How Do Baseball Playoffs Work? A Simple Guide to the MLB Postseason Format

Pat Bloom

how do baseball playoffs work

Baseball playoffs are an exhilarating culmination of the regular season, where the best teams compete for the ultimate prize. In 2022, the MLB expanded its postseason format, allowing twelve teams to vie for the championship.

This new structure added another layer of excitement, with an additional elimination round that kept fans on the edge of their seats.

Understanding how baseball playoffs work can enhance your appreciation of the sport. From the Wild Card games to the World Series, each stage is packed with intense matchups and high stakes.

Whether you’re a seasoned fan or new to the game, grasping the playoff format will help you follow the action and appreciate the strategies that teams employ to advance.

How Many Teams Make the MLB Playoffs?

Twelve teams make the MLB Playoffs. This includes six teams each from the American League (AL) and the National League (NL).

Criteria for Qualifying

Baseball playoffs typically work like this:

Regular Season

The baseball season starts with a regular season where teams play a set number of games against each other within their league (American League and National League in Major League Baseball).

Division Winners

At the end of the regular season, the team with the best win-loss record in each division (East, Central, West) qualifies for the playoffs as division winners.

In some cases, if there is a tie between two or more teams, tiebreaker games may be played to determine the division winner.

Wild Card Teams

In addition to the division winners, two teams from each league (American and National) with the best records among non-division winners qualify as wild card teams.

These wild card teams play each other in a one-game playoff, known as the Wild Card Game, to determine who advances to the next round of the playoffs.

Division Series

The winners of the Wild Card Game and the three division winners in each league advance to the Division Series. In this round, teams play a best-of-five series against each other, with the winners advancing to the League Championship Series.

League Championship Series (LCS)

The winners of the Division Series in each league face off in the League Championship Series. Like the Division Series, the LCS is also a best-of-seven series. The winners of the American League and National League LCS become the league champions.

World Series

The champions of the American League and National League meet in the World Series, which is a best-of-seven series to determine the overall MLB champion for that season.

Breakdown by League and Division

In the American League, six teams advance to the playoffs:

  1. Three division winners
  2. Three wild card teams

Similarly, in the National League:

  1. Three division winners
  2. Three wild card teams

Each league’s division winners are seeded 1 to 3 based on their records. Division winners with the best records receive a first-round bye. The wild card teams are seeded 4 to 6.

The sixth seed faces the third division winner, and the fifth seed faces the fourth. The winner from each league’s side ultimately competes in the World Series.

The MLB Playoff Rounds in Baseball

Understanding the MLB Playoff Rounds can enhance your enjoyment of the postseason. Each round offers unique challenges and excitement, leading up to the ultimate goal: the World Series.

Wild Card Round

The Wild Card Round includes four teams from each league, seeded No. 3 to No. 6. The No. 3 seed plays against the No. 6 seed, while the No. 4 seed faces the No. 5 seed.

These matchups are best-of-three series, with all games hosted by the higher-seeded team. Victories in this round grant teams a spot in the Division Series.

In the Division Series, the remaining teams compete in a best-of-five format. The winner of the Wild Card Round faces off against the top-seeded team, while the second seed plays against the other Wild Card victor.

Division Series

Winners from the Wild Card Round advance to the Division Series (ALDS and NLDS). This round features the top two seeds from each league alongside the two Wild Card Round winners.

The No. 1 seed plays the Wild Card winner with the worst regular-season record, and the No. 2 seed faces the other Wild Card winner.

Each series is best-of-five, and the first team to secure three wins progresses to the League Championship Series. The League Championship Series (ALCS and NLCS) pits the remaining teams against each other in a best-of-seven format.

The winners of these series then advance to the World Series, where the champions of the American League and National League compete for the ultimate title.

League Championship Series

The League Championship Series (ALCS and NLCS) determines the champions of the American League and National League.

The winners of the Division Series face off in this best-of-seven series. The team that achieves four victories first in the series claims the league title and advances to the World Series.

The World Series is the ultimate showdown, featuring a best-of-seven format to determine the overall champion of Major League Baseball. Teams compete fiercely, aiming to secure four wins and the coveted championship title.

The World Series

The World Series represents the pinnacle of MLB playoffs, where the champions of the American League and National League compete.

This final round is a best-of-seven series, and the first team to win four games earns the title of World Series Champion. This stage showcases the best talents and cements legacies in baseball history.

Additionally, before reaching the World Series, teams must navigate through a series of elimination rounds, including the Wild Card Games, Division Series, and Championship Series.

The structure ensures that only the most resilient and talented teams make it to the final stage, adding a layer of excitement and unpredictability to the sport.

Playoff Seeding and Home-Field Advantage

In baseball playoffs, seeding and home-field advantage are determined by several factors:

How Teams Are Seeded

Teams are seeded in baseball playoffs based on their regular-season performance.

Here’s how the seeding typically works:

League Leaders

The team with the best regular-season record in each league (American League and National League) is awarded the top seed.

This team is considered the top seed throughout the playoffs and enjoys home-field advantage in each series.

Division Winners

The three division winners in each league are seeded based on their regular-season records, regardless of whether they have the best overall record in the league.

The team with the best record among division winners is typically awarded the second seed in the league.

Wild Card Teams

The two wild card teams in each league are seeded based on their regular-season records. The team with the better record among the wild card teams is awarded the higher seed. These teams typically occupy the lower seeds in the playoff bracket.

Tiebreaker Rules

In the event of a tie in the regular-season standings, tiebreaker rules are applied to determine playoff seeding. This may involve head-to-head record, divisional record, or other criteria specified by the league.

Overall Seeding

Once the seeding is determined within each league, the teams are matched up based on their seedings. The highest-seeded team faces the lowest-seeded team, and so on.

This creates a bracket-style playoff format where teams advance by winning series against their opponents.

Determining Home-Field Advantage

Home-field advantage plays a crucial role in the MLB playoffs. The higher-seeded team hosts games during the Wild Card Series.

If teams have identical records, head-to-head performance, intradivisional records, and interdivisional records are used to break ties, ensuring the best possible matchups.

For the Division Series and League Championship Series, the team with the better regular-season record earns home-field advantage.

In the World Series, the league champion with the superior regular-season record benefits from hosting Games 1, 2, 6, and 7. This structured approach to home-field advantage enhances the competitive balance throughout the playoffs.

Rules Specific to the MLB Playoffs

Several regulations and uses of technology distinguish MLB playoffs from the regular season. These adjustments ensure fairness and excitement throughout the postseason.

Regulation Changes

Regulation changes in baseball typically occur infrequently and often aim to improve the game’s pace, safety, or fairness.

Here are some examples of regulation changes that have been implemented or proposed in recent years:

Pitch Clock Rules

During the regular season, the pitch clock helps maintain the game pace. For the postseason, players and officials have suggested modifications, such as adding five seconds or not enforcing it after the seventh inning.

Commissioner Rob Manfred and MLB Players Association executive director Tony Clark have ongoing discussions to address these potential adjustments.

Roster Regulations

Each team may carry a roster of 26 players during the regular season, but this expands to 28 players during the playoffs. This expansion accommodates potential injuries and tactical changes with greater roster flexibility.

Home-Field Advantage

Home-field advantage is critical. The higher-seeded teams host the majority of the games in each series, up to and including the World Series. This advantage comes from efforts throughout the regular season.

Use of Technology in Playoffs

Technology plays a significant role in baseball playoffs, primarily in the form of instant replay review systems and data analytics.

Here’s how technology is utilized during the playoffs:

Instant Replay and Challenges

Instant replay reviews are more prevalent in the playoffs. Teams can challenge various plays, ensuring accuracy for pivotal moments. Managers receive two challenges per game during the postseason, compared to one in the regular season.

Communication Devices

During the playoffs, teams use advanced communication devices for better coordination. Coaches use headsets to relay signals, and on-field players can access information via wearable devices. These technologies enhance strategic decisions and minimize misunderstandings.

Statistical Analysis

Enhanced statistical tools provide in-depth insights during the playoffs. Teams analyze player data, matchups, and tendencies using advanced systems. This allows for informed decisions that can impact the outcome of highly competitive games.

Key Dates and Schedule for the MLB Playoffs

Understanding the key dates and schedule for the MLB playoffs is crucial to fully grasp how the postseason unfolds.

Start Dates

The MLB playoffs typically begin in early October. The Wild Card Series, involving the lowest-seeded teams, usually starts immediately following the conclusion of the regular season. In 2022, the playoffs began on October 7. Note these dates can vary slightly year to year based on the regular-season schedule and any potential tie-breaking games. Once the Wild Card Series is concluded, winners advance to the Division Series. This is followed by the Championship Series, where the victors from each league battle for a spot in the World Series.

Major Playoff Milestones

Several major playoff milestones have occurred throughout the history of Major League Baseball (MLB).

Here are some notable ones:

Inaugural Modern World Series (1903)

The first modern World Series is played between the American League (AL) champion Boston Red Sox and the National League (NL) champion Pittsburgh Pirates. The Red Sox won the series five games to three.

Introduction of League Championship Series (1969)

The introduction of the League Championship Series (LCS) occurs, with the winners of the American and National Leagues facing off to determine who advances to the World Series. The New York Mets won the first NLCS, and the Baltimore Orioles won the first ALCS.

Memorable 1975 World Series

The Boston Red Sox and Cincinnati Reds compete in one of the most memorable World Series in history. Game 6, featuring Carlton Fisk’s iconic walk-off home run, is considered one of the greatest games ever played.

Dramatic 1986 World Series

The New York Mets win the World Series in a dramatic fashion, defeating the Boston Red Sox in seven games. Game 6 is remembered for the infamous error by Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner, allowing the Mets to win and eventually take the series.

Introduction of Wild Card Game (1995)

The introduction of the Wild Card Game occurs, with the addition of a single-game playoff between the two wild card teams in each league. This format adds excitement and drama to the postseason.

Emotional 2001 World Series

The Arizona Diamondbacks defeat the New York Yankees in a thrilling seven-game World Series. This series is notable for its emotional significance following the September 11 terrorist attacks and for its dramatic finish in Game 7, with Luis Gonzalez’s walk-off hit against Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.

Breaking the Curse of the Bambino (2004)

The Boston Red Sox famously break the “Curse of the Bambino” by winning their first World Series since 1918. They sweep the St. Louis Cardinals to claim the championship.

Ending the Cubs’ Drought (2016)

The Chicago Cubs win their first World Series title in 108 years, defeating the Cleveland Indians in a dramatic seven-game series.

The Cubs overcome a 3-1 deficit to clinch the championship in Game 7, ending one of the longest championship droughts in professional sports history.

Common Questions and Misconceptions

Understanding the MLB playoffs can be challenging due to recent format changes. Addressing common questions and misconceptions will clarify how the postseason operates.

Wild Card Series Format

The Wild Card Series replaces the single-elimination Wild Card game. In this new format, each Wild Card Series involves a best-of-three game set.

The games occur on three consecutive days. The higher-seeded team hosts all three games. For example, in the American League, the No. 3 seed faces the No. 6 seed, and the No. 4 seed faces the No. 5 seed.

In the National League, the format mirrors this structure. This ensures competitive balance and rewards teams with higher regular-season records.

Reseeding After Each Round

A common misconception is that MLB reseeds teams after each round. The postseason follows a bracket format without reseeding.

Winners of the Wild Card Series advance to face the top-seeded teams in the Division Series based on their original seeding placements.

For instance, the No. 1 seed plays the winner of the Nos. 4/5 series, and the No. 2 seed faces the Nos. 3/6 series victor. This structure maintains a straightforward and predictable playoff progression.

Troubleshooting and Tips

Here are some troubleshooting tips to improve your experience:

Accessing Playoff Games

Find playoff games through multiple channels. Tune into national sports networks such as ESPN, TBS, and Fox, which hold broadcasting rights for MLB playoff games.

Additionally, streaming services like offer game access through a subscription, ensuring you never miss a moment.

Investigate local broadcast options if your team is playing, as regional sports networks sometimes air playoff games.

Check your cable or satellite provider’s channel lineup to confirm game availability. In case of blackouts or restrictions, consider using a virtual private network (VPN) to bypass these limitations.

Complex Playoff Scenarios

Complex playoff scenarios in baseball can arise due to various factors such as tiebreakers, multiple teams vying for postseason spots, and interdependencies between different games.

Here’s how such scenarios can unfold:

Tiebreaker Situations

In baseball, tiebreaker scenarios often arise when two or more teams finish the regular season with identical records in either a division or for wild card spots. Tiebreaker games may be necessary to determine division champions or wild card qualifiers.

Multiple Teams Competing

In competitive seasons, multiple teams may find themselves in contention for division titles or wild card berths. This situation can lead to complex playoff scenarios where a single game’s outcome can significantly impact the postseason chances of several teams.


The outcomes of games involving multiple playoff contenders can be interdependent, with teams closely monitoring each other’s performances. Head-to-head matchups and scoreboard watching become critical as teams vie for playoff positioning.

Tiebreaker Procedures

Various tiebreaker procedures are in place to resolve deadlock situations:

  • Head-to-head records may be considered initially.
  • Divisional or league records can serve as secondary tiebreaking criteria.
  • In some cases, statistical metrics like run differential may be used to differentiate between tied teams.

Frequently Asked Questions

How has the MLB postseason format changed recently?

Starting in the 2022 season, MLB expanded the postseason format to include twelve teams. This consists of three division winners and three wild card teams from each league.

How are teams seeded in the MLB postseason?

The division winners are seeded 1 to 3 and earn a first-round bye. The wild card teams are seeded 4 to 6 and compete in a best-of-three Wild Card Series.

How can I watch MLB playoff games?

You can watch MLB playoff games through national sports networks like ESPN, Fox Sports, and TBS. Additionally, many streaming services offer access to these channels.

What should I do if I encounter blackouts or restrictions while trying to watch games?

To troubleshoot blackouts and restrictions, you can use a virtual private network (VPN) to change your location and access the game.

What are the tiebreaker criteria for MLB playoff seeding?

Tiebreaker criteria include head-to-head records, intradivision records, and then intraleague records. Each step helps determine the seeding placement.

Are there any recent rule changes affecting the MLB playoffs?

Potential rule changes include the implementation of a pitch clock. Familiarize yourself with these changes to better understand game pacing and strategy during the postseason.


Understanding how baseball playoffs work can significantly enhance your enjoyment of the postseason. With the recent expansion to twelve teams and the introduction of new rules and formats, there’s more excitement than ever.

By familiarizing yourself with the seeding rules, tiebreaker criteria, and potential changes like the pitch clock, you’ll be better prepared to anticipate outcomes and appreciate the high stakes of each game.

Accessing playoff games through various channels ensures you won’t miss a moment of the action. Dive into the postseason with confidence and enjoy the thrilling journey to the World Series.

Whether you’re a seasoned fan or new to the sport, knowing the ins and outs of the playoff structure will elevate your viewing experience.

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Pat Bloom

I lead Washington University in St. Louis' baseball team, emphasizing skill development, strategic play, and sportsmanship. Our rigorous training and competitive spirit cultivate discipline and teamwork, preparing athletes for success both in baseball and academics. We embody the determination and sportsmanship that define our university's athletics. LinkedIn

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