Back in the good old days of the balanced schedule, teams played other teams in their league about equally, regardless of whether they were in the same division. The quality of one’s opponent can change drastically depending on the starting pitcher, but even though three-game series aren’t a perfect match with five-man rotations, it’s hard to say that the old system wasn’t fair.
Fast forward, and we now have an unbalanced schedule, with teams playing about 19 games against intradivision foes and often just 6 or 7 games against teams from other divisions in the same league — every year, the D-backs will face the Giants and Dodgers about three times as frequently as they’ll face the Reds and the Cardinals. Perhaps not the most fair of systems, given that the wild card is awarded league-wide, and that a team might get a leg up in that race if they played in a division with two or three particularly weak opponents.
Enter interleague play. Throughout interleague play’s history, divisions have been matched up against each other on a rotating basis; last year, the NL West played the AL East, although there are frequently some extra-division series, as between rivals (say, Mets-Yankees). Accommodating those “rivals” series also means that teams like the D-backs get to enjoy 2-and-2 series under the current scheme with random other teams (Houston this year; Texas last year, although one game had to be made up).
I like the rotating nature of interleague play. In addition to playing every team in the majors no less frequently than once per three years, the schedule has a memory, and every team will also play in every ballpark in the majors at least once every six years. It was great to see the D-backs in Fenway Park last season, and that will probably happen again in 2019.
These three things (wild card, unbalanced schedule, interleague play) make for an unfair environment, though. A team in a particularly tough division that’s matched up against a particularly tough opposite-league division might be competing for the same wild card berth as a team in a weak division that gets more cream puff interleague series. That’s not cool, especially since Houston’s defection to the American League means that the number of interleague games per season ballooned from 252 games to 300. Now, teams from different divisions in the same league have schedules that are more different than they are similar.
But here’s the thing: despite what their record might imply, in 2014, the D-backs have actually had a lot of luck with both the unbalanced schedule and interleague play.
So far this year, the West is the NL’s weakest division. What? The division that has the Giants and the Dodgers, that had a Rockies team ride roughshod over the league for the first part of the season, and that had Arizona and San Diego slated at the outset of the season to be average or just below average? Turns out: yes. Through Wednesday’s games, the West was just 66-73 against the Central and East, with the Central (59-57) and East (77-72) over .500. And if that’s not enough: the West is also running a pretty serious deficit in terms of run differential against the other divisions (-47), versus a -12 differential for the Central and a +59 differential for the East. In short, the D-backs lucked out in what looks to be the easiest of NL divisions to play in. They have failed to capitalize on that, however, going 15-18 against the Dodgers, Giants, Rockies and Padres.
The D-backs avoided the AL’s strongest division. Although the lion’s share can be traced to the Athletics (+130 run differential!), the AL West has been, far and away, the class of the AL. It’s tallied a +115 differential, well ahead of the AL Central (-39) and AL East (-71). And wouldn’t you know it: as part of the divisional lottery this year, the D-backs pulled a cushy spot against the Central. And, wait, there’s more! Arizona’s extra series — the 2-and-2 with Houston it concluded last night — just so happened to have come against one of the other weakest teams in the league. But again, the D-backs have failed to capitalize: they are just 3-4 in interleague play so far, with a negative run differential (-4).
I know — it would be crazy to overreact to a sample size this small. We probably can’t use strength of schedule as a way to suss out this team’s true talent from its current record. But it does stand for the proposition that, at least, the schedule hasn’t been inordinately difficult. And at the same time, these factors probably mean that once the season has come to a close, the team will not have been as good as it looks, due to a cushy schedule. Just something to keep in mind down the road, and something not to forget if the unbalanced schedule rears its head and bites Arizona next season.
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