HOW MANY WILD CARDS ARE THERE IN BASEBALL

The wild card provides a second path for teams to qualify for the postseason in addition to winning their division. Prior to 1995, only the teams with the best regular season record in each league’s four divisions would advance to the playoffs. This left out teams that may have had better records than other division winners but did not win their own division. The wild card was created to address this issue and allow more competitive teams into the expanded playoff format.

In the current system, the team in each league with the best overall record that did not win its division claims one of the two wild card spots. These two wild card teams then play a single elimination game called the Wild Card Game to determine who will advance to the Division Series round of the playoffs. This ensures the team with the worse regular season record out of the two wild card clubs has to win one extra game to make it to the LDS.

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Through the 2018 season, the top seed out of the wild card teams hosted the one game playoff. There was concern it gave an unfair home field advantage to the team with merely the slightly better record over the 162 game season. Beginning in 2019, MLB changed it so the wild card game host is determined based on head-to-head record between the two teams in the regular season. If they did not play each other the same amount, it reverts to best record. This helped balance out the single game high stakes contest.

Today, the wild card round is a best of five series rather than one game. This was implemented prior to the 2022 season in an effort to improve competitive balance and parity. It gives the wild card teams a better chance to prove themselves over multiple games rather than risk immediate elimination in a winner-take-all scenario. The two wild card teams in each league now face off in a 2-2-1 series format where the club with the higher winning percentage hosts the first two games.

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While the wild card was initially introduced to expand playoff participation in each league from 4 to 8 teams total, it has now grown to 12 teams making the postseason with the wild card round expansion. The original goal remains in place – to provide an additional route for clubs that may have legitimate cases as contenders but fell short of their division’s top spot. It has allowed teams with excellent records, but stuck in competitive divisions, a chance to still make some October noise.

Some arguments are made the wild card has diluted the regular season importance and intensity down the stretch. With more teams feeling in the race, fewer are truly “eliminated” from contention each year. However, MLB counterarguments note the wild card spots and single game playoffs add immensely to the drama, tension and excitement being kicked up during September. The changes seem to have achieved the goal of including worthy teams left on the outside prior while extending baseball’s compelling pennant races deeper into the campaign.

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The wild card format in Major League Baseball continues to evolve after nearly three decades in use. From a one game, winner-take-all challenge to the current best-of-three series, the goal remains letting elite non-division winning clubs prove their metal in October. With more participating each year, Major League Baseball’s wild card system has succeeded in opening the postseason door further and cultivating heightened enthusiasm when the calendar flips to the ninth month. Competitive balance has improved across both leagues as a result.

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