Jays From the Couch compares schedules of early Wild Card contenders to see if the Blue Jays have an advantage
On Wednesday afternoon, I happened across an interesting tweet from Blue Jays Beat (a Twitter account run by John Metzler that is definitely worth a follow for the stat-head Jays fans):
Fangraphs currently projects the Jays to win 86 games and grab the 2nd Wild Card, but those don't include strength of schedule. Gotta think the Angels and Twins will close the gap when those get factored in.
— Blue Jays Beat (@bluejaysbeat) February 21, 2018
That got me thinking about how the arduous journey ahead of the Blue Jays this season (including 38 games against the likely to be very good Yankees and Red Sox) compares against teams like the Angels and Twins, our primary rivals for the second wild card. Fortunately for the Blue Jays, John was only half-right (I’m sure that’s a relief to John, in this case). While the Twins do have an easier schedule than the Jays, the Angels (and Mariners and Rangers) do not.
What follows is a comparison of the schedules faced by the five primary contenders for the second wild card spot. Obviously, another team might surprise and enter the conversation, like the Twins did last year. But, for the sake of simplicity, I thought it’d be best to limit our analysis to the most likely teams—as per Bet365, each of these teams has at least a 4% chance of winning the AL pennant and an over/under win total of 77.
Let’s start with an overview. Below is the number of games each SWC contender has scheduled against every other MLB team (with teams sorted by their projected 2018 win totals via Fangraphs). [Note that these projections will change some as the final transactions are completed. Eventually, Fangraphs will adjust the projections for strength of schedule. The gap between the Blue Jays and the Twins should shrink. The gap between the Blue Jays and the AL West three should widen.] The AL West teams are very negatively affected by the fact that they play the Houston Astros 19 times this season. Having to play the defending World Series champions is daunting enough. Worse, for this exercise, is the fact that the Astros are projected to be the best team in the majors by a wide margin. The Astros dominated the AL West in 2017, running a 50-26 (.658) record against divisional rivals (they were 51-35 (.593) against all other teams).
The Angels, Mariners and Rangers situation is made even more dire by the quality of their division’s “basement dweller”—the Oakland Athletics. They are only basement dwellers ordinally—the A’s are comfortably the best fifth-place team in the majors, by projected win totals. The advantageous position of the Twins, on the other hand, is evident in the fact that three of their divisional rivals are projected to finish 27th, 28th and 29th in the majors in wins. Oh, to be in the AL Central.
Examining the average projected win total of each contender’s 2018 opponents corroborates these observations. The AL West teams lead the way (their opponents are projected to win roughly 83 games), followed by the Blue Jays (82) and, eventually, the Twins (79.3). As expected, the AL West three are most hurt by 76 difficult divisional games, while the Blue Jays are (unsurprisingly) also facing tough divisional battles. The Twins, not so much.
However, that also means that the Twins face the most difficult batch of non-divisional AL opponents. In these matchups, the Twins’ average opponent is projected to win about 85 games, compared to about 81 wins for the Rangers and Mariners, and about 80 wins for the Jays and Angels.
The interleague games are where the Jays have a massive edge over their SWC rivals. This season, teams will play their corresponding division in interleague games. The Blue Jays get to play 20 games against the NL East, the worst division in baseball last year and close runner to the AL Central for the title this season. The Phillies, Braves and Marlins are each projected to end up among the bottom eight teams in the majors by season’s end, and we get to play them 13 times (8% of all games).
On the other hand, the Blue Jays’ primary wild card rivals have much harder interleague games, going up against the NL Central or NL West. On average, the teams in these divisions are expected to surpass 81 wins. The Angels are made even worse off, as their “interleague rival”—the NL team they have to play six times, rather than three or four times—is “fellow Los Angeles” baseball club, the Dodgers (93 projected wins). The other four teams get to face interleague rivals that are projected to be varying degrees of below-average: the Jays get the Phillies (74), the Twins get the Brewers (79), the Mariners face the Rockies (79) and the Rangers face the Padres (73).
In total, the Twins lead the way with 60 games (37% of their schedule) against teams projected to win 72 or fewer games (to repeat, the AL Central is really going to suck this season). The Blue Jays follow with 27 games against teams projected to end up with a sub-.450 winning percentage (thanks to the NL East). The AL West three are even further back, with only 19-21 games against bottom dwellers (three series each vs. AL Central teams).
With two divisional rivals projected to end up just below .500, the Blue Jays get to face a high number of teams (67) projected to win 72 to 81 games this season. They are in the lead pack alongside the Mariners (68) and Angels (65), who get to play the Rangers and Athletics 19 times a piece. All told, the Blue Jays play the second highest number of games (94) against teams projected to win 81 or fewer games in 2018, just behind the Twins (97). The Angels (86) and Mariners (87) have a much more balanced schedule, while the Rangers (68) will face a very steep path to the playoffs.
The Jays are worst off in one particular way: they have to play 54 games against teams projected to win 90+ games. That puts them 11-12 games ahead of the others in this regard, entirely because the Jays have two elite division rivals, while the others only have one.
All in all, the Jays only rank behind the Twins in terms of the favourability of their schedule (as measured by Fangraphs’ projected win totals). Ultimately, exercises like this are how fans busy themselves before meaningful action begins (though today’s first spring training game is a welcome respite). Nevertheless, there was some useful and counter-intuitive information to be found in the fun we had with stats. Namely, that the AL West may move past the AL East for best division in baseball this season. With three of our primary rivals for the second wild card spot residing in the West, a slightly easier schedule might be the difference between the playoffs or another quiet October for the Blue Jays and their fans. In 2018, every edge will count.
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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.