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Study: Major League Baseball Gives Underdogs a Break

The Reality of Momentum in Sports

The 162-game major league baseball season may give underdogs a leg up in getting to the playoffs, say a pair of physicists.

Sports fans usually expect the top teams in any sports league to come out on top at the end of the season with the best record, but every now and then a less-skilled team jumps to the head of the pack, as many say was the case when the "wild card" Florida Marlins got their shot at and won the 2003 World Series.

Two physicists at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico ran simulations of league play to see how many baseball games National League teams would have to play in the regular season to ensure that the best team came away with the best record. The answer: a whopping 256 games.

Because there's always some chance that a lesser team will win any given game, teams would have to play a larger number of games to overcome statistical randomness—specifically, the number of games should be the cube of the total number of teams, write Eli Ben-Naim and Nick W. Hengartner in an upcoming issue of the journal Physical Review E.

The best baseball teams still have an advantage over the best football teams though; the number of teams in the NFL is about the same as the in the Major Leagues, but with far fewer games, making the outcome of the football season much more random.

Andrea Thompson
Andrea graduated from Georgia Tech with a B.S. in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in 2004 and a Master's in the same subject in 2006. She attended the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at New York University and graduated with a Master of Arts in 2006.