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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:

  • Pedro Martinez could make as much as 30% of his starts against
    the D-Rays and Orioles, who will be among the worst-hitting teams in the
    game, plus another one or two against the Fish and Phillies. That’s a nice
    leg up on another Cy Young, and I’ll say about a 50% chance of a no-hitter
    at some point during the season.

  • The AL East’s rotations are overwhelmingly right-handed. That should
    help left-handed hitters trying to get established, like Chris
    Richard
    and Aubrey Huff. Conversely, it’s going to be hard for
    the right-handed side of platoons to get playing time, especially in the
    first month. Unless Jose Rosado is ready to start the season, the
    Yankees might not see a left-handed starter until April 24.

  • Johnny Damon has bumped his stolen bases by ten in each of the
    last three years. That won’t last with the A’s, and not just because
    there’s less reason to run. He’ll have 19 games against the Rangers and
    Ivan Rodriguez, of course, but there will be 19 more against the
    Angels and Ben Molina, who displayed an above-average arm last year.
    Damon gets 19 more against the Mariners, who allowed a below-average number
    of steals, caught slightly more than their share of thieves and return the
    same group of catchers this spring.

  • The Royals have struggled to find an effective left-handed reliever for
    a number of years now, and don’t have any great candidates in camp. With
    such a large percentage of games against key left-handed hitters who have
    to be handled aggressively, like Jim Thome, Bobby Higginson,
    Jose Valentin (who is basically a left-handed hitter) and Matt
    Lawton
    , they may be at a perpetual disadvantage in divisional games,
    games that make up nearly half their schedule.

  • The best place to be a pitcher? The NL East, where four of the stadiums
    are fair-to-moderate pitchers’ parks. Only Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia
    has been a hitters’ park of late. The Expos, Braves, Mets and Marlins
    will play close to a third of their road schedule in each others’ pitchers
    parks. That’s good news for the Expos and Marlins, who are developing young
    rotations.

  • The NL Central could be fun to watch. Renovations to Riverfront Stadium
    and new parks in Pittsburgh and Milwaukee leave open the possibility for a
    division full of hitters’ havens. Somebody like Jeff Bagwell or
    Ken Griffey could put up some absurd numbers by playing up to 65% of
    their schedule in good hitters’ parks.

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

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