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August 27, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Scheduling Impact in the AL

by Jay Jaffe

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August hasn't been terribly kind to the White Sox. Neither their buzzer-beating trade for Jake Peavy nor their shocking waiver claim of Alex Rios have borne much fruit, as they've gone just 10-12 while falling three games further behind the Tigers in the AL Central race. Rios has one homer and an anemic .195/.209/.341 line thus far, while Peavy's Pale Hose debut has been pushed back due to a line drive off his pitching elbow in his most recent rehab start. The Sox will need positive contributions from that duo if they want a date for October, because they're tied for the honor of the toughest remaining schedule among the eight AL teams our Playoff Odds report deems legitimate contenders.

Recall that our initial look at strength of schedule used pre-season PECOTA projections to calculate opponents' winning percentages for all 30 teams. During the All-Star break, we took another look, dispensing with PECOTA in favor of each team's Hit List Factor, the average of their actual and Pythagorean-based winning percentages from our Adjusted Standings page-the stuff of our weekly power rankings.

Instead of plugging in the Hit List Factor uniformly, we've again applied historically-derived adjustments to account for the home team winning 55 percent of the time, and for the AL winning 58 percent of interleague games. Using the log5 method, this boils down to a 25-point (.025) bonus or tax applied based on whether the opponent is at home or on the road, and a 40-point (.040) one applied for interleague play. To apply some revisionist history to our Big Apple example-indeed, ongoing strength-of-schedule calculations are the definition of revisionist history-when the Yankees (.604) played the Mets (.460) at Yankee Stadium, the latter's adjusted winning percentage was recorded as .460 - .025 - .040 = .395. When they play at Citi Field, it was recorded as .460 + .025 - .040 = .445. From the Mets' point of view, the Yankees were a .669 team (.604 + .025 + .040) in the Bronx and a .619 (.604 - .025 + .040) team in Queens.

Here's how the AL teams stack up in terms of strength of remaining schedule, with the contenders bolded:


            Leftover Previous  Overall   Playoff
Team        Schedule Schedule  Schedule   Odds
Orioles      .542     .516      .521
Blue Jays    .532     .508      .513
Royals       .521     .497      .503
White Sox    .517     .484      .491      13.6%
Rays         .517     .498      .502      24.6%
Athletics    .510     .517      .515
Rangers      .509     .496      .499      34.7%
Mariners     .507     .503      .504
Yankees      .503     .501      .502      98.7%
Angels       .501     .503      .502      79.5%
Red Sox      .501     .507      .506      59.2%
Tigers       .496     .491      .492      64.1%
Indians      .485     .498      .495
Twins        .480     .495      .492      22.1%

Don't weep too much for the White Sox, whose overall schedule actually stacks up as the league's easiest; it's been seven points easier than any other Junior Circuit team thus far, and as of Tuesday, all they had to show for it was a lousy .500 record and a less than one-in-seven shot at the playoffs. Including Thursday night's game with the Red Sox, 23 of their remaining 35 games are against the other seven contenders, which makes slotting Peavy into the rotation no easy task. He was tentatively scheduled to start against the Yankees; pushing him back a few days means starting against Minnesota, and following with Boston. Not that Chicago's hopes rest entirely on his shoulders; a turnaround from Mark Buehrle (0-4 with a 6.21 ERA and 2.9 K/9 since his perfect game) is probably more critical to their chances.

As for the Rays, August hasn't been terribly kind to them either. Despite a 13-9 record through Tuesday, they'd dropped three games in the standings relative to the Yankees, reducing their chance at winning the AL East to about two percent, though picking up a game and a half on the Red Sox boosted their hopes for winning the AL Wild Card. Even so, the sequel to last year's Cinderella story is falling flat; they've underachieved by about six games relative to their third-order projected record due in part to a leaky bullpen. Their next 17 games are all against the Tigers, Red Sox, and Yankees, potentially turning their relatively easy slate beyond that into either a moot point or a welcome respite. The only contenders they face after this brutal stretch are the Rangers and Yankees, with the latter likely to have clinched a post=season berth prior to their final weekend matchup.

At the other end of the spectrum, the Twins have the easiest remaining schedule, with just 16 of their final 35 games against contenders. Beyond facing the Rangers and White Sox in their next two series, they don't face another contender until hosting the Tigers on September 18-20. Alas, with a rotation where Carl Pavano and rookies Brian Duensing and Armando Gabino are filling in for Kevin Slowey, Francisco Liriano, and Glen Perkins, they're rather under-armed for this fight, and will need several extra jolts of Mauer power to survive.

The Angels, firmly in command of the AL West, have a cushy schedule until September 11, when they begin a string of 13 games against the White Sox, Yankees, Red Sox, and Rangers. Beyond that, hosting the Rangers for a four-game set is their only major hurdle left on the schedule. The Yanks, who have a 98.6 percent chance of making the playoffs and an eye on home-field advantage, can lard their record with a relatively soft slate prior to closing with nine of their final 12 games against the Angels, Red Sox, and Rays. The Red Sox play 14 of their next 19 against contenders, 11 of them versus the White Sox and Rays, but four of their final five series are against non-contenders. The Tigers' schedule is backloaded, with four of their final five series against Minnesota or Chicago.

Of the remaining contenders, the Rangers stand out because both routes to the postseason remain possible for them-they've got a 24.7 percent chance of winning the AL West, and a 10 percent shot at the Wild Card. As they're just a game and a half behind the Red Sox, the latter estimate feels low, particularly given their upgraded pitching staff's AL-best 3.77 second-half ERA and the fact that just 14 of their remaining 37 games are against contenders, six of them against the Angels. They'll need to take advantage of that to pry the Wild Card out of the AL East's hands for just the second time in the last seven years, but that they can even entertain such a notion underscores the adage, "that's why they play the games."

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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