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What Is A Magic Number?

It's not so magic; it's all math


As the baseball season winds down, there's a lot of talk about the "magic number" for a team to clinch first place. It's used to quickly determine how close a team is to its goal. A team must be in first place in the particular standings to truly have a magic number.

The magic number can never go up. It only subtracts. A team can't have a magic number of 9 on one day and 10 the next.

How is it computed?

The short method: Take the number of games yet to be played, add one, then subtract the number of games ahead in the loss column of the standings from the closest opponent.

But it might be even easier to do it with one glance at the standings if you can follow this simple mathematical formula: Games In A Season plus 1 minus Wins minus Losses by Second-Place Team. Because Games plus 1 should equal 163 in all instances, it can be summed up as:

163 - Wins - Losses By Second-Place Team

Before the season starts, every team has a magic number of 163. That would be 162 games plus 1, with 0 wins and 0 losses by the second-place team.

When the number reaches 1

When the magic number is 1, that means the team has clinched at least a tie for the championship. Once it reaches zero, the team has won the title.

The "tragic number"

The opposite of the magic number is the elimination number or the "tragic number," which is the reverse of the magic number. It's the combination of losses and wins by the front-running team for a team to be eliminated.

What about the wild card?

A team might be in second place in the standings, but could still have a magic number for the wild-card, which is the team with the best record not in first place. To compute that number, replace the second-place team with the other teams not in first-place and re-do the formula.

Using an example from the 2007 season: As of Sept. 16, the Boston Red Sox have a magic number of 9 in the American League East over the New York Yankees. That means that any combination of nine Red Sox wins or Yankees losses will give the Red Sox the division title.

But the Yankees have the best record of any second-place team, which gives them the lead in the wild-card race for the final playoff spot in the American League. They have 85 wins and Detroit Tigers, the next team behind them, have 67 losses. So take the formula (162+1-85-67) and the Yankees' magic number to clinch the wild card is 11.

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