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April 15, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Strength of Schedule

by Jay Jaffe

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Through weeks of tweaking and touting our PECOTA-based projected standings, one fact has remained clear: the AL East is the majors' most stacked division, with three teams forecast to win at least 94 games, and the eventual runner-up likely to win the league's Wild Card. The NL East features three strong contenders as well, with the second-place club likely to be in the thick of the Wild Card hunt. Given that these contenders' interleague slates vary-the Mets play the Yankees six times due to their "natural rivalry," and likewise for the Braves and Red Sox, but the Phillies draw the considerably weaker Blue Jays, and the Rays face the Marlins-it's worth gauging the impact of the differing schedules.

To evaluate this, we used the aforementioned projected records to calculate the opponents' winning percentages for all 30 teams, not only for the entire season, but also month by month and half by half so as to better appreciate the schedule's contours. Instead of using the raw projected winning percentages, we applied two adjustments based on data from the last three years, one to account for the home team winning 55 percent of the time, and the other for the AL winning 58 percent of interleague games. Using the log5 method similar to that used by Clay Davenport in the Postseason Odds report, this is a relatively simple task; a 25-point (.025) bonus or tax is applied based on whether the opponent is at home or on the road, and a 40-point (.040) one is applied for interleague play.

Thus when the Yankees (.606) play the Mets (.565) at the new Yankee Stadium, the latter's adjusted winning percentage is recorded as .565 - .025 - .040 = .500. When they play at Citi Field, it's recorded as .565 + .025 - .040 = .550. From the Mets' point of view, the Yankees are a .671 team (.606 + .025 + .040) in the Bronx and a .621 (.606 - .025 + .040) team in Queens. Applying these adjustments uniformly is fairly crude, since it may be true that more extreme teams on either end of the spectrum have differing home/road or interleague splits, but for this exercise, it's what we're using.

Below are the full season strength of schedule measurements:


Team      Opp W%
Marlins    .519
Orioles    .514
Blue Jays  .513
Nationals  .512
Rockies    .507
Padres     .506
Pirates    .506
Phillies   .506
Braves     .505
Mets       .504
Red Sox    .504
Giants     .503
Astros     .503
Yankees    .501
Rangers    .501
White Sox  .500
Rays       .500
Cardinals  .498
Brewers    .497
Reds       .496
Royals     .496
Mariners   .494
Angels     .493
Twins      .493
Athletics  .493
Dodgers    .492
D'backs    .492
Indians    .491
Tigers     .490
Cubs       .488

As you marvel at the brutality facing the bottom two clubs in the two Easts, consider the following:

  • Among contenders within the same division, full-season strength of schedule effects are overstated in the grand scheme of things. Only in the NL Central do the top two teams have more than three points (.003, or half a game over the course of 162 games) of scheduling difference between them; the nine-point advantage in that division equals roughly a game and a half over the course of the season. In the AL East, the difference between the Red Sox and Rays' schedules is four points, roughly two-thirds of a game. The AL Central's top trio are separated by three points, and the top pairs in both Wests are effectively even. The NL East's top trio, who have the toughest schedules of any contenders, are separated by just two points. Like heart surgery, those distinctions aren't minor if they pertain to your chances, but in the big picture, injuries, reliever leverage, and players dramatically over- or under-producing relative to expectations will go further to shape the final standings.

  • Among NL Wild Card contenders, strength of schedule should have a more drastic effect. The schedules of the the Dodgers and Diamondbacks measure out at a .492 opponent winning percentage, while those of the Mets, Phillies, and Braves come in between .504 and .506, about a two-game difference. The Brewers, who with an 83-win projection need all the help they can muster, catch a break facing opponents with a .497 winning percentage.

  • Though the differences between division contenders are small, the breakdowns by half (before and after the All-Star break) are more pronounced. In the NL West, the Dodgers' first-half slate measures out at .499, while the Diamondbacks' is just .489. In the second half, LA plays the third-easiest schedule of any team at .485, while Arizona faces a .496 slate. Couple those splits with the likelihood that the deep-pocketed Dodgers will be better suited to take on salary at the trading deadline than the more cost-conscious Snakes, and it's not hard to imagine a race following a similar pattern as last year, with the Dodgers staying close in the first half and then breezing in the second.

    In the AL Central, the tables could turn almost perfectly. The Indians (.498 before, .481 after) and Tigers (.482, .498) both face the league's easiest schedule in one half. Interleague play against the relatively weak NL Central helps account for the weakness of the Tigers' early schedule, while the Tribe's cupcake second half includes 10 games against the Mariners (seven of them at home), 12 games against the Twins (split evenly with six apiece, home and road), and six games hosting the Rangers. Note that Cleveland's first half is actually the league's sixth-hardest, and that at a projected 86 wins (.526), the Indians aren't exactly a powerhouse themselves. Given the team's stumbles out of the gate in 2006 and 2008, it's worth wondering whether a similarly slow start could spell doom for manager Eric Wedge.

  • Thanks to their six-pack with the Yankees and the East-versus-East pairing, the Mets have by far the toughest interleague schedule at .611, followed by the Marlins (.585), Braves (.575), and Phillies (.568). On the other side of the coin, the Tigers (.440), Royals (.441), Rangers (.444), and Rays (.444) have the easiest interleague draws. Among AL teams, the White Sox play the toughest interleague schedule (.484), followed by the Yankees (.480), and Red Sox (.475).

  • As far as September/October schedules go-this year the season ends on October 4-the Yankees have a slight advantage in the AL East at .507, compared to the Rays at .510 and the Red Sox at .512. Note that the Rays host the Yanks for the season's final three games, while the Sox host the Indians. In the AL West, the A's (.475) have a large advantage over the Angels (.495). In the NL East, the Phillies (.479) get the favorable draw relative to the Mets (.491) and Braves (.493), and in the NL West, the lights are with the Dodgers (.463) instead of the Diamondbacks (.496).

  • Given Cole Hamels' early elbow problems, the Phillies are lucky they have the easiest schedule of any team in April (.471). The defending champions had better get their house in order by June, because they'll face the toughest schedule of any team in any month at .551. In a virtual tie for second-hardest month is Oakland's July (.550), which could trigger another fire sale at the trading deadline if the young rotation hasn't held up its end of the deal.

Thanks to Bil Burke and Clay Davenport for data wrangling.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

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