How Do the MLB Playoffs Work? The Ultimate Postseason Guide

An aerial view of Progressive Field from right field.

In every professional sport, the goal is to end each season as the champion. Baseball is no different, in that the one team left standing at the end of each year winds up soaked in champagne as they hoist the World Series trophy over their heads.

However, what is the road to earning that trophy like?

Major Leagues Baseball’s permanent playoff structure involves 10 teams (five in both the American and National Leagues) reaching the postseason, with 4 teams participating in a single Wild Card Game, followed by a Division Series, League Championship Series, and finally, the World Series.

Baseball is unique in that it is the only major sport to have varying lengths of playoff rounds. Additionally, MLB has had the most exclusive playoff field among the four major sports, with only a third of the league making the playoffs in normal seasons.

However, with the unique features of the MLB postseason, we’ll go round-by-round, from beginning to end.

What Is the Wild Card Game in Baseball?

The Wild Card Game was introduced in 2012, bringing the total number of playoff teams from eight to ten teams, or four to five playoff teams in both the American and National Leagues.

The Wild Card Game is a single game that takes place in both the American and National Leagues, pitting the top two teams in each league that fail to win their division. The games are hosted by the wild card teams with the better record, or better head-to-head record if tied.

Before the Wild Card Game was introduced, each league had a single wild card team from 1995-2011, with the wild card team slotted in the Division Series (first round) against the team with the top record in the league.

However, despite facing the top team in the league, the wild card teams were on equal footing with division champions in terms of how many rounds they had to win to reach the World Series, and consequently, ten wild card winners reached the World Series between 1997 and 2011 (including the 2002 World Series featuring both wild card teams), with five winning it all.

With the addition of the Wild Card Game, a larger emphasis was placed on teams winning their division.

A division title was given better odds at reaching the World Series because the six division champions in effect are given a first-round bye, while also avoiding the randomness that can be associated with a winner-take-all game deciding the fate of a team’s season.

However, despite the added hurdle, three Wild Card Game winners have made it to the World Series since 2012, including both participants in the 2014 World Series.

Two of those wild card teams raised the World Series trophy.

What Is the Division Series in Baseball?

Alex Rodriguez of the New York Yankees swings at a pitch against the Tampa Bay Rays.

The first full round of the MLB postseason is the Division Series, of which there are two in each league, or four total, featuring eight teams. Two of these eight teams (one in each league) are the winners of each league’s Wild Card Game.

The Division Series consists of two best-of-five series in each league, with four teams competing in the American League Division Series (ALDS), and four teams competing in the National League Division Series (NLDS). The team with the better record has three home games scheduled in the series.

The Division Series (sometimes abbreviated as DS) is considered the first “full” round of the Major League Baseball (MLB) postseason because the full playoff field participates, except for the two teams eliminated in the Wild Card Games.

This round is also relatively new, having been introduced permanently in the 1995 season. The DS was due to be introduced in 1994, but the postseason was canceled due to the 1994-95 MLB strike, delaying its debut by one season.

Previously, the Division Series was used only in the 1981 season after a mid-season player’s strike resulted in MLB electing to split the season in half and pit each division winner’s first and second half champions against each other in a best-of-five series.

This format was scrapped with the return to the normal schedule in future seasons.

The DS was added as a result of Major League Baseball restructuring the American and National Leagues to feature three divisions each, instead of just two.

As recently as 1993, MLB featured 28 teams, but just four of them made the postseason, so the introduction of the DS doubled the number of playoff teams to eight.

This change, meant primarily to add more excitement to late-season games by keeping more teams closer to contention, also necessitated the introduction of the wild card, originally the best non-division winner in each league, to keep the number of playoff teams in each league even.

When the DS was introduced, the first three seasons featured pre-arranged seeding, with each division pre-determined to face a certain division, or the wild card, regardless of the record of the division champions.

Additionally, the DS format saw the team with home-field advantage playing two games on the road, followed by three at home (the 2-3 format), if necessary.

Both of these were changed in 1998, with seeding determined on record, with the top record being the one seed, the wild card team being the four seed, and the other two division champions being the two and three seeds.

Additionally, the format was changed from 2-3 to 2-2-1, allowing the team with the better regular season record to start the series at home, as well as play a potential winner-take-all game at home.

What Is the League Championship Series in Baseball?

After the Division Series, each league is left with just two teams standing, and those teams wind up facing off in the League Championship Series.

The League Championship Series is a best-of-seven series used to determine the two World Series participants. There are two series in this round, the American League Championship Series (ALCS) and National League Championship Series (NLCS), with the better regular season record having home-field advantage in each.

The League Championship Series (or LCS) is the final round played exclusively between teams in each league and determines the champion of the American and National Leagues, and therefore, each league’s representative in the World Series.

The LCS is the oldest playoff round below the World Series, having been introduced in 1969. The LCS was born when MLB expanded from 20 to 24 teams in 1969, boosting each league to 12 teams.

Before 1969, each league had no divisions, sending their champion straight to the World Series.

However, with each league adding two additional teams, the American League voted to split into two divisions, something that the National League initially resisted, but ultimately accepted for the 1969 season.

The American League President Joe Cronin’s selling point was, “you can’t sell a 12th-place club.”

That resulted in each league adding their respective LCS, which initially was a best-of-five series, taking place in the 2-3 format, with the team with home-field advantage playing up to three home games to end the series.

From 1969-84 and again from 1987-93, home-field alternated between divisions, with the better record holding home-field advantage in 1985-86 and again since 1995.

In 1985, both leagues expanded their respective LCS from five games to a best-of-seven in the traditional 2-3-2 format, with the middle three games being hosted by the team without home-field advantage, and the rest hosted by the team with the advantage.

This format has remained unchanged since 1985 and unlike previous rounds, the LCS is unique in that each winner is awarded a trophy for winning their respective league.

The American League champion is awarded the William Harridge Trophy and the National League champion takes home the Warren Giles Trophy, both of which have been awarded since the first League Championship Series in 1969.

What Is the World Series in Baseball?

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The culmination of the baseball season, the World Series, has crowned the champion of MLB ever since 1903, except for the 1904 and 1994 seasons, making the World Series the oldest North American sports championship contest among professional sports.

The World Series matches the winner of the American and National Leagues in a best-of-seven series, with the team with the best regular-season record holding home-field advantage. The winner earns the Commissioner’s Trophy (often called just the World Series trophy).

The World Series is unique in that unlike other playoff rounds, the World Series was introduced as part of a peace resolution to resolve a professional baseball war between two warring leagues.

In 1901, the American League was established and declared themselves a Major League, competing directly against the National League (which was established in 1876).

As part of their bid for legitimacy, the AL raided NL rosters for many top stars, most notable Hall of Famers Cy Young and Napoleon Lajoie.

This continued until peace was struck before the 1903 season, which ended roster raiding and allowed a bankrupt Baltimore franchise to move to New York (becoming the club now known as the New York Yankees) and establish the framework for what would become the modern league, with two leagues working together, if separately.

Though the agreement did not establish a postseason series, the two league champions, the Boston Americans (Red Sox) and Pittsburgh Pirates agreed to play a postseason championship series, which was nicknamed the “World’s Championship Series”—and the name (with some revisions), as well as the concept, stuck.

Though the World Series was not played in 1904 after the New York Giants refused to take part, the following year the series was made a permanent fixture, having been contested every year except for 1994, when it was canceled by a player’s strike.

The series was a best-of-nine affair in 1903, with a best-of-seven format being introduced in 1905 and being used ever since, except for 1919-21, when the series temporarily reverted to best-of-nine.

The formatting of home games varied for two decades, with the sites of only the first six games being scheduled in advance, and game seven locations being decided by a coin flip.

In 1925, though, the entire series schedule was set in advance in the modern 2-3-2 format, which has remained the case, except for a 3-4 format that was used in 1943 and 1945 due to travel restrictions during World War II.

From 1925-2002, home-field advantage alternated between each league, but in 2003, the league that won the All-Star Game was given home-field advantage.

This continued through the 2016 season until it changed to the present format of going to the participant with the better record.

The winner of the World Series receives the Commissioner’s Trophy, which was introduced in 1967 and officially received its current name in 1985.

It is the only North American major league sports championship trophy that is not named after a person.

For nearly 65 years prior, the World Series champion did not receive any form of trophy, though the custom of teams awarding championship rings to players and staff had been in place for decades.

Could the Postseason Format Change in Baseball?

As of now, the permanent Major League Baseball postseason format involves 12 teams, though the COVID-19 pandemic led to temporary changes for the 2020 season that could lead to a permanent alteration of the format.

In 2020, 16 teams made the Major League Baseball playoffs, eight from each league, resulting in eight best-of-three Wild Card Series being played instead of the two Wild Card Games, with the regular format resuming for the Division Series and beyond. There is speculation that permanent playoff expansion may occur.

The expanded field produced the busiest postseason calendar in Major League Baseball history, which brought in additional TV revenue.

Since then, commissioner Rob Manfred has proposed permanently expanding the Major League Baseball playoffs from ten teams to 12, 14, or even 16 teams like in the 2020 season.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic was on the horizon, MLB floated a 14-team proposal. However, it does not take many searches of Google or Twitter to find hordes of fans and media outlets that are opposed to playoff expansion.

The question now remains as to whether MLB listens to the fans and keeps things the way they are or follows the dollars and opens up the playoffs for more teams in the future.

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Steven G.

My name is Steven and I love everything sports! I created this website to share my passion with all of you. Enjoy!

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