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Thinking the Unthinkable: Ties in Major League Baseball

In which we reexamine one of the fundamental tenants of Baseball.

79th MLB All-Star Game Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

There are no ties in baseball.

This statement ranks slightly below “three strikes your out,” among the self-evident truths that baseball is founded upon. However, the Commissioner's Office lately has been tweaking how extra innings are played. In the June 4th edition of SnakeBytes, I shared an article that spoke to many within baseball on how the Ghost Runner rule was being received. One quote in particular stuck with me after reading that article...

“I’ve always said ties should be a thing,” Toronto Blue Jays and former Dodgers pitcher Ross Stripling said in a text. (M)aybe play a normal 10th inning and then it’s a tie. There are 162 games. [I] find it hard to think it’d really affect standings that much.”

That got me thinking. We think of, or at least I do, as extra innings and always getting a winner having a huge effect on the game, but do they actually? Do the extra innings pushing the early hours of the morning have any impact whatsoever on who goes to the playoffs at the end of the year? So I decided to look. I got about half way through this article, and then... just stopped writing for some reason. No idea why, honestly. Then you all took my last article so well, so I figured, why not go for more controversy!

I took it a step farther than Stripling and got rid of extra innings entirely. All games end after nine innings, no exceptions. To get a good look and try to incorporate as many situations as possible, I chose three seasons to investigate: 1998, 2004, and 2017. The reasoning for those three seasons was fairly simple. 98 was obviously the first year with the current roster of 30 teams, 2017 was the first season with two Wild Cards from each league, and 2004 seemed like a decent midway point and has nothing to do with the fact that I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the Diamondbacks 04 season this past year.

The methodology was fairly simple. I downloaded the schedule data for all thirty teams over the course of those three seasons, and, with the help of my dad (Thanks Dad!!) built a database with that information and used a query to make all games that went to extras be worth half a win and half a loss in the teams final record. Then, we recompiled the standings and determined who ended up where. My final judgement will be presented in the tried-and-true Mythbusters fashion, either busted, confirmed, or plausible.

1998

(insert standings here)

1998 saw the Rangers, Indians and Yankees win their respective divisions in the American league while the Red Sox were the Wild Card team that season. Their National League counterparts were the Padres, Astros, and Braves. The NL Wild Card, however, was a bit of a unique circumstance that was perfect to include in this simulation. The Cubs and Giants actually tied for the Wild Card spot and ended up playing Game 163, which the Cubs ultimately won.

As you can see, the final standings for the season ended up the same in both leagues. All the division winners stayed the same, and the Red Sox, Giants, and Cubs were second place in their divisions. However, their winning percentages changed. The Red Sox still maintained their position as the AL Wild Card, but without extra innings, there would have been no Game 163 and the Cubs would have won the Wild Card outright instead of having to beat the Giants one more time to make it happen. How it happened would have changed, but the playoff teams would have remained the same.

2004

(Insert Standings here)

Fast forward a few years to 2004, and the Angels, Twins, and Yankees took home the divisional honors and the Red Sox were the Wild Card in the AL. This was completely unaffected by getting rid of ties, all the way down to the last place finishers. The final winning percentages were a bit different, but the winners and how they got there remained unchanged. Another point in favor of ending after nine.

The NL? Not so much! Originally, the Dodgers won the west, St. Louis took the central, and Atlanta the east, while the Astros won the Wild Card. However, in the updated standings, the Dodgers lose out on a playoff berth, and the Giants win the west. Here we see our first real shake up of the standings, however, the significance of it might be debatable. As it was, there was only a two game difference between two teams that both were over 90 wins, and only one made the playoffs. Would anyone have noticed the difference?

2017

(insert standings here)

We move into recent history now with a season that Diamondbacks fan enjoyed immensely. It was also the first season with expanded playoffs and a double Wild Card in each league. Just like the other two seasons, we see no changes in the results of the AL. Houston still bangs their way to the AL West, while Boston and Cleveland both join them and the Yankees and Twins duke it out in the Wild Card game. One mostly meaningless artifact, the Mariners and Rangers tied for third in the official standings, and did it again in the updated standings. Definitely not something I would have expected, but I digress.

Once again, we see different teams make the playoffs. The division winners stay the same this time, but instead of the Diamondbacks hosting NL West rival Rockies, they welcome the Brewers to Chase Field. And oh my god. Can I just go visit that universe and the Narrative we would have all been creating? Paul Goldschmidt’s homer? Cool. Paul Goldschmidt’s homer against the Brewers? YES. Archie’s triple? Best moment since 01. Archie’s triple against the Brewers? PUMP IT INTO MY VEINS. Anyway, sorry, we do see another fairly significant change to the final standings.

The Draft

At the other end of the spectrum, you have the draft order which would easily be affected by changes in winning percentage, with potentially more significant impact down the road. Those impacts are well beyond the scope of both this article or my knowledge of prospects, so we’ll keep that to a minimum and just briefly recap the changes to the first five picks.

2018

The top five remain the same, but the order does change up. The Giants still pick Heir to the Throne of Flowers, Joey Bart, but the Phillies and White Sox flip, Philly now picking third and the Sox fourth.

2005

Oh cool, I found more Dbacks/Brewers narrative. The top four picks remain the same. The Diamondbacks still draft Justin Upton, and the AZ Central comment sections remain one of the most toxic places in the world, this side of Chernobyl. However, in our universe, the Brewers and Blue Jays tied, with the fifth pick going to the Brewers on a tie breaker. They then drafted Ryan Braun. However, in a world without extra innings, there is no tie between Toronto and Milwaukee, and the Blue Jays take the fifth pick.

1999

1999 would have seen wholesale changes to the draft order. The Rays fall from the number one pick to fourth. Montreal moves from sixth to second. The Tigers fall to fifth, the Marlins pick first instead of second. Mostly names that I don’t know at least, but the top two picks that year? Josh Hamilton and Josh Beckett. I’d bet there is some implications there.

Conclusion

Well, if you just go by the original stated premise in Ross Stripling’s quote, completely busted. Every season saw changes that would have seen the final results, both for the playoffs and the draft order, changed. On those grounds alone, extra innings have an effect, and Stripling is incorrect.

But.

The vast majority of the changes we see in these three seasons are at the margins. In ‘98, you see the Cubs win the WC outright instead of winning a play in game first. 2017, the second wild card spot changes. Sure, in 2004, we do see that the divisional winner changes, but as I said before, it was a close race before and it was a close race after.

The draft saw the most significant changes, especially in 1999, but the other two seasons the top five was unchanged, and the teams just picked in a slightly different order. The other consideration would be that in the near future, it seems likely that how the draft order is set will at least be partially randomized. In a lottery, we could have easily seen these changes anyway.

So if instead of the stated premise, you look at what I believe the spirit of Stripling’s quote was, that no one would really notice the differences, I personally believe that you have to at least consider the possibility. I’m going to call this one Plausible. Extra innings just don’t have that significant of an effect on the end result after 162 games.