Understanding the MLB Playoffs: A Comprehensive Guide

Uncover the MLB Playoffs with our guide. Learn how the MLB Playoffs work now, from the Wild Card to the World Series.

April 24, 2024

How do the MLB playoffs work? It’s evolved a bit since the four-team format — now, 12 teams qualify for postseason play. It creates a lot more excitement for a lot more fans, in both the regular season and the postseason — and sometimes leads to unexpected champions.

Road to the Playoffs: Regular Season

Understanding the Divisions and Leagues

Major League Baseball consists of 30 teams, 15 in the National League and 15 in the American League. Each league has three divisions — the West, Central and East — with five teams in each division.

MLB added the Central Division to each league in 1994, a year after adding the expansion Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins. MLB added two more teams in 1998 — the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks. The Milwaukee Brewers moved to the NL Central in the same year to ensure both the AL and NL both had an even number of teams.

That became unnecessary once MLB expanded interleague play — AL and NL teams didn’t play each other in the regular season until 1997. The league expanded interleague play to include more games, and in 2013, MLB moved the Houston Astros to the American League so both leagues could have an even amount of teams.

The Wild Card Explained

There are now three Wild Card teams in the NL and three in the AL. The Wild Card teams consist of the top three teams in their respective leagues that did not win their division. Thus, in each playoffs there are six total Wild Card teams and six total division winners.

The Wild Card concept was not introduced until the 1994 season. Prior to that, only four teams qualified for the playoffs — the NL West and East division winners, and the AL West and East division winners.

Because of the 1994 players strike, the playoffs were cancelled, so the first Wild Card teams to compete in the playoffs were the New York Yankees in the AL and the Colorado Rockies in the NL.

From 1994 through the 2011 season, there was only one WC team per league. Two more WC teams were added in 2012, and then two more in 2022, giving us the current six total WC teams.

These are how the teams are seeded in each league entering the playoffs:

  • No. 1: Best league record
  • No. 2: Second-best division winner
  • No. 3: Third-best division winner
  • No. 4: Best record among Wild Card teams
  • No. 5: Second-best record among Wild Card teams
  • No. 6: Third-best record among Wild Card teams

The Playoff Structure Unveiled

The Wild Card Series

The first round of the playoffs consists of eight teams playing in four best-of-three series, with two series in the NL and two in the AL. The top two division winners get first round byes, somewhat akin to the NFL.

From the 2012 through 2021 seasons — with the exception of the COVID season of 2020 when there was a special format used — there were two Wild Card games, not full series. The two wild card teams from each league would battle in a single game, with the winner moving onto the Division Series.

From 1995 through 2011, the Wild Card team from each league played in the division series against one of the division winners.

In the 28 years that the normal Wild Card structure has been used (not counting 2020), a WC team has won the World Series eight times:

  • 1997 Marlins
  • 2002 Angels
  • 2003 Marlins
  • 2004 Red Sox
  • 2011 Cardinals
  • 2014 Giants
  • 2019 Nationals
  • 2023 Rangers

Division Series Breakdown

There are two division series in each league, with the winners advancing to the AL Championship Series and the NL Championship Series.

The greatest division winners haven’t always translated into World Series champions. Of the top five division winners with the most season victories — the 2001 Mariners (116 wins), 1906 Cubs (116), 1998 Yankees (114), 2022 Dodgers (111) and 1954 Indians — only the ’98 Yanks won the title.

This round features best-of-five series, and some have wondered over the years, why aren’t they best-of-seven? After all, the teams play 162 games during the regular season — why only have a best-of-five in the divisional round?

There never really has been an official statement about it, but some speculate that MLB doesn’t want the World Series to begin in November, which it could if each series added two games. MLB and the broadcast networks probably don’t want too much overlap with the big daddies of sports — the later seasons of the NFL and NCAA football. The NBA has also started by November. And the later in the season it gets, the more colder weather can come into play.

There have been some amazing moments in this round over the years, including:

  • Roy Halladay’s no-hitter in 2010
  • Pudge hangs onto the ball in 2003
  • Howie Kendrick’s grand slam in 2019
  • Kevin Brown vs. Randy Johnson in 1998
  • Tim Lincecum’s 96 game score in 2010

Championship Series and World Series

League Championship Series

The winners of the four divisional series move to the ALCS and NLCS, which have a best-of-seven format.

By the time the top two NL and top two AL teams reach this round, they might have played 170 games since Opening Day. But despite the long and grueling season, there isn’t much more intense than a best-of-seven series to determine who moves onto the World Series.

Since the league championship series went to a best-of-seven format in 1985, the NLCS has gone a full seven games 12 times, and the ALCS has gone the distance nine times.

A few of the most incredible ALCS/NLCS moments:

  • 2004: Red Sox rally from 0-3 deficit to beat the Yankees, the first and only 0-3 series rally in MLB history
  • 1985: George Brett rallied the Royals past the Blue Jays despite trailing 3-1 in games
  • 2003: Aaron Boone hits a walk-off home run in the bottom of the 9th as Yankees beat Red Sox in G7
  • 2017: Justin Verlander wins two games less than two months after joining the Astros to help beat the Yankees
  • 2020: Dodgers win games 5, 6, 7 to beat the Braves in the COVID-shortened season

The World Series: A Stage for Legends

Walk-off home runs, plays at the plate, dominant pitchers, shocking errors — there’s nothing like the thrills of the Fall Classic. Of course, the World Series is a best-of-seven series.

Since 2017, the team with the best overall record gets home field advantage. From 2003 through 2016, home field was determined by which team — the NL or AL — won the All-Star Game in the middle of the season. Prior to that, home field alternated between the leagues.

Since the advent of the Wild Card in 1995, teams with the home field advantage have won 18 of 27 World Series — or two out of three.

The Series has gone a full seven games 38 times since 1923 — nearly 40 percent of the time. The New York Yankees have won it a record 27 times, while some teams have never won once.

When the best players in the world meet up in late October, it produces some of the greatest moments in sports history:

Betting on the MLB Playoffs with Tipico

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Alex Valdes
Alex Valdes is Web Content Manager at Tipico North America. He has written, edited and performed user and site analysis at MoneyTalksNews, NBC Sports, MSN, Bing, MSNBC, as well as newspapers and magazines.