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What’s at Stake in the 2021 MLB Wild Card Games

Last Updated: October 6, 2021
The MLB Postseason begins on Tuesday, and there’s immediately a ton on the line for the four Wild Card teams playing winner-take-all contests.

Despite all the potential chaos that could have reigned on Sunday, the MLB regular season ended with no four-way ties, no “Game 163,” and no obscure rules where the Yankees get to pick their opponent.

What’s left is a 10-team postseason and two winner-take-all Wild Card games beginning Tuesday. First up, the Yankees and Red Sox will meet at Fenway Park in the latest chapter of the game’s greatest rivalry. The next day, the National League takes center stage as the Los Angeles Dodgers begin their quest for a World Series repeat against thescorchingly hot St. Louis Cardinals.

These Wild Card games are meant to produce maximum primetime drama in a do-or-die setting. They’re meant to drive ratings and create memorable moments — even if boiling a 162-game season into one nine-inning contest for four teams might feel a bit unfair.

It doesn’t matter. It makes the game exciting. And that’s what it’s all about.

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The History of the Wild Card Game

The Wild Card Game was born out of MLB’s 2011 collective bargaining agreement, made to both increase postseason revenue and give the end of the regular season more meaning — with more playoff teams, more teams would be in contention through the stretch run.

Ironically, it came just two months after the most exciting final day of the regular season in Major League history, in which the Rays snatched a bid from the Red Sox thanks to a walk-off win for Tampa and a walk-off loss for Boston, and the Cardinals snuck in over the Braves after Atlanta lost to the Phillies in 13 innings.

Had the current playoff format been in effect, the Red Sox and Braves would have made the postseason anyway, giving the last-second drama far less meaning.

Baseball’s effort for manufactured drama paid off immediately. In the first-ever NL Wild Card game, a questionable infield fly rule stifled a Braves rally in the bottom of the eighth against St. Louis, resulting in a 19-minute delay as fans littered the field with trash. The Cardinals went on to win, 6-3.

The great moments only continued as the years rolled on:

  • The first extra-inning Wild Card Game came in 2014 when Salvador Perez snuck a 12th-inning single past Josh Donaldson to give the Royals a win over the Athletics. The Royals went on to reach the World Series for the first time in 29 years.
  • In 2016, Edwin Encarnacion hit a walk-off three-run home run in the 11th inning to lift Toronto over Baltimore. It was the first scoring play for either team since the fifth inning.
  • Also In 2016, the Giants and Mets went into the ninth inning scoreless before Conor Gillaspie, who hit just 33 home runs in his career, went deep to win the game for San Francisco.
  • In 2018, the Rockies scored one run in the first inning, then not again until the 13th when Tony Wolters knocked in Trevor Story to deliver a 2-1 win over the Cubs.
  • In 2019, the Nationals trailed the Brewers 3-1 in the eighth before a three-run rally won the game. The Nats had been 0-3 all-time in winner-take-all games and advanced in the postseason for the first time since the franchise moved from Montreal. They went on to win the World Series

What’s on the Line

By merely reaching the postseason, players benefit financially, with the potential for even more as they advance. The bulk of the postseason gate revenue is distributed to the participating teams in a players’ pool, to be distributed in full or partial shares as clubs see fit. As teams advance through the postseason, they earn a bigger players’ pool.

In 2019, the most recent “normal” postseason, Wild Card teams received 50% of the gate revenue. In the Division Series, that increased to 60% for the first three games — the only games guaranteed to occur in a best-of-five series. For the Championship Series and World Series, which are best-of-seven, teams received 60% of gate revenue for the first four games.

Here’s how it all broke down:

  • Washington Nationals (World Series champion): $29,110,012.47 total, with full shares worth $383,358.18
  • Houston Astros (AL champion): $19,406,674.98 total; full shares worth $256,030.16
  • New York Yankees (ALCS runner-up): $9,703,337.49 total; full shares worth $114,367.19
  • St. Louis Cardinals (NLCS runner-up): $9,703,337.49 total; full shares worth $144,024.85
  • Atlanta Braves (NLDS runner-up): $2,627,987.24 total; full shares worth $33,623.71
  • Los Angeles Dodgers (NLDS runner-up): $2,627,987.24 total; full shares worth $32,427.60
  • Minnesota Twins (ALDS runner-up): $2,627,987.24 total; full shares worth $37,186.86
  • Tampa Bay Rays (ALDS runner-up): $2,627,987.24 total; full shares worth $36,835.39
  • Milwaukee Brewers (NL Wild Card runner-up): $1,212,917.19 total; full shares worth $14,292.30
  • Oakland Athletics (AL Wild Card runner-up): $1,212,917.19 total; full shares worth $18,918.89

Depending on a players’ contract, making the playoffs could mean a huge payday or be a mere drop in the bucket.

The 2019 MLB minimum contract was worth $550,000, or $3,425.93 per game over a full 162-game season. That makes the Wild Card Game about four times more valuable for a player at the minimum than a regular season game.

Alternatively, you could look at Nationals hurler Stephen Strasburg, who made $38.33 million in 2019, or $236,625.51 per game. The Nationals won the World Series and Strasburg’s postseason share amounted to just a little more than one game’s worth of extra pay.

(Nice work if you can get it.)

From Wild Card to World Series

In eight true seasons of Wild Card games — not counting 2020 when the playoffs expanded to 16 teams due to the pandemic-shortened regular season — participants have gone on to win the World Series only twice. In addition to the 2019 Nats, the 2014 Giants won their third title in five seasons by first routing the Pirates, 8-0, in the NL Wild Card game. On the American League side, the 2014 Royals are the only Wild Card winners to ever advance to the World Series, but they lost to those very same Giants in seven games.

In terms of money, Salvador Perez’s Wild Card Game-winning single that year was the difference between Royals players taking home just $15,000 each versus a pennant-winner’s sum of $230,699.73 apiece. For the world champion Giants, it was about $16,000 each versus $388,605.94.

Keep those figures in mind when it gets to the late innings at Fenway or Dodger Stadium and the outcome is still in doubt.

About The Author
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg is an editor and writer at Boardroom. He came to the brand in 2021 with a decade of experience in sports journalism, primarily covering college basketball at SB Nation as a writer, reporter, and blog manager. In a previous life, he worked as a social media strategist and copywriter, handling accounts ranging from sports retail to luxury hotels and financial technology. Though he has mastered the subtweet, he kindly requests you @ him next time.