The unbalanced schedule and MLB's Postseason

The Braves played only 64 teams with a winning record on their way to the postseason. - Scott Cunningham

MLB's unbalanced schedule forces teams to qualify for the playoffs against far different opponents, as teams like the Braves and Rays have demonstrated. How can this issue be best addressed?

As the MLB’s regular season wore down, much was made of the Cleveland Indians’ schedule and the perceived lowliness of their opponents, which enabled them to nab an American League Wild Card spot in the last weeks of September. The Indians no doubt benefited from a soft schedule down the stretch, playing just 10 games against opponents with a winning record in September and only one (Detroit on Sept. 1) playoff team. The fact that Cleveland went 21-6 in the season’s final month (their best record in any month this year) and finished on a 10-game winning streak did little to quell the widespread buzz surrounding their easy September schedule.

Yet the Indians stand as just one team who benefited from the whims of MLB’s unbalanced schedule, which frequently results in noticeably different schedules among teams across the baseball landscape. Given that MLB teams play opponents from within their division more often than not, a team’s strength of schedule fluctuates wildly depending upon who is in their division.

Cleveland clearly profited from playing the Twins and White Sox multiple times in late September, but many other playoff teams, including the A’s, Dodgers, and Braves, had easier schedules than the Indians during the season. In fact, Cleveland actually played more games against teams with winnings records in the season’s first half (66) than any other playoff-bound squad. The Braves, on the other hand, faced off against winning opponents in just 64 of their 162 games in 2013, a marked disparity when compared with teams like Boston and Tampa Bay, who played winning teams in 99 and 100 games this year, respectively.

The immediate question arising from all this is how can we predict and compare postseason opponents when each team’s schedule is so different? A more pressing and long-term concern is how Major League Baseball can continue functioning with such unbalanced schedules, and how could the issue be resolved?

For the 2013 playoffs, predicting performance based on a given team’s win-loss record has to factor in the reality that Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, and Tampa Bay played 13 mores games against teams with records of .500 or better than any other playoff squad. Sure, trying to derive any certainty from playoff series that last no more than five or seven games is a fool’s errand, but there is little denying these teams have qualified for the playoffs with vastly different resumes.

Moving forward, a more significant question asks whether MLB should continue with the unbalanced schedule if it creates such a wide discrepancy in who teams play? Simply re-balancing the schedule (and not making teams play divisional opponents 18-19 times per year) is one solution. This would allow organizations in tougher divisions (such as the AL East and NL Central this year) a fairer road to the postseason, though the quality of each division would still fluctuate from year-to-year.

A better solution might be to just eliminate the divisions entirely and have the five best teams from each league qualify for the playoffs based on a balanced schedule and a single table of standings. This would lead to more travel (I understand the unbalanced schedule has been created, partially, to limit excessive travel for each organization), but it would also create a more legitimate regular season and race for the playoffs. MLB has already balanced the leagues by moving Houston to the AL, so why not get rid of the unbalanced schedule and divisions, and instead create two wide-open leagues where the best teams make the playoffs based on the same criteria and strength of schedule?

Don’t get me wrong, the unbalanced schedule will take nothing away from the excitement and drama of this year’s playoffs, but re-balancing the schedule and eliminating baseball’s divisions will only create a better MLB postseason in the future.

. . .

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs.com unless otherwise noted.

Alex Skillin is a Staff Writer for Beyond the Box Score and also a Staff Editor for SoxProspects.com. He writes, mostly about baseball and basketball, at a few other places across the Internet. You can follow him on Twitter at @AlexSkillin.


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