In just a short while, the Rangers and Rays will begin determining the American League’s second wild card. In a less short while, the second wild card will have been determined. One of these teams is going to live to play the Indians, while the other will not live, which I guess means it dies. It will subsequently be revived, in time for offseason roster maneuvering. One-game wild-card playoffs were introduced last year as a means of increasing excitement. Because of those wild-card playoffs, this particular one-game playoff feels a little less dramatic, but even so, a lot is resting on 9+ innings. Whole seasons, and their fates.
So why is this game being played? Because, of course, the Rangers and Rays finished with identical 91-71 records. It’s not the sort of tie you break by looking at head-to-head record. This has to be sorted out on the field, and as luck would have it, Monday was otherwise a scheduled off day. There’s no arguing that the Rangers and Rays have achieved an identical number of wins. There’s something to be said, though, about their respective paths.
Ken Rosenthal recently wrote about strengths of schedules. From the bottom of the article:
As one AL East executive says, “If part of what you are selling as a sport is the determination of a true champion, an unbalanced schedule is emphatically not the way to do it.”
I don’t know who that executive is — the quote, clearly and intentionally, is anonymous. But if it isn’t Stuart Sternberg, then Sternberg is at least in agreement:
Sternberg said it was not fair for the Rays, who play 76 games against the other rugged AL East teams, to be battling with the Indians and Rangers, who each benefit from having two of the league’s worst teams in their divisions.
“We have one hand tied behind our back,” he said. “There needs to be a more balanced schedule. It doesn’t need to be completely balanced but it’s got to be somewhat balanced if you’re going to have two wild-card teams. We’re competing with two teams that basically have had two to three to four extra games in the bag on us.”
Asked Friday on SIRIUS XM’s Mad Dog Radio what suggestions he’d make to commissioner Bud Selig’s committee to improve the game, Rays principal owner Stuart Sternberg suggested a “more balanced schedule” and expanded playoffs.
Nevermind the stuff about the determination of a true champion — if that were baseball’s intent, the playoffs would look an awful lot different. Maybe there wouldn’t even be playoffs. The playoffs are about money. But, in theory, baseball would like to be more fair than unfair, and it’s a matter of fact that baseball uses deliberately unbalanced schedules. Sternberg’s argument is that the Rays have faced a more difficult schedule than the Rangers and Indians, and if it weren’t for that, the Rays wouldn’t have had to fight so hard to stay alive. The Rays, essentially, were at a disadvantage.
I’ve touched on this before a couple of times, but I wanted to add something to the picture. What I’ve done now is calculated a sort of strength of schedule for every team. Following, you’re going to see a table, with two columns. In one column is the team name. In the other is the average WAR of its opponents. It is, of course, weighted by matchup frequency, and while I understand that WAR isn’t perfect for these things, neither is team record. This should get us most of the way there, where the destination is an understanding of schedule strength.
By this measure, nobody had a more difficult schedule than the Blue Jays, and nobody had an easier schedule than the Braves. Last-place teams don’t get to play as many last-place teams; first-place teams don’t have to play as many first-place teams. This doesn’t account for timing of matchup, since it’s just looking at overall season numbers, but I don’t think that should be super important. The numbers might be spread a little too far, since, for example, the Astros’ numbers will be affected by opponent performance against the Astros. I do think this gives us a good sense.
Regarding the AL wild card in particular, what do we see? The Rays and Indians actually faced very similar schedules, in terms of quality. The Rays’ schedule was the seventh-strongest, while the Indians’ was the ninth-strongest. The Indians were the second-closest team to the Rays, by this measure, so it doesn’t seem like there’s much to complain about. There’s an advantage, but it’s small.
But then you look for the Rangers. They’re way down there, toward the bottom, with one of the easiest schedules in baseball. That’s what happens when you get 19 games against a team that didn’t even manage 4 WAR. The Astros finished tied in WAR with Yunel Escobar. The average Rangers opponent was three wins worse than the average Rays opponent, and if you wanted to try to even things out, you’d have to replace the 19 games against the Astros with 19 games against the Blue Jays. Then the Rangers would have an average opponent WAR of 34.6.
What’s the difference between 34.8 and 31.7? Let’s take two hypothetical 90-win teams. Let’s say they faced those two teams all season long. The team with the first opponent would be expected to finish around 89-73. The team with the second opponent would be expected to finish around 92-70. It’s a three-game difference, which obviously matters when you’re thinking about a one-game playoff scheduled because two teams finished with the same record.
The Rangers should be given credit for going 17-2 against the Astros. They went above and beyond the expected performance, and so it’s not like their record was just handed to them. But there is no getting around these facts: the Rays and Rangers tied, and the Rangers faced an easier schedule. Adjust for schedules, and the Rays don’t have to play this game. Of course, no one would ever suggest adjusting for schedules, but asking for a more balanced schedule going forward? That’s legitimate, and maybe it’s insane it’s not already the rule.
The argument is that success and divisions are cyclical, and it’s basically true. Not long ago, the Astros were in the World Series, against the White Sox. In the long run, strengths of schedules probably more or less even out. At least, they regress most of the way there. Within individual seasons, however, things can be distinctly uneven, and a balanced schedule could help take care of that. But, I’m not really here to argue for a balanced schedule — I’m just here to note the Rangers’ advantage, which I suppose we all already understood. We’ve known it would exist for months.
If the Rays lose today, there’ll be an argument that they lost to an inferior team. A team given a boost by another team that really sucked. This basically being the playoffs, though, better teams lose pretty often, so maybe that’s just the acceptable norm. If baseball wanted to crown the best team in the majors, it wouldn’t have unbalanced schedules. But, I’m not sure that’s really what baseball wants.
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