In a normal season, each team plays its four division rivals 19 times apiece, plus six or seven games against the teams from the two other divisions in the league, plus three or four games against a selected Interleague division, plus four more against a designated Interleague rival. It's a formula. It adds up to 162. It works the same every single year.
This year, it ought to go without saying, will not be a normal season.
It's expected to be 60 games, rather than 162. (That's about 37% of a traditional full year.) In an attempt to limit travel, teams will only play the other four clubs in their division (10 games apiece, totaling 40), and the five Interleague teams from the corresponding division (three to six games apiece, totaling 20). You won't play any of the other two divisions in your league at all. The Mets, for example, will play the Rays and Red Sox, but not the Cubs or Dodgers.
So who wins out with that? Or loses? We know what the schedule was supposed to be, and we know what it is now, so we can compare the differences. They're not huge, obviously, because there's not such diversity of opponents that it will suddenly make a bad team good or vice-versa. They're not nothing, either. Let's see who should be happy -- or not.
The way we did this, for those interested, took some work. FanGraphs maintains two separate win/loss projections, one without accounting for a team's strength of schedule (so just based on the projected playing time and skill of the roster), and one that does. By looking at the difference, you can get to each team's strength of opposing schedule, and then we replaced the original 162-game schedule with the new 60-game one.
So, to give an example, let's take the Mariners. They were originally projected to have an opposing strength of schedule of .513, tied for third-most difficult in baseball. (This is partially because they have to deal with the Astros, Angels and A's.)
They still have to face the AL West, obviously, but now they lose the benefit of facing a weak AL Central; instead, one-third of their schedule is now against a competitive NL West. That's a big deal, because the AL Central is projected for a collective .478 winning percentage, while the NL West comes in at a much harder .515. In addition, while the Astros, Angels and A's were previously 35% of their schedule, now those three are 50% of it.
That all bumps their strength of schedule up to .522, a difference of .009. What's nine points over 162 games? About a win-and-a-half. It's not huge, but it's not nothing -- especially in a short season that seems extremely likely to end with tight races. Here's how that looks across all 30 teams:
These teams benefit from the new schedule
Reds (-.012 easier strength of opposing schedule)
Right away, you see something interesting: all of these teams are from the two Central divisions. Why? For the NL teams, the answer is easy: They'd originally been slated to face the AL East (.487 expected winning percentage, dragged down by Baltimore) this year in Interleague Play, as well as the NL East (.518) and West (.515) in intraleague play. That's all gone now, so instead of dealing with the Yankees, Dodgers, Nationals, Braves, Rays, Red Sox and Mets (along with some lesser teams, sure) they get the weak AL Central (only a .478 expected winning percentage). That's a nice bonus.
(The Reds especially win out here, because they play 10 games against the Royals and Tigers, while the Cubs and Brewers get only seven. That's because the Tigers are Cincinnati's designated rival this year, meaning they play six times. Throw in 10 more against the Pirates, and the Reds have a full one-third of their schedule against the Royals, Tigers and Pirates -- three teams that combined to play .360 baseball last year.)
For the Twins and Indians, much like the Mariners, it's about the share of their schedule taken up by the three other teams in their division. (That's the White Sox, competitive at a projected .501 winning percentage, and the rebuilding Royals [.433] and Tigers [.405] at the rear.) Previously, they were going to play 35% of their schedule against that trio. Now, it's 50% -- literally half the season -- against three teams projected to collectively post a .446 winning percentage.
In what's expected to be a three-team Central race, even a game advantage due to the schedule could be huge.
These teams don't see much change either way
Nationals, White Sox, Dodgers, Padres, Mets, Rays, Yankees, A's, Royals, Phillies, Braves, Astros, Tigers, Marlins, Pirates, Blue Jays, Red Sox, Orioles
A few ticks here, a few ticks there. This is a lot of the league, unsurprisingly; as we said, strength of schedule isn't by itself going to make or break anyone's season.
These teams get hurt
Mariners (+.009 harder strength of opposing schedule)
Just what the Mariners need: A tougher road than they already have, as explained above.
There's another clustering of divisions here, this time the Wests. The Rangers, for example, had previously faced a projected .501 opposing strength of schedule, but now that's up to .507. Why? In part because now a full 50% of their schedule will be against the Astros, A's and Angels, all projected to be winning clubs, up from 35% before. The NL West clubs now have to play a larger share of their slate against the Dodgers, and they no longer get the AL Central Interleague games that had originally been planned.
However this season shakes out, there's so much that simply can't be projected or predicted, because no one's ever seen a season quite like this. But compared to the scheduled season we thought we might have, there are small yet notable differences. We already expected both Central divisions would be tightly fought. This might only make them even closer.