against the Pirates — first at home, beginning with Monday night’s win, then closing on the road — bookending a four-game series hosting the Nationals and then visiting the South Side for two against the White Sox.

The Padres are falling apart at the seams. Their odds were still at 44.0% on September 9, but they’ve gone 2-8 since then, sandwiching sweeps by the Dodgers and Cardinals around a split of a four-game series with the Giants. Saturday night’s dugout confrontation between Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. not only didn’t look good but hinted at bigger troubles behind the scenes.

As noted previously, the Padres have a brutal schedule the rest of the way, with six games against the Giants (three at home this week, then three in San Francisco on the final weekend) bookending a three-game series hosting the Braves and a three-game trip to visit the Dodgers. Oh, and get this, that series against the Braves also includes the conclusion of a suspended game that began on July 21, where the Braves trail 5-4 in the bottom of the fifth inning of a seven-inning game; in other words, for a brief time, they’ll be the home team at Petco Park.

Tiebreaker-wise, if two of these teams wind up with the same records atop this group after 162 games (11.9% odds), the host for the game will be determined by the better head-to-head record, and if not that then the better intradivision record; here the Reds (41-30, .577) and Phillies (40-30, .571) have big advantages over the Cardinals (32-31, .508) and Padres (32-35, .478, yikes). If that doesn’t unknot the tie, then intraleague records are next, positioning the Cardinals (69-60, .535) ahead of the Phillies (70-62, .530), and Padres (62-67, .481). If somehow that didn’t break the tie, they’d drill down to records in the last half of intraleague games, and then the last half plus one, plus two, and so on. I’m not digging through schedules for those hypotheticals just yet.

If three teams wind up tied for a single Wild Card spot, it gets complicated. This time around, I’ll use a hypothetical example involving the Cardinals, Reds, and Phillies. The Reds won their season series against both of the other teams (10-9 over Cardinals, 4-2 over Phillies), so they’re first in the pecking order, then the Phillies are second by dint of their 4-3 edge over the Cardinals. The teams then draft spots within the following scenario: Club A hosts Club B, with the winner hosting Club C. In other words, the team picking first 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.

If four teams wind up tied for one spot, they’re ranked by their combined head-to-head records, which in this case shake out as the Padres (11-8, .579), Phillies (10-9, .526), Reds (15-17, .469), and Cardinals (15-17, .469), with the last two teams separated by Cincinnati’s aforementioned 10-9 season series advantage. The four teams would then draft 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.

Back to the aforementioned scenario involving the Braves, Phillies, and Cardinals, with the first two teams tied for the NL East lead and all three tied for the second Wild Card spot. Once the Game 163 tiebreaker determines the NL East champion, the losing team would still be considered tied for the Wild Card spot. The Cardinals lost season series to both the Braves (1-6) and Phillies (3-4) so regardless of the division tiebreaker’s outcome, they would be the road team for that play-in, the winning of which would merely send them into the Wild Card game as the road team. Note that if the Padres are the third team instead of the Cardinals, they lost the season series to the Phillies (2-4) but haven’t yet finished their series against the Braves, so there’s a still chance they could be the home team if that play-in transpired.

AL Wild Cards

AL Wild Card Contenders Head-to-Head Records & Games Remaining
Team Record GB Red Sox Blue Jays Yankees A’s Mariners
Red Sox 86-65 +1.5 10-9 10-6 (3,0) 3-3 4-3
Blue Jays 84-66 9-10 10-6 (3,0) 5-2 2-4
Yankees 84-67 0.5 6-10 (0,3) 6-10 (0,3) 4-3 5-2
A’s 82-68 2 3-3 2-5 3-4 4-9 (3,3)
Mariners 81-69 3 3-4 4-2 2-5 9-4 (3,3)
Games remaining between each pair of teams in parentheses, in format (Home,Road). Yellow cells denote that team has clinched the season series.

With five straight wins over the Mariners and Orioles, the Red Sox have moved to the head of the class, and they have a relatively thin schedule the rest of the way (.486 oppo win percentage) in which their three games against the Yankees this coming weekend are the only ones against a team above .500; first they host the Mets for two, then spend their final week on the road with three apiece against the Orioles and Nationals. Their odds at claiming a spot are now 89.8%.

The Blue Jays lost the first of three to the Rays in Tampa Bay on Monday night but are still a major league best 15-4 this month. They’ve got two more there, and four in Minnesota before finishing by hosting the Yankees and Orioles for three apiece. Their odds of winning a Wild Card spot are a solid 62.6%. The Yankees, who are tied with the Orioles for the league’s worst record since August 27 (8-15), have been busy dropping key series to the Mets and Cleveland, to say nothing of their troubles with the Birds. They did beat the Rangers in the first game of their three-game series on Monday, after which they face a critical six-game road trip to Toronto and Boston before returning home to host Tampa Bay. Among the remaining AL Wild Card contenders, their weighted opponents’ winning percentage of .539 is now the highest, and their odds (40.1%) are less than half of what they were at their peak (85.7% on September 4).

In danger of fading from the picture are the two AL West contenders. Despite a five-game winning streak over the Royals and Angels, the A’s are just 9-9 this month, and their odds have fallen to 5.5%. Losing to the Mariners at home on Monday night, in the first game of a four-game set, didn’t help, particularly as they now have to run the table just to take the season series. They’ve got a tough schedule the rest of the way (.537 oppo win percentage) because in addition to Seattle, they’ve got six games left against the Astros; they close the season in Houston. They’re still better off than the Mariners, whose odds are down to 1.6%, though at least Seattle gets six games against the Angels instead of six with the Astros.

Tie-wise, the three AL East contenders have odd numbers of head-to-head games, so determining the host of a two-team play-in is straightforward. As for three-way ties, assuming it’s the beasts from the east, the order would shake out with the Red Sox getting to pick first because they own the season series advantage over the other two teams, with the Blue Jays picking second and the Yankees third. If somehow the A’s were to replace the Yankees in such a scrum, I think — but am not 100% sure based on the wording of the tiebreaker protocol (“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”) — that the order would be Red Sox, Blue Jays, and A’s because while Boston and Oakland split their six games, the former has the better intradivision record (40-30 versus 33-31). Again the teams draft into the familiar scenario: Club A hosts Club B, with the winner hosting Club C.

A four-team scenario involving all but the Mariners would move to a ranking by combined head-to-head records. The exact order is still up in the air thanks to the Yankees having three games apiece against their AL East rivals, but if we’re doing this today it would go Blue Jays (24-18, .571, three to play), Red Sox (23-18, .561, three to play), Yankees (16-23, .410, six to play), A’s (8-12, .400). Want to swap the Mariners for the A’s? Fine, sure, whatever: Red Sox (24-18, .571, 3 to play), Blue Jays (21-20, .512, three to play), Mariners (9-11, .450), Yankees (17-22, .436, six to play). Again, the four teams draft spots, and Club A hosts Club B and Club C hosts Club D, with the A/B winner hosting the C/D winner atop the coconut tree (I might need to review my notes).

Our tiebreaker page tells us that the two-way AL tie has the best odds of any such tie scenario, at 17.1%, with a three-way tie for the second spot at 2.1%, a three-way tie for the top spot at 2.3%, and a four-way tie at 0.1%. If that doesn’t give you something to root for, then contributor Jake Mailhot has a handy guide to potential spoilers:

Now, get rooting!

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

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

You want entropy…I still think the craziest scenario would be for the two best teams in baseball to tie for the division title, then play a marathon tie-breaker game to see who gets a bye and who gets stuck in the one-game playoff.

The winner is in ok shape to host a best-of-five series. The loser has to play an elimination game having blown through their ace and much of the bullpen, vs. a better rested team with a worse record who could save their ace for the elimination game. And if that loser wins, they have to take 3 of 5 from the other best team in baseball.

2 years ago
Reply to  tz

The Dodgers would be set up pretty well for that scenario. Imagine having to ‘settle’ for starting Kershaw in game 1 of the NLDS because Scherzer and Buehler pitched just to get you there. Definitely a bigger impact on the pen which could also get a huge boost from Urias playing fireman.