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A Primer for Every AL Tiebreaker and Wild-Card Scenario

The brilliance of baseball's 162-game schedule is that its length is supposed to sort out the contenders from the pretenders, leaving us with the cream of the crop for the playoffs.

Except when it doesn't. Sometimes 162 games just isn't enough. Sometimes the races are just too tight to be decided across the six-month schedule. In these instances, we need a Game 163. Or, maybe in a year such as this, we need the beautiful chaos of multiple Game 163s and Game 164s.

Don't worry if your head is spinning. We've got a guide for you, breaking down the mess of the American League wild-card race, which features four teams separated by no more than a game fighting for the Junior Circuit's final two playoff berths. Here is how the AL wild-card standings look heading into the final day of games:

TeamRecordGames BehindOpponent

Red Sox

91–70

--

Nationals

Yankees

91–70

--

Rays

Mariners

90–71

1.0

Angels

Blue Jays

90–71

1.0

Orioles

Emma Baccellieri did an excellent job in her column Friday detailing the AL wild-card race entering this weekend and the possible scenarios that could unfold, so I'll be borrowing the relevant parts of what she wrote as I work through this primer. You should check out her explainer if you want the full picture of how all of this could've played out.

Things changed over the last two days, though. The Yankees lost their two games against the Rays, while the Red Sox, who were two games behind New York, beat the Nationals twice. The Mariners entered the weekend tied with Boston for the second wild-card berth, but Seattle split its two games with the Angels. The Blue Jays were a game out of the second wild-card spot before they took their two games from the lowly Orioles.

To simplify things in this explainer, I'll put the Yankees and Red Sox in Group 1, because they are tied for the best record among the wild-card hopefuls, and I'll put the Mariners and Blue Jays in Group 2, as they are tied one game back of Boston and New York.

• A tie for the two wild-card spots: If the order of the standings stay the same after Sunday's action, the Yankees and Red Sox would have the same record and secure the two wild-card berths. Boston won the head-to-head series vs. New York, 10–9, this year, so the wild-card game would be played at Fenway Park on Tuesday night. Seattle and Toronto would fall one game short. This scenario would happen if all four teams win Sunday, if all four teams lose Sunday, or if the Group 1 teams win and the Group 2 teams lose. This is the cleanest of the possibilities, because it would involve no tiebreaker game.

• A two-team tie for the second spot: For this to happen, one of the Group 1 teams would need to win and the other would need to lose, and one of the Group 2 teams would need to win and the other would need to lose.

So, for example, let's say the Yankees and the Mariners win, while the Red Sox and Blue Jays lose. The standings would look like this: 

TeamRecordGames Behind

Yankees

92–70

+1.0

Red Sox

91–71

--

Mariners

91–71

--

Blue Jays

90–72

-1.0

In this case, the Yankees would earn the top wild-card spot, and the Red Sox and Mariners would each be tied for the second one. Boston and Seattle would play in a Game 163 at Fenway Park on Monday night, because the Red Sox won their head-to-head series, 4–3, with the Mariners this season. The winner would then face the Yankees in the Bronx on Tuesday night. The Blue Jays would be eliminated.

• A three-way tie for both spots: Ah, this is where things start to get wonky. If both Group 1 teams lose and only one of the Group 2 teams win, we'd have three teams tied for the two wild-card spots.

As Baccellieri writes: "A three-way tie would involve a draft of sorts—there are three different pathways for how to proceed, and the three clubs would get to pick who gets which, with the draft order determined by their head-to-head records:

YankeesRed SoxMarinersBlue Jays

Yankees

--

9–10

5–2

8–11

Red Sox

10–9

--

4–3

10–9

Mariners

2–5

3–4

--

4–2

Blue Jays

11–8

9–10

2–4

--

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The club with the first pick would get to choose which team it wants to be: A, B or C. The roles for those designations are as follows: 

  • Team A will host Team B in an initial tiebreaker game. The winner would go on to take one of the spots in the wild-card game.
  • Team C will then host the loser of Team A vs. Team B. The winner would go on to take the other spot in the wild-card game.

"The one to go with here is clearly Team A—giving yourself two chances to win a game is much better than giving yourself just one," Baccellieri writes.

So, the two possible permutations that would trigger this outcome could be:

1) Yankees lose, Red Sox lose, Mariners win, Blue Jays lose
2) Yankees lose, Red Sox lose, Mariners lose, Blue Jays win

In both of these permutations, the Red Sox would get the first pick in the draft, because they beat all three teams in their head-to-head series. They'd be fools not to choose Team A. The Yankees holds the head-to-head advantage over the Mariners, so they'd pick second in Permutation 1. The Blue Jays would pick second in Permutation 2 because they won the season series vs. the Yankees.

• A three-way tie for the second spot: Let's get weird, folks. This situation would occur if only one of the Group 1 teams win and both Group 2 teams win. The winner of the Group 1 team would get the first wild-card spot, and host Tuesday's game, while the Group 1 loser would be tied with both the Group 2 teams for the second wild-card berth. In this case, there would still be a draft, with the three teams picking if they want to be Team A, B or C, again. Except this time, the roles are different.

As Baccellieri writes: "Team A and Team B would still play in an initial tiebreaker game. But instead of the winner going directly to the wild-card game while the loser goes to play Team C, the winner will now go to play Team C, and the loser will go home. Whoever wins that second game will then qualify for the wild-card game. That means that the obvious first draft pick here is Team C, not Team A, and that there’s even more potential for this one to get wild.

Here are the two permutations for this outcome:

1) Red Sox win, Yankees lose, Mariners win, Blue Jays win
2) Red Sox lose, Yankees win, Mariners win, Blue Jays win

The Red Sox would get the first pick in Permutation 1 because they beat all three teams in the head-to-head series. Permutation 2 would involve a little bit more math, because the Yankees has the head-to-head advantage over the Mariners, the Mariners have the advantage over the Blue Jays, and the Blue Jays have the advantage over the Yankees. New York would get the first draft pick because it has the best combined record against the other two teams.

• A four-way tie: When Baccellieri wrote her Friday column, this didn't look like it had much of a chance to happen. While the other possible outcomes had multiple permutations, this one needed one very specific outcome to occur. The Blue Jays needed to sweep, the Yankees needed to get swept, and both the Mariners and Red Sox needed to win two of their three games.

So, naturally, the first two days of baseball this weekend played out to where this is a possibility. If both Group 1 teams lose and both Group 2 teams win, we've got ourselves a four-way tie for the two wild-card berths.

Once again, there's a tiebreaker draft, with the four clubs picking to be Team A, B, C or D. Head-to-head records against all of the other tied teams determines the draft order, which in this case would be: Red Sox, Blue Jays, Yankees, Mariners.

  • Team A will host Team B.
  • Team C will host Team D.
  • The winners of those two games will play each other, and the winner of that game will go on to face the Rays in the ALDS.

This is more straightforward then, because it's essentially a four-team, one-game elimination bracket to reach the division series. But we'd get three more elimination games tacked onto the regular season. 

Whatever happens, the regular season is ending with a wonderful, maddening climax. Bring it on.

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