The Astros Effect on the AL Playoff Races

There were a variety of reactions when news broke that the Houston Astros would be moving from the National League Central to the American League West in time for the 2013 regular season. Most generally, a lot of people were pleased Major League Baseball would finally achieve league and divisional balance after years of being weird. Many other people worried about the potential consequences of regular interleague play. Astros fans were annoyed, since their team would have to make a big change from decades of franchise history. Fans of other teams in the AL West licked their chops, since — at least in the short-term — the Astros were supposed to be terrible. And fans of other American League teams in the were annoyed, like Astros fans, since the league shift and unbalanced schedule would give the West an advantage. The presence of the Astros in the West stood to give that division a leg up in the race for wild cards.

Sometimes, the projections are way off. This year’s Washington Nationals were supposed to be a potential juggernaut, and right now they’re fighting to remain a .500 team. But sometimes the projections are right on. This year’s Astros have been dreadful, even more so as they’ve trimmed salary and reduced payroll. By FIP, Astros pitchers have collectively been a little below replacement-level. As a team, the team has a lower WAR than Marlon Byrd. The Astros have been more or less as bad as people thought, so, to what extent have they actually influenced the American League playoff race? Have they played a meaningful part?

Yes. Yes, they have played a meaningful part in shaping the current AL playoff race. It’s pretty easy to see how. The Houston, so far, has played 16 games against the Rangers, and they’ve gone 2-14. The Astros played 15 games against the A’s, and they’ve gone 3-12. The Rangers and A’s are tied atop the AL West, meaning they’re also tied for one of the two wild-card slots. Incidentally, the Astros have gone 9-7 in 16 games against the Angels, and the Angels were supposed to be a big-time contender. Just about half the gap between the Angels and the Rangers is explained by head-to-head success against the worst team in baseball. Even when baseball is predictable, it isn’t.

Anyway, the Astros have played some games against every contender in the American League, and here’s how those standings shake out:

Shown are the contenders, their wins against the Astros, their losses against the Astros and the resulting standings. You’re free to apply these numbers to the overall league standings should that interest you.

AL contenders vs. Astros, 2013

Team W L GB
Rangers 14 2 -
A’s 12 3 1.5
Red Sox 6 1 3.5
Tigers 6 1 3.5
Rays 5 2 4.5
Orioles 4 2 5
Royals 4 2 5
Indians 2 1 5.5
Yankees 2 1 5.5

One thing the Astros have done is boost the Oakland’s and Texas’ odds of getting home-field advantage in the first round. The two clubs are still behind both the Red Sox and the Tigers, but the gaps are closer than they might be otherwise. But, mostly, this is about the wild cards, and it’s evident how the Astros have mattered. Because the Rangers and A’s have both beat up on the Astros, they’ve pulled well in front of the wild-card competition.

Before the season’s start, it appeared the Astros could give teams in the West a boost by a game or two or three. That’s what we see now, Angels excepted, as the Rays would actually have the best wild-card winning percentage if you leave the games against the Astros out. All of the trailing teams would have more of a fighting chance, with even the Royals’ situation being a little less desperate. Of course, we can’t nail things down specifically, because we haven’t agreed to an alternative scenario. If it weren’t for the Astros, against whom would those games have been played? And how would those games work out?

It’s worth noting that the Rangers and A’s have both taken care of business. They’ve lost five of a combined 31 games against the Astros, while the rest of the contenders have lost 10 of a combined 39. So while Texas and Oakland have been given an advantage by the Astros’ league switch, they’ve also taken more advantage of the new bad team. The Orioles and the Royals have lost to the Astros twice out of six games. The Rangers have lost twice out of 16. Opportunities like this aren’t common, and Texas and Oakland have seized their chances.

Depending on how things shake out, one might be able to say that the Astros changed the wild-card picture. Of course, things will depend on much more than that — after all, the Astros are just one team out of plenty — but it was anticipated Houston would make things easier for the West. Sure enough, that’s what we see. One should consider, though, the Blue Jays have been much worse than expected. The White Sox, too, so it’s not like the Astros have been the AL’s only bad team. If anything, maybe the playing field has been a little more even than it could’ve been. Probably not, on account of the Angels, but, I tried.

One could try to advance the argument that this is unfair, that things are lopsided in the West’s favor. That’s absolutely true — in 2013. Every year, the unbalanced schedules make things lopsided. All divisions are different. Because team success tends to be cyclical — given a long enough period of time — the divisions should get just about the same number of pushovers. This year, the American League West has the Astros. Last year, the National League Central had the Astros. In 2003, the AL Central had the Tigers. In 2010, the NL Central had the Pirates. Things are never going to be fair until the schedules are balanced. And even then, the balance will be approximate.

But if you’re a fan whose life has been made more difficult by the Astros moving to the AL West, take solace in their organizational intelligence and direction. They’ll be tough soon, and then this will all be forgotten. Things aren’t even, but they’re never even. Things are just baseball, and those weird flaws are part of the fun.

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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.

53 Responses to “The Astros Effect on the AL Playoff Races”

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  1. Cuck city says:

    Why do divisions even exist any more? Everyone has chartered planes and isnt going by train. Balance the schedule please.

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    • Pirates Hurdles says:

      Because fans enjoy rivalries. I would much rather watch PIT play CIN or MIL 19 times than watch the Bucs play Miami and San Diego more. As a fan and season ticket holder it sure seems like the majority of people would rather have regional matchups than balance. Of course, that isn’t the case in this small corner of the baseball world.

      Every sport uses unbalanced schedules to minimize travel costs and maximize revenue.

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      • OtherSideoftheCoin says:

        I think you may be in the majority. Most fans I know want to see as many different teams as possible. That’s specifically why teams sell smaller season ticket packages that have no duplicate matchups. Also, don’t you want to see Pittsburgh play the Phillies? Or the Braves and relive the 90s? It doesn’t have to be equal, but right now it seems like overkill–and probably more “unfair” than it needs to be.

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      • Hurtlocker says:

        I agree with Pirates, part of the “charm” of baseball is the battle within the battle. You beat your rivalries and then you beat the world. I really don’t care to see more AL teams play, and I really don’t care about the Red Sox or the Yankees. What a concept?

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        • David says:

          I can see why fans want to see their team play their rivals more often, but I also think MLB should be trying to encourage Pirates fans (and fans of other teams) to be baseball fans first and Pirates fans etc. second. The World Series should be the biggest event on every fan’s calendar regardless of which teams are playing in it.

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        • Jack says:

          People should be fans of their own teams first, not the other way around. Watching baseball and rooting for everyone to play well is no fun. It’s a lot more fun to hate some teams, like your team, and root for poor teams that aren’t in your division like the Rays and A’s.

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        • David says:

          Fans should enjoy the game however they want. You are wrong to say what fans “should” do. I was only saying that I think MLB should be doing more to get fans interested in games that don’t involve their favourite teams to increase fan interest in the post season once their team is eliminated.

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      • David says:

        But saying you’d rather watch your team play talented rivals within the division than bad teams outside the division is a false dichotomy.

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    • Choo says:

      A balanced schedule would skew travel to ridiculous (un)proportions.

      I’m not interested in creating the schedule and math to see how the new figures would look, but as it stands now the majority of non-AL West teams travel between 25,000-35,000 miles per season. The Rangers travel 37,000 miles per season, which isn’t bad, but the A’s and Angels travel 46,500 miles per season and Mariners travel 50,000 miles per season. The physical demands of travel, the separation from family, all of it would be compounded.

      The Astros are bad. So are the Marlins. The Cubs, Twins, Mariners, Pirates and Nationals have been bad in recent seasons. Pretty soon, the Astros and Marlins won’t be nearly as bad, and there will be other teams who are. Cupcakes are cyclical, just like everything else in baseball.

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      • Jason B says:

        “The Astros are bad. So are the Marlins. The Cubs, Twins, Mariners, Pirates and Nationals have been bad in recent seasons. Pretty soon, the Astros and Marlins won’t be nearly as bad, and there will be other teams who are. Cupcakes are cyclical, just like everything else in baseball.”

        ^^This. Very well said (and echoing a similar sentiment that Jeff expressed in the article). Best not to overreact to one particular team being bad in one particular season.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        Couldn’t this be cured with east and west leagues and limited but equal interleague?

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    • Evan says:

      Another reason they don’t want to balance the schedule is that it reduces the value of local television rights. A balanced schedule means more East Coast teams playing games that start between 8ET and 10ET and more afternoon games for West Coast teams to broadcast. The teams that play in Central or Mountain time are somewhat buffered, but would still be affected by more out of time zone games – it has been a longtime complaint of the Rangers that all of their division night road games start at 9 PM in Texas, which was part of the motivation for bringing the Astros to the ALW.

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      • Again, why not east and west leagues? Keep it mostly in the same time zone, cuts on travel, still equal.

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      • Baltar says:

        Yeah, but as a sports fan, living in the Eastern Time Zone really sucks. I moved from California, where no games started later than 8 p.m. and most much earlier, to Cincinnati, where the earliest games start at 7 p.m. and many much later.
        I hate having to stay up until midnight or later to see the end of most games in any sport. Recording and trying to watch the next day before hearing or seeing the score somewhere doesn’t work.

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  2. chuckb says:

    This is exactly why I think the unbalanced schedule should be eliminated. Most of the competition now in the 2 leagues is for the Wild Card spots and the teams competing for those spots need to assessed as equally as possible. Creating a balanced schedule league-wide would do that and it would still insure that the division winners were sorted out through equal competitions as well.

    It would mean fewer Yankees-Red Sox matchups but is that really such a great tragedy? If they played 10 or 12 games instead of 16 or 18? And at least it wouldn’t be scheduling randomness that determined (potentially) who made the playoffs and who didn’t.

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    • ESPN says:

      Fewer Yankees-Red Sox matchups? Good god, man, what kind of monster are you?

      +49 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • JR says:

        If ESPN ran the league, then the Red Sox and Yankees would play each other 162 times, and then the winner would play one of the other teams randomly for the World Series

        Or – perhaps just have the Red Sox and Yankees face each other for the World Series

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        • Come On Now says:

          The reason ESPN loves the rivalry is because it brings them ratings, and ratings bring them money. Same with Fox. Their executives don’t have some secret agenda to make everyone love/hate those teams, they aren’t feeding their own egos, it’s not some conspiracy.

          They want to have the highest ratings possible so that A) their bonuses are higher and B) they don’t get fired. They have tons of empirical evidence that NY-BOS series brings them ratings. Thus, they continue to show NY-BOS series.

          An executive that just does nice things for “love of the game” will be fired so fast it will make your head spin. It isn’t just some fat cat’s greed – do you buy stocks that have crappy returns for your retirement funds?

          Sorry for the rant, but I hate that people just don’t understand that sports, in particular sports broadcasting/journalism, is a business, not a public service.

          +6 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • Baltar says:

          Come on Now, yourself. I understand that everything in the USA is done for money, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

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        • Breadbaker says:

          It wasn’t always that way. Since about the time Fox got the World Series and game of the week contract, baseball has essentially marketed about six teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Cardinals, Dodgers, Braves) and ignored the rest. In 1984, the Tigers’ story was the biggest in the country. In 2001, no one ever saw the Mariners winning 116 games. Marketing is a choice; the Red Sox are not inherently more interesting than the Diamondbacks.

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  3. Monty says:

    “Things are just baseball, and those weird flaws are part of the fun.”

    This is my exact reason for not wanting expanded replay.

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    • bdhudson says:

      There is a huge difference between interesting aspects of how the schedule plays out and expanded replay. Ok, the Rangers and A’s beat the crap out of Houston this year, that’s neat. And yeah, those things are just baseball. A blatantly missed call on a play at first or a home run is not “just baseball,” it’s actually the exact opposite of “just baseball,” because the game itself has rules. You’re basically saying that you like it when the outcome of play has nothing to do with what actually occurred on the field, and that’s not “just baseball.”

      +7 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Oh, Beepy says:

      Just go watch hockey and stay the hell away from Gentlemen Sports.

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  4. jim says:

    From 1999 through 2012, the AL West had the best record of any division 9 of those 13 years, They never really got any credit for it since all you ever read about was how great the AL East was. Plus I don’t remember ever reading an article about how tough it was for any team in the AL West to be the wild card.

    Now that the AL West has become a run-of the-mill division (just like the NL West, NL Central, and AL Central are EVERY year), we have to read about how bad the division is, and how lucky they are to have Houston, and now how easy it’s going to be for the division to have a wild card team.

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  5. kevinthecomic says:

    Based on the tone of the article, I am assuming that the author’s intent is to demonstrate that a balanced schedule would more accurately determine who the best teams are. This being the case then, the argument for a balanced schedule is moot as long as the playoff system exists. Let me explain.

    Every year teams play a marathon (regualar season) in order to determine who wins a lottery ticket (playoff spot). The skills needed to win the marathon are non-trivially different from the skills needed to win the lottery and, of course, winning a lottery involves a huge amount of luck. Therefore, more accurately determining who gets a lottery ticket is moot because, ultimately, you’re just going to end up in a crap-shoot anyway.

    The only way that a balanced schedule works is if you eliminate the playoffs. Each team plays each other team (AL and NL) an equal number of times home and away. After 162 games (assuming that this is mathematically possible with 162 games), the team with the best record is the league champion and the season ends.

    Of course this will never happen because, as mentioned by previous posters, MLB is all about maximizing revenue and minimizing costs. The playoffs and the games leading up to the playoffs are revenue generators.

    So arguing for a balanced schedule while continuing the existence of the playoffs really doesn’t get us that much closer to the ultimate champion being the best team. It is a case where there is more precision but not more accuracy.

    +7 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Jason B says:

      “I am assuming that the author’s intent is to demonstrate that a balanced schedule would more accurately determine who the best teams are.”

      I think your premise is flawed. I don’t think the author is arguing that point at all. Just saying that in this particular year, it helped these particular teams (OAK and TEX), just like it tends to help some team or another most every year. I didn’t see a direct call or an inference that the present system should be scrapped in favor of an unbalanced schedule. To wit:

      “One could try to advance the argument that this is unfair, that things are lopsided in the West’s favor. That’s absolutely true — in 2013. Every year, the unbalanced schedules make things lopsided. All divisions are different. Because team success tends to be cyclical…”

      Vote -1 Vote +1

      • kevinthecomic says:

        True. But then there is this:

        “Things are never going to be fair until the schedules are balanced.”

        I think he started out the article as descriptive only, ie. here is what teams did against the Astros and here are the results. However, and maybe I am reading between the lines, he seemed to be moving toward an action to be taken, namely a balanced schedule.

        I take your point though. If I misunderstood the premise or read too much between the lines then my take is moot.

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        • Jason B says:

          No worries! I don’t claim to have a direct pipeline into Jeff’s mind either (thankfully, it’s dark and scary in there). I didn’t discern the same intent that you did, but you may be right, and your points are not invalid even if that’s not what Jeff was getting at.

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  6. payroll says:

    According to this, home field advantage in a 5 game series yields a 51.3% odds of series victory, on average.

    In a 1 game playoff, the odds are still almost even at 54%

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    • Bip says:

      Is that controlling for the fact that, since home field in the LDS is determined by record, generally the better team has home-field advantage? In other words, the advantage from home-field in the playoffs is actually an effect of the home-team having established themselves as the better team?

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  7. bh192012 says:

    “It’s worth noting that the Rangers and A’s have both taken care of business.”

    end of article.

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  8. Steven says:

    i propose a new out-crop of the ___graphs empire: “$graphs”

    a site where you can analyze the monetary impact of rivalries and dynasties on sport revenues, develop bJAR (jerseys sold above replacement) stats and translate Japanese baseball stats to the majors using a combination the yen, Tokyo real estate values and central app coal prices….

    oh – the game’s on. [cracks open a Pearl] sorry gents, i gotta go yell at Ron Warsh through the tube.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  9. Bip says:

    Is it weird that I don’t want a balanced schedule, and that I like having more games against division rivals? I swear being a fan of a NL West team has nothing to do with that.

    What if MLB did something like what the NFL does? In the NFL, teams are guaranteed to play one game against each team that finished in the same place at they did. What if MLB took some of the intradivisional series and made them against other teams that finished in the same place last year?

    -More parity, since bad teams get an easier schedule
    -Wider variety of teams fans get to see
    -Less travel than a fully balanced schedule
    -More chances for the teams likely to be competing for wildcard spots to go head-to-head

    -Last place teams will have more games that no one will care to see
    -Not truly balanced, so not truly fair (but is that what we want?)
    -Fewer games against division rivals (depending on your preference)

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    • Bip says:

      To be clear, I mean that last years division winners would play each other more the next year, last years last place teams play each other more the next year. This is more possible now that the divisions are the same size.

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    • Also a coins false parity. You play other garbage teams and you got marginally better, you just added wins you might not otherwise get all because ou sucked last year. With the NFL’s 16 game schedule, a swing of a few wins against bad teams and you squeak out a win against a team you probably shouldn’t have beaten and you look a lot better even though you really aren’t.

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  10. TheGrandslamwich says:

    I still like having the division rivalry aspect, but having 19 games against division rivals seems like a bit too much. I think changing both leagues back into the old 2 division format would be better. The schedule would be slightly more balanced, and it would still maintain the rivalry aspect. The top team in each division and the team with the next best record go through to the DS and the next 2 teams play the Wild Card.

    This would also make it less likely to have a situation like 2012 where the Tigers went straight through to the DS despite having the 7th best record in the league.

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  11. supershredder says:

    I hate the argument about the Astros affecting the playoff race. That’s such a stupid premise. Every team that plays baseball affects the playoff race! Minnesota affected the Royals’ playoff chances by losing to them 15 times out of 19 matchups so far! Why aren’t we raising a fuss about the Twins unfairly increasing the Royals’ playoff chances?!?!? Or how about the Indians winning 11 out of 13 games and the Tigers winning 15 out of 19, both against the White Sox? Sorry this isn’t necessarily a rant against the author (Jeff) … just a complaint against the general notion of the Astros “boosting” the Rangers and A’s. Every season some teams suck and some teams are better. The suckier teams lose more often and therefore the better teams win more often. It’s not rocket science…

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    • Fid says:

      . . . because the White Sox and Twins didn’t jump leagues/divisions before this season. The reason the Astros are interesting is that they had a huge situation change that placed them against new teams the majority of the time. Jeff is just looking, as the end of the season approaches, at the ramification of that change in the division it most influenced. I’d be interested in analysis of what happened with the teams the ‘Stros left behind in the NL Central.

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      • supershredder says:

        Didn’t seem to hurt the NL Central to lose the Astros as it looks like both NL Wild Card teams will come out of that division. Like I said earlier, I’m not trying to rail against Jeff just the general notion.

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  12. chief00 says:

    Being a Jays’ fan it was tough to see DET move to the ALC. Why? Because of the red hot rivalry, of course. But I’m still a Jays’ fan and they still play 162 games.

    So, what’s replaced the DET/TOR rivalry? Nothing. Why? The Jays aren’t good enough to create a rivalry. Now we’re on to somethin’: aside from BOS/NYY, most teams will have to create something by being good and chasing a division title, a playoff spot, a title, or whatever. There are 4 other teams in the ALE: if TOR was ‘in the mix’, I’d sure have a greater hate on for NY, BAL, BOS and TB. Why? They’d all be chasing the same thing, and TOR plays them 15 times in the next 21 games. Balanced schedule or not, playing the teams that matter when it matters is like rubbing 2 sticks together. It may take a while, but eventually there’s a spark.

    Does anyone think that playing the Jays has helped the Yankees? They’re 13-3 against the Jays, after all. How ’bout the Rays, who are 10-6 vs. the Jays? Jeff’s right when he says “Even when baseball is predictable, it isn’t.” The Jays were supposed to be good, but mostly they’ve been cannon fodder. Hats off to you if you predicted it. You’re one of the few.

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    • Baltar says:

      I won’t say I predicted the Jays would be terrible, but in preseason comments I warned Jays fans against their hubris. Jacking the payroll way up usually results in a worse record in the first year rather than a better one.

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  13. Billy says:

    I’m not particularly fired up about this issue, but just one point on the side of an unbalanced schedule. It kinda makes some sense that you are playing the teams that you are directly competing with for a playoff spot more often than others.

    Granted, when you’re competing for a wildcard, that’s not necessarily the case. And now that we have TWO of those, I guess that makes it more pronounced.

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