The trouble with tiebreakers
By David Schoenfield
Page 2 Staff

So, let's get this straight:

If the Cubs go 3-2 in their final five games and the Astros go 4-1 in their final five games and the Phillies go 3-2 in their final five games and the Marlins go 1-4 in their final five games, then ...

The Cubs finish 88-74.

Sammy Sosa
Sammy and the Cubs could be one of several NL teams tied for a playoff spot.
The Astros finish 88-74.

The Phillies finish 88-74.

The Marlins finish 88-74 ...

... and four teams tie for two playoff spots.

Major League Baseball officials then check their master plan for tiebreaker contingencies and discover this scenario hasn't been accounted for, Bud mumbles something about this being even more disastrous than a tie in an All-Star Game, baseball traditionalists simultaneously laugh hysterically until their guts hurt and pull their hair out until their follicles bleed, and the sport itself crumples into a shriveled mass of irrelevance, with all future playoff games to be shown only on C-SPAN as George Will provides commentary.

Even though this four-way tie is a distinct possibility, MLB didn't determine what it would do if it happens until Tuesday. Which, at least, is better than deciding after the season ends.

Still, it's amazing there wasn't a plan already in place. Teams grind it out for 162 games to reach the playoffs ... and MLB has to figure out at the last minute the method for determining who gets in.

This lack of foresight is nothing new. In 1999, MLB had no tiebreaker plan in case the Astros, Reds and Mets finished with the same record. Luckily, the Astros won on the season's final day to avoid a messy three-way tie which would have allowed the Mets to sneak into the playoffs while the Astros and Reds played for the division title.

If that happens again, baseball is now covered: It's Scenario No. 5 on a five-page press release that outlines eight different tiebreaker scenarios -- not including the new four-teams-for-two-spots resolution, as outlined here by Jayson Stark. But there is still no five-teams-for-two-spots scenario. (Hey, the Dodgers could go 5-1 and finish ... 88-74).

Of course, this last-minute scrambling is no surprise, in light of MLB's entire flawed playoff structure.

For example, the wild-card team can't play a team from its own division in the first round. Why not? Once you determine the four playoff teams, what is so sacred about divisions? Say the Braves win 105 games, the Astros 104, the Giants 103 and the Mets (remember, this is an imaginary scenario) are the wild-card team with 88 wins. Atlanta's reward for finishing with the best record? Instead of playing the Mets, they would draw the 103-win Giants. Ridiculous. The No. 1 team should play the No. 4 team, regardless of division.

Another flaw is the rule that a wild-card team can't have home-field advantage. Why not? In 2001, the A's won 102 games and the wild card, while the Yankees won 95 games and the AL East. Yet the Yankees had home-field advantage (and beat the A's in Game 5 at Yankee Stadium). The A's were denied an advantage they had earned over 162 games.

Baseball lets in wild-card teams, but illogically continues to uphold the sanctity of a division title as a more valuable commodity than a second-place finish in a tougher division. This season, for example, the four best teams in the American League will not make the playoffs; instead, the Twins, by simple virtue of geography (and a 14-1 record so far against the Tigers) will make the postseason -- and be seeded higher than a team with a better record.

And let's not even mention how home-field advantage gets determined for the World Series ...

But it isn't just MLB which has these playoff problems.

Take the NFL, which has a long list of tiebreaker rules (all the way down to the dreaded coin flip).

Last season, the Jets, Patriots, Dolphins, Broncos and Browns all finished 9-7 -- with two playoff spots at stake (the AFC East and the wild card). The Jets beat the Patriots and Dolphins in the division tiebreaker. The Browns then beat out the Patriots and Broncos, based on Cleveland's better conference record.

Ricky Williams
Ricky Williams and the Dolphins were not helped by the NFL's tiebreakers rules last year.
The flaws in logic?

1.) The Dolphins were eliminated from wild-card consideration because they finished behind the Patriots in the division title tiebreaker. This makes no sense, since the wild card was the thing at stake, not the division championship. (The Dolphins, by the way, finished with the same 7-5 conference record as the Browns.)

2.) With head-to-head play not applicable, conference record irrationally becomes the top tiebreaker -- even though teams don't play the same conference schedule! So the Browns, by virtue of an easy schedule (3-0 against the Bengals and expansion Texans), got the lucky break and made the playoffs over better teams. With the NFL's "parity" schedule, the tiebreaker should be strength of schedule ... or one of those high-school-type playoffs where all the teams play each other for one quarter.

Another flaw in the NFL system is the same as MLB's shortcoming: Wild-card teams cannot own home-field advantage or be seeded higher than a division winner. In 1997, the Chiefs had the AFC's best record at 13-3, with Denver the second-best at 12-4. The Chiefs' reward for earning the best record? They had to play the No. 4 seed Broncos (they lost), while 11-5 Pittsburgh played 10-6 New England.

And now, under the NFL's four-team, eight-division structure, it won't be long before a mediocre 7-9 team wins a division and leaves a 10-6 team at home for the playoffs. What happened to the notion that the best teams should make the playoffs?

It's as if Anna Nicole Smith is making up some of these rules. In the NBA, the two division winners in each conference are automatically given the top two seeds, even if they don't have the two best records. So if a team wins its division with a mediocre record, it is the No. 2 seed even if three or four teams in the other division have better records.

What's funny is that the NBA builds in a de facto admission to its own flawed thinking, because teams are then re-seeded for the second round! That No. 2 seed can be bumped down to a lower seed, and lose its home-court advantage in the process.

The NHL does something similar. It re-seeds its entire playoffs in each round. If the No. 8 seed upsets the No. 1 seed in the first round, it doesn't play the winner of the 4-5 series in the second round. Instead, it draws the highest seed remaining.

Is all this so hard to figure out? Apparently so. Amazingly, each of the four major pro sports has a different set of rules for determining its tiebreakers, playoff seeds and playoff structure. Confusing?

Well, let's talk about the BCS ...


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