What Does Games Back Mean in Sports Standings?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does games back mean in sports standings? And how can a team be a half game back?


— — —

Dear Greg,

That’s a great question! Games back can be a confusing concept. Games back is a metric that attempts to show how far behind a team is, controlled for the number of games they have played. A team can be a certain number of games back from another team or from a position in the standings. In both scenarios, the target is moving. Games back is a concept that confuses many people who follow sports religiously so showing an understanding of this concept gives you a simple way of flashing your sports expertise, even among sports fans!

On the first day of a season, Team A beats Team B. Team A’s record is now 1 win and 0 losses. Team B’s is 0 wins and 1 loss. Team B is behind Team A in number of wins and in games back. So far those are the same thing. On the second day of the season, Team A plays Team C and wins again. Team B doesn’t have a game. Now Team A’s record is 2 wins and 0 losses and Team B’s record is still 0 wins and 1 loss. Team B now has two fewer wins in the standings but they are not two games back of Team A. This is because Team B has played one fewer game and the games back metric tries to control for that. Games back controls for unplayed games by counting them as one half of a win. You may hear these unplayed games called games in hand, so just remember that while a game in hand may be worth two in the bush, it’s only worth half a game in of games back. Team B is said to be 1.5 games back from Team A.

As the season goes on, this metric becomes a little harder to calculate in our heads like we just did for Team B and Team A. Wikipedia has a simple calculation for games back and though I don’t exactly understand why it works, I believe it works. It’s Games Back = ((Team A’s wins – Team A’s losses) – (Team B’s wins – Team B’s losses))/2. In our scenario, that’s ((2-0)-(0-1)/2 which simplifies to 3/2 or 1.5 games back.

In addition to calculating how many games back Team B is from Team A, it’s also common to express games back relative to a position in the standings. Two common ones are games back (or behind or out of) first place or the last team that would qualify for the playoffs. In this case, the calculation is the same, it’s just done by comparing Team B to whatever team represents that place in the standings. If today Team A is in first place, Team B would be 1.5 games out of first place. If tomorrow Team C, D, or E[1] is in first place, the calculation would be done between their record and Team B’s record.

AL StandingsBefore we leave this topic, let’s look at some real standings as of today in Major League Baseball. The WCGB column stands for WildCard Games Back. The way baseball playoffs work is that the three division winners all make the playoffs automatically and then the next two teams with the best records make it as well. These two playoff spots for non-division winners are called Wildcards. The WCGB column is calculating the number of games back a team is from getting that second and last wildcard playoff spot.

Right now the Indians are in the last playoff spot so they are zero games back. They are the target. The Rays have played the same number of games as the Indians and have one more win and one fewer loss so they are said to be +1 games back. Don’t worry about how stupid that sounds, this means they are a game ahead. The Rangers have also played exactly the same number of games as the Indians. They have one fewer win and one more loss though, so they are 1 game behind the last playoff spot as represented currently by the Indians.

We have to go all the way down to the Mariners to find a team that is an uneven number of games back. If you add their wins and losses, you see that the Mariners have played 159 games compared to the Indians’ 158. That explains the .5 in the games back column. The Indians have 18 more wins than the Mariners but because they have a game in hand, they are given an extra .5 when calculating how far back the Mariners are compared to the Indians.

Data visualization guru Edward Tufte uses sports standings to show how much data can be packed into a simple table and remain understandable (even to dumb sports fans is the unspoken ellipses that I hear) and why making a chart for any fewer than a few hundred data points is usually not necessary. As a devotee of his, I’m happy you asked this question. Hopefully this post has made all those tables in the sports section a little easier to read!

Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. GO TEAM E!!!

What are the Positions in Basketball?

Dear Sports Fan,

What are the positions in basketball? I’m watching the Spurs and the Heat in the finals tonight and they mentioned that Lebron can guard any position. I’m more of a football fan and so while I’m sure there are positions in basketball, it all looks pretty fluid and interchangeable to me.


Dear Geneva,

There are positions in basketball although like you pointed out, they are more fluid than football positions. In a traditional lineup, each of the five players on the court has their own positional label that corresponds to a general set of skills and a set of responsibilities. Basketball is also in the midst of a shift in the language people use to describe the positions. The older way of referring to positions is by name: Point Guard, Shooting Guard, Small Forward, Power Forward, and Center. The new form is just the numbers from one through five. This shift, aside from making things a little more confusing, matches a general shift in the way basketball is played. We’ll start by describing the positions from Point Guard or One to Center or Five and then talk about the general shift in the game. I’m going to describe these positions for men’s basketball but they hold pretty much just the same for women.

Point Guard or One:

The point guard is generally the smallest, quickest guy on the team. Their responsibility is to take the ball down the court and then pass it to their teammates. The point guard will often be the one to call the play the team runs (yes, there are plays like in football but they are generally more flexible) and responsible for clever improvisation when the play doesn’t work quite as it was diagrammed. The point guard is usually not the best scorer on the team and there is a general ethos of the position that says it is the point guard’s job, even if they might be able to score, to defer to their teammates. The point guard is a facilitator.

Jason Kidd who just retired and Tony Parker are great examples of players who epitomize the point guard position.

Shooting Guard or Two:

The shooting guard is quite the opposite of the point guard. Roughly the same size as the point guard, the shooting guard distinguishes themselves by… you guessed it… shooting the ball! You won’t see them passing up a chance to shoot for a teammate, these guys know what their job on the court is and they are good at it. You’ll usually see shooting guards running around like crazy, using their teammates as obstacles to give them just enough space apart from the person guarding them so that they can get a pass and shoot before the defender catches up. They are often good at shooting three pointers (from behind the colored arc around the basket) and love to lurk in the corner waiting for a pass.

Reggie Miller and Ray Allen are pure examples of the shooting guard position. Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan are great players who played shooting guard with a style more normally associated with small forwards.

Small Forward or Three:

The small forward is the most acrobatic of the players on the court. Right in the middle in terms of height, these players use their athleticism to score however they possibly can. Their combination of speed, power, and skill allows them the versatility to shoot over their defender or run right by him to get to the basket for a lay-up or a dunk. As small forwards get older and start to lose their raw athletic superiority, they generally shift towards becoming more of a shooting specialist or, if they have the size for it, more like the players in our next position.

Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson are great examples of Small Forwards. Lebron James plays the 3 more often than any other position (he can really play all five) but he is such a unique athlete that he’s probably not a very useful example to study.

Power Forward or Four:

The power forward is traditionally an enormous muscly dude. The scariest person on the court, the power forward is capable of throwing down enormously intimidating dunks but is more likely to specialize in setting mean picks for their smaller teammates and rebounding like crazy after a missed shot. In recent years the trend for power forwards has been to include someone who has the skill and predilection for scoring more traditionally found in a small forward or shooting guard but the height traditionally associated with a power forward.

Karl Malone and Tim Duncan are classic power forwards. Dirk Nowitzki is perhaps the best example of the non-traditional or “stretch” four.

Center or Five:

The center is the tallest guy on the court. There’s a saying in basketball that you “can’t teach height.” What this means is that no matter how skilled a smaller player is, a tall player will always have some advantages over them. As a result, there are a surprising number of centers, even in the NBA, who actually aren’t that good at or interested in basketball. They just happened to be the kind of seven-foot people who aren’t able to resist millions of dollars and a celebrity life. The center has undergone a similar trend to the one in power forwards in the past fifteen years but traditionally sets up on offense and defense as the closest person to the basket. On offense they catch the ball with their back to the basket and use their size to bump their defender until they can turn around and place the ball in the basket.

In terms of epitomizing what a center is like, there’s no one better to look to than Shaquille O’Neil although Bill Walton is another great player synonymous with the center position.

Evolution in Style

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve noticed people referring to the positions more and more by number instead of name. I think that this has come with the change in how the bigger positions are played. As mentioned in the description of power forwards and centers, a lot of recent players have the size traditionally associated with these positions but the skill and inclination to play the game more like a shooting guard or a small forward. As the more descriptive terms became less accurate (power forwards that aren’t exactly powerful… centers that play a whole lot at the edges of the court…) it became more popular to use the numbers from one to five to refer to players.

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

What is a Public Team in Sports Betting?

Dear Sports Fan (and by that I mean Ezra),

Can you please explain the science behind sports bets?  Specifically, can you explain why my team falls apart EVERY TIME I have what seems to be a reasonable bet going?


Dear Angela,

Thanks for your question. And thanks for making the same bet over and over again. I really enjoy the lunches that you’ve taken me to! I’ve taken the liberty of translating your question to “What is a public team in sports betting” for the purposes of the title because I think the answer will be found in that concept. First let’s do a little background on what kind of bet you’re making.

The last few years you, me, and a colleague of ours have made a bet at the start of each hockey season where we bet on our own favorite team. The way this bet works is not the obvious one — we do not bet simply that our team will win more games during the season than our opponents’ teams, we bet that our team will perform more better[1] than what is expected of it compared to how well the other teams do compared to what is expected of them. That means that if your team is expected to win 40 games and mine is only expected to win 30, I will win the bet if your team wins 39 and mine wins 31. Despite your team winning more games than mine, your team won one fewer game than expected and mine won one more.

In order to set our expectations, we use online sports books that are setting a line for the total number of points (teams get two points for a win, one point if the game is tied at the end of regulation time) a team will get during the season. As we wrote about in the lead up to the Super Bowl this year, lines are optimized not to match exactly what is going to happen but instead to attract an even amount of money on each side. For our purposes, it will mess up our bet if the sports books think they need to inflate or deflate the point total for a team away from what they think is most likely to get an even amount of money bet on both sides.

The most common scenario where this skew happens is when the significant portion of the general betting population likes to bet on a particular team. These teams are called “public” teams. Public teams tend to be very popular, well-known teams that have had a lot of success in recent years. Perhaps they are a little bit older now, or injuries have weakened them, or some other relatively subtle thing is going on, like locker room chemistry issues or contractual problems. The people who work at sports books know this but they also know that most casual bettors are likely to overrate the team’s success in past years and underrate the effect of these other factors.

This sounds a lot like your Vancouver Canucks, doesn’t it? They had come in first place of their division seven out of the last nine seasons. Their average age was in the oldest third of the league and one of their best players, Ryan Kessler, had shoulder surgery and was going to miss the first few months of the season. The team also had some unresolved issues at goalie where the long-standing starter (and star with diva tendencies), Roberto Luongo, had lost his starting job to a younger, cheaper, and better Cory Schneider. Of course, the other two teams in the bet, the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins, are also probably public teams to some extent. My guess is that the complete hockey mania in Canada (for evidence, recall this amazing article about water consumption during the Olympic Hockey finals in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics) is the trump card which convinces sports books to inflate their lines for your team.

Then again, it could just be a coincidence… it’s only been three years in a row and that’s an awfully small sample size. Fourth time’s a charm…

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Yeah, I said more better. Deal with it.

Which Baseball Stats are Habitual and Which Have Meaning?

Dear Sports Fan,
Which baseball stats do we track based on tradition and which really matter?

Dear Pat,

Thanks for the question. You have put your finger on a question that has come to dominate the conversation among baseball experts – both those who play and coach the game, and those who cover it – for the past decade or more.
More than any other sport baseball values its tradition and measures and compares eras by statistics. In today’s data driven world, however, baseball professionals have come to realize that many of the tools they have relied on are overly blunt.
Common statistics hitters were measured by, for example, included:
  • RBI: Runs Batted In – ie, I hit a ball, and as a result a runner already on base scores
  • Batting average: the percentage of times a player gets a base hit(successfully reaches base by hitting the ball where it can’t be caught/he can’t be put out)
For pitchers:
  • ERA: the number of runs a pitcher allows on average (discounting errors by the position players in the field behind him)
  • Wins: the number of times a pitcher’s team wins a game when that team maintains a lead established after the pitcher has pitched 5 2/3 innings
What we now know is that these statistics do not actually capture an individual player’s true value – in most cases, because they rely on the contributions or efforts of other players. For example, it’s difficult for a player to have a high RBI count if the players who hit before him don’t get on base – thus giving him an opportunity to drive them home.
In addition, batting average counts hits, but it discounts other contributions a batter makes – for example, getting on base by taking a walk or bunting or hitting a ball in such a way as to move a base-runner ahead, even if they themselves make an out. A pitcher could dominate an opponent and still lose a game because his teammates either do not score runs or play bad defense behind him.
As a result, baseball clubs have largely moved beyond these blunt tools and, to varying degrees of complexity, have designed metrics that directly measure how each individual player’s presence makes it more or less likely for their team to win. This phenomenon – which started in baseball and was captured most memorably in the book Moneyball – has spread to virtually every other sport.
One example of this is the Value Over Replacement Player – an advanced statistic that allows teams to compare one of their players to an an average player at the same position. I basically failed math, so I’d be hard pressed to explain in much more detail – but as far as I can tell, the people who were paying attention in algebra have magically figured out a way to calculate how many more runs a player is contributing to his team than that average player would.
Dean Russell Bell

What does "Original Six" mean in Hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

What are people talking about when they say “the original six” in hockey? Is this some hockey equivalent of original sin?

Curious in Connecticut

Dear Curious,

The “Original Six” is a phrase used to identify the six teams generally thought to be the founding members of the National Hockey League. It’s actually a little more confusing then that. There were other teams before these six but they all disbanded although some have now been reformed. That said, the Original Six: the Boston Bruins, Chicago Black Hawks, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadians, New York Rangers, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are the only teams in today’s league that have operated consistently since the 1920s. For a period from 1942 to 1967 they were the only teams in the league. In 1967 the league expanded to twelve — six expansion teams joined the original six.

The reason you might be hearing more about the original six now is that two of the four remaining series’ in the playoffs feature two original six teams playing against each other. In the Eastern conference, the New York Rangers are playing the Boston Bruins and in the Western Conference the Detroit Red Wings are playing the Chicago Black Hawks.

These six teams continue to have a luster, an elite atmosphere, a je ne sais pas that divides them from the rest of the teams in the league. They are hockey aristocracy, the blue bloods of the National Hockey League. Even though the Pittsburgh Penguins are this year’s favorite to win the Stanley Cup, their series vs. the Ottawa Senators feels indescribably less important than the ones involving original six teams. And it’s not just me. You can see objective evidence in how the the league and their television network partners schedule the games. This weekend they had four games to schedule and gave both the best slots to matchups of the Original Six. Detroit versus Chicago got the Saturday prime-time Hockey Night in Canada slot. Of the two games on Sunday, the favorable Sunday afternoon slot went to New York versus Boston while the Pittsburgh versus Ottawa game goes up against Mad Men and Game of Thrones on Sunday night.

It’s hard to describe why the concept of the Original Six still has meaning. Perhaps it’s that they’ve won so much. Obviously, when there were only six teams to challenge for the Stanley Cup, it’s natural that some of them would win a lot, but the distance between the Canadiens, with 24 Stanley Cups, and the rest is remarkable. The top non-Original Six team, the Edmonton Oilers, won the cup six times and they needed the great Wayne Gretzky to do that! Maybe it’s because the Original Six have remained so consistent in their look. Most of them have resisted the temptation to fiddle with their uniform, preferring to play off their history rather than sully themselves with seasonally popular fads like teal or v-necks. Compare how little the Maple Leafs have changed their jerseys since 1927 to the radical and constant shifts the Vancouver Canucks seem unable to prevent themselves from making.

The thing that I find most remarkable about the Original Six is that it seems like however they were selected, through design or coincidence, they really are the right six teams. In 2012, the original six teams were the six biggest hockey markets as listed in Forbes magazine. According to Forbes, “the sport’s three most profitable teams–the Maple Leafs ($81.9 million), Rangers ($74 million), Canadiens ($51.6 million)–accounted for 83% of the league’s income.” Compare this success to other “original numbered things,” like the 10 original amendments to the U.S. constitution (the second one is definitely unclear and maybe should be re-written) or the 10 Commandments (at the very least, there is debate over how to number them, although the late George Carlin thought the problems went deeper.)

Hope this answered your question and that we become one of your Original Six blogs!
Ezra Fischer

What does being "on the ropes" mean? What about "rope-a-dope?"

Dear Sports Fan,

What does it mean for someone to be “on the ropes?” I heard it the other day during a hockey game but I think it’s a boxing term. While you’re at it, what is “rope-a-dope” and are they related?


Dear Morgan,

You’re right, they are both boxing terms although they get used in the context of other sports as well as just in normal conversation. We’ll define what they mean and how you can use them in this post.

They call boxing the sweet science for a reason: because despite the fact that it may look like two sweaty combatants flailing away at each other – or running away from each other – in reality boxers enter the ring with deliberate strategies and do their best to execute them.

Still at some point in a fight, one boxer may get the upper hand and land a few devastating punches, leaving his opponent senseless and barely able to stay on his feet, let alone defend himself. In such cases, a boxer has two choices to keep himself upright: leaning into and grabbing his opponent (known as “clinching”) or leaning back on the ropes surrounding the ring and using his gloves and arms to cover up as much of his body and head as possible. When a fighter does this, and his opponent pummels him endlessly in search of a knockout, the fighter covering up is said to be “on the ropes.”
But remember – they don’t call it the sweet science for nothing. A boxer who sees his opponent cowering and leaning on the ropes,  seemingly defeated and therefore posing no threat, may become overconfident – and in his quest to finish his opponent he may exhaust himself by throwing bunches of punches that don’t actually do damage.
Thus a particularly clever and gutsy boxer may pretend to be more injured than he is, encouraging his opponent to throw too many punches in a vain effort to knock him out – and then, turn the tables and go on the offensive when his opponent has punched himself out (ie, exhausted himself by throwing too many punches).
The most famous example of this strategy being put to use is known as the “rope-a-dope” – when Muhammad Ali lured an aggressive George Foreman into attacking relentlessly for the first seven rounds of the famed “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974. Ali did this not only by seemingly letting Foreman dictate the action, but by taunting Foreman mercilessly. Foreman wore himself out and Ali seized the initiative and knocked his drained opponent out in the eighth round.
Today, the term “rope-a-dope” is just as likely to be used to blithely describe political or business strategy as it is to describe a fighter’s approach in the ring. But it’s worth remembering the original principle: being willing to absorb potentially devastating punishment with the knowledge, or hope, that you ultimately have the ability to outlast your opponent.
Thanks for the question,
Dean Russell Bell