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6 ways early schedule could affect races

@AndrewSimonMLB
March 22, 2019

A particularly hot or cold start doesn’t decide anything in an MLB season that lasts 162 grueling games. But while some teams fade and some surge, a strong start still can set the tone for a great season, as it did for last year’s Red Sox, who finished April 21-7

A particularly hot or cold start doesn’t decide anything in an MLB season that lasts 162 grueling games.

But while some teams fade and some surge, a strong start still can set the tone for a great season, as it did for last year’s Red Sox, who finished April 21-7 on their way to 108 victories and a championship.

In that sense, the early-season schedule can play a big role. For certain clubs, there is an opportunity to take advantage of a weaker slate of opponents and jump out ahead of the division. For others, the opening month figures to provide an immediate test of fortitude.

Browse the Opening Week schedule

Here, then, is a look at how strength of schedule, through the end of April, could affect the race in each of the six divisions. These numbers were provided by FanGraphs, with a team’s strength of schedule represented as an overall opponent winning percentage, based on the projected standings.

AL East
The Red Sox and Yankees appear primed for another spirited clash in 2019, and both have a chance to get out of the blocks well. Neither has a big edge, though, with New York (.461) facing the second-easiest projected schedule, and Boston (.476) the fourth easiest.

These two clubs will meet each other only twice in the opening month, from April 16-17 in the Bronx. Other than that, both face just one projected playoff team. The Red Sox have six games against the Rays -- who played both AL East behemoths tough last year -- and the Yankees have to travel to Houston for three games. Both clubs get series with the Orioles and Tigers, and the Yankees also face the Royals and White Sox, meaning they will see four of the six MLB clubs projected for 90-plus losses.

AL Central
The Indians’ quest for a fourth consecutive division title begins with a three-game series at Target Field, against a Twins club that has the potential to provide a stiff challenge. But other than that opening series -- and the fact that Cleveland will play 17 of its first 28 on the road -- its early schedule isn’t exactly harrowing. Then again, neither is Minnesota’s.

Some of that is the state of the AL Central. But even outside the division, the Indians (.474, third easiest) get 10 games against the Blue Jays, Mariners and Marlins. The Twins (.484, fifth easiest) get 10 against Toronto and Baltimore. Both teams do have series against the Astros, however, and Minnesota has to take an Interleague swing through Philadelphia and New York.

AL West
The Angels no longer have to worry about losing Mike Trout, but they still have an uphill battle to catch the Astros, who have put together consecutive seasons of 100-plus victories. That being said, the March/April schedule could open the door for the Halos (.486, sixth easiest) -- in the Wild Card race if not the division.

Series against the Brewers, Cubs and Yankees loom. On the other hand, the Angels will get 13 early matchups against the bottom two teams in the projected AL West standings, the Mariners and Rangers, and also play the Royals. By contrast, the Astros (.507, 21st) get a combined 16 games against the Yankees, Rays, Indians and Twins, while also playing 17 of their first 30 on the road.

NL East
This has the potential to be a four-team race, with the Braves, Mets, Phillies and Nationals all projected to win between 84 and 90 games. And there will be many important battles within the division over the first month, with a combined 24 matchups between that quartet. However, the Phillies and Nats (both .489) rank among the 10 easiest schedules, while the Braves (.506) and Mets (.512) rank among the 10 most difficult.

While all four teams face the Marlins (projected for 99 losses), the Phillies do so seven times, while the Nationals get a combined nine games with the Giants, Padres and Pirates. The Braves face projected division winners in the Cubs and Indians, and the Mets do not draw any team that is forecast for a sub-.500 finish, other than Miami.

NL Central
As the Cubs seek to reclaim first place, their early schedule could provide a leg up in what looks to be a highly competitive division. While Chicago’s projected strength of schedule (.488) is seventh weakest in MLB, the rest of the Central is clustered in the bottom half of the rankings. In particular, the defending division champion Brewers (.535) have the toughest road of any MLB team, with the rival Cardinals (.517) getting the sixth-toughest slate.

One factor is that while the Cubs play the Brewers just three times and don’t face the Cardinals at all, Milwaukee and St. Louis will square off a whopping 10 times through April 24. As they beat up on each other, Chicago will get a dozen games against the D-backs, Marlins and Rangers. Meanwhile, the Brewers and Cardinals both will face the Mets and Dodgers -- Milwaukee for a total of seven games.

NL West
If the D-backs or Giants are going to rise up and challenge the Dodgers, they’ll have to earn it in the opening month. Arizona (.526) and San Francisco (.527) have the third- and fourth-toughest schedules through the end of April. The former must deal with series against the Yankees, Rays and Nationals, and the latter draws the Red Sox as an Interleague opponent, while getting two series with the Cubs.

In contrast, the Dodgers and Rockies (both .500) are in the middle of the pack together. Both face tests outside the division, with Los Angeles meeting the entire NL Central in April, and Colorado taking on three tough NL East clubs (Braves, Nationals, Phillies). One edge for the Rockies: The only early meeting between the two clubs will come at Coors Field, from April 5-7.

Andrew Simon is a research analyst for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.