March 13, 2001
The Daily Prospectus
Out of Balance
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:
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.