Daily Box Score 9/14: Ties are Un-American

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There's something admirable about the dedication we Americans have to avoiding ties. We analogize ties to incestuous acts of affection, for Pete's sake. In this country, we obey the laws of winning and losing! 

But ties have this obnoxious quality of being occasionally unavoidable. Even that recently commenced sport with the pigskin (the name escapes me at the moment but I'm sure you've seen it, it seems quite popular) does from time to time countenance a second dash and a third number in the win/loss statistics. So how do we deal with, and avoid, this most unpleasant of competitive outcomes?

Table of Contents

Dealing with Ties in a Fair Way
Avoiding Ties
Maybe It's All Academic
Discussion Question of the Day

 

Data

At Baseball Analysts, Sky Andrecheck, who seems to enjoy mucking around with basic rules of baseball, wonders if we live in the best of all possible baseball worlds. He suspects we do not, and would like to improve the system MLB uses to break ties in divisional and wild card races.

The primary thrust of his criticism is that MLB seeks to minimize the number of tie-breaker games while completely ignoring the interests of "fairness" (a nebulous concept if ever there were one). He writes off the A/B/C tiebreaker (three teams tie for one playoff spot):

Team A hosts Team B and the winner of that game hosts Team C. The winner of that game is the champion. In a hypothetical example, the Mets would host the Cubs and the winner of that game would host the Giants.

The Flaw: The solution indeed resolves the issue in just two games, but does so very inequitably.

He considers nearly all possible tie scenarios in a similar manner, including in-depth analysis as well as flow charts and probability tables. If you're jonesing for some minutiae, I recommend a read. But this is America. WIN OR GO HOME, I say.

Well, not everyone shares my coarse disregard for the niceties of tie-breaker structure. Among others whose interest was piqued by Andrecheck's article were Tom Tango and David Pinto. Tango agreed generally with Andrecheck but imposed additional limitations:

I also want to point out that Sky "cheated" for some of his other solutions by bringing in extra games.  Obviously, if Sky is given 3 games to resolve something MLB has forced itself to resolve with 2 games, Sky will have the better solution.  So, it’s really a "recommended alternative" rather than "fix with what you got" solution. 

We have to balance competing interests. On the one-hand, fairness demands equal probability of making the playoffs. On the other, MLB has an interest in resolving these ties in as few games as possible.

For his part, Pinto points to one virtue of the A/B/C system Andrecheck takes issue with:

I actually like the way the three-way tie is broken, because it does involve a choice for the team with the best record among the three as to playing at home and needing to win two games or playing on the road and winning one. For most teams, the bye is the obvious choice, but I can see where a great home team like the Giants or a great road team like the Phillies could make that choice interesting.

By the team with the best record, Pinto is referring to head-to-head record, as specified in the tie-breaker rules, codified in 2003.

Even adding this wrinkle, I can't imagine the team with the best record would ever choose two play two games at home when they might otherwise need only one win on the road. I'm not convinced that home/road splits are persistent enough, I guess. I do agree, however, that you might as well give the team the choice. Besides, maybe we think the team with the best head-to-head record really does deserve the advantage.

Of course, maybe it's all academic. As Andrecheck points out:

One of baseball's most common multi-tie scenarios (and I use "common" loosely since it has never occurred) is the three-way tie for a wild card or division title.

Never happened, huh? I suppose this is the sort of thing you only care about once it's too late.

Avoiding Ties

This time of year, one of my favorite slow motion potential car crashes to watch is the aforementioned David Pinto's "Massive Tie Scenario," a regular feature he updates with the win-loss scenarios that would leave the most teams tied. With only a few weeks left in the season, the most we can get is a five-way tie:

The following outcomes result in a five-way tie with the highest winning percentage:

Dodgers 10-8

Phillies 13-7

Rockies 13-5

Giants 18-1

Marlins 19-0

Note that this involves ties for the NL East and the NL Wild Card. 

Teams in first place, of course, do everything in their power to prevent such scenarios. However, they must balance this interest with attempts to set their playoff rotations. For example, Jon Weisman suggests the Dodgers (currently with a three game lead in the NL West) should skip Chad Billingsley in the rotation:

The Dodgers are off two of the next eight days. With Randy Wolf returning Tuesday, joining Hiroki Kuroda, Jon Garland and Vicente Padilla (with Weaver and Charlie Haeger among the backups), the Dodgers don't need Billingsley or Clayton Kershaw this week. For reasons that shouldn't need spelling out, Kershaw shouldn't pitch again until he's completely healed from his right shoulder separation. Billingsley might not need time off – but short of a revelation in an off-day toss this week, short of some clear answers to what Vin Scully called "The Chad Billingsley Mystery," there's no better time than the present to see if he would benefit from it.

A rotation of Kuroda, Wolf, Garland, Padilla and (DBS-approved!) Charlie Haeger would do more to bring about a tie scenario than it would to prevent one.

Maybe It's All Academic

In seasons past, one race that has occasioned considerable talk of tie scenarios was the NL East/NL Wild Card, which often rested precariously on the September performance of the New York Mets. The Mets threatened to upset the Phillies comfortable lead in the NL East over the weekend, as David Wright hit a go-ahead home run in the ninth inning off ersatz closer Ryan Madson. The Phillies, however, mathematically eliminated the Mets on Sunday, as Pedro Martinez beat his former team (throwing 130 pitches) in the night-half of a doubleheader.

So the question bears asking, how much should we really worry about ties?

I cannot escape the conclusion that there are serious problems with the various playoff races. Like, say, one of the teams being financially insolvent:

Hicks said that the Rangers asked for a $15 million line of credit earlier this summer as an advance toward future revenue coming in at the end of the season. He said the Rangers have taken advantage of only less than half that amount and that it has not had a negative effect on the club's operations.

"We are free to operate the Texas Rangers baseball operations in the normal course of business, consistent with our budget and normal business practices," Hicks said. "There is nothing from Major League Baseball that restricts us. There are no restrictions, as long as we stay within our budget.

The economy has been tough across the board, but this is a competitive enterprise and decision making in such circumstances really ought to be independent. Proving it's David Pinto day at the DBS, he notes:

One could argue that Feliz should be starting instead of Millwood based on how they’ve pitched since August 1st. It’s one of those situations where Millwood pitched poorly enough to be benched, but it is only 34 innings, so it could just be a slump. This is just another example of why vesting options aren’t really a good idea. Combine that with a league office that knows they’ll get better ratings with the Red Sox in the playoffs, and you have a giant conflict of interest.

He isn't implying any fair play on the part of MLB. Nevertheless, I think this is the kind of situation we should be worried about. Unless people decry such conflicts of interest (in this case, Hicks owes senior-level debt to his collective competitors), nothing will be done about them. And if that happens, we move one step closer to a world where championships can be purchased. 

Discussion Question of the Day

So which do you think we should be worried about more? Conflicts of interest for ownership or the codified rules for tie-breakers? Or am I begging the question by implying that we can't worry about both?

What's that, you ask? Did I do something different with my hair? No... New pants? Nope. Trim my beard? You don't know me very well, do you? Of course, it's the new banner, graciously provided and skillfully created by Justin Bopp. Cheers, Justin.

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