How Do MLB Playoffs Work?

The postseason is a wild and unpredictable ride and so much more than just the World Series.
Written by Mark Bailey
Last updated on

The MLB playoffs determine the year’s champion in a series of intense matchups. Understand the structure, teams involved, and the path to the World Series.

  • Major League Baseball playoffs involve 12 teams from the American and National Leagues, with 6 teams each.
  • The 3 division winners (East, Central, and West) are automatically qualified for the postseason, as well as the 3 best overall records.
  • There are 4 rounds of playoffs: Wild Card Round (best-of-3 series), Divisional Series (best-of-5 series), Championship Round (best-of-7 series), and World Series.
  • Seeding is based on record; the top two division winners earn a first-round bye; home-field advantage alternates between 2nd/3rd seed in all rounds except World Series where it goes to the team with a better record.

Understanding the divisions

Before you understand the playoff berths, you need to remember how the divisions are set up. There are three divisions in each of the separate leagues. The three divisions are East, Central, and West. Between the American League and National League, you will have teams that represent all six divisions in the postseason.

It is important to remember that a National League team will not play an American League team (or vice versa) until the top two teams play each other in the World Series. 

Who gets to play?

12 teams, total, will enter the postseason. 6 teams from the National League and 6 teams from the American League will make it into the playoffs. It is important to note that just because there are 6 teams – that doesn’t guarantee that there will be two teams from each division. 

The 6 teams will be made up of the 3 division winners (one from the East, one from the Central, and one from the West) and the 3 teams with the best overall record. This is where it is important to pay attention. If your team plays in a loaded division, your team may not win the division but may still have an opportunity to make the playoffs. So you are competing not just with teams in your division, but with teams across the league. 

What is the benefit of winning the division?

Your team’s goal should be to win the division. Remember, the three-division winners are automatically qualified for the postseason. Here is a wrinkle in the postseason picture: The top two division winners get a bye in the first round of the playoffs. The third-division winner does not get a bye and has to play more games to make it deeper into the playoffs. 

How many rounds are there in the postseason?

There are four rounds in the playoffs. The first round is known as the Wild Card Round. The second round is called the Divisional Round. This round can also be known more specifically as the American League Divisional Series and National League Divisional Series. 

The third round is called the League Championship Round. Specific titles for this round include the American League Championship Series and the National League Championship Series. The winners of these series win their respective league pennant.

The fourth and final round is known as the World Series. Reminder, there is no interleague play until the fourth round. The World Series is where the best team in the American League plays the best team in the National League. 

How are the playoffs seeded? 

The seeding of the playoffs is not complicated. In each league (American and National), the top two division winners with the best records earn a first-round bye. They are seed numbers 1 and 2. The team with the best record is the first seed, and the team with the second-best record is the second seed. 

This reduces the number of teams playing in the first round to four in each league. The third division winner plays in the round with the wild card teams. The third division winner in each league becomes the third seed. The remaining teams, the wild card teams, are seeded based on their records. The best team is the fourth seed, the second is the fifth seed, and the third best record is the sixth seed. 

Rounds and match-ups 

In the first round of the playoffs (The Wild Card Round), the top two seeds have a bye. The 3 seed plays the 6 seed, and then the 4 and 5 seeds play each other. This series is a best of 3 games series. The home team alternates with each game. The first host is the team with the best record. 

In the second round (The Divisional Series), the two seeds that had byes play the winners of the first round series. The 1 seed plays the lowest seed, and the 2 seed plays the other team. This series is a best of 5 games series. The home team in this series is also determined by record. The series will go 2-2-1. This means the first two games are hosted by the team with the best record, then away to the other team, and finally, if necessary, the last game is played back in the original host team’s ballpark. 

In the third round (The Championship Round), the winners of the two divisional series play each other. The winner advances to the World Series. This series is a best of 7 games series. The field alternates 2-3-2. The higher seed is the first host for the first 2 games. Then the series shifts to the other ballpark for 3 games and then back to the original host for the last 2 – if necessary.  

The final round is the World Series. In this matchup, you see the best team from the American League facing the best team from the National League. Home-field advantage again rests with the team with the best record. The field alternates 2-3-2. The higher seed is the first host for the first 2 games. Then the series shifts to the other ballpark for 3 games and then back to the original host for the last 2 – if necessary. 

Final Word

Now that you know how the playoff structure works, it makes watching the regular season match-ups more interesting. It also puts some pressure on the division leaders since only two of the three teams will earn a bye. Potentially you could see some postseason previews in the match-ups toward the end of the season.