Major League Baseball officially announced the expanded postseason format in March, and the initial (and continuous) reaction to the scheduling was “wow, that’s really tight”. And it certainly is. Here’s the schedule as laid out in the original MLB.com article:
The regular season is scheduled to end on Wednesday, Oct. 3, leaving two days for travel, weather problems, possible season-ending tiebreakers to decide division titles and Wild Card berths and the Wild Card elimination games prior to the start of the Division Series.
Wild Card playoff winners… host the first two games of their Division Series, which will begin on Sunday, Oct. 7. The other two Division Series that pits division winners will begin on Saturday, Oct. 6.
Along with the new Wild Card play-in format came the agreement to settle virtually* every tie on the field with a tiebreaker game, but only one day has been set aside to deal with any and all tiebreak scenarios.
*I do not know precisely which types of ties wouldn’t be settled on the field, but that’s presumably seeding among division winners and/or seeding among the two Wild Card teams.
Here’s the issue: the new CBA that was agreed upon between the league and the player’s union this offseason allowed for the expansion of the postseason format. The league (and its owners) smelled the extra dollars and jumped to immediately implement the change. The fact that the “normal” postseason schedule (notably the timing of the World Series) had already been agreed upon (and set in stone, apparently) by the television networks was apparently of little concern to the league. They went on and crammed in an extra day of Wild Card action (along with the increased probability of a one-game tiebreaker) into the pre-existing schedule like they were trying to see how many cookies they could stuff into the VCR. (You know Bud Selig still uses a VCR, that’s not even a question).
But, to take that silly/stupid metaphor once step further, the AL Wild Card race may prove to be one cookie too many (that was awful, I know). Currently three teams are tied for the second Wild Card spot: the Baltimore Orioles, Oakland Athletics, and Detroit Tigers, and no one knows what will happen if a similar situation should occur after the final game of the season on October 3. (Here’s an additional interesting wrinkle: all three teams are currently .500 versus each other in their respective season series. Baltimore and Detroit don’t meet again, but both teams have a three-game set remaining with Oakland).
The schedule is tight enough on its own even if only a single tiebreak game is needed. Let’s suppose the Rays claim the first Wild Card spot and the Tigers and Athletics end up tied for the second spot. Detroit, who finishes the season at Kansas City on October 3, could be forced to fly to Oakland to play the tiebreak game on October 4, fly to Tampa for the Wild Card game on October 5, and then fly back to Detroit for the Division Series beginning October 7 (if they continued to win, of course). That would be four games in four cities in five days, which would be an incredible feat, but this isn’t even one of the “crazy scenarios” that are still entirely possible.
Let’s go back to the three-way tie that we currently see in the standings. The only way to break this type of tie completely “on the field” would be in a mini round-robin format. This would bring two obvious problems. (1) There’s no guarantee that this would settle a winner; it’s possible for all three teams to go 1-1. And (2) this would be incredibly difficult to do in the one-day allotted. It’s possible the Wild Card round could be pushed back to October 6 (seeing as the Division Series involving Wild Card teams begin on October 7), but that still wouldn’t easily solve this unique problem, and I don’t know that the TV networks would like that.
The league has not yet addressed a three-way tiebreaker scenario under the new postseason format, but here are some possible solutions that I just thought up (with some input from a few baseball-loving friends):
(1) The team with the best head-to-head record gets a bye in a three-team play-in tournament (or they flip for it if they’re tied). This would involve moving the regularly scheduled Wild Card round back a day. As I understand it, this was the rule in place to resolve three-way ties under the old playoff agreement (though it never happened). I would consider this the most likely scenario (because MLB hates thinking of new things) even though the TV executives would be miffed due to the fact that a Wild Card round and two Division Series would need to be aired on the same day.
This wouldn’t be necessarily fair – the three teams are supposedly tied, and we’re supposedly “deciding it on the field”, but two teams would need to win two games and one team would only need to win once to advance – but it is probably the cleanest option in that it would definitely decide Wild Card positioning at the end of the second day. The television hurdle might be significant, but I’m sure they’d work something out if it came to it.
(2) A three team round-robin is played out in successive days (probably all at one site) in the hope that one team can go 2-0. This would involve a two-day postponement of the Wild Card round and a one-day postponement of the Division Series, and it might not result in the breaking of the tie. This option would be fairer than the others, but let’s be honest: Major League Baseball is more concerned about their money and TV ratings than what’s necessarily fair for a bunch of tied Wild Card teams, and there would need to be a big shuffle for everything to work out here. There is a zero percent chance that they choose this option.
(3) My favorite option would be a three-team (double) double-header on the day after the season ends. This could make for an incredibly exciting day. Imagine this: the Tigers host the Athletics at Comerica Park (or pick a site) in a 1:00 PM game, then the loser gets to play the Orioles at 4:30 (to guarantee the third game, of course), then the game-one winner plays the Orioles at 8:00. And what if each team goes 1-1 on the day? Get a good night’s sleep and do it again the next day. Oh, the chaos.
This would obviously be a logistical nightmare, and it would be incredibly taxing on the players on the eve of the playoffs. And no one really wants to see a couple of minor-league starting pitchers in a game that could decide the playoffs (this would be the sixth game in five days for each team), but you couldn’t deny the excitement. We’d be talking about that day for years.