The Teams Most Affected By Their Remaining Schedules

St. Louis Cardinals
Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Toward the beginning of the season, strength of schedule isn’t all that important. The divergences in it are minuscule, not enough games have been played to differentiate team strength, and so on. There are projections, yes, but that doesn’t mean the actual season is never volatile. But as spring gives way to summer, providing a more accurate overview of the season, schedule strength becomes a variable that matters. Fans love to imagine that a contender would have an easier shot at reaching the playoffs with a cushy schedule, and it’s true. What kind of team wouldn’t want an easier road ahead?

Normally, early August would be a tad late to write an article on remaining schedule strength. But due to how late the season started, we’re only now two-thirds of the way in. Also, we just recently wrapped up the trade deadline, which saw some teams bulk up and others slim down, often at the expense of each other. It’s these additions and subtractions that have shifted the playoff picture. All in all, it felt like an an appropriate time to sit down, crunch the numbers, and figure out whose schedules are forgiving, and which are less so.

How do we estimate the impact of a team’s remaining schedule? To answer that question, I’m going to borrow a technique from Jeff Sullivan. As it turns out, FanGraphs makes our job much easier. If you go over to the Projected Standings page, the rest-of-season winning percentages listed there do not take strength of schedule into account. Head onto the Playoff Odds page, however, and the rest-of-season winning percentages there do consider it. There’s a crucial difference here, one that we can use to our benefit.

What I did is subtract the projected standings winning percentages from the playoff odds winning percentages, then multiplied that by the remaining number of games for each team. Doing so gives us an estimated number of wins a team stands to lose or gain from schedule strength alone. Below is a graph showing the (dis)advantage every team had as of yesterday’s games:

The interpretation is simple. On one end, we have the Cardinals, who stand to gain a little more than 1.5 wins from their schedule. On the other end, we have the Marlins, who stand to lose nearly two from theirs. Besides the Cardinals, the Mariners, Astros, Cubs, and White Sox are expected to tack on at least one win, albeit with a margin of error. Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks, Orioles, Rockies, and Rays are in a similar predicament as the Marlins. Overall, the resulting numbers are distributed quite evenly, with good and bad teams spread out across the graph.

Now, no offense to the Marlins, but their loss of two games isn’t a high-stakes matter. That difference isn’t what might take them out of the playoff race; they were out of it months ago. But the Cardinals’ league-leading win advantage, so to speak, is very interesting news. After trailing the Brewers for most of the season, St. Louis now sits atop the NL Central with slightly better odds to make the playoffs and claim the division title. That’s thanks to a remaining schedule that projects to be the breeziest in baseball. It’s easy to see why: Besides a series each against the Dodgers and Padres, there’s a whole lot of Cubs, Nationals, and Reds in the Cardinals’ future.

The Mariners, who are looking to make the playoffs for the first time in an infamously long while, are also notable beneficiaries. It helps that the AL West is a pushover besides the Astros and themselves, but they’ve also held their own against teams like the Yankees and the Blue Jays. Based on that, you could argue that the Mariners deserve their upcoming slate. Seattle’s playoff odds are looking pretty at 80.8%, and barring an irredeemable collapse, the drought should come to an end.

One curious detail is that while the White Sox are third in win advantage from remaining schedule strength, the Twins are 17th, neither harmed nor aided by their own schedule. The AL Central contenders share similar rest-of-season slates, but there are subtle differences. For the White Sox, the only real super-team they must face from now on are the Astros in a four-game series. Meanwhile, not only must the Twins face the Astros thrice, but they’re also tasked with two games against the Dodgers (starting today!) and four games against the Yankees as the visiting team. And it probably doesn’t help that our projections view the Twins as about the White Sox’s equal despite the former’s activity at deadline. All that plausibly accounts for a gap of about a win: small but, given the circumstances, significant.

There aren’t many teams on the playoff bubble whose schedules ahead could be detrimental, but the Rays do demand a deeper look. Consider their recent matchup against the Tigers as a mere respite; from here on out, it’s going to be a relentless onslaught of divisional rivals and those danged Astros. What’s worse, there’s half a lineup and an entire bullpen on the Rays’ injured list, meaning they’ll have to plough through with compromises and second-best options. Heck, even their pitching coach is injured. It’s just been one of those seasons for the Rays. They’re still in good shape, mind you, but one can imagine how things could go south for them. It won’t only be because of those injuries; it might also be because of who they have to face.

Baseball schedules, for the most part, are designed to be balanced. But the imperfections that do exist tend to become apparent toward the end of the season. Not that they don’t exist in the beginning, but we pay less attention, mainly because we’re occupied with where our teams stand. As contenders emerge and playoff races come down to the wire, though, any semblance of an edge looks meaningful. Schedule strength can be an actual advantage. The benefit it provides is usually no greater than a win, but then again, most teams are lucky to squeeze out that much value from a single deadline acquisition. The Cardinals and Mariners might make the playoffs because of their remaining schedules. The Rays might do so in spite of theirs.

Statistics in this article are through games of August 8.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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1 year ago

The Jays play the Orioles 14 more times. This chart would have been much more favorable to the Jays if the Orioles were the 40-60 team everyone expected instead of the team with an actual bright future that they’ve turned into today.

1 year ago
Reply to  radivel

Yup, and the Orioles probably deserve mention alongside the Rays as a fringe contender with a difficult schedule in their own right – there really isn’t much of a talent gap between these injury-addled Rays and the Orioles and both are plausibly competing for one of the last couple wild card spots!

1 year ago
Reply to  radivel

Amazing that they have nearly 1/3 of their remaining games against Baltimore…

An interesting additional analysis would be to compare current expected strength of schedule to a preseason version – how many games would the Jays be expected to gain if the Orioles played down to expectations.