With nine teams* still battling for entry into the postseason in the American League, it's safe to say that every single game is of the utmost importance. Of course, not every team has the same schedule remaining, and that's a big deal. So which club has it easiest going down
With nine teams* still battling for entry into the postseason in the American League, it's safe to say that every single game is of the utmost importance. Of course, not every team has the same schedule remaining, and that's a big deal. So which club has it easiest going down the stretch? And how do you even answer that question?
* -- Yes, nine. The Astros have had the AL West locked up for months, and the White Sox, Rangers, A's, Blue Jays and Tigers are within neither three games of .500 nor three games of an AL Wild Card spot. Everyone else, including the division-leading Red Sox and Indians, still has a lot to play for.
It's easy to look at a team's remaining schedule, add up the winning percentage of all the teams they're facing, and go from there. While doing so is a decent start, it doesn't really tell you enough about where each team is right now. A win in April counts as much as a win in August, sure. But it doesn't matter as much, does it?
That being the case, we have good news for you, Royals fans: No team has a lighter schedule down the stretch, with an adjusted remaining strength of schedule of just .477. Put another way, that's 77-85 opposition over a full season. On the other hand, the Angels still have nine more games against Houston and face the equivalent of an 82-80 schedule. It matters.
How did we come up with these adjusted numbers? Let's use the Royals as an example.
After splitting Sunday's doubleheader with Seattle, Kansas City is 57-53, a fine .518 winning percentage. But like every other team, the Royals have changed considerably as the year has gone on. They aren't the same team that went a league-worst 7-16 in April, when Raul Mondesi and Paulo Orlando were in the regular lineup, and Eric Hosmer hadn't yet turned his season around. Surely, you have to put more weight on the fact that Kansas City went 16-10 in July, and that the club recently added Melky Cabrera and three pitchers from San Diego, right? Right.
Or take the Dodgers, who went merely 14-12 in April, when Justin Turner was injured and Cody Bellinger and Chris Taylor weren't on the roster. You would have rather played them then than now. Conversely, it's safe to say you'd have rather played the White Sox in August than in April, when they were 13-10 and still had Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier, Player Page for David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle.
So how do we account for that effect? There's no perfect way, but here is one way: We take each team's monthly winning percentage (grouping the few August games with July), and weight each month proportionally more heavily than the one before it. So while the Royals have a .518 winning percentage this season, our weighted average gives them credit for playing like a .560 team. After all, they've improved in each month of the season, from .304 in April, to .517 in May, to .581 in June, to .630 in July/August.
Having come up with each team's adjusted winning percentage, we reweight it again based on the number of times a team will see a particular opponent, and this becomes extremely important. To pick an example at random, the Angels see the Mariners 10 more times, but the Rays play Seattle just three times. We must account for that, so combining a team's adjusted record and how many games they have left against each club gives us our remaining strength of schedule.
So what is it that gives the Royals such an advantage? And now that we mention it, why are the three teams with the lowest opponents adjusted strength of schedule all in the AL Central? As it turns out, the White Sox will still have a pretty big say in how this year's playoffs shake out -- just not in the way you'd expect.
As we said, the White Sox have undergone a massive -- and very well-reviewed -- sell-off, accumulating what's probably baseball's best farm system. Of course, it's left them considerably weakened at the big league level; they're 4-23 since July 4. So if we look to the AL West, the Angels, for example, still get to play the White Sox four more times, but the Mariners are finished -- and won just four of seven. Advantage, Angels.
The Royals, however, still get to face Chicago nine more times, the most of any team. They face the Twins seven more times, and Minnesota's hot start (.522 in April, .538 in May) has not persisted (.483 in June, .419 since July 1). Not only that, Kansas City is better positioned against the East's best than Cleveland is, since the Royals have just a single game remaining against the pair (a makeup game against the Yankees), while the Tribe sees the Red Sox (adjusted .565) and Yanks (.516) seven more times.
Despite being swept by Baltimore last week, the Royals are still the AL's hottest team, and they'll get to face baseball's coldest team more than anyone else. There's a lot more that goes into making the playoffs than simply who you play, of course. But this matters, too. You'd rather be facing teams that are building for the future than ones gearing up for a playoff run. If Kansas City makes another unexpected run to October, don't forget the role pure timing and scheduling may have played.
As for you, White Sox fans. you're in a good spot. The future is extremely bright. And in the present, you get a very large say in who makes it to October.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast.