In case you’d forgotten, where the Houston Astros used to be a National League baseball team, now they’re going to be an American League baseball team. It’s a big deal, because it’s a sort of pseudo-relocation, and it’s also been a long time coming since before the leagues were unbalanced and that didn’t make any sense. For years, we had one league with 14 teams and one league with 16 teams, and we didn’t just tolerate it — we hardly ever bothered to acknowledge it. Unbalanced leagues! Amazing!
The move has generated certain negative responses, both particular and broad. A lot of Astros fans aren’t happy, because they’ve grown to prefer NL baseball, and also because people prefer to remain unchanged, given their druthers. A lot of baseball fans aren’t happy, because now there’s going to be more regular interleague play, and people have strong feelings about that. And a lot of AL baseball fans aren’t happy, because the Astros are bad, they’re moving to the AL West, and the schedule is unbalanced. There’s a perception that the Astros will give an advantage to teams in the West, and therefore that they’ll give a disadvantage to teams in the Central and East.
Without question, this is pretty short-sighted. The last one, I mean. It’s true that the Astros are a pretty bad baseball team, right now. They’re in the process of being almost completely rebuilt from scratch. In time, though, they will not be bad, and other teams will be bad. These things are cyclical, and if you look at the biggest picture, covering many many years, all divisions should be just about balanced. I don’t think one should have a negative reaction to something like this because of something that might only matter for a year or two.
But we can still talk about the effect the Astros might have on the playoff race this coming season. Because they’re moving, and because the schedules are unbalanced, there might well be something here. What we have to do first is establish expectations, and it just so happens that some projected standings were generated the other day at Replacement Level Yankees Weblog. This is based on the CAIRO projection system, using the latest depth charts, and while the projections are early and inarguably imperfect, they do give us a sense of things. In the surprise to end all surprises, the Astros look like the worst team in baseball right now. No one else is closer than six wins away. The Angels, Rangers, and Athletics look good. The Rays and Rangers would be the Wild Card teams, were these standings to play out exactly so.
Now we have to look at the unbalanced schedules. Every other team in the AL West will play the Astros 19 times in 2013. Other teams in the AL will play the Astros six or seven times, meaning a difference of 12-13 games. There are, of course, many differences between team schedules, but for the sake of simplicity, here we’ll just focus on the Astros part.
That seems like a big advantage for a good team in the West, since the Astros are a bad team. That’s two extra weeks’ worth of games against Houston, instead of someone better. But of course, we shouldn’t expect the Astros to lose every time. Just because they project to be a bad team doesn’t mean they project to be a humiliating, helpless, nothing team. Let’s call the Astros a 60-win baseball team. Now let’s take a team — say, the Rangers — and call them a 90-win baseball team. Over 12 games against the Astros, you’d expect the Rangers to win eight times. Maybe, maybe, nine times. Now, instead of playing those 12 games against a 60-win team, let’s say a 90-win team plays against a 75-win team. You’d expect the better team to win seven times. So on that basis alone, you’re talking about an advantage of one or maybe two wins.
Which is real, but which is not real staggering. We all understand that the Astros are bad, but extra games against the Astros don’t mean as many extra wins against the Astros, because sometimes the Astros will win instead. Just for the sake of reference, last year the Astros went 5-10 against the Reds and 4-11 against the Cardinals. These are bad records, but good teams didn’t walk all over the Astros like they weren’t there. The 2012 Astros weren’t a total pushover, and now they should be a little improved.
There could be a compound effect from the Mariners also playing in the West, since the Mariners are projected to be lousy. But the Mariners aren’t finished yet with their offseason, and their depth chart is a tricky one to figure out. It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Mariners were more like a .500 ballclub. One can’t ignore that, in the Central, the Twins are projected to be pretty lousy. That’s not a surprise, and that helps the other teams in the Central, just as the Astros help the other teams in the West.
Realistically, this is less about an advantage in the West, and more about a disadvantage in the East. Playoff contenders can try to beat up on the Astros in the West, and playoff contenders can try to beat up on the Twins in the Central, but the worst team in the East is…the Red Sox? The Orioles? The Orioles just last year made the playoffs. Any team in the East could conceivably win the division, meaning no team in the East looks like a pile of crap. Making the unbalanced schedule a disadvantageous one, for them.
But again, we’re talking about a very small number of wins. And if this is about the AL Wild Card, then the best team in the West might be more difficult to play against than the best team in the East, and the same might go for the best team in the Central. In short: the Astros moving to the West doesn’t cripple the Wild Card hopes of teams in the East. It just changes the math slightly.
And that ignores the rest of the differences in the schedules. Everyone in the AL will play 20 games against teams in the NL, but those’ll be against different opponents. For example, the White Sox get three games against the Marlins, while the Marlins don’t play the Rangers or Orioles. The Orioles get four games against the Padres, while the Padres don’t play the Rangers or White Sox. You can’t just isolate the presence of the Astros, because the Astros aren’t the only difference.
Odds are the AL Wild Card race will be close. Close enough that a game here and two games there could make a significant difference. Those are games at a critical point in the playoff probability win curve. Because of the current distribution of talent, teams in the AL East appear to be at something of a disadvantage, because they don’t have a Twins team or an Astros team at their disposal. But any disadvantage would be small, on the order of one or two or three wins, most likely, meaning the results won’t be determined by the schedules. The results will be determined almost entirely by performance and luck. And then in 2014, the Astros should be better. Come 2015, they should be better still. It all cycles, and given what we’ve been through in the recent past, not a whole lot of people are going to shed many tears over teams in the AL East kind of being up against it. Baseball’s unbalanced. That remains a fact of the game.