Even though the 2020 season at this writing is barely a week old, the Reds are among the teams that are already at least 10 percent through their 60-game schedule. The hour is at once early and not as early as you might think -- such are the absurdities of baseball in 2020.
The juncture is notable because the Reds are already in danger of frittering away one of the advantages in the hotly contested NL Central. This is a division in which four teams have legitimate designs on the flag -- the Reds, Cubs, Cardinals, and Brewers -- but none of those teams on paper towers over the rest. It figures to be a close four-team race that could still be unsettled by the final days of the season. Given the tight margins, strength of schedule could make an out-sized difference in the standings.
On that note, here's the forecast strength of schedule for each of those four teams. To arrive at these opponents' average winning percentages, we used the the SportsLine Projection Model (@SportsLine on Twitter) to predict how the out-of-division schedules for the contenders of the NL Central stack up. By way of reminder, teams play 40 games against divisional opponents and the remaining 20 of the accompanying regional division from the other league (i.e., AL East vs. NL East, and so on). Now for the digits:
|Team||Interleague opponents' average projected 2020 win%|
As you can see, coming into the season the Reds figured to have the easiest path when it comes to strength of schedule. Again, all of the differences in the schedule are confined to interleague games. The big differences come down to which interleague opponent a team squares off against six times. That's a consequence of the "rivalry" pairings such as Yankees-Mets, White Sox-Cubs, A's-Giants and the like.
In the Reds' case, they get to play the Tigers six times, or 10 percent of their schedule. In contrast, the Brewers are tasked with playing the mighty Twins six times. Framed another way, the Reds get to play a total of 10 games against the Tigers and Royals -- likely the two worst teams in the division -- but just three against the Twins. The Cardinals are similarly blessed, but they play the Royals for six and the Tigers for four. Since the Royals project to be slightly better than the Tigers, the Reds get a slight edge there.
The problem for the Reds is that they've already blown part of that advantage. They did so by dropping two of three at home to the Tigers in the first series of the season. They'll play their final three games against Detroit starting Friday night. Needless to say, they must sweep the Tigers in order to wring any kind of advantage out of that particular stretch of schedule. If they don't, they've squandered that edge. The Cincy roster is strong on paper, and they're to be praised for actually trying to win in 2020 (sadly, it's a point of distinction in MLB these days). However, they badly need to bank three wins in Comerica Park.
Yes, it sounds absurd in a sport like baseball to place that much emphasis on a six-game stretch. This, however, is 2020 and the season is a bit more than one-third its usual length, which means these things matter much more than they would in normal times. In division like the NL Central, in which four teams could wind up separated by an even smaller number of games, a soft interleague schedule not enjoyed by your competitors must be capitalized on. The Reds thanks to that flop in the first series of the season are in danger of not doing that.