I write some version of this post every spring, and each time, I’m more excited at first than I am as I get more involved. Whenever it comes back to me, I always like the idea, but then eventually I remember it just isn’t that important. It certainly isn’t something people are keeping in mind all season long — no one really worries about the standings until, I don’t know, July, and the league-wide landscape in baseball is pretty even, relative to other professional sports. Most fans operate under the assumption the schedules are more or less even, and they nearly are. Differences are subtle.
But, you know, differences are there, and remember that this is an MLB environment that considers a win on the free-agent market to be worth something like $8 million. Every single win is important, in some sense, and because the schedules aren’t truly identical, there’s no harm in examining the projected advantages and disadvantages. Acknowledging from the outset that this is all based on projections, and that you don’t agree with all the projections, let’s quickly go over the various schedule strengths.
FanGraphs makes this really easy, to be honest. If you navigate around, you’ll find our Projected Standings page, which shows what it says. But you’ll also find our Playoff Odds page, which shows projected standings that are ever so slightly different. This is not a bug! Many people frequently come to the conclusion that this is a bug, but the reason is that the Projected Standings page shows projected records in isolation, while the Playoff Odds page shows standings that fold in the various team schedules. Now, to be honest, I don’t totally know why things show up this way, but I’m not going to complain as long as they do, because of posts like this one. It becomes trivial to evaluate schedule strengths — you just look at the differences between projected team winning percentages. You could do it yourself in 15 seconds.
I’ll assume you haven’t already done it yourself. Which is fine, because I did. Let’s start with the American League schedules. In the plot below, you see the differences per 162 games, in terms of extra wins. A positive number reflects a softer schedule, while a negative number reflects a tougher schedule.
Let’s go ahead and acknowledge the modest elephant in the room: community consensus is that our Royals projection is way off, and these calculations depend on the projections, and on nothing else. So that would be a factor in here, although in fairness it would be a pretty small one. If you want to adjust the Royals’ team projection, then they would get a little boost here, and the Indians would get nudged down. Every team would get slightly nudged down, on account of the games scheduled against the Royals, though of course the rivals in the AL Central would feel it the most. I don’t want to dwell on this too much, but I would feel silly if I didn’t bring it up.
And as for the Orioles, I think there are actually two things happening. One, I think the Orioles have a slightly tougher schedule. But, two — annoyingly — I think maybe the Projected Standings page reflected the Pedro Alvarez acquisition when I grabbed data, while the Playoff Odds page didn’t. I’m given to believe the Playoff Odds page refreshes itself less frequently, so if this is indeed the case, then the Orioles wouldn’t really be as poor off as they seem here. Alvarez makes them a little bit better. Whenever I’ve analyzed schedule strengths before, the Orioles always seem to come away with a tougher slate than their rivals, but I don’t think it’s a real difference of two wins.
Truth be told, the AL isn’t the interesting league, because the AL is characterized by its parity, and the landscape really is pretty well balanced. This projects to be maybe the most even year in recent AL history, and so differences between schedule strengths would be small. Even after adjusting for the above, it seems like the Indians might have a slight advantage. The Angels would have a slight disadvantage, and I think the Orioles would, too. It all matters when the wild card is likely to be so hotly contested. Anyhow, let’s move on to the National League:
A funny side effect of the way the NL is set up is the teams with the disadvantageous schedules are the teams that mostly aren’t even trying to win. Like, the Reds have the toughest schedule in the league by this measure, but I doubt they really care. The Rockies might care a bit, because it seems like they’re at least in part in denial, but it’s not like the Brewers care, and it’s not like the Phillies or the Braves care. They’re all going to lose. An extra loss or two is no big deal. Conveniently, there are even two bad teams per division, so that kind of balances out.
But it doesn’t balance out entirely, because the Phillies and the Braves seem like they’re going to be worse than the other four last-place contenders. So once again, you see an advantage for the Mets and the Nationals. They’re both essentially at +2 wins, and the Marlins also get to benefit. It probably won’t make them feel better about losing Carter Capps, but it’s not nothing, in a year when the Marlins think they might have enough talent to go someplace. The three biggest advantages are in the NL East. Then you find the Cubs and the Dodgers. Their benefit, as you understand, is that they don’t have to play against themselves.
One thing I can’t help but hone in on is the difference between the Marlins and the Diamondbacks, here. They both want to at least fight for the wild card, but the Marlins are given a relative schedule edge of almost two wins. That feels like it could be a big deal, and though there’s a difference between this and starting the Diamondbacks with an actual two-win handicap, this could end up a contributing factor. It would never be the first factor someone would talk about, but an advantage is an advantage.
Just like the two-win difference between the top teams in the NL East and the Cardinals, Giants, and Pirates. Only one of the Mets and Nationals can win the division, so if the other is also good, that team will be in the wild-card hunt, and, you see where this is going. It’s the same as the previous paragraph.
There’s nothing worth freaking out over. Projections can be wrong, and no less importantly, rosters change. As people like to say, it’s not so much about who you play as it is about when you play them. Maybe some team is going to be extra lucky or unlucky facing the Dodgers and Clayton Kershaw. Literally the entire season has yet to play out, and schedule strengths aren’t going to singlehandedly determine the playoff picture. But the schedules, you know, are never completely even. That can’t not matter.
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