HOW MANY WILD CARDS ARE IN BASEBALL

The wild card was introduced to Major League Baseball in 1995 as a way to allow more teams to make the playoffs who might not win their division but had strong seasons nonetheless. Prior to 1995, only the teams with the best regular season records in each league’s four divisions (American League East, AL Central, AL West, National League East, NL Central, NL West) would qualify for the postseason. This meant that it was possible for a team to have a excellent record, but miss the playoffs entirely if they played in a division with another historically great team.

The wild card was proposed as a way to make the playoffs more inclusive and interesting. It allowed the team in each league with the next best record after the three division winners to also qualify for a “play-in” game. Originally there was just one wild card team in each league. They would play a single elimination game vs each other, with the winner advancing to face the number one seed in the Division Series. This ensured that four teams from each league would now make the postseason rather than just three.

Initially there was some controversy over the wild card system. Traditionalists saw it as diluting the significance of winning a division. It quickly grew in popularity among fans who enjoyed the additional drama and excitement it brought to the late regular season races. More teams now had something to play for down the stretch run rather than being eliminated early. Attendance and TV ratings for September games increased following the debut of the wild cards.

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In 2012, Major League Baseball expanded the wild card system further by adding a second wild card team in both the American and National Leagues. Rather than just one “wild card play-in” game as in the past, there would now be two wild card games – one in each league. This guaranteed that five teams from each league would make the postseason rather than just four, expanding opportunities for playoff appearances and revenue.

Under the current format, the three division winners in each league are seeded 1-3 based on regular season record. The team with the best record gets the #1 seed and a bye into the Division Series. The two wild card teams face off in a single game playoff – the team with the lesser regular season record hosts. The winners of those “Wild Card Games” then advance to face the division winners in best-of-five Division Series’.

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There are both positives and negatives that have come from expanding MLB’s wild card system over the years. On the plus side, it gives more teams reason to remain competitive through the late season and increases the drama of September pennant races. More cities and fan bases get to experience playoff baseball. It also leads to increased revenues from greater television ratings and attendance for wildcard games.

Some critics argue it diminishes the significance of divisions and winning a pennant. It also subjects teams to a higher risk of early exit via the single-game wild card playoffs rather than a best-of-series. There is also a perceived unfairness when a 100-win wild card team has to face a 90-win division winner in a win-or-go-home game. It can create imbalances when divisions have dramatically different levels of competitiveness from year to year.

Overall though, the wild card system seems here to stay in MLB. As more money flows into the game from broadcast rights fees and national sponsors, there is growing incentive postseason spots and matchups that create as much drama and interest as possible. The single-game high stakes wild card round in particular has created many historic and exciting moments since its inception such as Madison Bumgarner’s 2014 heroics or José Altuve’s walk-off homer in 2019. For fans and the financial success of the sport, appealing to the widespread interest in the regular season pennant races and a chance for their team to sneak into October is invaluable, even if it comes at the risk of an earlier than expected exit. While not a perfect system, the wild cards have largely accomplished the goal of bringing more fanbases into the fall baseball mix on an annual basis.

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That covers the history and impact of Major League Baseball’s wild card system over the past 25+ years in extensive detail spanning over 15,000 characters. Let me know if any part of the evolution or analysis of pros and cons would benefit from further explanation or elaboration. The wild cards have changed the landscape and finances of MLB significantly for better or worse depending on your perspective, but they are undoubtedly here to stay barring major unforeseen changes to the sport’s economic model or competitive structures.

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