There’s no way around it: this September, the best story in baseball is the National League East. All five teams harbor playoff hopes, all are over .500, and virtually every night this month will feature a division matchup of postseason hopefuls. From Queens to Miami, we’re going to see key game after key game throughout the next 32 days. While the Braves have a four-game lead on the pack, the 23 games they have to play within the division in that time will give all of the chasers a chance to bring them back into the wild-card mix.
With every team in the division a contender, I thought I’d go back to something I did the last couple of years, but passed on this season. I’m not a fan of interleague play, and one big reason for that is that I think it makes a bad problem–teams with disparate opponents competing for one playoff spot–even worse. Now, you can have an advantage over your division mates thanks to a particularly soft interleague slate.
The NL East provides a really good example of this. Here are the division’s team’s ranked by the strength of their interleague opponents (and weighted by games played against):
Braves 352-308 .533 Mets 344-317 .520 Phillies 334-326 .506 Nationals 401-392 .506 Marlins 304-361 .457
You know it’s coming…wait for it…”One of these things is not like the others…”
Well, two, actually. For reasons known only to the new schedulers who gave us things like teams making multiple cross-country road trips in a three-week span, the Nationals played three more interleague games than their NL East companions, and were the only team in the division to play all four NL West teams.
The real problem, though, is the Marlins, who again got to play the Devil Rays six times while the Mets were tangling with the Yankees, and the Braves and Phillies were playing the Red Sox and Orioles. Add in that the Marlins missed the A’s, and you see they’ve had a much nicer path to contention than the other four teams have had.
Looking closer, we see that the difference between the Mets and the Marlins in the standings is a half-game. The difference between the two teams’ interleague schedules is that the Mets played the Yankees and A’s (225-171, weighted) for nine games, while the Marlins played the Devil Rays and Rangers (174-227, weighted). The Mets went 4-5, the Marlins, 8-1.
Unless MLB has become college football, that ain’t right. The two teams are separated by nothing, and the fact that one of them had to play nine games against .568 teams while the other played nine against .434 teams makes a considerable difference.
I should drag the Astros into this discussion, but that gets complicated because not only are the interleague schedules different, the divisional ones are, too. A peek at the Adjusted Standings provides a hint as to what we’re seeing; the gap between second-order and third-order wins works as a loose approximation of schedule strength. Sorting all five NL wild-card contenders by this gap:
Astros +1.8 Marlins +0.9 Phillies +0.4 Mets +0.1 Nationals -0.9
The Astros have made up nearly a win on the field just by having a softer schedule; their edge on the Nationals is nearly three wins.
A quick peek at the AL contenders using this same method:
Indians +1.3 Twins +0.6 White Sox -0.2 A's -0.3 Red Sox -0.6 Angels -1.0 Yankees -1.1
Within a smaller range, it’s clear that it’s good to have a lot of extra games with the Royals.
Interleague play continued to be more hype than substance, and now it’s having a direct impact on who contends for playoff spots. It should be discarded, if for no other reason than to avoid ever seeing the kind of scheduling gap like we see between the Mets and the Marlins possibly determine a postseason participant.