MLB Playoffs explained

San Francisco Giants win 2014 World Series
The MLB Playoffs provide incomparable drama. Photo from NYT.

Baseball used to be a far more simple game. Back in the day, there were two leagues and the winner of each league met in the World Series. But now the MLB postseason format is a little more complicated because there are multiple rounds of playoffs before the World Series. Plus, there’s an odd number of teams from each league making the playoffs, so how does that work?

Once you get a handle on it, the MLB playoffs aren’t as complicated as they seem. Of course, that could change with potential MLB playoff changes on the horizon and alterations made to the format in 2020. But if you want the MLB playoffs explained, here’s what you need to know.

How many teams make the MLB Playoffs?

Under the current MLB postseason format, 10 teams reach the playoffs.

Five teams from the American League quality and five teams from the National League qualify with the winner of each league ultimately playing one another in the World Series.

In each league, the winner of each of the three divisions qualifies for the playoffs, making up six of the 10 teams in the postseason. Meanwhile, the two teams with the best records among non-division winners from each league earn a Wild Card spot, making up the last four playoff spots available. 

What does a Wild Card mean in the MLB Playoffs?

Being a Wild Card team in the MLB playoffs means you got into the playoffs despite not winning your division.

In 1994, MLB expanded to three divisions in each league, meaning that a fourth team was needed for the playoffs in order to create an even number of teams in each league.

From 1994 to 2011, the best non-division-winner in each league was the only Wild Card from each league. However, the format changed in 2012, creating a second Wild Card team. This was done to keep more teams in the playoff race deep into the season. As it stands, the three division winners get a pass to the Divisional Round of the MLB playoffs while the two Wild Card teams from each league play each other in a one-game, winner-take-all playoff for the right to advance to the Divisional Round.

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How do the baseball Playoffs work?

There are officially four rounds of the MLB playoffs. As mentioned, the first round is the one-game Wild Card Playoff between the two Wild Card teams from each league.

Once one of the Wild Card teams is eliminated, both the American League and National League have four teams left. The winner of the Wild Card Game plays the division winner that had the best record in the Divisional Round while the two remaining division winners play. The Divisional Round is a best-of-five series.

After the Divisional Round, the two winners from each league play one another in the League Championship Series. This series is a best-of-seven series. The winner of the American League Championship Series will play the winner of the National League Championship Series in the World Series, which is also a best-of-seven series.

Previous MLB postseason formats

While the league mulls potential MLB playoff changes, it’s worth remembering some of the past formats.

From 1903 until 1968, there were no playoffs prior to the World Series. It was just the winner of the two leagues during the regular season that met in the World Series. From 1969 to 1993, two teams from each league would play in the League Championship Series to determine the two World Series participants.

Starting in 1994, there were three division winners and a Wild Card qualifying for the playoffs, creating the Division Series prior to the League Championship Series. In 2012, MLB expanded the playoffs to its present format with two Wild Card teams from each league. 

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About Bryan Zarpentine 206 Articles
Bryan Zarpentine is a freelance writer and editor with most of his work focusing on the world of sports. He is a 2008 graduate of Syracuse University and still resides in upstate New York.

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