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:
|New York Yankees||.482||78.1|
|Tampa Bay Rays||.486||78.8|
|Chicago White Sox||.490||79.4|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||.493||79.8|
|Boston Red Sox||.495||80.2|
|Los Angeles Angels||.499||80.8|
|Kansas City Royals||.499||80.8|
|San Diego Padres||.500||81.0|
|St. Louis Cardinals||.502||81.3|
|Toronto Blue Jays||.503||81.4|
|New York Mets||.512||82.9|
|San Francisco Giants||.515||83.4|
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:
|Tampa Bay Rays||.486||.474||.012||1.9|
|St. Louis Cardinals||.502||.497||.005||0.8|
|San Francisco Giants||.515||.511||.004||0.7|
|Toronto Blue Jays||.503||.501||.002||0.2|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||.493||.491||.001||0.2|
|Boston Red Sox||.495||.495||.000||0.1|
|San Diego Padres||.500||.500||.000||0.0|
|New York Mets||.512||.512||.000||0.0|
|New York Yankees||.482||.484||-.002||-0.4|
|Los Angeles Angels||.499||.501||-.002||-0.4|
|Chicago White Sox||.490||.500||-.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:
|Team||Original SOS||Truncated SOS||Gain|
|Tampa Bay Rays||70.5%||77.6%||7.1%|
|St. Louis Cardinals||31.6%||34.7%||3.1%|
|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%|
|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%|
|Los Angeles Angels||21.9%||20.0%||-2.0%|
|Chicago White Sox||23.3%||19.1%||-4.1%|
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:
|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%|
|Boston Red Sox||19.5%||22.6%||3.1%|
|Toronto Blue Jays||3.2%||5.2%||1.9%|
|Kansas City Royals||1.3%||2.9%||1.6%|
|San Francisco Giants||1.8%||2.5%||0.7%|
|New York Yankees||92.4%||90.8%||-1.6%|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||94.5%||91.3%||-3.2%|
|San Diego Padres||47.1%||43.8%||-3.3%|
|St. Louis Cardinals||34.7%||30.4%||-4.3%|
|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.