For the first time this season, two wild-card teams in each league will qualify for the postseason. The wild cards will face off in a one-game playoff, with the winner going on to a Division Series and the loser going home. The commissioner added the second wild card after the 2012 regular-season schedule had already been set, giving rise to a host of potential travel problems should the season end with teams tied for their division lead or tied for the wild cards, or both. We've discussed those issues here.
Putting aside the timing and travel issues, the addition of the second wild card calls attention to the unbalanced regular-season schedule. That is, each team plays more games against teams in its own division than against teams in the other divisions. In addition, each team has its own unique interleague schedule. Teams gunning for the same division title, therefore, don't compete on a level playing field. It gets even more uneven between teams competing for the two wild-card slots.
This is nothing new. There have been complaints about unbalanced intraleague and interleague schedules since they were introduced in 1997. Before the start of the 2011 season, I took the complaints head-on and concluded that unbalanced schedules had not affected either the divisional races or wild-card races in the National League, save for the race for the National League Central title in 2006. On the other hand, I did find that, if there had been a second wild card dating back to 1997, the unbalanced schedules would have affected the outcome of the race for the second wild-card slot.
The second wild card is no longer hypothetical. The question now is whether the unbalanced intraleague and interleague schedules for this season will affect any of the divisional or wild-card races. We'll have to wait until the end of the season to find out. But that won't stop us from speculating, right now.
The five teams in the American League East play each other eighteen times. Same for the American League Central. In the West, which has only four teams, each team plays the others nineteen times. The Rays, then, have a theoretically tougher schedule than the Angels, because the Rays have 54 games against teams in their division expected to play above .500 (Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays), while the Angels have only nineteen games against the one team in their division expected to play above .500 (Rangers). If the Rays are competing with the Angels for a wild-card slot, the Angels have an advantage.
The schedules diverge even further with inter-divisional play. The Red Sox, for example, play 40 games against teams in the Central, while the Rays only play 34 games against teams in that division. Same for the White Sox, who play 40 games against the AL East while the Indians only play 36.
And then there is interleague play, which differs from team to team.
So who has the toughest schedule in the American League? I say it's the Tigers. Detroit plays ten games each against the Red Sox, Yankees, Rangers and Angels. They do get a break with the interleague schedule, with six games against the Pirates, three against the Cubs, and none against the Brewers. That gives the Tigers an edge over the White Sox, who miss the Pirates in interleague and instead play the Dodgers, Brewers and Cards.
The Yankees have a fairly easy schedule, playing the Rangers only six times but having ten games against the A's. The boys from the Bronx also get six interleague games against the Mets. The Red Sox, on the other hand, play the Tigers ten times and the Rangers eight, while missing the Mets in interleague. The Blue Jays and Rays have the most balanced schedules of the teams in the AL East.
As between the Angels and the Rangers, the Halos have the more difficult road to hoe. The Los Angeles of Anaheims face the Dodgers for six games in interleague while the Rangers do the two-step six times with the Astros. The Angels also play more games against the Yankees and the Rays than the do the Rangers. Indeed, of the teams most likely to be competing for a postseason birth, the Rangers appear to have the easiest schedule in the American League.
Things are even trickier in the National League, where the Central division has six teams but the other two divisions have five each. The result: the East and West teams play the teams in their respective divisions eighteen times. But teams in the Central don't play the other teams in the division the same number of times. The Brewers, for example, have seventeen games with the Cubs and fifteen with the other teams in the division. The Reds, on the other hand, play eighteen against the Pirates, sixteen against the Cubs and fifteen against the rest of the division.
As with the American League East, the National League East theoretically has a tougher schedule than the Central and the West, as the East is expected to have more teams with better records than the other two divisions. When competing for a wild-card spot, then, the Phillies, Braves, Nationals and Marlins (sorry Mets) have an uphill battle against teams in the other divisions.
And then there's each team's unique interleague schedule.
So who has the toughest schedule in the National League? I say it's the Dodgers. Interleague gives them six games against their southern California rivals in Anaheim and the unbalanced schedule gives them ten against the Cardinals. The Giants, in contrast, play nine against the Astros and six against their cross-bay rival A's.
If not the Dodgers, then the Braves have the most difficult path to the postseason. Atlanta plays six against the Yankees, and three each against the Rays, Blue Jays, Red Sox and Orioles in interleague play. The Phillies miss the Yankees altogether, playing six against the Rays, and three each against the Red Sox, Orioles, Blue Jays and Twins. The Rockies don't have it easy, either, with an interleague series against the Tigers and nine against the Phillies.
The Brewers, Reds and Cardinals -- the most likely Central division contenders -- have significantly easier schedules when compared to teams from the East or West vying for a wild-card spot. That's because the Brewers, Reds and Cardinals play the Astros, Cubs and Pirates at least fifteen times each and avoid power house teams from the AL East and AL West in interleague.
This is how it all looks on paper, nearly three weeks into the season. But the games aren't played on paper. Just ask Brewers manager Ron Roenicke. Last June, he called Milwaukee's schedule "unfair" because the Brew Crew had to face the Red Sox, Rays and Yankees in interleague, while the Cardinals were up against the Royals, Blue Jays and Orioles. The Brewers did go 6-and-9 in interleague, while the Cardinals went 8-and-7, but the Brewers won the Central division by six games over the Cardinals.
Of course, the Cardinals won the wild card on the last day of the season after the Braves collapsed down the stretch. Maybe Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez should have been the one complaining. Just wait, he might do so this season.