It’s that time again! The time when I get to write the same post I write every March. Oh, every time, the numbers are always different. But the words? The words seldom change. In one sense, that makes this post very easy. In another sense, it makes it hard to change things up. Hopefully you won’t notice if I plagiarize myself.
Strength of schedule. You know what I mean when I say that, right? It’s pretty much self-explanatory — we’re talking about how strong or weak a team’s overall schedule is. I think this gets talked about most often in football. Especially college football, I assume. You don’t hear this much in conversations about baseball, because baseball is widely perceived to have a great deal of parity. And the schedules are so very long that it’s easy to assume everything just averages out in the end. But that’s not what happens! If anything, the schedules are so very long that minor differences have a chance to pile up. What’s the cost of a win on the free-agent market? $8 million? $7 million? $9 million? Schedule strengths can matter by multiple wins. This can be a real and significant variable.
And FanGraphs makes this very simple to calculate. So, come along. I can show you who’ll have it relatively easy, and who’ll find things relatively challenging. I always love a post I can write in an hour.
Many of you have read this post before. But for anyone new, I’ll fly through the explanation. This is our projected standings page. That page is live every day of the year, and it changes with transactions and injuries. If you’d like, you can think of it as showing the true-talent projected standings. But this is our playoff-odds page. That was just re-launched for 2018. If you look closely, you’ll notice the projected standings on the two different pages are a little different. That’s because the playoff-odds-page projections take schedules into account. The other link is schedule-independent. So what do you do when you have two pages and one changing variable? You can isolate that variable by subtracting one projection from the other.
I’ve plotted projected schedule strengths by expressing them in win adjustments. A positive number means the given team should gain X number of wins because of the schedule. That means the schedule is softer than average. A negative number means the given team should lose Y number of wins because of the schedule. That means the schedule is harder than average. Obviously this shouldn’t be taken as the word of God — projections are only best guesses, and this doesn’t consider the timing of when a team plays another. Maybe one rival will keep on missing another rival’s ace. Some teams are going to change around the trade deadline. These are simply more estimates. But there’s also signal in here, so, to get right to the meat of the article, here’s a summary of the National League.
The average NL team gets a slight benefit from the schedule. The average AL team gets the opposite. I don’t know why that is, exactly, since the AL has been better than the NL for the past several years. It might not mean anything, so I’d try not to think about it. (Update: as noted in the comments below, this actually makes perfect sense! I am stupid!) For these purposes, it doesn’t matter how the NL compares to the AL. All we care about are NL and AL teams relative to one another, and so, here, we see the Nationals as having the NL’s softest projected schedule. Their calculated benefit is nearly three wins. The Marlins and Padres are at the other end, down about one win. It should go without saying, but good teams tend to have softer schedules, and bad teams tend to have harder schedules, because good teams and bad teams don’t get to play against themselves. It helps the Nationals that they don’t have to play the Nationals. Not even once! To say nothing of 19 divisional showdowns.
The way this usually works out, the most interesting numbers are linked to the wild-card contenders. The Cardinals might not be as good as the Cubs, but they do appear to have the third-easiest schedule in the NL. If you figure the Cardinals will be competing against the Rockies and the Diamondbacks, well, schedules alone could account for a two-win difference or so. You can never really know when mediocre teams might overachieve, so it’s possible the Cardinals’ schedule will actually end up quite tough, but for now, this is a positive.
I find the American League even more interesting.
The total spread in the NL is 3.6 wins. The total spread in the AL is 5.5 wins, between the Indians and the Rangers. The Indians stand to have it rather easy. The Rangers are going to have to fight and claw. And maybe more relevant to the Rangers, and to the rest of the AL — the Twins could have it almost as easy as the Indians. Even if the Indians are better than the Twins are, by a healthy margin, the Twins are still shooting for one of those wild-card slots, and their schedule should give them a real bump.
The AL’s three worst projected teams play in the same division. Now, again, sometimes teams overachieve. And the Royals have gotten better lately, by adding Mike Moustakas, Jon Jay, and Lucas Duda. But, let’s say you’re a schedule-strength skeptic. Teams play their divisional opponents 76 times. That’s very nearly half the season. The Twins’ four rivals have an average projected win total of 75.6. The Rangers’ four rivals have an average projected win total of 85.0. The Orioles’ four rivals have an average projected win total of 87.2. How can that not matter? Every team in the East and West have some kind of path to the playoffs. The Central, not so much. In theory the Twins could make the playoffs without being one of the AL’s top five true-talent teams, because true talent won’t solely determine the final standings.
To drive the point further home, here are the six projected division strengths. This shows each division’s average projected wins per team.
There’s no division stronger than the AL East. There usually isn’t. I have 14 years of preseason projections in a spreadsheet, meaning I have 84 divisions, and the AL East has nine of the top ten averages. That’s just how the landscape is. But, flip things around. Look at this year’s AL Central, at 77.1. For now, ever so slightly, that is the worst preseason projected division since at least 2005. It’s the worst that I have on record, only by a hair. Maybe one of the teams in the Central is going to improve very quickly, perhaps by signing Alex Cobb or Greg Holland. I don’t know. But the AL Central still appears to be weak, which, again, improves the Twins’ opportunity. Maybe it would mean more if there were still just the one wild card per league, but you figure this has at least in part informed the Twins’ offseason. They have too good a chance to pass up. They get to benefit from their circumstances.
Baseball will play out on the field, and so on and so forth. It’s the actual games that actually matter. What you’re seeing are best guesses. It’s the most we can offer before the games start being played.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.