Determining the third NL wild card could get nutty: Three-way tiebreaker? Four-way?

A generation from now, Colorado Rockies fans will continue to maintain that Matt Holliday really did touch home plate in the 13th inning. Minnesota Twins fans will always have a reason to remember Alexi Casilla for his walk-off hit that saved a season. And a bases-loaded walk at the worst possible time haunted Los Angeles Dodgers relief pitcher Stan Williams for the rest of his life.

Major League Baseball commissioners came and went. The leagues expanded and rule changes were implemented. But one thing stayed the same: at the conclusion of the 162-game schedule, all ties were broken on the field. The sudden-death tiebreaker game (or three-game series, if you go back a few decades) made heroes and goats and provided some of the game’s most euphoric or excruciating memories.

But no more. It’s all about the math now. The precedent was set in in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, when COVID-19 protocols necessitated the use of a tiebreaker formula. The San Francisco Giants and Milwaukee Brewers — two teams that didn’t meet during the regular season — finished with identical 29-31 records. But the Brewers advanced to the final spot in a novel 16-team postseason field because intradivisional record was the tiebreaker and their 19-21 record against the NL Central was a shade better than the Giants’ 18-22 record against the NL West.

When postseason play expanded to become a four-round affair in 2022, Major League Baseball simply couldn’t continue to schedule any buffer days ahead of the start of the best-of-3 Wild Card round. So say goodbye to the tension of Game 163 and say hello to the tiebreaker formula, which looms as a critical factor if you happen to be a fan of the Arizona Diamondbacks, Cincinnati Reds, Miami Marlins, or San Francisco Giants — four teams that entered Thursday tied in the loss column for the third and final NL wild-card spot.

Let’s assume for a moment that the Philadelphia Phillies and Chicago Cubs maintain their position as the top two wild card finishers. How would ties be broken for the third and final spot? What if three teams tie? Or four? Glad you asked. Let’s break it down.

The first tiebreaker is pretty standard: head-to-head record. It’s also more or less settled between all four National League teams, with one major exception. The Giants hold a 6-5 lead over the Diamondbacks in their season series with two games to play at Chase Field on Sept. 19-20.

Arizona could end up on the wrong side of all tiebreakers. They are 2-4 vs. Miami, 3-4 vs. Cincinnati, and 5-6 (with two to play) vs. San Francisco.

If San Francisco wins one game at Arizona, they could hold all three tiebreakers. They are 4-2 against Cincinnati and 3-3 vs. Miami, with a meaningful advantage over the Marlins in the second tiebreaker. (More on that in a bit.)

Cincinnati loses the tiebreaker to San Francisco (2-4), holds it over Arizona (4-3) and also would go to a second tiebreaker with Miami (3-3).

Miami holds the tiebreaker over Arizona (4-2) and went 3-3 against both San Francisco and Cincinnati.

The second tiebreaker after head-to-head record is intradivision record, which won’t come into play for Arizona but could be a factor for the other three teams. Miami is 21-22 against the NL East with nine games remaining (three vs. Atlanta, three vs. the New York Mets, three at the Mets). Cincinnati is 19-27 against the NL Central with six games remaining (three vs. Pittsburgh, three at St. Louis). The Giants are 22-14 against the NL West but all 16 of the remaining games on their schedule are within the division (four at Colorado, two at Arizona, four at Los Angeles, three vs. San Diego, three vs. Los Angeles).



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If the Giants find themselves in a tiebreaker scenario at the end of the regular season, that probably means that they played well enough over their final 16 games to maintain a better intradivisional record than the Marlins and likely would come out ahead. So again, the Giants set up to be in the most favorable tiebreaker position among the four teams.

By the way, if a third tiebreaker should become necessary between two clubs, the deciding factor would be winning percentage against National League opponents. And the fourth tiebreaker would be the winning percentage in the last half of games against NL opponents.

So what happens if three teams tie?

We already know that there wouldn’t be a scenario in which three tied teams would have identical records against each other. So we can throw out those stipulations. It comes down to this: if Club 1 holds the two-way tiebreaker over both Clubs 2 and 3, then Club 1 qualifies. If no club holds all tiebreakers against the other two clubs, then the three clubs would be ranked based on overall winning percentage among the tied teams.

All of these scenarios are nearly settled already. In a three-way tie between the Reds, Marlins and Giants, San Francisco advances. The Giants also would advance if they finish in a three-way tie with the Reds and Diamondbacks regardless of how the two remaining games at Arizona turn out.  The Marlins would advance if they finish in a three-way tie with the Reds and Diamondbacks provided that Miami maintains a better intradivisional record than Cincinnati. The Marlins also have a path to advance if they finish in a three-way tie with the Diamondbacks and Giants, but only if Arizona wins both remaining games against San Francisco.

The same process would be used to break a potentially epic four-way tie. As it stands, the Giants are the only team among the four that could hold every tiebreaker. If that fails to happen, and it comes down to overall winning percentage among all four teams, then there’s a scenario in which the Marlins (10-8, .555) would emerge over the Reds (9-10), Diamondbacks (currently 10-14) and Giants (currently 13-11) if Arizona wins just one of its two remaining games against San Francisco.

If you’re still reading this and haven’t developed a migraine, then congratulations. Here’s the bottom line: the Giants hold most of the tiebreakers and will hold them all if they win one game out of two at Arizona next week. And perhaps that’s fitting. Because at least for now, the 2020 Giants are the only team in baseball history to miss out on the postseason because of math.

(Top photo of San Francisco’s Tristan Beck attempts to tag Arizona’s Ketel Marte in a game in May: Rick Scuteri / Associated Press)

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