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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 3 Wild Card teams from each league to make the playoffs. The Wild Card teams are the teams with the best records in each league besides the division winners. They get assigned the highest seeds (Nos. 4, 5, and 6 in 2022) 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 – 2019
2nd MLB Wild Card playoff team
Looking for ways to spice up the playoffs, the MLB decided to add a 2nd MLB Wild Card playoff team in each league to the playoff picture in 2012. In this format, 2 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 1st round of the playoffs.
The first ever Wild Card play-in game was a hit among fans as the 2 games averaged 4.6 million viewers. The ratings for those 2 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 (2022)
The COVID pandemic brought a slew of changes to the game of baseball in 2020. Due to the shortened 60 game season, the league decided to expand the number of teams eligible for the playoffs.
They ended up with a system of 16 total teams — 8 from each league — who got a chance to compete for a World Series title. Each division winner and runner-up were given a shot in the postseason as well as 4 wild card winners (2 from the National League and 2 from the American League).
The division winners received the top 3 seeds in the bracket based on their record. Seeds 4 through 6 were given to the division runner-ups in order of their record while seeds 7 and 8 were awarded to the 2 wild card winners regardless of division.
Baseball’s winner-take-all Wild Card round was abandoned and replaced with a best-of-3-game series in the 1st round. The Divisional Series consisted of a 5-game series with the League Championship Series and the World Series taking place over a 7-game series.
The change was originally made because the league did not feel 60 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.
The 2020 MLB playoffs went on without a hitch, and the Los Angeles Dodgers eventually defeated the Tampa Bay Rays for the championship.
It went well enough to initiate talks about keeping the format moving forward. Despite the discussions, owners and players in early 2022 introduced a new playoff system with just a few more teams.
The MLB’s playoff system was expanded by a team in each league, to bump the total from 10 to 12 qualifying teams.
The 11th and 12th teams will be a 3rd wild card in each league; while the teams that won their division and finished among the top 2 teams in the regular season are awarded 1st-round byes.
The change is this: instead of the 2 wild card teams in each league playing a single game to decide who moves on, the new system puts all 3 wild card teams into the championship bracket, and adds the 4 byes.
The final regular-season record of each team decides their seeding, and who they will play, and when.
The new system makes it even harder to get to and win the World Series, commanding 3 or 4 rounds of play depending on the seeding.
We mentioned the 2 teams with the best records in each league get a bye round. With that, the 4 other teams remaining in each league play for the right to meet those teams that took a round off.
A look at how the brackets now look:
#1 seed = Best record in either the National or American league, 1st-round bye
#2 seed = Division winners with the 2nd-best record in either league, also 1st-round bye
#3 seed = Division winners with 3rd-best record, vs. #6 seed (Wild Card team with 3rd-best record)
#4 seed = Wild Card teams finishing with the best record among the Wild Card teams in each league, vs. #5 seed
#5 seed = Wild Card teams with 2nd-best record among Wild Card teams in each league, plays #4 seed
#6 seed = Wild Card team with the 3rd-best record of the Wild Card teams, to face #3 seed
The 1st round is known as the Wild Card games, with games between the #3 vs. #6 and #4 vs. #5 seeds in a best-of-3 series.
The winner of the #3 vs. #6 game plays the overall #2 seed, and the victor of the #4 vs. #5 game faces the #1 seed.
That 2nd round, called the Division Series, are best-of-5-game contests. Finally, the champion of each league meets in the World Series, which maintains its best-of-7-game format.
Wild Card World Series Winners
Wild Card winners are far from underdogs when they reach the playoffs.
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. There have been 6 Wild Card teams that actually went 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
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 are 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.