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In baseball, what is a magic number?

Answer

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Kevin Stringer
09/26/2019

When sports teams are vying for a spot in the playoffs, especially in baseball, you’ll often hear discussion about your favorite team’s "Magic Number", but not much explanation of what that statistic actually represents.

According to MLB.com, "a team’s magic number represents the combination of wins needed by that team and losses by its closest competitor to clinch a given goal. Every time a team wins, its magic number decreases by one. Similarly, every time that team’s closest competitor for the division (or Wild Card) loses, the magic number also decreases by one." Basically, the magic number is used to measure how close a team is to clinching a spot in the playoffs.

MLB.com goes on to discuss the first ever usage of the statistic during pennant race of the 1947 season. "An article in the Sept. 12, 1947 edition of the Washington Post stated: %27The Yankees reduced the magic number to four. That is the combination of games the Yankees must win or the Red Sox must lose in order to insure the flag for the Yankees.%27"

As far as applying this information, we can create a hypothetical scenario for showing how this statistic can be determined. Suppose there are ten games left in the season in a hotly contested division (we'll exclude the possibility of a Wild Card spot for simplicity's sake). Team A, who is currently in the lead, has a record of 87-65, while Team B is just behind them with a record of 85-67.

The formula for determining Team A’s magic number is the following:

M = G + 1 - (L B - L A)

  • M = Magic Number
  • G = Games Remaining
  • L A = Team A’s Total Losses
  • L B = Team B’s Total Losses

Plugging in the numbers we know, it looks like this:

M = 10 + 1 - (67 - 65)

Now, to apply simple algebra so that we can solve for M:

M = 10 + 1 - 2

M = 11 - 2

M = 9

In our hypothetical scenario, this tells us that any combination of wins for Team A and losses for Team B that results in a total of 9 will secure Team A's division victory and spot in the playoffs.

If you are curious about the current standings of your favorite team or sport, you can find that information here and apply the Magic Number formula yourself!