Wait, are the MLB playoff games gone? Here’s what the rule change means for this season

There have been 12 single-game tiebreakers in MLB history. Each of them brought the nerves and anticipation of a playoff matchup, even though they were played as regular-season games, but Game No. 163 is now a thing of the past.

With the launch of an expanded playoff format in October, MLB decided there was no longer enough room on the schedule to tie the tie in that extra-game fashion. Instead, a set of tiebreaker rules will now decide not only the seeding but also who enters the postseason if 162 games aren’t enough to determine the 12-team field. This means that the series your favorite team played in the first half could have a big impact on your playoff hopes.

“It’s going to become a big deal when everybody (the fans) wakes up and realizes what’s going on,” Milwaukee Brewers manager Craig Counsell said last month.

Counsell’s team could be directly affected, as Milwaukee is currently outside of the final wild-card spot in the National League, chasing the San Diego Padres for that final postseason spot. But the Brewers will have to make up a little more ground this year as they lost their season series to the Padres 4-3, which means if the teams finish with the same record, San Diego is in and Milwaukee is out.

“We finished the games against them in … early June,” Counsell said. “We were aware of it at the time, but there are 110 games left at that point. There’s not much to do.”

“We knew the rule,” Counsell said. “Everybody knew it… They felt like fitting a playoff game into the schedule wasn’t feasible.”

The league understands some of the heartbreak that could exist if a team is eliminated by a seasonal series played around Memorial Day, but says it’s worth trading more teams in the mix for a playoff spot.

“We’re excited that more of our fans will be able to experience postseason baseball this year as part of the expanded playoff format,” said Morgan Sword, executive vice president of baseball operations. “Because of the increased number of postseason games, we had to make sure the regular season finished on time.”

Although the format of the postseason is detailed in the recently signed collective bargaining agreement, there is discretion regarding the details of the tiebreaker rules that will allow the league to examine the impact and make changes if necessary. As players and teams realize the stakes, the new rules could also lead to a greater emphasis on head-to-head matchups.

“If they beat us, more than we beat them, it should go to them, so I totally agree with the rule,” St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol said. “Our job is not to lose, so if someone did better than us, then you go home.”

That will stand out more from next year when each team plays just 13 games, instead of 19, within its own division. And the results in the first year of the new format already show the added importance of beating other teams with playoff hopes in head-to-head matchups within the league.

“When we played the Padres, it wasn’t like we put more emphasis on winning those games than any other game,” Philadelphia Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said in an email. “However, after we won the series, we discussed how big this series could get.”

The Phillies are just ahead of the Padres in the NL wild-card race, and while both teams could enter, home-field advantage will be determined by the tiebreaker system if the two teams have the same record after 162. Under the new format, it means the loser of the tiebreaker will not play at home in the best-of-three first round.

Philadelphia won its season series against San Diego (4-3) and Milwaukee (4-2), so it would win any tiebreaker between either team. The Brewers now understand the task at hand: beat opponents above them by at least one game to eliminate the tiebreaker. Otherwise, it’s going to be a heartbreaking end to his season.

“You’re treating every game like a big game, but there’s a game the next day and the next day and the next day,” Counsell said. “You have to deal with both concepts in mind every day.”

What are the new tiebreaker rules like?

With the new procedures already affecting the final stretch of this season, here are the five rules that govern the tiebreakers:

Head-to-head record: self explanatory. And if more than two teams tie, then the team with the best combined winning percentage against the other teams wins the tiebreaker.

Intradivision record: If head-to-head records are tied (this would happen only between wild card teams that played the same number of games), then the best record within their own divisions determines the winner.

Record between divisions: If the first two tiebreakers don’t resolve it, the next tiebreaker rates the records of teams within their own leagues, but not including their own divisions.

Intraleague second half games: If the teams are still tied at this point, a winner will be determined by each team’s winning percentage within its own league in the last 81 games of the season.

2nd half intra-league games plus one (or more): If the teams remain tied after the first four tiebreakers, a winner will be determined by working backwards from the last intraleague game of the first half until the tie is broken.

It should be noted that there are extreme scenarios, such as five-team ties, for which the league does not have an exact answer. In these cases, there is a clause that is triggered that would require “commissioner discretion.” In other words, Rob Manfred could be choosing which team makes it to the postseason and which team doesn’t, although the scenario is far-fetched.

What does all this mean for this season’s races?

There are a lot of close races this season, so there is a chance that tiebreakers will come into play. That said, there’s little to no chance of needing to use more than the first tiebreaker in any scenario this year. Either way, let’s take a look at how the new procedures impact some of the most exciting divisional and playoff races.

National League East: The New York Mets lead the season series over the Atlanta Braves 9-7. If the Braves sweep the last three games against New York, they will win the tiebreaker; otherwise, the Mets will come out on top. The winner will be the likely No. 2 seed and will get a bye. The loser will host a first-round playoff series.

National League Wild Card: As stated above, the Brewers lose a tiebreaker to the Padres and Phillies, while Philadelphia wins one over San Diego.

American League Center: It’s a three-team battle between the Cleveland Guardians, Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins, with the two losers likely out of the postseason.

The White Sox currently lose playoffs to both teams, but they still have a chance to flip that script. They’ll need to sweep the Guardians this week in Chicago to win that season series, while they’re 6-7 against the Twins this year with six games left.

Cleveland has already won its season series with the Twins, so Minnesota would have to win one more game than the Guardians to beat them for the division title.

Wildcard AL: This is where a draw has the best chance of occurring. The Seattle Mariners, Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays are neck-and-neck for the three wild-card spots.

The Mariners win a playoff with the Blue Jays but lose one against the Rays. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay leads the season series with Toronto 8-7 with four games remaining between the teams.

The new system, and the elimination of game No. 163, is sure to make some headlines if head-to-head records knock someone out of the playoffs or give a bye to a division winner. This year still has all the possibilities.

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