The National and American Leagues once had separate ideas about how to determine a pennant winner. The NL had a best-of-three series. The AL had a one-game showdown, which has been the way to resolve ties for both leagues since the arrival of divisional play in 1969.
A glance at the Wild Card standings, especially in the NL, is reason enough to understand why so many words are necessary in the rules, with some ties capable of being broken by means other than a playoff.
Only two words are needed for the first step to breaking ties in the standings: heads or tails.
Coin flips conducted via conference call on Tuesday will determine where playoff games will be played. The clubs participating in Tuesday's conference call to determine sites for potential tie-breaking games include seven teams from the NL (Marlins, Astros, Dodgers, Phillies, Padres, Giants and Reds) and five teams from the AL (White Sox, Tigers, Angels, Twins and Athletics).
The NL Wild Card race is so tight that there will be 15 separate coin flips -- among six clubs -- that relate to the Wild Card hunt, compared to only one in the AL -- between the Twins and the White Sox. As for possible ties for division crowns, there will be coin tosses between the Tigers, Twins and White Sox in the AL Central, between the Dodgers, Padres and Giants in the NL West and between the A's and the Angels in the AL West. At this point, the Dodgers won't be part of the Wild Card coin tossing because they are in first place, but things could change before Tuesday.
Tie-breaking procedures only come into focus when the entire championship season, commonly known as the regular season, is finished. That includes rescheduled games of those previously postponed, if deemed necessary. Playoff games to break ties in the standings are considered part of the regular season, with all statistics counting.
No tie-breaking games are scheduled to determine Division Series matchups or home-field advantage. If teams end the season atop a division with the same record, the tie-breaking system is based first on head-to-head records, second on records within the division and third on records in the second half of intra-league games, plus one additional game (so long as that additional game was not between the tied clubs).
A playoff game for a division championship is played only if one of the clubs would not otherwise be the Wild Card entry. Last year, for example, the Yankees and the Red Sox finished tied for first place in the AL East. The Yankees were declared division champs because they won the season series against the Red Sox, 10-9, and Boston won the Wild Card because it had the best second-place record in the league.
However, if a second-place club in another division had won as many or more games than the Yankees or Red Sox, New York and Boston would have had to play a game to decide the division winner, with the loser eliminated from postseason play because it would have had a worse record than the other second-place club.
The Yankees were involved in such a scenario in 1995, the first year the expanded playoff format was in effect. In that strike-shortened season, the Mariners and the Angels were tied atop the AL West with 78-66 records. The Yankees were second in the AL East with a 79-65 mark.
The Mariners won the playoff game, so the Angels were eliminated because they had one fewer victory than the Yankees, who would have been the Wild Card regardless of which team won the West. But if the Yankees had ended the regular season with the same 78-66 record that the Mariners and Angels did, then the situation would have been different.
If three or more clubs are tied at the end of the regular season and two or more of those teams are tied for first place in a division, then the division tie is broken first by a playoff game. Granted, in 1995 the Angels' record dropped to 78-67, but under the hypothetical three-way tie described above, they would have been deadlocked with the 78-66 Yankees in the Wild Card race for purposes of applying tie-breaking rules. The Wild Card would then have been settled by a one-game playoff between the Angels and the Yankees.
Scenarios after that get pretty dicey. Say the A's and the Angels finish the season tied for first in the AL West with the same record as the White Sox and the Twins, who finished tied for second in the AL Central with the second-place AL East team uninvolved. The A's and the Angels would play a one-game tiebreaker to determine the AL West champion. The loser would still be deemed tied for the Wild Card, which would then be determined by a set of two tie-breaking games.
If two teams tie for the Wild Card berth, a playoff game will decide which team gets into postseason play. The most recent case was in the NL, in 1999, with the Mets beating the Reds in the playoff game. This year's NL race could pose an unusual situation. Seven teams have a chance in the Wild Card race, including the Dodgers and Padres, who are battling for the lead in the NL West.
If, say, the Phillies and Marlins tie for second in the NL East and the Padres are second in the NL West with the same overall record, the clubs would be designated as A, B and C based on records against each other and play tie-breaking games. Throw the Reds or the Astros into the mix creating a four-way tie? Clubs would then be designated A, B, C and D with Club B playing at the park of Club A and Club D at the park of Club C and the winners playing one game for the Wild Card spot.
That's a long shot, of course, but the procedures are in place just in case.