April 23, 2009
Perhaps it's because I'm a fan of (and occasional analyst of) college basketball, but I have paid a lot more attention to schedule strength over the past few seasons. Because of the varying strength of conferences, and the elective nature of non-conference scheduling, you have to take into account the caliber of a team's opponents in that sport in a way that you don't in others.
Consider Jay Jaffe's look at the projected schedule strength of MLB teams. The range was fairly small, just 30 points of winning percentage, from the Marlins at the top to the Cubs at the bottom. That's enough to make a difference over 162 games—you'd certainly have to feel some sympathy for the task facing the Orioles and Blue Jays—but not nearly the spread you see in the NCAA, NFL, or NBA. The primary impact is on the wild-card races, where the effects of an unbalanced schedule and interleague play can leave contenders for both Wild Cards facing disparate levels of competition. It is a fairness issue when, say, the Marlins (.519) and Diamondbacks (.492) are nominally in the hunt for the same ticket. If a schedule's strength is worth even a single game in the standings, that's a problem, and that we've accepted this unfairness implicitly as leagues have expanded their size and playoff systems doesn't make it any more right.
That's actually not my point today. No, the point today is that while the range of schedule strengths over a period of six months is fairly small, and yet still unfair, the range of schedule strengths over a period of weeks is very wide. While not unfair, it is a critical factor in evaluating short-term performance, especially at the start of the season, one that tends to be ignored in the rush to canonize teams with gaudy records in the early going.
I mentioned the Marlins twice above. They're projected to play the toughest schedule in baseball this season. However, they've started the year with six games against the Nationals and three against the Pirates, along with three each against the Braves and Mets. That's a weak slate relative to average, and extremely weak relative to their projection. That they began the season 11-4 has as much to do with playing the Nati(o)nals six times as it does their own qualities. There are reasons to be excited about their future, and even their present, but the overreaction to their "hot" start failed to consider just how much of an effect scheduling had on it. (That they lost three straight to the Pirates doesn't change this analysis at all.)
There's a similar case in the AL, where the Blue Jays have opened the season 11-5. Projected to play the third-toughest schedule in the majors, they've yet to play a division rival, having to date taken on the Tigers, Indians, Twins, A's, and Rangers. That's not quite like playing the Nationals 40 percent of the time, but for a team that will get heavy doses of the three best teams in the league, it's not representative of the challenges to follow. The Blue Jays are 11-5 in no small part because of who they've played. Is Ricky Romero this good, or is it that 67 percent of his outings have come against the Mauerless Twins and the powerless A's? You can't make any kind of evaluation yet. We have to be willing to acknowledge the effects of opposition strength this early in the season.
Actually, we have to acknowledge it for longer than that. Over two or three weeks, everyone's schedule is more or less balanced for home and away, for travel purposes, but not for quality of opposition. That doesn't always balance over a month or even two. It was a year ago that the Cardinals and Marlins got off to so-called "hot" starts that were mostly the function of impossibly weak early-season slates. When the schedules leveled off, so did the two teams' performances, and they both finished well off of the pace in their respective divisions and in the wild-card race. The Brewers, just to name one example in the other direction, were under .500 when I wrote the piece above, but had played the third-toughest schedule in the game. They played as well from that point to the CC Sabathia trade (29-21, .580) as they did after acquiring the big lefty (41-32, .562).
Schedule strength trumps just about everything in the early going. The Pirates are 9-6, but it's possible that they haven't played a single team that will make the postseason, and it's conceivable that they haven't played a team that will finish above .500. The Rockies are 6-9, and it's possible that their entire schedule has consisted of NL playoff teams: the Diamondbacks, Dodgers, Cubs, and Phillies. Even if that's an exaggeration, this isn't: the Pirates have yet to play a team that's clearly better than any team the Rockies have played. So how can we evaluate either team?
Look, I get that I'm being a killjoy on this topic, and if you think I haven't considered spending two months away from my keyboard just to avoid being this guy, you're crazy. The reality is, and always will be, that you can't draw conclusions from four starts, 50 at-bats, a dozen games, or two weeks of baseball. Not only is the game harder than that, but the variability of competition over any small slice of the schedule corrupts all attempts to divine meaning from small samples.