RIP Game 163: MLB's new postseason system ends storied one-game tiebreaker. A 'bummer' for baseball?
Farewell, Bucky Bleeping Dent. Adios, Walker (Redacted) Buehler. And Russ Hodges, we’re afraid you wouldn’t be immortalized today if your epic call was merely, “The Giants win the tiebreaker! The Giants win the tiebreaker!”
A rare but venerated bit of baseball tradition – the playoff game to decide a division or playoff deadlock after 162 games – has fallen victim to modern times, a nine-inning test to decide a season-long struggle giving way to a tiebreaker system.
It’s ostensibly in the name of both revenue and progress, to squeeze in dates on an unforgiving baseball calendar for a three-game wild card series that replaces the one-game format that provided big thrills but also instant closure to playoff losers.
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You can certainly see the appeal to ESPN, which owned the rights to any Game 163 tiebreakers as well as one of the wild-card games. Rather than one winner-take-all game and a just-in-case set of tiebreakers – the last coming in 2018, when the NL West (Rockies-Dodgers) and Central (Brewers-Cubs) both needed an extra day to settle things – why not peddle four best-of-three wild-card miniseries across the ESPN family of networks?
Twelve games are always better for the bottom line than one, which is why ESPN shelled out between $85 million and $100 million for the expanded 12-team field, a key element in collective bargaining agreement talks that finally settled in March after a 99-day lockout.
But time is finite, especially in a sport with six weeks of spring training, a 162-game season, and now a four-round tier of playoffs. Something had to go. The question that this season may partially answer is whether the competitive integrity of the season will be compromised.
Instead of a playoff to determine division or wild card winners, MLB will instead revert to an NFL-style tiebreaker that begins with head-to-head records of the teams involved. If still tied, the involved teams will then look to intra-division winning percentage, followed by inter-division winning percentage, followed by best intra-league winning percentage over the final half of games, plus one until the tiebreaker is broken.
The league developed this system to settle home-field disputes in recent years and will certainly keep the trains running on time and the curtain rising on ESPN’s suite of wild-card round games that begin with a quadrupleheader on Oct. 7.
An open question is whether the playoff field will be equitably determined.
“I think it’s kind of a bummer the game’s going away,” says veteran reliever Jake McGee, a member of two teams who played in a Game 163 over his 13-year career. “We play 162 games and if you end up the same, I think the 163 is good
“You’d rather have to play that game rather than just say, ‘OK, head-to-head.’ I was kind of surprised they did that.”
McGee was a member of the victorious 2013 Tampa Bay Rays team that went into Arlington, Texas and eliminated the Rangers one day after the regular season ended. Five years later, he pitched a scoreless inning for a Rockies team that was flattened by rookie Walker Buehler, who stretched the Dodgers’ streak of NL West titles to six after Los Angeles and Colorado each finished the regular season 92-70.
The Dodgers went on to a second consecutive World Series. The wild card Rockies were dispatched to Chicago, where they took on a Cubs team dispirited by their own Game 163 loss to Milwaukee.
The Rockies beat the Cubs in 11 innings and then bussed to Wisconsin, arriving at their Milwaukee hotel after 3 a.m. They were swept by the Brewers, who then fell in a seven-game NLCS to the Dodgers.
That year the system, you could say, worked: Division winners determined by a final clash of wills, and advancing further in the playoffs than their vanquished wild-card brethren. Under the new system, one outcome would be different: The 2018 Dodgers went 12-7 against the Rockies, the Cubs 10-9 against Milwaukee. The Brewers would have been dropped into a three-game wild card shootout, all on the road.
And McGee’s 2013 Rays, by virtue of a 3-4 record against the Rangers, would have fallen from a tie for the No. 1 wild card into an all-road scenario, too.
In fact, of the seven winner-take-all playoffs since the wild-card era began in 1995, four were won by teams with the inferior head-to-head record.
That includes the 1995 Seattle Mariners, who went 5-7 against the California Angels but stormed back to win 24 of their final 34 games and force a one-game playoff at the Kingdome. Randy Johnson famously mowed down the Angels to clinch the franchise’s first division title, one that would have gone to California under a tiebreaker system.
Before and after Mark Langston lay flattened on the Kingdome turf after giving up a division-clinching inside-the-park “Little League” grand slam to Luis Sojo, the division/league tiebreaker has produced many indelible moments. None were bigger than Bobby Thomson’s “Shot Heard ‘Round The World” that ended an epic 1951 Dodgers-Giants pennant chase that culminated, then, in a best-of-three tiebreaker series.
That shot was punctuated by Hodges’ iconic call, but subsequent playoff expansions would trim the tiebreaker series to a game. In stepped heroes like Dent, whose 1978 fly into the Green Monster netting provided the most momentous Red Sox-Yankees moment until 2003. Or Buehler, the cocky but beloved rookie who was tabbed to win the division in 2018, shut out the Rockies into the seventh and later told a raucous crowd and live TV audience, “We need this the whole (expletive) playoffs!”
Surely, the new format will produce its own legends; with four best-of-three series, there may be some walkovers but almost certainly some thrillers. It’s just going to feel different to, rather than gear up for a winner-take-all tiebreaker, pore over a results page and see if it was the Cardinals or Brewers who won 10 of 19 games against each other, or if the Orioles managed to win four of six against the Mariners.
The coming years will tell if the tradeoff was fair, and worthwhile.
“I get why they’re going to the three-game series,” says McGee. “I do like that better than the one-game wild card knockout.”