How Does The MLB Wild Card Work?

How Does The MLB Wild Card Work? (Explained)

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Anything can happen come playoff time in the MLB. Legends in the form of underdogs are often born when teams fight tooth and nail for a chance to hoist that World Series trophy, which is why the MLB has expanded the number of teams that are able to make the playoffs via something called the Wild Card.

The current MLB playoff format allows for two Wild Card teams from each division to make the playoffs. The Wild Card teams are the top two remaining teams that did not come in first or second place in their division. They receive the seventh and eighth seed in the MLB playoff bracket.

Here is a detailed history of the Wild Card in the MLB:

1995 – 2012

As part of the league’s division restructuring, the MLB added a Wild Card team to the playoffs in 1995. The MLB consisted of 28 teams, 14 in each league, at the time. They added a Central Division to both the National and American League creating a total of six divisions.

Only allowing division winners to make the playoffs with this new structure would only leave three teams the opportunity to compete for titles in their respective leagues. The MLB knew that a three team tournament format in the American and National leagues would be difficult, so they added a Wild Card team, the winningest non-division winner, to the playoff format.

This Wild Card team created a more clean tournament format with four teams in each league. The Wild Card winner would play the division winner with the best record unless that team was in the same division as the Wild Card team.

2012 – 2020

Looking for ways to spice up the playoffs, the MLB decided to add a second Wild Card team to the playoff picture in 2012. In this format, two non-division winners with the best record would advance to the playoffs and face each other in a winner-take-all Wild Card game.

The Wild Card team with the better record was rewarded as the home team, and the winner moved on to face the team with the best record in the divisional round. The league also removed its rule that did not allow for teams in the same division to face each other in the first round of the playoffs.

The first ever Wild Card play-in game was a hit among fans as the two games averaged 4.6 million viewers. The ratings for those two games were 61% higher than the ratings for the previous year’s divisional round games. If the league’s goal was to increase interest among fans, they certainly succeeded which meant that the play-in game became an MLB postseason staple for several years to come.

2020 – Present (2021)

COVID19 brought a slew of changes to the game of baseball last season, some of which may be here to stay. Due to the shortened 60 game season, the league decided to expand the number of teams eligible for the playoffs.

16 total teams — eight from each league — got a chance to compete for a World Series title last year. Each division winner and runner-up were given a shot in the postseason as well as four wild card winners (two from the National League and two from the American League).

The division winners received the top three seeds in the bracket based on their record. Seeds four through six were given to the division runner-ups in order of their record while seeds seven and eight were awarded to the two wild card winners regardless of division.

Baseball’s winner-take-all Wild Card round was abandoned and replaced with a best of three series in the first round. The Divisional Series consisted of a five game series with the League Championship Series and the World Series taking place over a seven game series.

The change was originally made because the league did not feel sixty games was enough to allow teams who may hit their stride late in the season a chance to compete for a playoff spot, so they expanded the playoffs with hopes that those teams wouldn’t miss out on an opportunity. However, there has been talks of the new structure being permanent.

Whether this playoff format will stick around or not has yet to be decided although Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred has made it clear that he hopes to continue with an eight team playoff in the future. Here is what he had to say about the matter back in September:

“I’m a fan of the expanded playoffs. . . I think getting back to that three-game series in the first round is a positive change. I think the initial round could have the kind of appeal you see in the early couple days in the NCAA tournament. It’s going to be crazy — just a lot of baseball in a compressed period of time. We’re going to have a bracket, obviously. People love brackets and love picking who’s going to come through those brackets. I think there’s a lot to commend it. It is one of those changes that I hope becomes a permanent part of our landscape.”

Wild Card World Series Winners

Wild Card winners are far from underdogs when they reach the playoffs. For example, the Cleveland Indians were the seven seed in this year’s playoffs after finishing third in the AL Central but had a better record than the New York Yankees whom they faced in the first round and were only one game back of the Oakland Athletics who won the AL West.

Oftentimes, these Wild Card winners are quality teams who fall victim to playing in a difficult division. While some fans may think of them in the same light as the play-in teams in the NCAA basketball tournament, that is far from the case. Six Wild Card teams have actually gone on to win the World Series since the Wild Card was implemented in 1995.

The ‘97 and ‘03 Florida Marlins, the ‘02 Anaheim Angels, the ‘04 Boston Red Sox, the ‘11 St. Louis Cardinals, ‘14 San Francisco Giants, and the ‘19 Washington Nationals have all hoisted the World Series trophy after sneaking into the playoffs via the Wild Card.

Perhaps the most notable of accomplishments among Wild Card teams is the 2004 Boston Red Sox team that ended the franchise’s 86 year World Series drought. While they finished second in the AL East to a dominant Yankees squad, the Sox were no slouch. Their 98-64 record was the second best in the American League and third best in all of baseball.

Their run to the championship is well-documented among baseball historians as they faced a 3-0 deficit to the Yankees in the American League Championship Series (ALCS) and came all the way back to win four straight games to advance to the World Series. They then went on to defeat the Cardinals 4-0 to end what many baseball fans knew as “The Curse of the Bambino”.

The Red Sox’s historical title run is documented in the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary titled “Four Days in October”.

Frequently Asked Questions

Which team holds the record for BEST regular season record for a Wild Card team?

The 2001 Oakland Athletics had a regular season record of 102-60. They finished in second place in the American League West that season to the Seattle Mariners who tied the MLB record for regular season wins with 116. The A’s went on to lose to the Yankees in the American League Division Series. Moneyball, the popular book turned movie, is based on the 2002 Oakland A’s who adopted their analytics approach after losing several big time players from the 2001 team to free agency.

Which team holds the record for WORST regular season record for a Wild Card team?

The 2020 Milwaukee Brewers are the only team with a losing record to ever win the MLB Wild Card. In all fairness, the 2020 season did consist of 102 less games than previous seasons, and the Brewers finished with a 29-31 record. Still, their .483 win percentage is the lowest of all previous Wild Card winning teams.

What are the advantages of expanding the number of Wild Card teams?

The advantages to awarding Wild Card births to more teams is mostly monetary for the league. Major League Baseball has several television contracts that are good for their business. The more meaningful games they have to play, the more money they will be able to make from their TV contracts. As Mafred said in a previously cited quote, fans enjoy the March Madness feel of the new expanded playoff bracket, so it is hard to imagine it going away anytime soon.

What other professional leagues allow Wild Card winners to participate in the playoffs?

Pretty much all of the major professional sports leagues in America allow Wild Card teams a spot in the playoffs although the term Wild Card is not used in all of them. For example, the NBA only has two divisions — the East and the West — and they allow eight teams from each division into the playoffs. Technically, there are seven Wild Card winners in the NBA, but they are not called Wild Card teams. They just simply refer to them as the top eight playoff teams.

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