Math proves the baseball season should be 256 games long

Many sports fans know that a short season leads to unfairness and chaos. The shorter the season of their favorite sport, the more likely it is that a comparatively weak team will ascend up the ladder — merely by luckily winning a few key games.

So a couple of physicists recently decided to calculate precisely how long the major-league baseball seasons would need to last to be genuinely fair. They began with this assumption: To truly control for random outcomes — for the slim chance that, in any given game, the lesser team will accidentally beat the better one — you’d need to play a total of games equal to the cube of the teams involved. With 16 National League teams, that’s 4096 games, and 2744 for the 14-team American League.

Of course, there ain’t no way anyone’s going to sit through that much baseball. So they decided to scale back the pursuit of perfection, and calculate how many games would result in a situation that was not perfect, but way more fair than the current system. Their number? A full 256 games — much more than the 162 each team plays in the current National League season. As they put it in a press release:

By adding a preliminary round to the season, and eliminating the weakest teams before regular league play begins, the physicists showed that the best team in the National League would be virtually guaranteed to be among the top two or three teams with the best records, even with a significantly reduced number of games. Although the very best team may not always end up in the lead, a preliminary round or two would at least ensure that the top teams aren’t eliminated from the playoffs through simple bad luck.

I confess I know so little about pro sports that I cannot even begin to figure out whether their assumptions hold water, but it seemed like a pretty fun little finding to me.

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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