The 2020 Schedule Meets the Chopping Block

Life isn’t fair, as it continually reminds us, but we try to keep sports as far from the harsh light of reality as we can. The New York Yankees and Tampa Bay Rays certainly don’t start in the same place when creating a roster, but when those players are on the field, everybody has to play by the same rules. Whether you’re facing Gerrit Cole or whatever fifth starter the Baltimore Orioles Mad-Libbed onto the roster, you have to get actual hits, score actual runs, and make actual Statcast-blessed defensive plays.

It’s extraordinarily difficult to keep the schedules teams face fair. Ideally, we’d want every team to face the same strength of schedule. With complete discretion over the design of the season, that’s still a nearly impossible task, without knowing which teams will be the best and worst ones ahead of time. And it becomes definitely impossible with unbalanced division schedules, series played mostly in three or four-game chunks, and a need to avoid having teams travel thousands of miles every day, like some character in the final season of Game of Thrones.

And even if you avoid all these things using some dark magics from the Necronomicon or Carson Cistulli’s personal notes, you’re still bound by the laws of the physical universe. Teams can’t play themselves, so even if every team played every other team the same number of games each season, the Yankees get a bonus by not having to play the Yankees, while Orioles’ hitters never get the opportunity to feast on Orioles pitching.

Under the normal, 162-game schedule, here’s what ZiPS thinks of each team’s strength of schedule, including the mix of home-road opponents. This table is sortable:

ZiPS Strength of Schedule, Normal 2020
Team Opponent WPCT Wins/162
New York Yankees .482 78.1
Minnesota Twins .486 78.8
Houston Astros .486 78.8
Tampa Bay Rays .486 78.8
Cleveland Indians .486 78.8
Oakland Athletics .489 79.3
Chicago White Sox .490 79.4
Los Angeles Dodgers .493 79.8
Boston Red Sox .495 80.2
Texas Rangers .498 80.6
Washington Nationals .499 80.8
Los Angeles Angels .499 80.8
Kansas City Royals .499 80.8
San Diego Padres .500 81.0
Chicago Cubs .501 81.2
St. Louis Cardinals .502 81.3
Toronto Blue Jays .503 81.4
Atlanta Braves .503 81.5
Milwaukee Brewers .504 81.6
Cincinnati Reds .505 81.8
Detroit Tigers .505 81.8
Arizona Diamondbacks .507 82.2
Philadelphia Phillies .508 82.2
Pittsburgh Pirates .509 82.5
New York Mets .512 82.9
Colorado Rockies .512 83.0
Seattle Mariners .513 83.0
San Francisco Giants .515 83.4
Baltimore Orioles .516 83.5
Miami Marlins .521 84.4

These numbers may seem small when you look at them straight-up, but in terms of a pennant race, these are fairly large differences. Based on the projected team strength, the Marlins essentially start the 2020 season with six fewer wins than the New York Yankees. This has the effect of slightly but artificially magnifying the strengths of great teams and the weaknesses of lousy ones.

We’ve talked a lot about various Cactus and Grapefruit League 2020 season scenarios, but with so many unknowns given COVID-19, there’s no scenario that’s realistically off the table outside of a normal season. One of the possibilities, though probably not the most likely one, is that teams start play in their normal stadiums without fans, with attendance hopefully allowed by the end of the season. Another possibility is that everybody plays in Arizona, which would allow MLB to hold the 2020 season without changing the leagues and divisions.

Baseball’s easiest solution for the schedule at this point would be to simply chop the first 50 games or so off the season and play regular season games through the end of October. The problem is that while MLB’s schedule was hardly a utopian ideal of balance beforehand, simply chopping off a portion of it leads to some odd results. Starting with Game 112 — I moved games at the dividing line to the nearest full series because not every team’s 51st game is on the same day — we would completely lose 40 team vs. team matchups, losing some of the variety.

It also has an odd effect on division races. Even those 19 games against division rivals are not evenly spread throughout the season. The Cubs would lose 13 of their 19 games against the Pirates, but keep every single game against the Reds. The Arizona Diamondbacks, likely a second-tier contender, would lose 14 games against the Rockies and Giants, but retain all their games with the Dodgers. The truncated schedule is rife with oddities like that.

And more than just being really, well, weird, it can cost additional wins for some teams:

ZiPS Strength of Schedule, Normal vs. Truncated Season
Team Normal Truncated Difference Diff/162
Tampa Bay Rays .486 .474 .012 1.9
Oakland Athletics .489 .484 .006 0.9
Texas Rangers .498 .492 .005 0.9
Pittsburgh Pirates .509 .504 .005 0.8
Detroit Tigers .505 .500 .005 0.8
St. Louis Cardinals .502 .497 .005 0.8
San Francisco Giants .515 .511 .004 0.7
Seattle Mariners .513 .509 .003 0.6
Houston Astros .486 .484 .002 0.4
Toronto Blue Jays .503 .501 .002 0.2
Arizona Diamondbacks .507 .506 .001 0.2
Chicago Cubs .501 .500 .001 0.2
Los Angeles Dodgers .493 .491 .001 0.2
Milwaukee Brewers .504 .503 .001 0.1
Boston Red Sox .495 .495 .000 0.1
San Diego Padres .500 .500 .000 0.0
New York Mets .512 .512 .000 0.0
Washington Nationals .499 .499 .000 0.0
Miami Marlins .521 .522 -.001 -0.1
Cincinnati Reds .505 .506 -.001 -0.2
Cleveland Indians .486 .488 -.002 -0.3
New York Yankees .482 .484 -.002 -0.4
Baltimore Orioles .516 .518 -.002 -0.4
Los Angeles Angels .499 .501 -.002 -0.4
Philadelphia Phillies .508 .511 -.003 -0.6
Atlanta Braves .503 .509 -.005 -0.9
Colorado Rockies .512 .519 -.007 -1.1
Chicago White Sox .490 .500 -.009 -1.5
Minnesota Twins .486 .495 -.009 -1.5
Kansas City Royals .499 .509 -.010 -1.6

In pennant races, a single game can make a significant difference. After all, grabbing a single extra win is why most teams spend so much at the trade deadline pitched in high-leverage battles for playoff pieces. To get an idea of how much this actually affects playoff probability, I ran the projections for a 112-game season using both the 2020’s “normal” strength of schedule and the actual strength of schedule of the truncated season:

ZiPS Playoff % by Strength of Schedule
Team Original SOS Truncated SOS Gain
Tampa Bay Rays 70.5% 77.6% 7.1%
Oakland Athletics 54.8% 59.0% 4.2%
St. Louis Cardinals 31.6% 34.7% 3.1%
Arizona Diamondbacks 23.4% 24.5% 1.1%
Texas Rangers 6.4% 7.4% 1.0%
Pittsburgh Pirates 3.3% 4.0% 0.7%
Houston Astros 80.2% 80.9% 0.7%
Chicago Cubs 42.8% 43.4% 0.6%
Washington Nationals 66.5% 67.0% 0.4%
San Francisco Giants 1.4% 1.8% 0.4%
Los Angeles Dodgers 94.1% 94.5% 0.4%
New York Mets 28.1% 28.3% 0.3%
San Diego Padres 46.9% 47.1% 0.2%
Milwaukee Brewers 33.8% 33.9% 0.1%
Detroit Tigers 0.1% 0.2% 0.1%
Miami Marlins 1.3% 1.4% 0.0%
Seattle Mariners 0.1% 0.1% 0.0%
Baltimore Orioles 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Cleveland Indians 57.1% 57.1% 0.0%
Toronto Blue Jays 3.2% 3.2% 0.0%
Boston Red Sox 19.8% 19.5% -0.3%
Kansas City Royals 2.0% 1.3% -0.7%
New York Yankees 93.0% 92.4% -0.7%
Colorado Rockies 2.7% 2.0% -0.7%
Cincinnati Reds 29.1% 27.9% -1.2%
Philadelphia Phillies 27.6% 25.7% -1.9%
Los Angeles Angels 21.9% 20.0% -2.0%
Atlanta Braves 67.3% 63.8% -3.5%
Chicago White Sox 23.3% 19.1% -4.1%
Minnesota Twins 67.5% 62.3% -5.2%

For many teams, there’s no significant effect from a truncated year. For a handful of teams — especially the Rays, A’s, Cardinals on the positive side, and the Twins, White Sox, Braves on the negative end — their playoff probabilities change just as much as they would from a Marcell Ozuna-level free agent or losing a key pitcher in July to injury. These things matter, even if by small amounts.

I have one last chart here, showing the truncated season’s playoff probabilities versus a theoretical 112 game season in which every team plays .500 opponents. This can’t be achieved, of course, but it’s certainly useful to see just how much unfairness would be thrust upon the sport due to the realities of scheduling:

ZiPS Playoff % by Strength of Schedule
Team Truncated SOS Utopian Ideal Gain
Los Angeles Angels 20.0% 27.1% 7.1%
Chicago White Sox 19.1% 23.7% 4.6%
New York Mets 28.3% 32.7% 4.3%
Philadelphia Phillies 25.7% 29.9% 4.2%
Boston Red Sox 19.5% 22.6% 3.1%
Minnesota Twins 62.3% 65.2% 2.9%
Atlanta Braves 63.8% 66.4% 2.6%
Cincinnati Reds 27.9% 29.8% 1.9%
Toronto Blue Jays 3.2% 5.2% 1.9%
Colorado Rockies 2.0% 3.7% 1.7%
Kansas City Royals 1.3% 2.9% 1.6%
Miami Marlins 1.4% 2.8% 1.4%
Arizona Diamondbacks 24.5% 25.6% 1.1%
Texas Rangers 7.4% 8.2% 0.8%
San Francisco Giants 1.8% 2.5% 0.7%
Seattle Mariners 0.1% 0.3% 0.2%
Detroit Tigers 0.2% 0.3% 0.1%
Milwaukee Brewers 33.9% 34.0% 0.1%
Baltimore Orioles 0.0% 0.0% 0.0%
Pittsburgh Pirates 4.0% 4.0% 0.0%
New York Yankees 92.4% 90.8% -1.6%
Chicago Cubs 43.4% 40.9% -2.5%
Cleveland Indians 57.1% 54.5% -2.6%
Los Angeles Dodgers 94.5% 91.3% -3.2%
Houston Astros 80.9% 77.7% -3.2%
San Diego Padres 47.1% 43.8% -3.3%
St. Louis Cardinals 34.7% 30.4% -4.3%
Washington Nationals 67.0% 62.2% -4.8%
Oakland Athletics 59.0% 53.9% -5.1%
Tampa Bay Rays 77.6% 67.7% -9.9%

The baseball emergency is so dire that I think all 30 teams and 100% of analysts, reporters, and fans don’t really care what the schedule looks like, so long as there is one. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be aware of the small but real distortions that schedule could have on the playoff picture.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

newest oldest most voted
The Ghost of Johnny Dickshot
Member
The Ghost of Johnny Dickshot

ANY truncated schedule better not worry about inter-league play but really be heavy into the division series and league series, period. I get with the odd number of teams inter-league play is almost a must but it needs to be greatly reduced.

icswirka
Member
Member
icswirka

Good call on interleague. I read this article this morning and had been thinking about the schedule and just came back to comment that it might be cool to see what this would look like sans inter-league as that may be more of an honest speculation. Although inter-league is what – 8 series? Maybe not quite enough of a haircut, but to me – the most obviously place to start axing schedule.