Balancing the Schedule

It seems like it took 56 to 60 percent of our energy to get there, but we’re finally halfway through the 2013 baseball season.  Perhaps the most fascinating development of the first “half” is the dominance of the AL East, with four teams playing at least .537 baseball, which equates to 87 wins over a full season.  Only eight teams outside the division, and none in the NL West, have won as many games as the fourth-place Yankees.  To top it all off, the team in fifth place is the team many of us expected to win the division.

While this would be a remarkable development taken at face value, it’s even more astonishing when one considers the imbalance in MLB’s schedule.  Those five AL East teams have played 44 percent of their games against each other, obviously breaking even in those games, while compiling a 158-112 record against all other teams.  Essentially, the AL East is a 95-win team when playing outside the conference.

After the jump, we’ll take a look at what balancing the schedule might look like based on early returns from 2013.

To determine what a team’s record might look like with a balanced schedule, I prorated their current intradivision win-loss record to 24 games (or six against each division opponent) and their current interdivision record to 138 games, (five or six against each non-division opponent), and added those two components.

Of course, this makes a few assumptions not fully grounded in logic.  It assumes that, in 34 to 52 games, each team has settled into its true talent level against division opponents, and that it has done the same in 44 to 59 games against a wide range of out-of-division teams.  I made no adjustments for interleague games, which works against the AL, which has gone 107-94 (.532) against the NL and would benefit handsomely from more interleague play.

Those shortcomings aside, I think the table below represents a reasonable facsimile of what the league might look like with a balanced schedule.

Teamact %bal Wbal Lbal %Diff
Tampa Bay.57310458.642+.069
New York A.5378775.5370
Kansas City.4677389.451-.017
Chicago A.4026696.407+.005
LA of Anaheim.4738280.506+.033
New York N.4517785.475+.025
St. Louis.6139765.599-.014
Chicago N.4528379.512+.061
LA of Los Angeles.5008676.531+.031
San Diego.4387191.438+.001
San Francisco.45761101.377-.081


“act%” is the team’s actual W-L record to-date.  “bal” figures represent a 162-game projection based on the method above.  “Diff” represents the projected gain or loss in a team’s W-L percentage (or “permillage”, as we express it in baseball).

A few observations:

First, the total “balanced” projections are, somewhat ironically, out of balance, due to rounding and teams not having played the same number of intra- and interdivision games.  The league goes 2424-2436, which is a rough year for Selig & Co.

More interestingly, two playoff spots would be affected by this rebalancing.  The Rays, who have destroyed non-division competition, going 35-17, including 9-1 interleague, leap to the top of the East.  The Orioles, who would miss the last Wild Card spot by 1 1/2 games if the season ended today, wind up six games ahead of Texas, which has picked on division foes (25-13) while barely breaking .500 (29-28) against everyone else.

Before crunching these numbers, I expected the A’s to take a hit, as more than half of their 17 games over .500 can be explained by their 9-0 record against Houston.  But Oakland is just 14-15 against the rest of its division, and 33-24 against the field, including a league-high 13 wins (vs. 5 losses) in interleague play.  Extrapolate those interleague wins to a schedule including 86 interleague games and the A’s open up a nine-game lead in the West.

While the NL Central has three strong teams, some of the strength of the teams at the top can be attributed to their beating up on the Cubs and Brewers, who in turn have played well against the rest of the league.  St. Louis, at 22-12, has played the fewest intradivision games in all of MLB so far, including just 14 against the Pirates and Reds.  Look for those three teams to come back to Earth a bit this summer as they begin to cannibalize each other.

The Giants only seem to be able to beat their putrid NL West counterparts, against whom they’re 27-20, and anyone they play in October.  This, as well as some of the the other findings one may observe in this data, is likely more a factor of the timing of streaks than of actual head-to-head tendencies.  The Giants’ recent 3-16 slide was division-agnostic, as they lost series against the Marlins, Dodgers, Rockies, Reds, Dodgers, and Mets.  Sometimes a team gets in a funk that even a visit from the Marlins can’t fix.

Finally, I’d be remiss not to touch on the plight of the Blue Jays, who are suffering through baseball’s second-longest playoff drought despite having put many talented teams on the field over the last two decades.  Toronto is playing like an 89-win team outside the brutal AL East, but they’re a 65-win laughingstock within the division.  Balance the schedule and they pick up eight wins, placing themselves within shouting distance of the playoff race.  Adjust further for their 9-5 record against the National League and they may win a few more.

Unfortunately for the Jays, I don’t think a balanced schedule is on the way.



Balancing the Schedule — 22 Comments

  1. The other unbalanced part of the schedule is inter-league play which, since it is an everyday thing now, I’m not even sure how that part of the schedule is worked out.

    Though it may seem counter-intuitive, everyday inter-league play can actually result in less inter-league play instead of more, which to me would be a good thing, balance-wise. With 26 weeks in the season, and two series each week, there are only 52 series that must be played. To even things out for the 30 teams, make it two series for each team, home and away against the “natural” rival. That’s all the inter-league play that needs to happen.

    Many of those natural rivals aren’t, of course, a situation exacerbated with Houston and Texas now in the same league. Instead, following the NFL approach, each season a division should be matched up with another from the other league and play six series with those teams, home and home with the team finishing in the same position (1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc.), and one series with each of the other four teams. That would get my vote for how to do inter-league in a balanced way.

  2. “Unfortunately for the Jays, I don’t think a balanced schedule is on the way.”

    My finger is very much off the pulse here, so maybe someone can answer this for me: is there much clamour for a balanced schedule? I can see the appeal, as teams in stronger divisions are clearly hurt by having to play each other so often. On the other hand, what relevance do divisions have if the teams within them play each other no more often than anyone else?

    • Ever since they first added wild cards, I’ve thought MLB should abandon the unbalanced schedule. Winning your division no longer meant as much as simply qualifying for the playoffs and, while there frequently is one weak division winner in each league, the teams vying for the wild card spot are essentially the “last team in.” When one of them plays a significantly tougher schedule than the other, simply because of the division they’re in, that strikes me as unfair.

      Now, since they changed the wild card system, I’m not so sure. There is some extra incentive for winning your division, so there’s a little more added value to that. I really don’t like the one-and-done wild card playoff, but if it’s going to remain that way, I suppose I’m in favor of keeping the schedule unbalanced.

      • RJ, I don’t think a balanced schedule is on the way, but there has been some talk about the unfairness of the schedule. A few weeks ago, USA Today Sports Weekly interviewed some AL East players who said they would prefer to face each other less often.

        Dan, I completely agree with your first paragraph, but not with your second. Now that two teams can win Wild Cards, why should the teams competing for those spots play such different schedules? The chart above suggests that the Orioles might win far more games than the Rangers if they played the same schedule (though I’m not necessarily arguing that they would). Why should the Rangers be rewarded for their softer schedule?

        • What I was trying to say is it’s kind of a catch-22 now. When the one wild card essentially was an equal to the three division winners (other than home field advantage), I saw no value to the division titles, so a balanced schedule makes more sense.

          Now that they’ve shifted back to a scenario where there’s added value to winning the division, RJ’s “…what relevance do divisions have if the teams within them play each other no more often than anyone else?” remains relevant.

          On the flip side, I don’t think it’s fair that the two teams battling for the coin-flip game play different schedules, but since they’re trying to add incentive to winning your division back into the picture, I can see why they’d leave the unbalanced schedules as they are.

          • I guess my problem is with the addition of the incentive for winning the division. It might make sense in, say, college football, where it means something to be the best among a group of teams, usually in the same geographic region, with rich traditions and fierce rivalries. In baseball, I’d rather see all the teams (or at least all the teams within each league) play the same schedule, with the best teams making the playoffs.

            I suppose the flip side of that argument is that a lot of teams fall out of contention quickly when they know they have to finish in the top five and can’t take advantage of a weak schedule to sneak in with 83 wins.

  3. RJ, then u have the NBA where teams play division “rivals” 4 times, other teams in their conference 3 or 4 times and the opposite conference two times. In other words, there are basically no divisons at all. In short, without an unbalanced schedule, there is no need for divisions.

  4. I understand with you living in the Northeast that the AL East seems the like the big story, Bryan, but I wouldn’t say anywhere else in the country that’s the talk of baseball.

    If I had to pick one division, the strength of the top three teams in the NL Central would be my pick. And the Pittsburgh Pirates would be the best story in baseball (IMHO).

    Baseball is far more regional than Connecticut-based ESPN will ever care to realize.

    • I completely agree that the Pirates are the best story in baseball. That didn’t exactly fit as a lead-in to this piece. From a historical standpoint, four teams in a five-team division on pace to win 87 games has to be rarer than a team that’s been bad for a long time (but less bad in recent seasons) finally putting it all together.

  5. –I’ve long thought that the logical way out of this conundrum of unbalanced schedules would be to have only a certain pre-identified subset of balanced-schedule games count in the wild card standings as between teams in different divisions. For example, this season each team will play all other teams in its league at least six times. So we could say that the last six times that each team plays each league opponent during the season constitute “wild card” games that count not just in the 162-game division standings but also in a separate table of inter-division wild card standings. At the end of the season you would have 84 balanced “wild card games” (six games against 14 league opponents) that would determine who among inter-division competitors would go to the playoffs. The full 162-game unbalanced standings would still be used for determining division champs and for intra-division priority within the “wild card standings”. You’d have to have some set rules as to how the two sets of standings would interact in certain cases but I think it would work.

    –But that’s not really what Bryan was doing in his post here. He’s really doing something like what b-ref does with its SRS (Simple Rating System), except that SRS includes both a schedule strength and a pythagorean expectation adjustment. I always find it interesting to go to b-ref’s “full standings” page, and in the wild card standings section, where the full league is listed, to click on the SRS column to re-order the teams by SRS. For example, right now in the NL you would see the Cubs as the second wild card team after applying b-ref’s schedule and pythag adjustments, both of which the Cubs gain from.

    • I like looking at the SRS as well, but I wonder…

      The Yankees and the Indians are both 51-44. The SRS though shows that the Indians are the better team (0.5 vs 0.2). And yet head to head the Yankees absolutely dominated the Indians (winning 6 of the 7 games with a total margin of 49 runs vs 19 runs).

      • Half a season is still a small sample to reaching conclusions on who is really the better team — the pythag expectation was developed based on full season-length samples, and less than that can introduce a lot of sampling error. So in-season SRS is fun but indeed care must be taken. On the other hand, a seven-game sample is more dangerous still, even a seven-game wipeout. They are each pieces of evidence to be taken with plenty of skepticism, but I’d still weight the half-season numbers more heavily than the seven-game wipeout.

    • I like your proposal here, birtelcom, but I can’t imagine how the league would determine which 6 of the 18 games between, say, the Rangers and Angels, would count toward determining whether the Rangers were more deserving of a playoff spot than this Orioles.

      • I think I would just make it the last six, so the later-season pennant race games would be the most interesting.

        It is true that this would replace the current strength of scheduling imbalance based on inter-division scheduling with a possible strength of scheduling imbalance based on season-timing, as the Red Sox might play their “wild card six” games against the Yankees at the end of the season when the Yanks have injured players back and after trade-deadline deals, while the Angels will have played their six against a less capable Yankee team. But this sort of imbalance happens anyway.

    • My bad, at my comment #9, where I said that b-ref’s SRS would put the Cubs in the second wild card spot in the NL right now. SRS does rank the Cubs as the fifth best team in the NL right now, but Stl, Cin and Pit are all ahead of them in the NL Central, so even based on SRS the Cubbies would not be a playoff-bound team. SRS ranks the Cubs ahead of the D’backs, slightly, but the D’Backs still have the highest SRS in the NL West, so SRS would give them the NL West playoff spot and the Cubbies would be out of luck.

  6. If there was to be a balanced schedule, then interleague play would have to go. That pretty much ends any discussion of a balanced schedule, other than option 3 below. But, let’s pretend canning inter-league is possible. Then you would be left with:

    (1) One team would have to switch leagues to get back to even numbers. Then you could have a 16 team race and a 14 team race, with 10/11 or 12/13 games per opponent, respectively. The 12/13 is nice – four series per opponent. The 10/11 is still four series each, but not so nice schedule-wise with lots of 2-game series. But, still workable.

    (2) What might be an even better idea is to keep the 15-team leagues and reduce the schedule to 154 games (that number seems familiar, somehow). That works out to an even 11 games per opponent in each league, and every month-and-a-half or so, a team would get a little 3 or 4 day break as the odd team out in schedule. I think the players would go for that (but, probably not the owners).

    (3) The other approach is to combine the leagues and have one 30 team race, like the European football (soccer) leagues. That would mean 5 or 6 games against each opponent, or home-and-home series. Somehow, just doesn’t seem enough.

    As for playoffs (assuming there are still separate leagues), the top 5 finishers make it, with 4 and 5 being the wild-cards who have a best of 3 set to determine the survivor to join the top 3.

    • The other problem with (3) is that, unlike football, there’s no relegation to keep things interesting at the bottom. As Bryan alluded to @7, you’d have a large number of out of contention teams playing for nothing. The division system slightly mitigates this issue by keeping more teams (I’m looking at you NL West) in contention.

  7. Bryan’s chart really underscores how significant the impact of inequitable schedules has become – well beyond what I’d imagined.

    I think there are at least three competing factors in this issue: fairness, divisional identity, and money. Doug’s right @12 that interleague play, which prioritizes revenue/popularity over schedule integrity, rules out equitable scheduling, both because there aren’t enough games to produce balance, and because the construction of “traditional rivalries” will ensure that certain big-market teams, which can be expected to outperform others over the long run, will be repeatedly matched up (e.g., Mets vs. Yankees, Cubs vs. White Sox [whoops]).

    When it was in force, I did not like the balanced schedule within leagues, which distributed games much like Doug’s model, because it suppressed the emergence of divisional identities. Divisions started as mini-leagues, 3/4 as big as traditional leagues with highly unbalanced schedules [18/yr intradivision; 12/yr extradivision], and had the promise to develop historical identities on the model of the AL and NL. But executive shifting of division members – even of league affiliation – and reduction of division size has undermined that, even as league identities themselves have been attenuated by administrative consolidation and interleague play.

    I’m still very much in favor of nurturing divisional identity over time, even though it is clearly at a cost to fairness. (How fair was it that the Cleveland Indians, a consistently strong franchise for forty years, was stuck in the same league as the Yankees?) I expect that in a couple of decades expansion will resume under the pressure of population growth, and imagine that we will return to six-team divisions later this century.

    The Wild Card – a revenue-boosting invention – is a factor that becomes increasingly arbitrary as league identity decreases (with more randomly assigned interleague play) and as divisional identity increases (per Dan @4). However, I’d argue against Doug’s solution. To tailor a formula for integrity by balancing schedules in the intraleague portion of the season, acknowledging the loss of league identity as a given while undermining divisional identity, seems to me to be giving up something of great value in order to catch a train that left the station when MLB went off to join the interleague circus.

    • Beautifully said, epm.

      No doubt we’re stuck with divisions, as you articulate. That being the case, inter-league play should be more normalized. I would argue for matching divisions each season as the NFL does. That would make for 5 series. The 6th series could be the traditional rival, which would be a second series in the other city (ballpark) if that rival was in the matched division.

      So, with the current 5-team divisions, we could have:
      – 6 inter-league series x 3 = 18 inter-league games
      – 8 intra-league games against other divisions x 10 = 80 intra-league games
      – 16 intra-division games x 4 = 64 intra-division games

      There’s your 162 games, with 4-game series being the norm for all the series, except inter-league. That will reduce travel and travel expenses, so should be popular with both players and owners.

      • Very elegant, Doug, and not a radical shift from the current arrangement, though a bit less intradivisiocentric. But it’s so clear and sensible that I’m afraid it would stand little chance of implementation.

      • The one good thing that a 3-game series has going for it is you can squeeze two of them into a single week, plus either the off day or a 4th game, and having a Friday-Saturday-Sunday series against the same opponent is convenient for most people’s schedules.

        If you start making all series 4 games, you don’t have that option and the schedule will have to float across days of the week, not to mention that laying out the schedule seems to run into problems of its own. I can’t say for sure, but I’d guess that plan would actually lead to lower average attendance, offsetting the decreased costs in travel.

        • Good point.

          As an alternative, could probably keep the intra-league games as 4 game-sets, and switch the the intra-division series to 3-3-2 at home, and 3-3-2 away.

          Would end up with twenty 4-game series for the intra-league games that could be “matched up” in a 7-day week with the 16 intra-division and 6 inter-league 3-game sets.

          Don’t think those eight 2-game sets would be too popular, but they’re compensated for by the 20 4-game sets, which are about twice as many as are played today.

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