Baseball’s Magic Number

By: Paul DiSclafani


All sports are defined by numbers – batting averages, home runs, touchdowns, goals against average, free throw percentage, etc. But only one sport has a “Magic” number, baseball.

Baseball has always been associated with numbers ingrained in the lexicon forever. If I gave any baseball fan just the number 714, 61 or 56 without any additional context, most would respond – Babe Ruth’s home runs (714), most home runs in a season – Roger Maris (61) and Joe DiMaggio’s hit streak (56).

As the baseball calendar turns to September and the final 30 or so games remain, the media and the fans begin to look at the standings and countdown how close they are (or how far behind they are) to winning a Division Title and a guaranteed spot in the postseason.

In simple terms, it’s the number of games the first place team needs to win to eliminate the second place team. In football, with a very limited number of games (16), a team in first place will look at their remaining schedule and know that all they have to do it “win out” and they win the division. It’s the same concept in all sports, but because baseball is played over 10 times that amount of games, you need to use math for the countdown.

As with any sport, the team leading the division just has to “win out” and nobody can catch them, it’s simple math. But in baseball, no one “wins out”. Every team wins 60 games and loses 60 games, it’s what you do with the other 42 (there’s that number again) that defines your season.

In a baseball pennant race, the math is fairly simple. Once you establish yourself as the first place team late in the season, you can begin to calculate how many wins you need the rest of the way (regardless of what the second place team does). If you are a football team and you have 10 wins with four games left and the second place team has only 8 wins, if you win three games to get to 13, the other team can’t catch you. Again, it’s simple math.

In baseball, if you have a 1-game lead with 30 games left – and you win all 30 remaining games – no one can catch you. But that win total (all 30 games) assumes that your opponent is also going to win all of their remaining 30 games. If they lose just once, you only have to win 29 games. If they lose twice, you only have to win 28 games. Getting the picture now?

During the final month of a baseball season, for a team in First Place, calculating your team’s Magic Number begins to make sense. When you calculate your team’s “Magic Number” – how many wins you need to clinch a division title – the following factors emerge:

  • The Magic Number (how many wins your team needs) never increases, it can only go down
  • If your team loses, it stays the same
  • If your opponent wins, it stays the same
  • If your team wins, the magic number is reduced by one
  • If your opponent loses, the magic number also reduces because that’s one game less you need to win.
  • Of course, if you beat your opponent head-to-head, or they lose on a night when you win, you reduce your Magic Number by two!

It really is a Magic Number!

Want to know how to calculate your magic number? Take the remaining number of games, and add one to it (A). Subtract the number of losses the first place team has from the number of losses the second place team has (B) and then subtract that number from the games remaining (A-B). Presto – a Magic Number! When you win that number of games, regardless of what your opponent is doing, you clinch the division.

Unless you have at least a five-game lead in your division in September, calculating a Magic Number is ludicrous. Things can change so quickly in a week of baseball, why get all worked up over it? Here’s the Magic Numbers for teams leading their division with at least a 5-game lead as of 9/2/15:

  • Kansas City (12 game lead over Minnesota with 30 games left): 19
  • Mets (6.5 game lead over Washington with 29 games left): 24
  • Dodgers (6.5 game lead over San Francisco with 30 games left): 24
  • St. Louis (6 game lead over Pittsburgh with 29 games left): 25

But let’s not start printing those playoff tickets yet, Mets fans.  We had a 7-game lead with 17 games left in 2007 and a Magic Number of 11.  The Mets won just 5 games the rest of the season and the Phillies lost just 4.  Unlike the band “Spinal Tap”, the 2007 Mets just couldn’t get to “11”.

Of course for the last few years, the Mets have had what can be called a “Tragic” number. How many games you can afford to lose before you are eliminated from a division title, but that’s a story for another day…

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