The Easiest and Hardest Rest-of-Season Schedules

Not all opponents are created equal, nor has that ever been truer than in baseball’s current era of imbalanced schedules and interleague play. While strength of schedule can be a modest factor for a club, it has the potential to influence rest-of-season results. Now, with the All-Star break about to conclude, seems like an appropriate time to check in and see which teams can expect scheduling headwinds and tailwinds in the second half.

Many in the audience are probably familiar with FanGraphs’ projected standings and playoff odds. Many might also wonder what the difference is between the two. Briefly stated, the latter accounts for strength of schedule, while the former is presented independently of scheduling. The projected standings attempt to measure true talent based upon projections and our best guesses at playing-time distributions. Art and science. Click here for a full explanation of the secret sauce.

To understand what kind of bump teams can expect from schedule strength in the second half relative to their present level of talent, we can simply calculate the difference between the rest-of-season, projected-standings wins and rest-of-season projected wins from the playoff odds. That difference is presented in the following chart. (Note: data doesn’t reflect the Manny Machado or Brad Hand trades, so numbers might vary slightly now.)

While these projected-win advantages are relatively modest and most strength-of-schedule adjustments don’t exceed a single win in either direction, scheduling often has a bigger impact on second-half performance than any trade-deadline addition. The impact of the trade deadline is often overrated. The deadline quite possibly matters less than ever. There have been only seven players traded over the past five seasons who have added two or more wins to their new clubs in the second half. Not all of them are negligible, of course. The addition of Justin Verlander last fall was integral to the Astros’ world-championship season. The quality of competition is typically a significant factor, however.

The difference is that teams do have some control over whom they buy or sell at the deadline. They have no control, meanwhile, over which clubs they play. In an era of unbalanced schedules and interleague play, especially, there are advantages to be found in the strength or weakness of a schedule. While typically modest, these advantages can still make an impact in determining postseason races. Even with perfectly balanced schedules in a division, some teams have faced more difficult roads to date.

For instance, in the AL East, the projected standings have the Red Sox finishing four games better than the Yankees based on something like true talent. The playoff odds, meanwhile — which, again, account for strength of schedule — have the Yankees finishing just two games back. The Yankees have played the Indians and Astros already, completing their season series against each team. The Red Sox have not faced the Indians and the Astros in one series. That is a significant scheduling factor in the Yankees’ favor.

The Indians lead baseball with 2.6 projected wins added thanks to their remaining schedule, an advantage tied mostly to what might be a historically poor division. Cleveland already has a tremendous cushion thanks to the the modest challenge presented by their division foes, a cushion they can use to rest players like Corey Kluber and his balky right knee. That margin for error might also allow Cleveland to prepare for the postseason in a way that other clubs can’t. To think about it another way, playing in the AL Central is worth the equivalent of tens of millions of dollars to the Indians in win value.

In the AL West, the schedule is working slightly against the fading Mariners and in slight favor of the surging Athletics. But the strength of second-half opponents figures to be more of a factor in the NL, where there are more hotly contested postseason berths.

The Cubs have the fifth-easiest remaining schedule (.488 opponent winning percentage), while the Brewers face clubs with a collective .508 mark. The Nationals limped into the break and have been the super team to fall most short of expectations, but they do have an easier second-half schedule than the Braves or Phillies, which is one reason why FanGraphs still gives Washington the best division-winning odds in the East.

Strength of schedule is hardly the only variable to decide postseason berths, but it is a factor. With regard to Wild Card races, there is an argument to be made for more balanced schedules, fewer interleague games, and fewer games against divisional foes. Perhaps, in the Wild Card era, should be more balanced to create a more level playing field. (In regard to division races, division foes do play about the same exact schedule outside of their interleague rivals.)

Such discussions may be had by baseball decision-makers in the future, but for now, the schedule imbalance creates easier and more difficult paths to the postseason for some clubs.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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4 years ago

We need more interleague play, not less.

Pirates Hurdlesmember
4 years ago
Reply to  depthz

No we don’t.