Who Would Escape Alive from Nightmare 7-Way AL Tie in MLB Playoff Chase?
You've probably noticed by now that the American League playoff picture is a bit of a mess.
At the start of play on Tuesday, no division leader in the junior circuit has a lead bigger than three games. In the wild-card race, there are two teams with 1.5 games of the second berth.
Spoiler Alert: The AL playoff picture could become an even bigger mess.
Like, the kind of mess that requires an advanced degree in some sort of obscure mathematic discipline to unravel.
David Schoenfield of ESPN.com wrote about a rather frightening possibility on Monday. There's a chance—albeit a very, very, very small chance—that the AL playoff race could result in a seven-way tie.
In this scenario, there would be a three-way tie atop the AL East between the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays; a two-way tie atop the AL Central between the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers; and a two-way tie for one of the wild-card spots between the Oakland A's and the Los Angeles Angels. All seven of these teams, of course, would have the same record.
The problem? Major League Baseball's tiebreaking guidelines (a real ponderous tome) don't have anything in place for a scenario such as this, in which two division titles and both wild-card spots would have to be resolved in a series of do-or-die playoff games immediately after the end of the regular season on October 3.
And that's a problem. October 4 is a free day, but the wild-card play-in games are scheduled to take place on October 5, with the Division Series round of the postseason starting the day after on October 6.
There will therefore only be a couple of days for MLB to resolve the situation, and that's not enough time to play a complex series of high-pressure games. It's not like MLB could do some sort of round-robin tournament.
As such, a sort of compromise would have to be reached—one that not everyone would be happy with.
Schoenfield proposed that the quandary could be solved in just four games.
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One would be between two AL East teams to set up a showdown with the third team for the division title, with the loser of that second game taking one of the wild-card spots.
Another would be between the two AL Central teams for the division title, with the loser being booted out of the picture altogether.
A third would be between the A's and Angels for one of the two wild-card spots.
In a system such as this, there would be three games on Thursday: Rays vs. Orioles, White Sox vs. Tigers and A's vs. Angels. There would be one game on Friday, and it would be between the winner of the Rays vs. Orioles game and the Yankees.
Naturally, there are problems with a system of games such as this. For example, the Yankees, or whoever else is lucky enough to slide right to the second AL East game, would be assured a playoff spot.
Plus, the fact that the AL Central loser would be automatically done strikes me as being rather unfair, seeing as how all seven of these teams would, in theory, be entering the fray with the exact same record.
But do I have a better idea?
Uh, not really. There are fairer ways to resolve the situation, but not quicker ways. The whole bloody affair would have to be wrapped up in two days, and playing any more than four games in those two days would require a doubleheader or two. That would make for great theater, but it ain't happening.
So if a seven-team tie does come to pass in the American League, let's just assume that Major League Baseball would decide to do something similar to the series of games Schoenfield devised. What then?
Since you're asking, I suppose it would go a little something like this...
Rays vs. Orioles
There would be no obvious favorite if the Rays and Orioles were to meet up in a do-or-die game. These two teams have played 12 games this year, and each team has won six games.
I tend to favor teams with superior starting pitching in situations like this, and there's no argument that the Rays have the edge there. Their starters lead the American League with an ERA of 3.42, and they have three pitchers in David Price, James Shields and Matt Moore who are capable of stringing together goose eggs with the best of 'em.
And, indeed, Jeremy Hellickson is no slouch either.
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Though the Rays are just 6-6 against the Orioles this season, it's not their pitchers' fault. Rays pitchers have a 2.38 ERA against the Orioles in 2012 and have held their hitters to a .218 batting average. Since great pitching always beats great hitting, we're talking about a not-insignificant advantage.
Granted, Baltimore's pitching has come around in a big way. O's starters posted a respectable 4.18 ERA in August, and they have a couple of guys they can depend on in a pressure game such as this in Jason Hammel (assuming he's not hurt too bad) and Wei-Yin Chen.
The other thing the O's can do that the Rays can't do so well is hit home runs. Only three teams have hit more homers than the O's since the All-Star break, and they rank third overall in MLB in homers for the season.
The Orioles tend to have an advantage in a given game when they go to their bullpen, but that advantage would be nonexistent against the Rays. As good as Baltimore's bullpen has been this season, Tampa Bay's has been even better. Just as important, the Rays' bullpen has worked significantly fewer innings.
The offensive edge in this matchup goes to the O's, but the fact that the Rays would have the pitching advantage is enough to make me side with them.
Going Home: Orioles
Tigers vs. White Sox
On paper, the Tigers are a better team than the White Sox.
The head-to-head record between these two teams says the same thing, as the Tigers are 10-5 against the White Sox thus far in 2012. They had won seven in a row against the White Sox before their loss in Chicago on Monday night.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
What's especially concerning for the White Sox is that the Tigers have handled their two best starting pitchers pretty well this season. Jake Peavy has a 5.79 ERA against the Tigers, and Chris Sale has an ERA of an even 6.00 against them.
Detroit pitchers, meanwhile, have a 3.44 ERA against the White Sox and have held their hitters to a .226 batting average. Justin Verlander, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello have all pitched well against Chicago.
For their part, Tigers hitters have handled White Sox pitchers pretty well, posting an .848 OPS against them. The only team that has fared worse against Tigers hitters is the Boston Red Sox (yeah, something about Sox).
So if the regular season is any indication, the Tigers would be a pretty safe bet in this game.
Going Home: White Sox
A's vs. Angels
Now this would be an interesting game.
The A's and the Angels are the West Coast's answer to the Rays and Orioles. They've played 16 times, and each team has won eight games.
Oakland pitchers have done reasonably well against Angels hitters, holding them to a .258 average and posting a 3.56 ERA. They've helped themselves by holding Mike Trout to a pedestrian .245 average and a .727 OPS. They've also held Albert Pujols to a .284 average and a .758 OPS.
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
The trouble is that the Angels don't typically need a ton of offense when they play the A's. Their pitchers have a 2.90 ERA against the A's and have held their hitters to a .192 batting average and a .605 OPS. The only pitching staff that has done better work against the A's this season belongs to the Orioles.
The A's do have one major advantage over the Angels, though. Oakland has the second-best bullpen (ERA-wise) in the AL behind the Rays, and the Angels' bullpen has been known to blow games here and there, typically in headdesk-inducing fashion.
And though this isn't a statistical thing, I've seen enough to be convinced that the A's are hungrier for postseason play than the Angels are. The A's are wearing their underdog status, whereas the Angels are trying to avoid wearing the dunce cap that is set aside for underachievers.
The numbers say the Angels would be the smart bet here. My gut tells me otherwise.
Going Home: Angels
Rays vs. Yankees
The Rays have handled the Yankees pretty well this season, going 9-6 against them with one more series at Yankee Stadium left to play.
Rays pitchers have done well against the Bombers, holding them to a .232 batting average while posting a solid 3.78 ERA.
Just as important is the fact that Rays hitters have done surprisingly well against Yankees pitching, posting a .744 OPS against them with 17 home runs. Carlos Pena is responsible for four of those, and B.J. Upton is responsible for three.
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The Rays would need all the offense they could get against the Yankees, if for no other reason than to offset Robinson Cano. He's killed the Rays to the tune of a 1.033 OPS this season. Raul Ibanez has also done well against the Rays, posting a .980 OPS against them with three home runs.
Conventional wisdom suggests that the Yankees would be in good shape if they were able to pitch either Hiroki Kuroda or CC Sabathia against the Rays in a high-pressure game such as this one, but reality suggests otherwise. The Rays have knocked Kuroda around this year, and they've handled Sabathia pretty well too.
As many have noted throughout the course of this season, the Yankees will meet their match in the postseason when they come across a pitching staff that is capable of neutralizing their powerful bats.
The Rays are better equipped for a task such as this than any team in the American League, so I'd side with them in this matchup.
AL East Winner: Rays
Wild Card: Yankees
After all this is finished, the Tigers and Rays would begin their Division Series showdown on Saturday, October 6.
As for the wild-card play-in game between the Yankees and A's, that would have to be played on Saturday as well. The loser of that game would go home, and the winner would head to Texas to take on the Rangers in a series starting the next day.
I'll speak for all of us fans when I say that this all sounds like a good time.
I'm assuming, however, that it wouldn't be too much fun for the players. The pressure would be immense, and there would be no rest for the weary.
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