It's almost a rite of every baseball season.
Every year, usually in the second half of the season, there is an article in the daily paper telling fans exactly how good their team needs to be to finish in first place. It usually involves a few different assumptions about how the first place team will play, and then lists the records the hometown nine will need to post to pass them.
The conclusion is usually pessimistic. For instance, if the Tigers continue to play baseball at their current pace, they’ll win about 97 games. For the Twins to win 98, they would need to roll through a 48-22 record for the rest of the year, which is darn near impossible. Even if the Tigers just play .500 baseball, the Twins would need to finish 42-28, which is a tall enough order. It doesn’t matter if the team is nine games back or four games back, this analysis almost always proves the hill is going to be too steep to climb. Worse, it’s objective, even mathematical.
And often it’s wrong. Instead, we sit back and watch a great pennant race and wonder how the winning team overcame the odds. But we never doubt the analysis.
Maybe we should. I remember these stories from my childhood, too, and there’s an important difference between pennant races then and pennant races now. It’s the schedule. Baseball used to have a balanced schedule, where each team played each other the same amount of times, which was nice and even and made the mathematicians (and those with a hypersensitive sense of fair) very happy. We often hear the downside of the unbalanced schedule (cue Sid!) but it allows a team to play teams in its own division a half dozen more times per year. And that makes it a lot easier to make up ground in a pennant race.
For instance, this year the Twins still have thirteen games left against Cleveland, which are as many games as they played Cleveland the entire year prior to unbalanced schedule. They also have nine games against Detroit, and Cleveland and Detroit have eight games against each other. Add all that up, and you end up with thirty games left on the schedule where the Twins not only control their own destiny, but the destiny of one of the teams in front of them. That’s almost half of the Twins remaining games.
So the next time you see this story, or hear this point on your favorite sports radio station, don’t be afraid to ask what happens if the Twins sweep one of the series versus their opponents. Because it’s pretty likely a series against them will be coming up soon.