The expanded wild card format has its critics and its flaws, but since its introduction in 2012, it's yielded no shortage of down-to-the-wire suspense, with the full playoff picture not coming into focus until the season's final day—or in the case of 2013, until a Game 163 tiebreaker could be played. Even before that, the single wild card granted plenty of thrills and chills, including tiebreaker games in three straight years (2007–09) and the total mayhem of the end of the '11 season, when the Rays and Cardinals snatched spots away from the Red Sox and Braves, respectively, on the season's final day.
Amid that late-2011 drama, I coined the phrase "Team Entropy"—taking a page from the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which states that all systems tend toward disorder—to describe the phenomenon of rooting for scenarios that produced end-of-season chaos. If you're a die-hard fan of a team trying to secure (or avoid blowing) a playoff spot, you’re forgiven for rooting for that team. But if you've embraced the modern day's maximalist menu of options that allow one not just to watch scoreboards but also to view multiple games on multiple gadgets, you want MORE BASEBALL in the form of down-to-the-wire division and wild-card races, extra innings and tiebreaker scenarios. You want the MLB schedule-makers to contemplate entering the Federal Witness Protection Program instead of untangling once far-fetched scenarios. You want to go quad screen with MLB.tv and make sure your phone and tablet are charged as well. In short: You. Want. Chaos.
Welcome to Team Entropy, friends.
With 19 days until the end of the regular season, it's time to survey the landscape to appreciate the possibilities in play. There may not be quite as many as last year, but there's still plenty of mayhem to be had with regards to both wild card races and two divisions. Since it's a good idea to warm up, we'll start with the simpler scenarios before getting onto the more complicated ones, but even those pretty quickly become tough to untangle. For this, you'll want to keep in mind the Baseball Prospectus Playoff Odds and MLB's official tiebreaking scenarios (with more detail here).
The two-team race between the Dodgers and Giants has swung wildly this year, with San Francisco leading by as many as eight games as of June 26—coincidentally, Clayton Kershaw's last outing before going on the disabled list with a herniated disc—and Los Angeles maxing out with a five-game lead, albeit for just a couple of days last week. Currently, the Dodgers (81–63) lead the Giants (77–67) by four games and hold a 91.7% chance at winning the division, per BP, but with six head-to-head games remaining—three in Los Angeles from Sept. 19 to 21 and then three to close the season in San Francisco from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2—the Giants still control their fate, and they own a 7–6 season series edge. The Giants are also currently the NL wild card leader, albeit by just half a game over the Mets (77–68) and a full game over the Cardinals (76–68); their total odds at making the postseason rest at 71.6%.
If the Dodgers and the Giants wind up tied, the Game 163 tiebreaker would be played on the home field of the team with the better record in the season series. No word on whether Vin Scully—who said on Tuesday that he wouldn't call any playoff games, connecting the regular season's final day with the day exactly 80 years earlier, when a World Series linescore (Yankees 18, Giants 4) kindled his fandom—would extend his career by an extra day to call that game. It's entirely possible that the loser of that game would be one of the wild card teams, but if their record before the tiebreaker is tied with another team outside the division for one wild card spot, that team would travel to play another tiebreaker game to determine whether they make the actual winner-take-all–wild-card game.
Which brings us to the…
NL wild card
With the Marlins slipping below .500 (72–73) by going 5–12 since Aug. 26, their odds at securing a wild card spot are down to 1.4%, so we'll sidestep any scenarios involving them until they earn their way back into the discussion. That leaves the NL West runner-up (combined odds of a spot at 71.2%), the Mets (78.4%) and Cardinals (48.8%) vying for two spots, and thus the glorious possibility of some real chaos.
If the three teams are tied for the two spots, the teams would receive A, B and C designations that would yield the following schedule: Club A hosts Club B on Oct. 3 (yielding one wild card team), with Club C hosting the loser on Oct. 4 (yielding the second wild card team). The designations are chosen like a draft, with first pick based upon head-to-head winning percentages against the other teams in question. If it's the Giants in the mix, there's still a four-game set with the Cardinals (Sept. 15–18 in San Francisco) to consider, but currently the pecking order goes Cardinals (5–4, .556), Mets (7–6, .538) and Giants (4–6, .400). If the Giants rebound to take the West and push the Dodgers into the muck, then the order goes Dodgers (8–5, .615), (Mets (6–7, .462), Cardinals (5–7, .417)—no further head-to-head games involving those teams are on the schedule.
If two of the three teams are tied for one of the two wild card spots, home field advantage for the play-in will be determined by head-to-head record. This grid explains it, reading across for the team in question. Keep in mind that the Dodgers/Giants head-to-head records aren't relevant in this context, as one of the two will be the NL West champ.
1–2 + 4 vs. SFG
2–1 + 4 vs. SFG
If you're getting dizzy from all of those possibilities, you may want to step outside for some fresh air, because the AL picture is a whole lot more complicated. A run to the store to stock up on bottled water, high-protein snacks and extra batteries wouldn’t hurt, either, because there’s a very good possibility you’ll spend the first few days of October as a shut-in.
First things first: The division is still in play, with the Red Sox (81–63) leading the Blue Jays and Orioles (both 79–65) by two games and the Yankees (77–67) by four. Respectively, their BP Odds at winning the division are 70.7%, 14.8%, 12.1% and 2.4%. Boston still has eight home games and seven road games against the other three teams; Toronto has seven home games and five road games; Baltimore has four home games and seven road games; and New York has six home games and eight road games. The seeding in many of these head-to-head matchups, then, is still very much up in the air. Currently, the grid looks like this, with each pair of teams eventually playing 19 games head to head:
If "only" two teams wind up tied for the division lead, home field for Game 163 would be based upon head-to-head record. If three teams are tied, we go back to the A-B-Cs, applicable as above, with head-to-head winning percentages against the other two teams determining the pecking order. Right now, Toronto would appear to have the advantage in most scenarios and the Yankees the biggest disadvantage, but with so many games still to play, that all could change.
Things get really crazy if four teams wind up tied, as the seeding would also include a Club D, with A hosting B and C hosting D on Oct. 3, then the winners playing the next day in the home park of the A/B winner—and that's just to produce the AL East champion.
AL wild card
Fresh air, water, snacks, batteries—by the way, when was your last physical? You’ll need to be in shape to power through this stuff. Not only could that four-way tie create a situation that produces one or both wild card teams, but keep in mind that the Tigers (77–67, two games out, 26.3% odds for wild card), Mariners (77–68, 2 1/2 out, 24.0%), Astros (75–70, 4 1/2 out, 5.7%) and Royals (74–70, five out, 1.3%) are also in the hunt as well, which, oy vey iz mir.
Leaving those teams aside for the moment and sticking to the runoff from the AL race, if it's going to produce both wild cards, the whole shebang is as follows:
1. The winners of Club B @ Club A and Club D @ Club C meet in the A/B winner's park to determine the division champion, with the loser hosting the wild card game.
2. The losers of those first two games play at the park of the A/B loser, with the winner of that game the road wild card team.
If the AL East runoff is only going to produce one wild card team—if one (but not two) of those outsiders actually finishes with a better record than the AL East champion—then the winners of Club B @ Club A and Club D @ Club C meet in the A/B winner's park to determine the division champion, with the loser getting a wild card spot. If two of those outsiders finish with better records than the AL East champ, the loser of that aforementioned game gets the first tees time available at the country clubs of their choice.
If there's no AL East tie but some kind of tie for the wild card spot or spots, then the seeding goes A-B-C-D—and probably E, F and G, if that's even mathematically possible (Mr. Manfred, please begin the thawing of Mr. Selig)—based upon head-to-head records against the other teams in question. As my editor has threatened to amputate my thumbs if I submit an eight-by-eight grid showing those records, I'll instead steer you here while we wait for the herd to be culled. It won’t be pretty.
In the four-to-make-two scenario, the scenario would start with Club B @ Club A and Club D @ Club C, with the winners declared the wild-card teams and the wild-card game played in the A/B winner's park. In the four-to-make-one scenario, the A/B and C/D winners meet in the A/B park, with that winner the wild-card team.
In the three-to-make-two scenario, that would again be Club B @ Club A on Oct. 3 (yielding one wild-card team), and then Club C hosting the loser of A/B on Oct. 4 (yielding the second wild-card team). In the three-to-make-one scenario, then the B @ A winner isn't automatically in; they'd play host to C, with the winner in.
Admittedly, most of that is pretty abstract right now, but as your entropician—sure, that's a thing—it’s my sworn duty to keep abreast of the situation. Watch for more updates in this space as the season winds down.