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March 13, 2001

The Daily Prospectus

Out of Balance

by Joe Sheehan

Some columns go in a slightly different direction than you intended.

I sat down to write a piece about the potential impacts of the unbalanced schedule on the very best players in the game. I was going to base it on last year's winning percentage, and see what stars might have an opportunity to post improved statistics because they'll be facing a disproportionate number of bad teams.

The problem I ran into was when I started making projections based on those 2000 records. I can't seriously think the performances of, say, the Texas Rangers or the Houston Astros last season have much use in accurately reflecting their expectations for this year. Even using Pythagenport records doesn't get me to a comfortable place; at least half the teams in baseball are going to significantly better or worse than they were last season in terms of actual quality.

Then I tried to do projections of team records for 2000, but found I had far too many questions. It's still early March, and there are so many questions about health, opportunity and talent that I can't even think about projecting records for another two weeks. Or two months, even.

So I've backed away from both all of that, and I decided to write about the issue in more general terms.

If there's a lesson to take from all this, it's that the friendly folks who tell you that the good teams and the bad teams in baseball are completely predetermined by February 15 are just nuts. Other than a very few teams at the top and the bottom, it's extremely hard to discern actual differences in ability and expected performance. So take even this stuff with a grain of salt.

OK, on to the actual discussion...

The first thing that jumps out is the number of games the good teams in the American League East have against teams that are either non-contenders (the Orioles and Devil Rays) or that have some upside but more likely are a year away (the Marlins and Expos). The Yankees and Red Sox play 44 of their 162 games against those five teams, a whopping 38 against the D-Rays and Orioles. Add in that the Blue Jays look like they've missed their window of opportunity, and it's not hard to envision a division runner-up with a win total in the mid-to-high 90s.

Contrast that with the AL West contenders. The Rangers, A's and Mariners will get 38 games each amongst each other, and play the deep NL West in their interleague games (the Rangers swap the D'backs for the Astros, most likely a push in terms of difficulty). The Angels should be a soft touch this year, but certainly no worse than the AL East's patsies. This kind of schedule will make it difficult for any team in the AL West to catch the AL East's bridesmaid for the wild card.

The issues are comparable in the National League, where the Braves and Mets will fill up on the Expos and Marlins. Those teams will be improved this season, but their steady diet of two contenders will probably hold down their record enough to hide the gains they make. The Phillies are a bit of an unknown, with good frontline talent and a poor cast surrounding it, so figuring whether they'll benefit from the changes is a difficult call.

Where I think we're going to see the biggest benefit of the unbalanced schedule is in the NL West, where none of the five teams is a good bet for 90 wins, and all--even the Padres--have some reasons to be optimistic. These teams are going to spend the last three weeks of the season in an intramural tournament, and it wouldn't surprise me if that group gave us baseball's best race since the 1993 season.

You'll notice I haven't mentioned the Central Divisions. On the whole, they're more balanced than the others, with good teams that aren't as good as the best teams in baseball, and nominally bad teams, like the Twins and Cubs, who have much better pitching than you might think and will be tough for that reason alone.

The effects on individuals, though, could be the really interesting ones:

  • Pedro Martinez could make as much as 30% of his starts against the D-Rays and Orioles, who will be among the worst-hitting teams in the game, plus another one or two against the Fish and Phillies. That's a nice leg up on another Cy Young, and I'll say about a 50% chance of a no-hitter at some point during the season.

  • The AL East's rotations are overwhelmingly right-handed. That should help left-handed hitters trying to get established, like Chris Richard and Aubrey Huff. Conversely, it's going to be hard for the right-handed side of platoons to get playing time, especially in the first month. Unless Jose Rosado is ready to start the season, the Yankees might not see a left-handed starter until April 24.

  • Johnny Damon has bumped his stolen bases by ten in each of the last three years. That won't last with the A's, and not just because there's less reason to run. He'll have 19 games against the Rangers and Ivan Rodriguez, of course, but there will be 19 more against the Angels and Ben Molina, who displayed an above-average arm last year. Damon gets 19 more against the Mariners, who allowed a below-average number of steals, caught slightly more than their share of thieves and return the same group of catchers this spring.

  • The Royals have struggled to find an effective left-handed reliever for a number of years now, and don't have any great candidates in camp. With such a large percentage of games against key left-handed hitters who have to be handled aggressively, like Jim Thome, Bobby Higginson, Jose Valentin (who is basically a left-handed hitter) and Matt Lawton, they may be at a perpetual disadvantage in divisional games, games that make up nearly half their schedule.

  • The best place to be a pitcher? The NL East, where four of the stadiums are fair-to-moderate pitchers' parks. Only Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia has been a hitters' park of late. The Expos, Braves, Mets and Marlins will play close to a third of their road schedule in each others' pitchers parks. That's good news for the Expos and Marlins, who are developing young rotations.

  • The NL Central could be fun to watch. Renovations to Riverfront Stadium and new parks in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee leave open the possibility for a division full of hitters' havens. Somebody like Jeff Bagwell or Ken Griffey could put up some absurd numbers by playing up to 65% of their schedule in good hitters' parks.

Our condolences go to Russ Davis, who lost his father last week. Our thoughts and prayers are with Davis and his family.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Contact him by clicking here.

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

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