Even though MLB plays an unbalanced schedule -- i.e, teams don't play other teams an equal number of times -- you don't typically don't see huge disparities in terms of strength of schedule. Last season, for instance, the Marlins had the toughest docket with an opponents' average winning percentage of .510. Meantime, the Indians and Twins tied for easiest with a mark of .482. That's a divide, but it's not of the gaping variety.
However, the 2020 season -- cut short to 60 games because of the COVID-19 pandemic and ownership's plodding pace during negotiations with players -- figures to be very different.
Teams will play regional schedules, with 40 games within the division and 20 games against the corresponding regional division in the other league (e.g., NL East vs. AL East, NL Central against AL Central). This lack of divisional "cross-pollination" in the schedule is probably going to lead to some very different degrees of difficulty. Note those 2019 number above -- .510 at the challenging end of the continuum and .482 on the other, easier end. Now regard those same two extremes for 2020, based on 2019 winning percentages.
Toughest 2020 schedules based on 2019 winning percentages
|Team||Opponents' average winning percentage|
Easiest 2020 schedules based on 2019 winning percentages
|Team||Opponents' average winning percentage|
As you can see above, the margins now stretch from a low mark of .449 to a high mark of .534. That's a much greater variation than what we see in normal seasons, and as such strength of schedule is likely going to play a major role in how the playoff field shakes out in 2020.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a handful of schedule "winners and losers" now that the full 2020 docket has been announced. We'll keep our focus on likely contenders rather than the pitiable likes of the Orioles and Marlins.
Winner: Cardinals and Reds
Looking at the prior year's winning percentages isn't a perfect method because of roster turnover, but it's not a bad thumbnail assessment. As for the Cardinals, they have a pretty easy slate based on 2019 winning percentages. The interesting thing about the NL Central is that the division houses four certifiable contenders -- the Cubs, Cardinals, Brewers, and Reds -- but none of those teams projects for anything like greatness in 2020. Likely, it's going to be close four-team race with a lot of compression in the standings from wire to wire and final win totals in the low thirties.
As noted above, each team will play 20 games against the corresponding regional division in the other league. In the case of the Cardinals and the NL Central, that's the AL Central. Within those 20 games, some teams will be paired with an interleague rival for six games, which leaves just 14 games against the other four teams of the division. Here's where we can see some differences.
In more specific terms, one x-factor in the NL Central is how many times each contender gets an opportunity to beat up on the Royals and Tigers, the two weakest teams in the AL Central. The Cardinals get to play the Royals six times in 2020 -- or 10 percent of their regular season games -- and the Tigers another four. The Reds also get to play those two teams 10 times, while the Cubs and Brewers play them just seven times. That doesn't sound like much -- and it wouldn't be across 162 games -- but over a 60-game regular season that slight edge could matter, especially in a division as tightly bunched as the NL Central.
Yes, the Cardinals have a slightly easier schedule than the Reds based on 2019 winning percentages, but that reflects the fact that the Cardinals play the 75-win Reds 10 times while the Reds play the 91-win Cardinals 10 times. Given that the Reds made substantial improvements this past offseason, that divide is a bit misleading.
As you saw up top, the Angels are tied for toughest schedule in MLB based on 2019 winning percentages. Part of it is that -- on top of playing one-third of their schedule against the Astros and A's -- they must play the Dodgers six times because of the natural interleague rivalry. That's 26 games -- 43.3 percent of the schedule -- against three of the best teams in baseball.
Winner: Dodgers and A's
- AL East: 30.2
- AL Central: 27.8
- AL West: 31.3
- NL East: 30.0
- NL Central: 30.5
- NL West: 30.3
In the NL West, the division averages out to be fractionally above .500. However, the Dodgers -- gird yourselves for breaking news -- have the benefit of not playing themselves. Remove them from the calculus, and the NL West has an average win total of 27.9, which is roughly the same as the relatively weak AL Central.
In the case of the A's and the AL West, which looks like the toughest division as measured by average projected wins, Oakland is helping lift that figure up. Yes, the Rangers may be better, and the Angels are improved, but the Astros are the only certifiable division colossus that Oakland will play. Framed another way, the A's will play just 17 of their 60 games against teams that were .500 or better in 2019. That's tied for the fewest in MLB. The other team that will play just 17 of 60 games against .500 or better teams from a season ago? That would be the Dodgers.
The Rangers will travel 14,706 miles during the 2020 season, which is the most in all of MLB. That combined with their opponents' average 2019 winning percentage of .518 earns them "schedule loser" status.
The Braves play in a hotly contested division that features three other likely contenders (the reigning champion Nationals, the Mets, and the Phillies). Also, thanks to a home-and-home against Boston, they'll play 14 of their 20 interleague games against the Yankees, Rays, and Red Sox (yes, the Red Sox still profile as a quality team despite the cynical trade of Mookie Betts). On top of all that, there's the fact that the Braves are one of seven teams this season that will play 20 games in 20 days. The Braves will endure this stretch to start the season -- they'll open on July 24 and not get an off day until Aug. 13.
You'll note above that the Rays' opponents had an average 2019 winning percentage of .482. They're the only AL East squadron that makes the list of easy schedules, and that's in part because they get six interleague games against the Marlins, who lost 105 games last season.
Like the Braves, the Mets are one of four teams in the NL East with legit designs on the division title. They'll play exactly half of their games against the Braves, Nationals, and Phillies, and they'll play another six against the crosstown Yankees, who are in the discussion for best team in baseball. In all, the Mets will play 43 of their 60 games against teams that were .500 or better in 2019.
Loser: Yankees through Sept. 2
The Yankees open the 2020 season by playing 33 of their first 36 games against teams that were .500 or better in 2019. Suffice it to say, that's an exacting stretch to begin the year.
Winner: Yankees after Sept. 2
A surge down the stretch for the mighty Yanks? That's quite likely, as they'll play all but one of their final seven series against teams that lost 95 games or more in 2019.