In the Wild Card Race, Schedule Matters

This afternoon, I had a bit of a brouhaha with one Jonah Keri, friend of the site and of mine. With the Royals leading the Indians 5-2 at the time of our fisticuffs, Jonah tweeted the following.

Because I have a reputation as a Debbie Downer to uphold, I went to our Playoff Odds page and noted that the listed playoff odds for Kansas City stood at just 2.7%. That didn’t account for the game the Royals were winning at the moment, so it understated their odds to some degree, but even with the victory over the Royals, I called out the Tall Canadian on his liberal use of the term “very real shot”, noting that math says that the Royals are pretty big long shots to end up with a wild card spot.

Of course, Mr. Keri prefers to poutine and Youppi to cold hard facts, so he waved off the numbers as something born out of a witches cauldron. Bah and humbug, he said, or something to that effect, before donning his Chris Getz jersey and resuming his cheerleading.

Because I like Jonah and want him to see the folly of his ways, I figured this was worth a post. Even with just a couple of game deficit with a few weeks still go to, why do our playoff odds calculations think the Royals have little chance of actually making the playoffs? In large part, it can be summed up by the remaining schedule.

Over the next two and a half weeks, the Royals have the following opponents left to contend with:

@ DET (3)
Vs TEX (3)
Vs CLE (3)
@ SEA (3)
@ CWS (4)

Pollyanas will look at that last week and celebrate the cake walk leading up to the season’s end, but the Royals have two of the best teams in the AL coming up, and another head to head matchup with a competitive Indians team in between. Nine of their final 16 games are against contenders, and 10 of their last 16 games are on the road.

For comparison, here’s the Indians remaining schedule.

@ CWS (4)
@ KCR (3)
Vs HOU (4)
Vs CWS (2)
@ MIN (4)

While the Royals get to finish with the White Sox, the Indians actually have two more games against Chicago than Kansas City does, and instead of playing the Tigers and Rangers, they get the Astros and Twins. The only .500 team left on Cleveland’s schedule is the Royals. They have the same lots-of-road-games problem as Kansas City does, but no one in baseball is playing a lower quality of competition down the stretch.

Just for reference, here’s the schedules for the Rays, Orioles, and Yankees too.

TB:

Vs BOS (2)
@ MIN (3)
Vs TEX (4)
Vs BAL (4)
@ NYY (3)
@ TOR (3)

Yikes. It’s a good thing the Rays have a little bit of a cushion, because that’s a gauntlet.

BAL:

Vs NYY (2)
@ TOR (3)
@ BOS (3)
@ TBR (4)
Vs TOR (3)
Vs BOS (3)

This is rough too, though those final few games against the Red Sox might be easier than they look, as the Red Sox could very well have clinched the division by that point and use the weekend to setup their playoff rotation and get their bullpen rested. Still, not easy.

NYY:

@ BAL (2)
@ BOS (3)
@ TOR (3)
Vs SFG (3)
Vs TBR (3)
@ HOU (3)

There’s definitely some big games left against the Red Sox and Orioles, but nine against the Blue Jays, Giants, and Astros gives them a bit of an edge over the other AL East teams.

The old about baseball being a marathon and not a spring is true, but marathons are not usually run on even grade. There are hills involved, and parts of the course that are significantly more difficult than others. The Orioles and Rays are about to run up a very long hill. The Royals have a steep hill in front of them that at least comes with a downward descent. The Yankees are running on pretty flat ground.

The Indians, though, are about to hail a cab. They might not look like they’re poised for a big finish after losing this series to Kansas City, but there’s a reason our playoff odds page gives them a 25% chance of making the playoffs despite just being a half game ahead of Kansas City, whose odds increased to 4.9% after today’s victory.

Looking at “games back” is no longer good enough. There are so many variables to be considered, and remaining strength of schedule is a real factor. The Indians and Royals might be nearly tied in the standings, but given their upcoming competition, it is not the virtual tie that it might appear on the surface.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Shauncore
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Shauncore

A popular mantra between Royals fans right now is “It’s not the distance, it’s the traffic”

Monty
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Monty

Does ‘between’ imply that there are only 2 Royals fans?

CabreraDeath
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CabreraDeath

Your comment by itself would be lame. Your comment – following an excellent comment – just makes it embarrassing.

Johnston
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Johnston

I thought it was a great comment.

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