MLB Playoffs 2020: Explaining Wild-Card Format, Divisional Series and More

Andrew Gould@AndrewGould4Featured ColumnistSeptember 28, 2020

Trevor Bauer makes the Cincinnati Reds a capable playoff contender.
Trevor Bauer makes the Cincinnati Reds a capable playoff contender.Aaron Doster/Associated Press

Now that MLB made it through a 60-game season that tossed aside many long-standing norms, fans are in store for a postseason unlike any other.

For the first time in the modern era, MLB will operate part of the playoffs in neutral sites. Starting in the divisional series, the American League clubs will play in California, while the National League set up shop in Texas.

This postseason is also far less selective than ever before. A whopping 16 teams still have a shot at the Commissioner's Trophy, and things could get particularly hectic with a tweaked wild-card round involving every club.

Viewers just now getting accustomed to the universal designated hitter and an automatic runner on second in extra inningswhich won't apply in the playoffsmay not love the idea of a whole new batch of rules.

That uneasiness may quickly transfer to excitement once postseason baseball commences.


Video Play Button
Videos you might like

Wild-Card Format

Buckle up for four jam-packed days of baseball.

From Tuesday to Friday, every team will partake in a best-of-three series. Teams are seeded from No. 1 to 8 in each league, with the division winners ranked Nos. 1 -3, each second-place squad No. 4 -6, and two other wild card in the No. 7 and 8 spots. The higher seed hosts every contest.

Despite the series-long home-field advantage, this round could prove ripe for upsets. It'd only take two triumphs for the 29-31 Milwaukee Brewers to eliminate the 43-17 Los Angeles Dodgers.

That could lead to cries of illegitimacy down the road, but fans inundated with playoff action might not mind. All eight series will see action on Wednesday. Depending on how many AL matchups require a winner-take-all Game 3, every team could take the field again the following day.


Division Series and Beyond

The advancing teams will compete in best-of-five series, the usual for the Division Series stage. 

However, the venues shift to neutral sites. The AL goes to San Diego (Petco Park) and Los Angeles (Dodger Stadium), while the NL will take place in Arlington (Globe Life Park) and Houston (Minute Maid Park).

As a result, there are no scheduled travel days off between games. That will play a major role in how managers handle their pitching staff.

In prior years, teams could theoretically deploy a three-man rotation through the divisional round. Now the Game 1 starter would have to pitch a possible Game 5 on three days' rest. Every team will at least get three days between the wild-card and division rounds to reset their rotations, but not after potentially over-taxing their top relievers.

The League Championship Series and World Series will then return to their usual best-of-seven formatting. If necessary, the ALCS and NLCS will conduct all seven games in as many days, but the World Series has two scheduled rest days despite the entire Fall Classic taking place in Arlington, Texas.


From Feeble to .500

The Marlins earned their first playoff bid since 2013.
The Marlins earned their first playoff bid since 2013.Corey Sipkin/Associated Press

Given the season's atypical sprint to the finish line, it wouldn't have been too shocking to see a truly absurd playoff bracket. Instead, onlookers could have anticipated a majority of the contestants before the season began in July.

A 16-team guest list nevertheless guaranteed some participants unlikely to have received a playoff invite otherwise. While no division winner should go down as a 2020 fluke, five wild-card clubs suffered at least 87 losses last season.

Both fueled by rising young stars and veteran acquisitions, the San Diego Padres and Chicago White Sox are on the rise. They would have factored into the playoff mix of a 162-game season and should be considered legitimate title contenders.

While the best is yet to come for the Toronto Blue Jays, they deserve recognition for going 32-28 without playing any game at the Rogers Centre.

The Miami Marlins top the list as the most unexpected team to take advantage of the short season and longer postseason. Although 31-29 doesn't feel like much of an accomplishment, they last secured a winning campaign in 2009. Their playoff drought goes back even further:

Good things happen when they make it to October; the Marlins have won the World Series in their only two postseason appearances since joining MLB in 1993.

However, they still fall in the "happy just to be here" category of this expanded postseason. Just six squads finished with a lower run differential than their minus-41 margin. They benefitted from mostly facing other lackluster NL East opposition, but now they need to take two of three from a Chicago Cubs squad boosted by Yu Darvish and Kyle Hendricks.

They also finished a meager 31-29, but the Cincinnati Reds conversely enter the playoffs as one of baseball's most dangerous wild-card squads. With Mike Moustakas, Joey Votto and Shogo Akiyama heating up down the stretch, they stormed to the finish line and won 11 of their final 15 games.

While an underachieving lineup could prove treacherous to the opposition if Nick Castellanos and Eugenio Suárez also rediscover their form, a stellar rotation makes them a nightmare matchup for the Atlanta Braves.

Trevor Bauer solidified his NL Cy Young Award candidacy by tossing eight stellar innings on just three days' rest Wednesday against the Brewers. He ended the abbreviated campaign with a 1.73 ERA and 100 strikeouts.

The Reds had prepared to utilize Bauer on short rest again if necessary, but they wrapped up a playoff bid before Sunday. Bauer will instead pitch Game 1 of the wild-card round, followed by Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray.

Per Bobby Nightengale of the Cincinnati Enquirer, Gray commended Bauer as their staff ace.

"What that guy has done for us this year has been extraordinary," Gray said. "The way that he's singlehandedly, at times this year, to use the old saying, 'put the team on his back,' but he's done so much more behind the scenes that I wish y'all could see."

A high-end starter in his own right, Gray exited August with a 1.94 ERA before two dreadful turns erased his good work. After allowing 11 runs in four innings to the playoff-bound Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals, Gray went on the injured list with a back strain. He's looked far sharper in his return, yielding just three runs in two outings.

Castillo, meanwhile, ended the season with the fifth-lowest FIP (2.65) among all qualified starting pitchers, per FanGraphs.

The Reds established a marquee matchup against an Atlanta Braves offense first in OPS and just one run behind the Dodgers for MLB's lead. Since their starting staff is short-handed behind Max Fried, the Braves could be in trouble if Ronald Acuna Jr., Ozzie Albies, Marcell Ozuna and NL MVP favorite Freddie Freeman don't get to the Reds' formidable starting trio.