With a more complicated process than ever before, some baseball fans need today’s MLB playoffs explained.
In the old days, there were two leagues and no divisions, so the winners of each league just met in the World Series. But today we have Wild Card rules and a whole new MLB postseason format that began in 2022. Fortunately, once you have the MLB playoffs explained, it’s not as complicated as it might seem.
MLB Playoffs explained: How does it work?
The recent MLB playoff changes were made largely to put more teams in the playoffs. After all, more playoff games equal more postseason excitement, right? With 30 teams and possibly more on the way with MLB expansion, it was inevitable for MLB playoff changes to be made.
If anything is unclear, let’s answer the most fundamental questions about the MLB playoffs so you know exactly how they work.
How many teams make the MLB Playoffs?
Starting in 2022, there are 12 teams in the MLB playoffs every year. Those teams are split evenly with six teams from the American League and six from the National League making the postseason.
While there is interleague play throughout the regular season, the American League and the National League remain separate during the playoffs. Ultimately, the winner of each league meets one another in the World Series.
What does a Wild Card mean in the MLB Playoffs?
A Wild Card in the MLB playoffs is any participant that didn’t win its division that qualifies for the playoffs. The Wild Card was first seen in 1994 when MLB realigned with three divisions in each league. In addition to the winner of each division qualifying for the postseason, each league needed to add a fourth team to create an even number of teams in each league that made the postseason. Therefore, the best non-division-winner from each league started to qualify for the postseason as a Wild Card.
Between 1994 and 2011, each league had one Wild Card team. However, the format changed in 2012 when MLB added a second Wild Card team in each league. This was done to keep more teams in the playoff race during the latter stages of the season.
The two Wild Card teams played each other in a one-game playoff with the winner advancing to the Divisional Round against the team with the best record in the league.
Starting in 2022, MLB added a third Wild Card team in each league. Therefore, the three best teams in each league that didn’t win their division qualify for the playoffs. There is also no limit to the number of playoff teams one division can have. In theory, all three Wild Card teams could come out of the same division. However, the bottom line with the Wild Card is that it provides a clear path to the playoffs for all teams that don’t win their division.
How do the baseball Playoffs work?
Under the current format with 12 teams, the MLB playoffs are longer and a little more complicated than ever. There are three rounds of action prior to the World Series as opposed to two rounds previously.
The first round is called the Wild Card Series. The two division winners in each league with the best overall record during the regular season get a bye in the Wild Card Series. That leaves the remaining division winner to play the third-best Wild Card while the other two Wild Card teams play one another. These series are best-of-three with the remaining division winner and the top Wild Card team hosting all three games of a series, meaning the fifth and sixth seeds in both leagues don’t host a game in this round.
Next comes the Divisional Series, which is a best-of-five round. The team with the best record in each during the regular season plays the lowest remaining seed, hosting Games 1, 2, and 5 while playing Games 3 and 4 on the road. Meanwhile, the second-best division winner in each league plays the higher-seeded of the two teams that advanced out of the Wild Card Series. Likewise, the no. 2 seed hosts Games 1, 2, and 5 and plays Games 3 and 4 on the road.
The two teams that win the Division Series then play each other in the League Championship Series, which is a best-of-seven round. The higher remaining seed hosts Games 1, 2, 6, and 7 while the other team hosts Games 3, 4, and 5. The two winners of the League Championship Series then face each other in the World Series, which is also a best-of-seven series.
Previous MLB Postseason formats
In MLB’s long history, several previous playoff formats have been used. For instance, between 1903 and 1968, there were no playoffs prior to the World Series. The National League and American League champions were determined solely based on the regular season, largely because there were no divisions within each league.
From 1969 to 1993, MLB had two divisions in each league. Therefore, the two division winners in each league played each other in the League Championship Series for the right to advance to the World Series.
As mentioned, MLB moved to three divisions in each league in 1994, prompting the creation of the Wild Card. Therefore, 1994 was the first year that a Divisional Round was needed with the Wild Card team playing the best division winner and the two other division winners playing one another.
The second Wild Card was added in 2012, tweaking the format once again for the next decade before an extra round and an extra Wild Card team were added in 2022. Also, the shortened 2020 season featured eight playoff teams in a format only used for that one season under special circumstances.