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The MLB Playoff Format Explained

by Louise W. Rice

We’re now in the thick of the 2021 MLB playoffs on the back of what has been an incredible regular season, and seven teams remain in the fight for a trip to this year’s World Series. All of the teams were in action on Monday, except for the Houston Astros and Chicago White Sox.

The Astros could not complete a three-game sweep of the White Sox on Sunday and will attempt to close the series out on Tuesday in a postponed fixture. They lead the series 2-1.

The Boston Red Sox are through to the next after a 3-1 series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Both of the NLDS series is tied after two games played and the Atlanta Braves and L.A Dodgers looked to get a game up on the Milwaukee Brewers and San Francisco Giants following wins on Saturday.

The postseason brings some normalcy back

The postseason has brought some normalcy back to baseball in America as fans are involved again while neutral sites and 16-team format are no longer. Home-field advantage and sellouts are also back, along with the 10-team field.

These are exciting times for baseball fans and bettors alike. Plenty of folks are taking advantage of the odds put before them by the bookmakers via their websites and their favorite sports betting app. It’s great to see the game return to normal, but the postseason format could be a bit confusing to some, which is why we are keen on explaining it below.

Baseball used to be a lot simpler than it is today. Many years ago, there were two leagues that sent their winners to square off in the World Series, but the playoff structure has become more complicated due to the number of rounds leading up to the World Series. That there’s an odd number of teams making the playoffs in each league doesn’t make it any easier to understand.

Admittedly, it is a challenge, yet it won’t seem all that convoluted once you get the hang of it.

Playoff structure

10 teams make the playoffs under the current postseason format, with five from the American League and five from the National League going through. The winners of the aforementioned leagues meet each other in the World Series.

The winners of the three divisions qualify for postseason play in each league, making up six of the 10 playoff teams, while the two non-division winners with the best records from each league get a Wild Card spot for the last four berths.

The term Wild Card refers to teams that qualify for the playoffs without winning their division. Back in 1994, the MLB instituted three divisions in each league so a fourth team was needed to create an even number of playoff teams for each league. Until 2011, the best team which couldn’t boast winning a division was the only Wild Card team in the playoffs but a change came about in 2012 that saw a second Wild Card team added so that more teams would be in the playoff race towards the tail end of the season.

Right now, the three division winners go to the Divisional Round, a best-of-five series, of the MLB playoffs and the two Wild Card teams from each of the leagues, play each other in a one-game affair to progress to the Divisional Round.

The MLB playoffs consist of four rounds. The first round is the Wild Card elimination games between the non-division winners in each league. Once one Wild Card team is left, the American League and National League will have four teams remaining. The Wild Card winner will then play the team with the best record in the Divisional Round and the other two division winners play each other.

The two winners of each league go on to play each other in the League Championship Series, which is a best-of-seven affair, and the winner of the American League meets up with the National League champion in what we know as the World Series, which is also a seven-game series requiring four wins for glory.

The MLB is still considering additional changes to the postseason format that could come about as early as next season.

As far as playoff format history goes, there were no playoffs before the World Series from 1903 to 1968. The winners of the two leagues would automatically play out the World Series. From 1969 to 1993, two teams from each league would play in the League Championship Series, which would decide who plays in the World Series.


As mentioned above, in 1994, another division winner was added while the Wild Card took effect. This saw the formation of the Division Series leading up to the League Championship Series. The current format was implemented in 2012, with a second Wild Card team getting thrown into the mix.

Not so complicated anymore, right?

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