Imagining maximum playoff chaos
What would happen if the final regular-season standings yielded as little clarity as possible? Let's wander in.
I just checked, and it's September. That means stretch-drive baseball is all about us, and some corners of the standings page remain wonderfully muddled. So there's a lot to sort and not terribly much time left for doing so.
Generally, the six-month regular season affords the necessary clarity in the end, but sometimes we're graced with tiebreakers to get us in the high-stakes playoff mindset even before said playoffs begin. With all that in mind, let's indulge in an unlikely thought experiment and imagine the hellscape (I'm using that word as a positive in this instance) that would ensue if pretty much every race that's even vaguely in play at the moment wound up in a tie. No, this won't happen, but, yes, it's compelling to think about. So shall we get stuck in this thicket of possibilities? Indeed we shall!
Let's go with the following assumptions ...
•The Baltimore Orioles win the AL East.
•The Washington Nationals win the NL East.
•The Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics tie atop the AL West standings with the loser's slotting in as the top AL wild card.
•The Kansas City Royals , Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians tie for first in the AL Central.
•Those runner-up AL Central squads also find themselves in a tie with the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners for the second AL wild card. Oh, fresh heck, let's throw the Toronto Blue Jays in, too.
•The St. Louis Cardinals , Milwaukee Brewers and Pittsburgh Pirates tie for first place in the NL Central.
•The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants tie for first place in the NL West.
•Two of those three NL Central teams tie with the Atlanta Braves and the NL West runner-up for the two NL wild card bids. Should the Miami Marlins be invited? Sure, let's invite the Marlins, too.
So how would such "sum of all tiebreaker fears" be sorted out? Beautifully and awfully, as it turns out. Using the tiebreaker scenarios laid out by MLB last season as our guide, here's what fans would be treated to before the playoffs even begin ...
•The Angels and A's would play a one-game tiebraker to determine who wins the AL West. The team with the higher head-to-head winning percentage would host, but right now the A's and Angels are 8-8 against each other this season. The loser of this game, as noted, would host the AL wild card game.
•So the AL Central ... Considering, in the absurd scenario laid out above, that the three teams tied for the first in the Central are also tied with three teams from outside the division for the second wild card berth, we have a complicated situation. In those tiebreaker rules linked to above, the most sprawling possibility accounted for is a three-team tie in a division and then a tie with one other team from outside the division for a wild card spot. In that situation, you'd in essence have a four-team mini-tournament for two playoff spots. But that doesn't help us much in this situation. Presumably, MLB has an emergency plan of action for a contingency such as this one, but those documents are quite possibly in a tattered leather attaché buried somewhere in Essex County.
So the semi-blind guess here is that the league would first sort out the AL Central title useing the rules in place for a three-team tiebreaker. Based on how teams are "seeded" in three-team tiebreakers (again, head-to-head winning percentage is the first consideration, followed by winning percentage within the division), we'll say the Tigers get the best draw. That means the Indians would visit the Royals, and then the winner of that game would host Detroit for the AL Central flag. Let's say the Tigers win. That means the Royals and Indians move on to -- oh, why not -- the second AL wild card tiebreaker. Again, though, we're flying without instruments here ...
•Speaking of the second AL wild card tiebreaker, we have the Royals, Indians, Mariners, Yankees and Blue Jays all tied in the regular season (the Indians' and Royals' losses in the divisional tiebreaker don't count against them for these purposes). As implied above, though, there's nothing in place to cover five-car pile-ups such as this one. There's simply not time between the end of the regular season and any plausible start to the playoffs (tentatively set to begin on Sept. 30) for any sort of round-robin affair. So I suppose they'd assign a first-round bye to the team with the best head-to-head record or best record within its division and then assign a second-round bye to one of the first-round winners straight to the tie-breaker finals.
Executive summary: I have no idea.
•NL Central ... Reasonably straightforward, at least as these things go. The Cardinals, we'll say, take the bye and the play the winner of Pirates-Brewers on the road. The two runners-up get plopped into the wild card pile. Cardinals win, just to keep the conversation going.
•NL West ... We have a tidy one-game tiebreaker between the rival Dodgers and Giants. Hostilities possible! The Giants are 7-6 against L.A. this season, so as things stand now they'd host. The loser is reduced to the steaming load that's become of the wild card. Giants win, we'll say for no real reason.
•That leaves the Brewers, Pirates, Dodgers, Braves and Marlins vying for two wild card spots. Again, the publicly available rules in place offer no help. Here's what's in place when three teams are up for two wild card berths:
"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."
So something like that except five teams and another bye for one of the first-round winners straight into the wild-card game (as described above in the second AL wild card scenario).
And with that, the playoffs are free to begin. Pity the schedule-makers should this kind of nonsense come to pass, but consider the rest of us to be fortunate witnesses to utmost baseball entropy.
As ever, there's no harm in dreams.