NEW YORK — At first glance, it made you want to turn the scoreboard page upside down. If you were checking on an app, you felt like hitting refresh over and over.
But nothing changed. It was there in black and white, and somehow it was right: The New York Yankees were in first place Thursday morning — but they were a game behind the Boston Red Sox.
The teams were virtually tied after Tuesday’s games, so when the Yankees lost and the Red Sox won Wednesday, the Yankees had to fall a game back, even if they had the better winning percentage. Right?
How could they be in first place in the American League East and also sit a game back of the team that they were listed above? If there is one thing in sports that is supposed to be indisputable, it is the standings. It is math, after all. Nothing describes a team’s fortunes better and without debate than the standings.
But in this case, the standings seemed to say two different things. The Yankees were 43-20 at the time with a .683 winning percentage. The Red Sox, at 47-22, had a .681 winning percentage.
Major League Baseball considered the Yankees in first place because the rule is that winning percentage determines the order of the standings, even if some published outlets had it the other way around, with Boston in first place.
“I am not responsible for those standings,” said Steve Hirdt, the executive vice president of the Elias Sports Bureau, Major League Baseball’s official statistician. “Elias is only responsible for MLB’s official standings.”
The confusion was a result of two things: the unusual difference in the number of games played, and the fact that both teams are playing so well, battling neck and neck for supremacy in their division.
As a result of the Yankees’ enduring eight weather postponements, they have played six fewer games than Boston. Eventually, the disparity in the number of games played between the teams should even out, and it could become a nonissue if one of the teams created some separation by significantly outplaying the other.
According to Hirdt, winning percentage has been the defining category in baseball’s standings dating to the late 19th century. The games-behind indicator is only a helpful signpost to make the relative positions of the teams easier to grasp.
“That reference was sort of invented along the way so people wouldn’t have to do long division every day of the week,” he said. “It’s just a handy reference based on a theoretical comparison between two teams.”
The situation has cropped up a few times already this year, but it is unusual for it to extend this late into the season.
On Thursday, Boston was scheduled to play late in Seattle against the Mariners. But the Yankees beat the Tampa Bay Rays, 4-3, and remained in first place with a 44-20 record and a .688 winning percentage. So temporarily they were 7 percentage points better than the Red Sox — and in first place — but a half-game behind.
Gleyber Torres had the key hit for the Yankees, a three-run home run in the fifth inning off Rays starter Blake Snell to give the Yankees a 4-2 lead. It was the second home run in two games for the rookie, who has 13 homers in his first 45 big-league games. Aaron Hicks hit a bases-empty homer earlier in the inning.
Matt Duffy, the Rays third baseman, had put Tampa Bay on the board by hitting the first pitch of the game, a fastball from Domingo German, over the left field wall for his third home run. Tampa Bay added a second run in the third and got one more third in the sixth after the Yankees had already taken the lead.
But Dellin Betances pitched a scoreless eighth, and Aroldis Chapman shut down the Rays in the ninth for his 19th save, preserving the Yankees’ lead, of sorts, over Boston.
Yankees manager Aaron Boone said that before the game he was discussing the unusual standings with someone, and after his team’s latest win, he still did not know if the Yankees were in first place or second.
“I don’t,” he said with a laugh. “We’re just trying to rack up wins.”
For Boone’s players, some weirdness in the standings was nothing to get upset over.
“How many games do we have left?” asked Austin Romine, the Yankees catcher. “If we had three games left and you showed me that, then I would be worried.”