May 19, 2003
Strength of Schedule
Whatever its benefits, it's clear that the unbalanced schedule has made it even more difficult to draw conclusions about teams in the early stages of the season. Schedules are so skewed that you have to consider quality of opponents in any discussion of what a team has done and what it might do going forward.
Take the Yankees. They opened the year 16-3 without Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, inspiring a discussion of whether this team might be as good as the 1998 team that went 114-48. Since then, they're just 11-13, and not even alone in first place. The difference? They opened the season with the Blue Jays (seven games), Devil Rays (five games) and Twins (seven games)--teams that now have an aggregate record of 65-65. They've since spent three weeks playing the AL West, a division that's 94-77 overall and 56-39--good for a .589 winning percentage--when not playing itself.
The Blue Jays are another example. They opened their season going 7-13 against the Yankees, Red Sox and Twins, three teams that now have a 79-50 record between them. Since then, the Jays have played the Devil Rays, Royals, Rangers and Angels (aggregate 82-88), going 15-9 to scramble back to .500.
The Royals are the year's "surprise" team, but their place on the national stage is largely due to a favorable early-season schedule. They played nothing but the White Sox, Tigers and Indians in the season's first three weeks, going 14-3 against teams that a month later have a composite 43-83 record. Against just a slightly tougher schedule--the Royals have yet to play their first game against the AL West or the Yankees--they've gone 10-15, falling out of first place. With their next 24 games against the Mariners, A's, and the four viable teams in the NL West, the Royals are more likely to be under .500 by mid-June than they are likely to be in contention.
Sometimes, looking deeper at a team's hot or cold stretch reveals that it's not just about the schedule. The Braves are on a 27-5 tear that includes series wins over the 27-17 Expos, the 25-19 Phillies, the 27-16 Giants and the 24-20 Dodgers. They're taking bad teams to the woodshed--pounding the Padres over the weekend, for example--but it's their work against good teams that is most impressive, and most indicative of the quality of their team.
Because teams tend to play blocks of opponents, you can often see a hot streak or a slump coming. The Angels are about to play a dozen games against the Orioles and Devil Rays; they went 11-1 over an identical stretch last season to take a firm hold on a playoff spot. The Diamondbacks will play 14 of their next 19 games against teams well under .500, including eight with the woeful Padres. If they're going to get back into the NL West race, they'll do it by Flag Day. Meanwhile, the Expos have a testing ground ahead: two series in two weeks with the Phillies, followed by 12 games against the AL West.
Teams go on hot and cold streaks all the time, and in the wake of those streaks the media tends to look for reasons, from someone changing their stance to someone else changing their breakfast cereal. Often, however, these runs have less to do with the team and more to do with their opponents. The unbalanced schedule is not just a contributing factor; it's often the main reason why a team that could do no wrong in April can do no right in May. Keep it in mind when evaluating performances in the short term.
I caught a pretty good Diamondbacks/Pirates tilt Friday in what was my first game at Bank One Ballpark. Some random notes: