The Indians have the easiest remaining schedule out of any contending team. It’s a fact that has been repeated so many times this September that everyone knows the narrative by now. While the other Wild Card contenders are primarily battling amongst themselves, the Indians get to beat up on three of the worst teams in baseball.
In a Fox Sports article on Sunday, Ken Rosenthal discussed the problem with the strength-of-schedule situation.
“The American League wild-card race isn’t close to fair, not when the unbalanced schedule puts AL East contenders at a disadvantage. The move of the Houston Astros from the NL Central to the AL West last season created six five-team divisions, reducing inequity in the division races; all clubs now play roughly the same opponents as their division rivals. The wild card races, though, remain full of inequity, with teams from different divisions competing for the same prize while playing significantly different schedules.”
The point made by Rosenthal is a fair one. While teams in the West and the Central get to play 19 games against opponents like the Astros or the Chicago White Sox, the clubs in the East face strong competition throughout the division.
This season, for example, the 71-84 Toronto Blue Jays are the worst team in the AL East. Despite their dismal season, they still boast a significantly better record than the aforementioned Astros and White Sox, along with the Minnesota Twins and Seattle Mariners. It does put the contending East teams at a disadvantage, because two of the four worst AL teams reside in each of the other divisions.
One option that Rosenthal mentioned to even out the competitive balance was to play less divisional games. However, in addition to adversely affecting the division races, that would be a logistical challenge. Teams already despise traveling to the west coast, and in order to face more-balanced competition, that’s what would have to happen. If the Rays and Yankees want additional games against the Astros and Mariners, they’ll be spending more time flying across the country. That doesn’t seem like a solution teams would want to use.
“Baseball, to achieve greater competitive balance, needs to blow up its divisions and maybe its leagues. Specifically, it needs to blow up the AL East, which threatens to disintegrate into the Yankees, Red Sox and three baseball versions of the Washington Generals.”
In the article, which was written in 2010, he talked about the seemingly insurmountable advantage the two high-payroll teams held over their smaller-market division rivals. Despite the intellect and strategy displayed by the Rays and Orioles, the Yankees and Red Sox had become just as well-run, Rosenthal said. A virtually-limitless supply of cash in New York and Boston meant that Baltimore and Tampa Bay would be hard-pressed to reach the playoffs in the future.
It’s easy to see in retrospect that those assumptions were incorrect. The Rays and Orioles put together teams filled with young talent, and have remained competitive, while New York hurt itself by signing too many aging, overpaid stars and Boston collapsed two years in a row.
At the time though, Rosenthal had a valid concern. The widely varied budgets of Major League teams are a major roadblock to reaching “competitive balance.” Boston and New York did have a significantly better chance of success, compared to the other teams.
The problem isn’t that Rosenthal’s points are incorrect. The real issue is that his opinions on “good” teams have changed over the course of three seasons. That’s not a knock on Rosenthal and his views. It’s simply the way baseball works.
A team like the Indians might have a horrible season – one where they finish so far from the .500 mark that fans’ excitement for next year is limited to hoping for a winning record. Then the front office goes to work over the winter. They acquire one of the best managers in baseball. They sign big-name free agents, like Nick Swisher and Michael Bourn. They take gambles on project-players that other teams have given up on, like Scott Kazmir and Ryan Raburn. Miraculously, all of these things go (more or less) as planned, and suddenly that awful 68-94 club from last season has absolutely no bearing on this year’s playoff hopes.
In the American League, “good” and “bad” teams change from season to season. The White Sox look like a shell of the contending team they were in 2012. The Twins, who have admittedly been terrible for a while, have a group of top-ranked prospects headed to the rescue over the course of the next few season. If everyone plays to their potential, they might soon be in the Indians’ or Royals’ position as a contender. The Red Sox that crashed and burned under the guidance of Bobby Valentine last year currently hold the best record in the AL.
Despite the best intentions of anyone who attempts it, there is no way to realign the divisions that would remain “fair” year after year.
When the people who make the schedule begin to plan out next year’s match-ups, they can’t predict who might sweep half their opponents, or who might fizzle in April and never get back on track. The Indians handed out 2014 schedules to fans in attendance during their recent weekend series against the Astros. The MLB officials who designed that schedule don’t even know who will make this year’s playoffs, let alone what trades will be made or which teams’ star players will encounter a season-ending injury.
It’s easy to say “The games aren’t fair!” If the Indians were facing six final games against Boston and Tampa Bay, it’s likely that Tribe fans would cry foul about it. But there’s nothing Major League Baseball can do.
Every division has things that aren’t “fair”. The teams in the West have to travel farther and fly more frequently than anyone else. The Central teams play every divisional game outdoors, even when it snows. A few teams in each division play in small-market areas with low-budget lineups, while others don’t have those same limitations. While these might not seem equal to the problem that Rosenthal pointed out, they’re still inequities. Baseball has so many of them that, in the end, any team that puts talent on the field has a chance to win, regardless of the problems their schedule might present.
The structure of MLB’s schedule is far from perfect, but that shouldn’t cheapen this wild card race. If the Indians win, they did it because they took advantage of their opportunities in a way that other teams did not.