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This year’s MLB tiebreakers could punish the strongest NL teams

And it’s a problem for a league struggling with competitive balance.

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Milwaukee Brewers v Chicago Cubs
Daniel Murphy turns a double play against the Brewers on September 12.
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The Cubs and Brewers have been the class of the National League for most of the year and neither team has disappointed in September. The Cubs managed to go 18-10 during a period of thirty days in a row where they were scheduled to play without an off day, far exceeding anyone’s expectations for that stretch. The Brewers have gone 18-7 in September and with yesterday’s 6-5 win over the Tigers they tied the Cubs for first place in the NL Central. That’s an impressive run considering they were 4½ games back on September 1.

It’s been exciting baseball. In fact, the NL Central is the only division in MLB with four teams guaranteed to have at least a .500 season. While we could get into a very long baseball conversation about whether it’s more impressive to win a division with a lot of parity like the NL Central or compile over a hundred wins in a division like the AL East, that will be hashed out in a seven game series in late October and isn’t really the focus of this post. This post is looking at the flaws in the current MLB tiebreaker system and how it could strategically disadvantage two of the teams with the best record in the National League.

Let me start by saying it’s harder to win more games in a division where other people are also winning a lot of games. It is impressive that the two best records in the National League will come from the National League division with the most wins. Let’s look at each division in Major League Baseball by wins in 2018 heading into the last day of the season:

MLB Divisions by Wins

Division Wins Losses
Division Wins Losses
AL West 432 369
NL Central 424 380
AL East 415 390
NL West 400 404
NL East 389 414
AL Central 351 454

It seems like winning those games should be rewarded. Particularly considering that I’ve spent the whole year reading pieces about the dangers of tanking, how bad it is for MLB to have teams that don’t want to compete, and attendance being down across the league. There seems to at least be a level of concern about giving teams an incentive to play at their highest level for fans and the integrity of the game.

And yet, baseball fans face the very real possibility that two teams who didn’t tank, two teams who played in a division without tankers, two teams with the best record in the National League will face a tremendous disadvantage in the post-season.

Because if the two teams with the best record in the National League tie after 162 games they have to play an extra game to determine seeding.

This isn’t some quirk of the schedule, and it also isn’t new. For the second time in four years a team with one of the best records in the National League will wind up in the wild card game (in 2015 two of the three best records in the NL played in the wild card game). But this is worse in some ways. For the first time, two teams with the best record in the National League might have to play a 163rd game to determine who wins the division. (And yes, I’ll concede that the Dodgers and Rockies might need a tiebreaker as well, but frankly, I’m less sympathetic to depleting the pitching of teams at the bottom of the bracket.) Let’s take a look at what that means for scheduling purposes:

National League Postseason Outlook

Team Record Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday
Team Record Sunday Monday Tuesday Wednesday Thursday
Cubs 94-67 Game Potential Tiebreaker Potential Wildcard Game Off NLDS Starts?
Brewers 94-67 Game Potential Tiebreaker Potential Wildcard Game Off NLDS Starts?
Braves 90-71 Game Off Off Off NLDS Starts
Dodgers 90-71 Game Potential Tiebreaker Potential Wildcard Game Off NLDS Starts?
Rockies 90-71 Game Potential Tiebreaker Potential Wildcard Game Off NLDS Starts?
National League records and potential schedules

Let me state that slightly differently. Winning the most games in the National League this year means you may have to play at least one extra game, might wind up in the wild card game anyway, and will certainly deplete your pitching on Monday and Tuesday before starting the National League Divisional Series on Thursday, while the Braves get three days off.

As an aside, it’s scheduling malpractice that the NL has potential tiebreakers on Monday with the wildcard games on Tuesday and the NLDS on Thursday, while the AL is set with no tiebreakers and wildcard games on Wednesday. It seems like an obvious solution is tiebreakers on Monday and then swapping the AL/NL wildcard and divisions series schedules, but I digress.

In 2015 Rob Manfred was asked about the potential problem of teams winning more games and being penalized in the wildcard and basically said it’s a reason teams should care about winning the division and compete to the end of the season:

“When we went to this system, we wanted to try to encourage people to compete all the way to the end of the season to win the division. I think this system does that. No. 2, even within the wild card, we wanted to build in a situation where those two teams continued to compete in order to get what we perceived to be a significant advantage, competitively and from a business perspective – that is, a home game in the playoffs. I think we’ve achieved that.

“Then you get to the question of, what do you do with those two wild cards? That’s the next sequential question. The balance we struck there was that we were trying to disadvantage the wild cards. We wanted the division titles to be more meaningful.

Touche, Mr. Manfred, but I wonder if you’d like to revisit that now that the two teams with the best record in the league might have to disadvantage themselves in a one-game tiebreaker followed by a wildcard, while a team with a worse record skates through with extra off-days. It’s also not just the NL Central, the NL West is in a dead heat and I cannot understand why it’s a fair postseason to have four of the five National League postseason competitors burn their pitching in back-to-back tiebreakers and wild card games while the American League rests.

Parity should not be a disadvantage. If MLB is serious about teams fielding competitive teams and not tanking they need to take a look at their postseason schedule. It’s currently designed to punish the divisions that are most competitive, and that can’t be good for the game.