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August 28, 2009

Prospectus Hit and Run

Scheduling Impact in the NL

by Jay Jaffe

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It's time to fish or cut bait for the Giants. One week ago tonight, they kicked off a four-game series in Colorado with a win, which closed the gap between the National League's top two wild-card contenders to a single game. The Rockies stormed back to take the final three games of the series, culminating in a 14th-inning comeback which featured a pitcher walking with the bases loaded, thereby setting up Ryan Spilborghs' walk-off grand slam. The Giants now trail the Rox by three games in the race for the Wild Card, and if that's not bad enough, they have by far the toughest remaining schedule of any NL contender.

Yesterday, I examined the late-season schedules of the AL contenders using a methodology I've called upon several times this season. Using each team's Hit List Factor-the average of their actual and Pythagorean-based winning percentages from our Adjusted Standings page, and the stuff of our weekly power rankings-I calculated their opponents' winning percentage across two segments of schedule, games played through August 24 and the remaining slate. I also 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. Setting the gory details to one side, here's how the NL teams stack up in terms of strength of remaining schedule, with the contenders in bold:


 Leftover Previous Overall Playoff
Team ScheduleSchedule Schedule Odds
Nationals  .525 .504 .509
Padres  .520 .514 .515
D'backs  .515 .503 .506
Mets  .508 .509 .509
Brewers  .506 .489 .493
Giants .505 .501 .502 12.2%
Astros  .499 .493    .494
Reds  .496 .493    .493
Pirates  .491 .494    .493
Marlins .485 .508 .503 8.8%
Rockies .483 .502 .497 75.7%
Braves .479 .502 .497 9.0%
Phillies .477 .500 .495 93.6%
Cardinals .471 .481 .479 97.3%
Dodgers .467 .505 .496 98.7%
Cubs .460 .494 .487 4.5%

The Giants' remaining schedule is 20 points harder than that of any other NL contender, a consequence of their playing in what's surprisingly been the league's strongest division this year. Eighteen of their remaining 34 games come against contenders: six apiece with the Dodgers and Rockies, including a three-game series with the latter starting tonight, plus three-game series against the Phillies and Cubs. Not only are they 10-14 against their two NL West rivals, they've been outscored by 41 runs in those games. The Rockies, who are an impressive 54-28 since ditching Clint Hurdle for Jim Tracy as manager, have it much easier. They've got a run differential more than twice that of the Giants (+80 to +37), which boosts their odds considerably, and aside from that six-pack with the Giants, their only remaining series against contenders are three-game sets with the Cardinals and Dodgers during the season's final 10 days.

Indeed, judging by the above strength of schedule numbers, a paucity of meaningful September games are on tap among potential NL playoff teams. While eight teams-the same number as the AL-still retain some nominal chance of making the playoffs, the current division leaders appear to have three of the four spots nearly sewn up. The next five weeks will feature small servings of series between contenders, and a lot of scoreboard watching as teams like the Nationals, Padres, Diamondbacks, and Bisons-what's left of the Mets-attempt to play spoiler.

Blame the Phillies if you must. Bolstered by the additions of Cliff Lee and J.A. Happ to the rotation, their 33-15 record since July 2 has the Braves and Marlins choking on their dust despite strong performances (29-20 for Atlanta, 26-21 for Florida) in that span. Even with pillow-soft schedules, both teams have less than one-in-ten shots at the postseason. Aside from six games with the Phillies-against whom they're 8-4 this year-and seven with the Marlins, the only other contender the Braves face the rest of the way is the Cardinals. The Marlins' slate is equivalent except for the added challenge of playing their last six games in Atlanta and Philadelphia. Outside of their own six-game road trip to visit those two rivals in late September, the Phillies' hosting of the Giants is the only other kink in their schedule.

The Cardinals now boast the biggest division lead in the majors, and host the Braves, Marlins, and Cubs for three straight series from September 11-20. Beyond that, they've got a trip to Colorado booked for the second-to-last weekend of the season, one with an outside shot of being a first-round preview; they'd have to pass the Phillies for the best record this side of LA-a gap that's currently 2 games-while the Rockies hold onto the Wild Card. The Dodgers, despite a close shave this week when the Rockies briefly pulled within two games, haven't spent one day with Playoff Odds below 95 percent since May 31. For them, the real question is whether they can finish with the league's best record, thus earning home-field advantage throughout the first two rounds. Aside from six games with the Giants and three with the Rox over the season's final weekend, it's cupcakes and marshmallows from here to October for the Dodgers, though a nine-game road trip to Washington, Pittsburgh, and San Diego just prior to that final series isn't exactly a treat.

As for the Cubs, there's no crying in baseball. Projected to be the league's strongest team, with the correspondingly easiest schedule, they've instead fallen flat due to a mix of injuries and ineffectiveness in their lineup, with heavy hitters like Milton Bradley, Aramis Ramirez, Alfonso Soriano, and Geovanny Soto failing to deliver the goods for one reason or another. The meat of their remaining schedule, such as it is, consists of a makeup game with the White Sox and a total of seven games at St. Louis and San Francisco. Meanwhile, they've got 20 games remaining against the Brewers, Astros, Reds, and Pirates, against whom they're already a combined 29-15. It's probably too little, too late to save their season, but as Joaquin Andujar famously said, "Youneverknow."

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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