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— Where BTF's Members Investigate the Grand Old Game
Friday, July 12, 2002
Baseball Schedules Aren’t Always Fair
Rich gives the West Coast fans something to complain about.
Just before interleague play was about to begin this year, A’s Manager Art Howe was asked by a beat reporter if he liked the new interleague schedule, where his club would be playing a whole new set of opponents, including both of his former clubs, the Houston Astros and the Pittsburgh Pirates? Howe said, "no," he would rather that interleague play would be done away with entirely. He was particularly upset with the fact that while Oakland would be playing 6 games against the San Francisco Giants, a quality opponent, the A’s divisional rival, the Mariners, would be facing two lesser lights of the NL West, the Rockies and the Padres. Little did Art know at that time that his 2002 club would post the best interleague mark ever for one season, 16-2, and that the A’s would maintain the best overall interleague record since 1997.
The idea behind interleague play, of course, is not to increase fairness in the major league schedule. The hope is to attract more fans to more games. And for the most part, that seems to have worked well.
Nonetheless, the criticism that the schedule is unfair remains. Teams in each of the 6 divisions compete for a division title - and the spot in the playoffs that goes along with each crown - yet within those divisions, some teams have distinctly more difficult schedules than their intradivisional rivals. And more egregious is the schedule differentiation among clubs competing for each league’s wild card. Due to the unbalanced schedule, where clubs are pitted 19 times against intradivisional opponents but as few as 6 times against extradivisional foes, teams in strong divisions are at a definite disadvantage. The very unbalanced interleague schedule potentially makes the wild card race all that much more unfair.
Fairness would be maximized by getting rid of interleague play, league divisions, and the unbalanced schedule. This, of course, was the system until 1968. Both leagues had 10 teams, and all 10 in each league played a balanced schedule of 162 intraleague games. With 9 opponents, you simply faced each one 18 times in a season. However, this did not mean that the quality of opponents was perfectly equal for all clubs, because a great team like the ‘68 Tigers necessarily had an easier schedule than a sorry team like the ‘68 Senators. Why is that? Because Detroit never had to face Detroit. And Washington missed out on getting to play a team like Washington. But compared with everything else that has been tried since, the pre-1969 set-up was the fairest possible.
In 1969, when the Royals and Pilots joined the AL, and the Padres and Expos entered the NL, the leagues split into West and East divisions for the first time. They could still play balanced schedules, but no longer was it certain that the best teams would make the playoffs. Why not? Because in some years, it would be the case that the best two teams were playing in the same division. Take a look at the National League in 1973, for example:
W L WL% GB CIN 99 63 .611 -- LAD 95 66 .590 3.5 SFG 88 74 .543 11.0 NYM 82 79 .509 --
The Reds won the West, and the Mets won the East. But there was no doubt that the Dodgers and Giants were better than New York was that year. Had the 1968 system still been in place, the Mets would have merely been a footnote as a 4th place ballclub. Instead, they nearly repeated the Miracle of 1969, after first edging The Big Red Machine in the playoffs, and almost taking out the Athletics in a 7 game World Series.
So with all the changes that have been made since the halcyon days of 1968, how unfair is today’s schedule? Are we getting the best teams in post-season play? As it turns out, that’s not the easiest question to answer. First and foremost, 8 teams now make the playoffs - a fourfold expansion from 34 years ago - so it is nearly certain that the best and second best teams will make the post-season in 2002. (For a full explanation of how and why this doesn’t always happen, see the excellent article by Jeff Hildebrand in the back of the 2002 Baseball Prospectus, in which he examines the interplay of the schedule, the divisions, and issues of fairness).
When it comes to testing fairness of the schedule, we are mostly talking about how marginal playoff contenders are affected. That is, the 3rd, 4th, 5th, and maybe 6th best teams in each league that are competing for a wild card spot. One point Hildebrand covers is the fact that, over time, teams in a 4-team division are at a distinct advantage over clubs in a 6-team division. But again, for the most part, that distinction affects not the best or second best team in a league. Rather, most years, it impacts the teams competing for the last playoff spot.
To get back to the question at hand about fairness in today’s particular schedule, I first examined all 30 teams’ schedules up to the All-Star break. To do that, I calculated the win-loss records of each team’s opponents, extracting the games that each team in question played against its opponents. That sounds confusing, but looking at the example of one team makes the methodology clear.
Here’s how I handled the Blue Jays. Toronto has played 86 games, so far. 11 of those games have been against the Red Sox, 6 versus the Athletics, 3 against the Dodgers, and so on. The Red Sox’s record against all teams is 52-33 (.612). However, against Toronto, Boston is 10-1. Therefore, the Red Sox’s record against all non-Toronto teams is 42-32 (.568). So for those 11 games, the Blue Jays are credited with playing a .568 team. Against Oakland, Toronto won 5 of its 6 games. The A’s overall record is 50-38 (.568). But against all non-Toronto teams, Oakland is 49-33 (.598). So for those 6 games, the Blue Jays are credited with playing a .598 club. Counting all the teams that they have played so far, Toronto’s weighted opponents have a mean winning percentage of .530. (That happens to be the most difficult of any team in baseball.)
Here is how the divisions break out:
AL EAST TOR 86 .530 BAL 85 .513 BOS 85 .511 TBD 85 .510 NYY 85 .504
AL CENTRAL KCR 85 .498 CWS 88 .489 MIN 89 .485 CLE 85 .478 DET 85 .478
AL WEST SEA 88 .518 OAK 88 .516 ANA 86 .491 TEX 86 .490
NL EAST NYM 87 .518 ATL 88 .513 PHI 86 .509 MON 87 .489 FLA 88 .484
NL CENTRAL CIN 87 .506 MIL 88 .506 HOU 86 .492 CHN 86 .489 STL 85 .488 PIT 87 .469
NL WEST COL 88 .525 LAD 88 .511 ARI 87 .507 SFG 87 .505 SDP 88 .504
Among the teams now contesting for a division title, the pre-All-Star schedule has favored the Yankees over the Red Sox, the Indians over the Twins and White Sox, the Angels over the A’s and Mariners, the Marlins and Expos over the Braves and Mets, the Cardinals over the Reds, and the Giants and Diamondbacks over the Dodgers. Some of these discrepancies have been big (such as in the AL West and the NL Central); others are quite small (such as in the NL West); and others are probably not significant (such as in the NL East, where despite a disadvantage, the Braves are still well ahead).
To see how each club’s post-All-Star schedule compares, I used a slightly different methodology. I took each club’s opponents’ Pythagorean record (based on all games played so far this season), and multiplyed that by the games each club will play against it in the second half. Because of the labor involved in subtracting the runs scored and runs allowed in each head-to-head match up, I did not extract those runs when calculating P-records. For example, the Expos played the Reds 3 games prior to the All-Star break. Those two teams will play 3 more times after the break. To weight the difficulty of that match-up for Montreal, I simply used Cincinnati’s Pythagorean Winning Percentage (.473), instead of recalculating it after subtracting out the runs the Reds scored and allowed against the Expos. In most cases, I don’t think this discrepancy will greatly affect the results.
Here, then, are the weighted schedules of all teams following the All-Star break:
AL EAST TBD 77 .536 TOR 76 .505 BAL 77 .496 BOS 77 .487 NYY 75 .473
AL CENTRAL DET 77 .518 CLE 76 .502 MIN 73 .484 KCR 77 .482 CWS 74 .469
AL WEST TEX 76 .539 ANA 76 .522 OAK 74 .503 SEA 74 .490
NL EAST PHI 76 .515 MON 75 .512 FLA 74 .511 NYM 75 .501 ATL 74 .488
NL CENTRAL PIT 75 .508 CHN 76 .492 MIL 74 .491 STL 77 .480 HOU 76 .478 CIN 75 .474
NL WEST SDP 74 .530 COL 74 .510 LAD 74 .504 SFG 75 .501 ARI 75 .493
Judging the difficulty of each team’s schedule for the second half, based on how the clubs it still must face did in the first half, is far from perfect. In some cases, those just aren’t the same teams. Seattle, for example, has not yet played the Indians. So the Tribe they will face 7 times in August is one without Bartolo Colon, perhaps without Jim Thome, and with a gimpy Omar Vizquel (who is now playing with a torn labrum). Nevertheless, we get a pretty good idea who is favored by the games each has yet to play.
In the AL East, the Yankees (again) have it easier than the Red Sox; in the Central, the Twins have a tougher-looking run than the White Sox; in the West, the Mariners appear to have it much easier than the Angels and Athletics; in the NL East, the Braves should benefit from their remaining games; in the Central, there is not a lot of difference among the top-tier teams; and in the West, Arizona has a small edge over the Giants and Dodgers.
Combining the pre-break results with the expected post-break results, we can see which teams in each division are most and least likely to benefit from their 2002 schedules. Here are the weighted results for all 30 teams for all 162 games:
AL EAST TBD 162 .523 TOR 162 .518 BAL 162 .505 BOS 162 .499 NYY 162 .489
AL CENTRAL DET 162 .497 KCR 162 .490 CLE 162 .489 MIN 162 .485 CWS 162 .480
AL WEST TEX 162 .513 OAK 162 .510 ANA 162 .505 SEA 162 .505
NL EAST PHI 162 .512 NYM 162 .510 ATL 162 .501 MON 162 .500 FLA 162 .497
NL CENTRAL MIL 162 .499 CIN 162 .491 CHN 162 .490 PIT 162 .487 HOU 162 .485 STL 162 .484
NL WEST COL 162 .518 SDP 162 .516 LAD 162 .508 SFG 162 .503 ARI 162 .501
In the divisional races, these are the teams that will likely be the beneficiaries of their schedules: the Yankees (.010) over the Red Sox; the White Sox (.005) over the Twins; the Mariners and Angels (.005) over the A’s; no real advantage in the NL East; the Cardinals (.006) over the Reds; and the Diamondbacks (.007) over the Dodgers. With the possible exception of the AL East, none of those looks like a dramatic difference. However, in the wild card races, at the extremes, the schedule may have more of an impact on who makes the playoffs.
Here are the top contenders in the American League:
WILD CARD OAK 162 .510 ANA 162 .505 SEA 162 .505 BAL 162 .505 BOS 162 .499 NYY 162 .489 CLE 162 .489 MIN 162 .485 CWS 162 .480
If the race were to come down to Oakland and Chicago, the White Sox’s schedule advantage may end up keeping the A’s out of the post-season. Chicago’s edge is clearly significant. All else held equal, that could amount to almost 5 games in the standings over 162 games.
Here is the NL picture:
WILD CARD LAD 162 .508 SFG 162 .503 ATL 162 .501 ARI 162 .501 MON 162 .500 FLA 162 .497 CIN 162 .491 HOU 162 .485 STL 162 .484
Though not as extreme as in the AL, it’s possible that the Cardinals enjoy an almost 4 game advantage over the Dodgers (after 162 games), based on the schedule alone.
My purpose in this examination is not to call for a reversion to 1968 or to push for any changes at all. I happen to like divisional races, the unbalanced schedule, and interleague play. My only goal was to see just how much effect the schedule can have on who does and does not make the playoffs. Insofar as the current schedule seems to have hardly any effect on most divisional races, that’s all the more reason to not go back to olden times. And while it is true that there is a significant degree of unfairness when it comes to winning the wild card, I think it’s most important to recognize that that is only a determination of who is the third, or fourth, or fifth best team in a league. The best teams still make it to the post-season, and from there, as the 1973 Mets showed, anything can happen.
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