Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 23, 2010

The Luck Of The Schedule

This weekend’s start of interleague play is a reminder that one of the greatest vagaries of the modern version of the Great Game is its unbalanced schedule. To be fair of course, interleague play didn’t cause the unbalanced schedule, but it has certainly added some distinctive elements to it. And given that we’re talking about a game steeped in tradition, where every significant change is hotly debated both before and after it takes place, I’m surprised that the modern schedule isn’t more of an issue for the purists. After all, the designated hitter rule is almost two generations old, and there are still folks who get exercised about it.

Once upon a time in the misty days of old, the game’s schedule was simple and rigid. Each team played each of its seven league opponents 22 times for a total of 154 games. After the AL expanded to ten teams with the addition of the Washington Senators (version 2) and the Los Angeles Angels, and the NL added the New York Mets and Houston Colt .45’s (now Astros), the schedule grew, but remained simple and rigid. Nine league opponents, 18 games against each, 162 games in total. But with subsequent expansions and the eventual split of each league into first two, and later three divisions, simple and rigid went the way of the Saturday one-admission doubleheader.

Probably one of the reasons the modern schedule is not as controversial as one might expect is that greater emphasis has been placed on play within each team’s own division. Surely Red Sox fans are happy to forgo a few visits by the Kansas City Royals each summer in exchange for more matchups against their hated rivals from the Bronx. On the other hand, 18 or 19 games against each divisional opponent can make things especially difficult for the weak teams in otherwise strong divisions. Consider the plight of the Baltimore Orioles: fully one-third of their games are against the Yankees, Red Sox, or Rays. Even if Baltimore had competent ownership (which it doesn’t), the long, hard task of building a winning tradition would be just that much more arduous given that calendar.

But the tradeoff for more games within the division is unequal scheduling of games outside of it. The LA Angels have been the class of the AL West five of the past six years. While stumbling out of the gate this season, they still figure to be a tough opponent that other teams aren’t anxious to face. That may be good news for the Yankees, who play them eight times this year while Tampa Bay faces them nine times and Boston has ten meetings with the Angels. On top of the difference in frequency, six of Tampa’s nine games are in Anaheim while only three are at home. The Yankees and Red Sox on the other hand both have just one three-game series at Angels Stadium. So with ten meetings Boston has to face LA the most of the three AL East rivals, but gets to do so seven times in the friendly environment of Fenway Park. One could look up and down the season schedules of the teams in every one of the six divisions and find similar variances in their non-divisional games.

Interleague play increases the variations, for two reasons. First, in 2009 there are twelve “rivalry” matchups in which an AL and NL pair meet six times in inter-league play, three at each stadium. Some of these rivalries make sense, particularly where a city or metro area is home to a team from each league (New York, Chicago, greater Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay area). Others seem contrived, such as Mariners versus Padres. Yes, Seattle and San Diego are both cities on the west coast. They also both start with the letter “s.” So what? But logical or not, the rivalry series mean that the teams involved face a total of five opponents in interleague play while teams without such series face six squads from the other league. And whatever the number, the names of those interleague opponents vary from team to team within a division. Once again using the three AL East contenders as examples (and go right ahead and pick your own favorite squad and its divisional rivals, the same will apply), the Yankees have six games against the Mets, a team that the Rays and Red Sox don’t meet at all. As of Sunday morning, the Mets were a sub-.500 squad. The Red Sox will play the Rockies and Giants next month, two teams that the Yankees and Rays won’t meet in 2009. At present Colorado is just under, and San Francisco is just over .500. And two-thirds of the Rays interleague games are against teams that neither the Yankees nor Red Sox face, namely the Marlins, Padres, and Braves. Those three are a combined ten games over .500.

The other way that interleague play can impact the schedule is on travel. While Tampa will make the long trek across the country just twice in the course of the six month season, both New York and Boston must make a third trip west for the specific purpose of games against National League opponents.

Obviously the appeal of interleague play, like the appeal of more games within each division, has long since been deemed to outweigh the inherent unfairness of the unbalanced schedule. No doubt the sheer size of the 162-game season with all of the ups and downs that it brings serves to some degree as a balancing effect. But come late September, if your favorite nine is involved in a nip and tuck battle for divisional supremacy and the chance to play on into October, you might want to go back and look at what happened in the interleague games of May and June; or whether your team had to face that hot squad from the other side of the country a couple more times than did your divisional rival. Like the luck of a drive bouncing into the stands for a ground rule double instead of being cut off by the right fielder, a season could turn on the luck of the schedule.

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