A First Last Word on Strengths of Schedules

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.”

This isn’t Sternberg’s first rodeo:

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.

Team avgoppWAR
Blue Jays 37.8
Yankees 37.4
Astros 36.8
Orioles 36.5
Twins 36.0
White Sox 35.7
Rays 34.8
Mariners 34.5
Indians 34.0
Padres 33.8
Royals 33.7
Red Sox 33.5
Diamondbacks 33.3
Giants 33.1
Angels 32.9
Phillies 32.9
Brewers 32.8
Marlins 32.8
Cubs 32.6
Rockies 32.3
Athletics 31.9
Pirates 31.9
Tigers 31.9
Dodgers 31.8
Reds 31.8
Rangers 31.7
Cardinals 31.5
Mets 30.5
Nationals 30.2
Braves 29.2

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

46 Responses to “A First Last Word on Strengths of Schedules”

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  1. senorpogo says:

    So what kind of difference in record is expected for a team playing the most difficult sos vs. the easiest sos?

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  2. Wil says:

    Pretty interesting. As stated in the article it would be difficult to find any type of balanced schedule due to the volatility of team records/success through baseball.

    I would like to see how this strength of schedule in hindsight matched up with the predicted strength of schedule at the beginning of the 2013 season.

    The Braves for one stand out to me simply because it was thought that the Nationals would heavily compete, and the Phillies would at least be competent. Obviously when those two teams tanked, it greatly eased the Braves schedule. I am sure their are plenty of examples of the inverse happening throughout the year also.

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    • Tim says:

      One thing with the Braves though is the amount of time spent on the DL from the 25 man roster. Two key pieces from the bullpen go down for TJ and Beachy coming back from it only for few games then back on the DL again for rest of season. Losing Hudson to injury in August for rest of season.
      Not many teams can take that kind of hit to their pitching staff and still make the playoffs, not to mention McCann and Heyward spent a lot of time on the DL. Despite having a easy schedule Braves bench and depth really had to come through to get the record they got.

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      • Spit Ball says:

        Injuries are part of baseball. This has nothing do with the “balanced schedule argument unless we were to extrapolate who played the Braves at their weakest. What does matter I think more is the discrepancy between the Blue Jays “hardest schedule” and say the Red Sox. Without looking it up, I’m going to assume that a good deal of the difference in their strengths of schedule has to do with the Red Sox playing the Blue Jays 18 times and vise versa.

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    • PXF says:

      I get what you’re saying, but the point isn’t that we should have predicted that the Braves would have the lightest schedule by this measure. The point is that the unbalanced schedule inevitably produces different SOS. As Jeff notes (in passing), perhaps over time (as in decades) this evens out (perhaps — the AL East will probably always be the most competitive, thanks to population density and geography as it affects travel) — that should not comfort the Rays this year.

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  3. Ari Indik says:

    The comment about the Astros and Yunel Escobar made me laugh. But then I added it up and I got 7.6 for Astros WAR. Am I missing something?

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  4. Ron says:

    No discussion of balanced/unbalanced schedule really can be done without travel considerations. In this case the Rangers probably even had an easier schedule because they got 9 or 10 games at the Astro’s who are relatively close, or maybe it is worse because they played over 25 games outside their time zone but in the division that the Rays didn’t have too.

    The unbalanced schedule makes sense if it is geographical. Until the leagues are merged and true geographical divisions are set up then an unbalanced schedule doesn’t make sense. It does make sense for fans enjoyment (less bad times for games) and travel considerations but for competitive reasons a balanced schedule is best.

    Still we are talking about the 4th and 5th teams in the playoffs and at this point if you can’t win the division there really isn’t much room to complain about not getting in.

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    • PXF says:

      Good points all. On the other side of the ledger, someone (maybe Cameron) pointed out that moving the Astros to the AL West should have helped Texas less than the other AL West teams — ironically, due to the imbalance of interleague play and “rivalries” — since up to 2012 the Rangers got to play the Astros anyway, so they got fewer “additional” games against the Astros than the A’s, Angels, and Mariners did.

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    • Brian says:

      You’re greatly, greatly overstating the impact of travel on winning.

      The problem isn’t that flying across the country is a big disadvantage–you can get from coast-to-coast in a few hours and every team is crossing time zones pretty often. The issue is the quality of teams is not equally distributed and that problem exists no matter how you group teams. (Hence your conclusion about geographic leagues makes no sense–especially when divisions are already arranged this way.) Getting extra games against the Astros and Mariners instead of the Jays and Orioles is an advantage and jet lag doesn’t affect winning nearly as much as that does.

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  5. Graham says:

    Interesting how the highest 9 teams in average opponents war are all American League.

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    • Ari says:

      An extra guy in your lineup might do that.

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      • Tim A says:

        Its also the fact the AL destroyed the NL in inter-league. the overall win% in the NL is like 2 less teams over .500 with a worse overall record for the league.

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        • maguro says:

          The AL won 154 and NL won 146 of the 300 interleague games this year. So they destroyed the NL by the thinnest of margins.

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    • Roger says:

      Yea, as Ari said, you can’t really compare team WAR across leagues. The DH means that AL teams get an inherent advantage even outside of any potential league imbalance.

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  6. Baltar says:

    As a Rays fan, I’d rather see my team play against the Red Sox, Orioles and Yankees and perhaps not make the playoffs because of the tough schedule than see them play against the Astros and Mariners and barely make it.

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    • Baltar says:

      I also like the idea of regional play and teams from all over the country making the playoffs. An addition of 2 teams, say one in the Carolinas and one in NY-NJ, would allow for 4 regional 8-team leagues (West, Central, Northeast, Southeast) sending 2 teams each to the playoffs.

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    • Spit Ball says:

      An argument could be made that the 2008-present Rays came about at least partially due to playing the behemoths of the East. It certainly did not hurt them as far as draft positioning for awhile. They also likely gained from playing strong opponents. After that it’s all Maddon, Friedman etc.. Just an incredible job finding the inefficiencies in the market, stockpiling picks, developing, in game managing, etc…

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  7. daub says:

    About the average opponents’ WAR-
    Wouldn’t being an actually bad (true-talent) team inflate your opponents’ WAR? Like, for the Twins: having awful pitchers would naturally lead to their opponents posting higher batting WAR. (The opposite could apply for the Braves.)
    So it’s not 100% like they got screwed by the unbalanced schedule, but their own suckness inflated their retrospective strength of schedule (to a degree). Am I missing something?

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    • jruby says:

      He did note this in the article: “The numbers might be spread a little too far, since, for example, the Astros’ numbers will be affected by opponent performance against the Astros.”

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    • B N says:

      It’s also disbalanced by the fact that you don’t have to play yourself. Looking at this chart, the distance between the other AL East teams and Boston is striking, but the only major difference between their schedules is probably that Boston doesn’t play itself.

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  8. baycommuter says:

    You’re not sure what baseball wants, Jeff? I am. It wants to maximize revenue in any way legally possible.

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  9. Ctownboy says:

    If you want to make things more fair then get rid of the “rivalry” series of games that teams play against each other. Let the teams in each division play each other the same number of games.

    Then, to decide the rest of the schedule, go back five years and see what each team’s record is. As an example; if there are 162 games a season then over five years there should be 810 games played. Based on that, if the Yankees won – loss record over that time period was (not actual I was too lazy to look it up) 475 – 335 and another team’s record over the same time period was 470 – 340 then those two teams should play each other a couple of series.

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  10. Tim A says:

    The ALW last season boasted the best winning% of a division by far 3 90 win teams in a 4 team division. The Angels shitting the bed is what really lightened things up, but I would say its just deserts, the ALW has had the hardest schedule with 3 above avg teams a majority of years in the last decade, and even the bad teams are rarely horrible. They finally get an easy year and everybody whines, remember not that long ago TB when you were the Astros and NY/Bos were the only teams worth a damn in your division.

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  11. olethros says:

    The fact that the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates are all in the bottom half of that table makes me suspect it is rather inadequate at describing strength of schedule.

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  12. B N says:

    “In the long run, strengths of schedules probably more or less even out.”

    I don’t see how this is possibly true, actually. Certain divisions have bigger markets, stronger fan bases, and similar advantages, in aggregate. For example, I don’t think anyone would say that the strength of schedules in the AL East was equivalent to any other division over the last 20 years.

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  13. Steve says:

    Would it really be such a big deal to shift one series/season against division rivals to other teams?

    For example, instead of the Yankees playing Boston 18 times and Houston 6 times, would it be so bad if they played Boston 15 times and Houston 9?

    Seems like a pretty easy compromise.

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