Strength of Schedule: Could the Braves Give the Tigers a Playoff Spot?

Justin Upton's former team might help his current team reach the playoffs in 2016. (via Eric Enfermero & Howell Media Solutions)

Justin Upton’s former team might help his current team reach the playoffs in 2016. (via Eric Enfermero & Howell Media Solutions)

A lot of teams in the National League are going to be bad this year. According to the FanGraphs projections, the six worst teams in baseball this year are all in the NL: the Padres, Rockies, Brewers, Reds, Braves and Phillies. That’s great news for their division mates, who will get to play them 19 times each. But it’s also great news for the American League teams who are lucky enough to play them in interleague play.

Some are luckier than others. In 2016, the AL East will play the NL West, the AL West will play the NL Central, and the AL Central will play the NL East. Here in the preseason, the AL East teams are projected to average 82.8 wins, AL West 81.8 wins and the AL Central 80.2. Meanwhile, the NL West teams are expected to average 81.6 wins, the NL Central 81.8 and the NL East an average of 78 wins.

That means that the AL Central, the weakest division in the American League, will play the NL East, the weakest division in the National League, and it could be worth at least an extra win or two to the challengers from the Junior Circuit. If Justin Upton‘s Tigers make the playoffs, they may have the schedulers to thank.

I looked at the schedules for all 30 teams and combined them with the projected win percentages for each team, then used Bill James’ Log5 method to estimate the probability that a team would win a particular match-up. As Phil Birnbaum explains:

Team A, with an overall winning percentage talent of .600, plays against a weaker Team B with an overall winning percentage of .450. What’s the probability that team A wins?
In the 1980s, Bill James created the “log5” method to answer that question. The formula is

P = (A - AB)/(A+B-2AB)

… where A is the talent level of team A winning (in this case, .600), and B is the talent level of team B (.450).
Plug in the numbers, and you get that team A has a .647 chance of winning against team B.
That makes sense: A is .600 against average teams. Since opponent B is worse than average, A should be better than .600.

So, here are the team-by-team schedules for 2016:

Here are the projected standings for 2016, and in another tab, the actual standings from 2015:

Note that in the projected standings, the winning percentage is not always exactly equal between teams. For example, the Mariners are projected at 82-80 and a .508 winning percentage, while the Yankees are projected at 82-80 and a .507 winning percentage. That means that the Mariners are expected to be slightly better even though their records may not reflect it. For the purposes of this article, I will say that the Mariners are projected to be the second Wild Card despite the fact that they have the same record as the Yankees.

And here are each team’s expected wins against each of their opponents, based on the teams’ respective projected win percentages. You should read this table horizontally. For example, in the first row, you see that the Blue Jays, a team projected for a .520 win percentage, might be expected to go 10-9 against the Orioles, a team projected at a win percentage of .489. Also, just like last year, this year’s projections have the Royals as one of the worst teams in baseball, so if you want, you can click the second tab to see projected wins and losses on this year’s schedule if every team in baseball had the same winning percentage they had in 2015.

Obviously, there’s a whole lot there, and it’s hard to draw any hard conclusions. The first thing to note, of course, is that win projections are typically overly conservative: The Cubs and Dodgers are the only teams in baseball projected to finish with more than 90 wins, though six teams finished above that mark last year. It’s very likely that when the dust clears, many more teams will finish with more extreme win and loss totals than are projected here. Still, as a measure of relative strength, it’s useful, and it illustrates how just a single win can often separate the second Wild Card from the first also-ran.

As I said, the AL Central is probably going to be the weakest division in the American League. (It usually is.) But after the Indians, the other four teams are within four games of a .500 record: the last-place Royals and Twins are only at 77-85, four wins below .500. And of all of the other teams in the league, only the 87-75 Astros and the 88-74 Red Sox are projected to be more than four wins above .500. (By which I mean that if more than four of their wins had been losses, they would have been at or below .500.) So if the Tigers, White Sox and Royals could turn some of those cheap losses into cheap wins, they could be in contention all year. (It’s not hard to imagine the Royals doing so. Of late, they seem to have a knack for outperforming expectations.)

Each team in the AL Central will be playing six or seven games against the Braves and Phillies, projected to be the two worst teams in baseball. And, again, these projections inherently tend to be conservative. For example, the White Sox, projected at a .496 win percentage, are predicted to go 2-2 against the .398 Phillies, because the odds ratio estimator gives the Sox a .598 winning probability against the Phillies, and .598 times four games equals 2.39 expected wins — which rounds down to a 2-2 record rather than a 3-1 record. But a sweep isn’t remotely out of the question, and a little luck along those lines could move a team like the White Sox from the middle of the pack to dark horse Wild Card contention.

Here’s another way of looking at it, division by division. Interleague divisional match-ups can have a serious effect on a division race because they’re unevenly distributed and the relative strength of divisions can vary widely. This year, NL Central teams are projected to pick up an extra nine wins against the NL East, in 165 games played. But if anything, that’s understating it. Last year, NL Central teams played 165 games against the NL East, and they collectively won 33 more games than they lost.

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The relatively weak AL Central gets its hat handed to it by the AL West and East: The Central teams are projected to be a combined 10 games under .500. Interleague play saves its relative bacon, as the teams are only two games under .500 when playing the National League. One of those five AL Central teams is guaranteed a playoff spot, and with two Wild Cards in the AL, it’s very possible that another could contend as well — so a combined 80 games against the weak NL East could help elevate the Central teams against their stronger league mates, particularly if the weakest East teams are significantly worse than their projections would suggest.

Now, none of this is fair. As I wrote three years ago, “There’s a fundamental tension between the unbalanced schedule and the notion of competitive fairness.” The very notion of different teams having vastly different strength of schedule while competing for the same playoff spots is unfair. Every team plays 76 games against teams in its own division — so the Mets and Nationals benefit greatly from playing 38 games apiece against the Braves and Phillies — 66 games against teams outside their division but in their league, and 20 interleague games.

And those 20 interleague games can have an outsized effect. Just last year, the 86-win Astros squeaked in to the second Wild Card, finishing one game ahead of the 85-win Angels. One of the biggest things that separated them was interleague play: the Astros finished a lucky 16-4, while the Angels were only 8-12. They both faced the West last year, but the 87-win Wild Card Yankees faced the East, and they went 11-9, with special thanks to a three-game sweep of the Braves — and that preserved their two-win margin over the Angels.

So, the Tigers had another staggering free agent binge this year, spending Mike Ilitch’s money as fast as he can sign the checks by handing out hundred-million-dollar contracts to Justin Upton and Jordan Zimmerman. One of these years, they’ll need to pay the piper. But in the meantime, they’re within striking distance of the playoffs, and anything can happen in October. They just might have a chance, as long as they sweep the Braves.

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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.
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tz
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tz

This is why I think the NL Central might only provide one playoff team this year. The Braves and Phillies are both worse than the Brewers, and the Rockies and Padres are worse than the Reds. All those intra-division games will end up making a huge difference.

Brandon
Guest
Brandon

I can’t fathom how anyone thinks the A.L. West is better than the Central. The Mariners aren’t good, and the Angels and A’s look flat out terrible. Tigers, White Sox, Royals and Indians are as good on paper as the Rangers or Astros. The East is real impressive either.

Lee Trocinski
Guest
Lee Trocinski

The Astros and Indians look very similar, along with SEA/CWS, TEX/MIN, and LAA/DET, leaving the A’s and Royals. Considering the last two years, one would assume the Royals are better, making the Central better, but I can also see the projections being right, leaving these two teams near equal records. I wouldn’t say the West is better than the Central, but I also wouldn’t say the Central is better either.

Brandon
Guest
Brandon
Yeah I don’t really see any striking resemblances in any of those comparisons apart from maybe Astros/Indians. LAA has Mike Trout and Garrett Richards. That’s basically it. They don’t compare to the Tigers at all. Seattle/White Sox may vaguely be in the same category, but Iwakuma a real question mark, and Taijuan Walker not really even at Rodon’s level, the Sox have a much better 1-2 in Sale/Quintana IMO. Minnesota has no pitching and glaring holes…Texas has better pitching and possibly far better pitching when Darvish returns. The Astros look to me like the only team in the West with… Read more »
Maribeth
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Guest

Finding this post. It’s just a big piece of luck for me.

Marc Schneider
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Marc Schneider
Baseball used to be the fairest of all sports. You had 8 or 10 teams in each league playing the exact same schedule and the team that won the most games went to the World Series. Every team got to beat up on the same bad teams in their league the same number of times. There was no such thing as “strength of schedule” as in football. Now, strength of schedule does make a difference. I’m not a “get off my lawn” type and I realize you can’t go back to days of yore, but interleague play and the unbalanced… Read more »
Jack Cade
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Jack Cade
Waste of time. W-L record is not an accurate measure of strength or weakness. The Series champs only won their matchup with the Tigers by one game last year. The Tigers were the second “weakest” team in the AL, the truth is that they weren’t. The Tigers were probably, despite the ink of idiots spilt on this, one of the top 10 teams in baseball. People who ought to know better fail to grasp strength of competition factors, which is what makes this post worth commenting on, because that is literally what you are doing and failing to do at… Read more »
Lee Trocinski
Guest
Lee Trocinski

The Tigers went 41-34 in their division and 33-53 out of it. Normally, that means the division was actually extremely weak, making them appear better than they really were. Maybe they just happened to have better luck or fewer injuries during divisional games, but I don’t see any merit in your argument, at least regarding the Tigers.

Brandon
Guest
Brandon

Eh, as a team that were around .500 at the All-Star break. What’s being missed a lot is that the team in the second half had about 7 players on it who will be on the 25-man this year.

Dodgers4
Guest
Dodgers4

This is why I hate interleague play. If only we could return to a 154-game schedule with 16 games vs division and 9 games vs rest of league it would not only be more fair, but we could wrap the Series up before election day.
And you kids get your second Wild Card off my lawn!

Eric
Guest
Eric

“If Justin Upton‘s Tigers make the playoffs, they may have the schedulers to thank.”

Who are you kidding? Upton’s Tiger’s? No way, these are Miguel Cabrera’s Tigers or Justin Verlander’s or JD and Victor Martinez’s or even Illitch’s, but no way Justin Upton. He sucks.

John Autin
Guest
John Autin

“Justin Upton … sucks.”

— Statement contrary to objective fact — stee-rike one!

“…adjust for pitchers batting in the NL … PLUS the fact that the average NL team scores 30 -40 less runs…”

— Counting cause and effect as two separate marks of NL inferiority — stee-rike two!

Extending the “AL is better” thesis to discount Upton’s 2-HR spring training game is just a foul ball. But you’re pretty well set up for the whiff. (It’s a shame, because the AL really *is* better.)

John Autin
Guest
John Autin

Oops — I was replying to Ed’s comments. Now I look like the dope.

P.C.
Guest

I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Very well written!

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