AL wild-card race not a fair fight

BY Ken Rosenthal • September 22, 2013

The Cleveland Indians’ road to October is all but free of impediment, a parade of cupcake opponents that Terry Francona’s boys are eagerly devouring as the season draws to a close.

Give the Indians credit — they’re beating the teams in front of them. But make no mistake: The American League wild-card race isn’t close to fair, not when the unbalanced schedule puts AL East contenders at a disadvantage.

The move of the Houston Astros from the NL Central to the AL West last season created six five-team divisions, reducing inequity in the division races; all clubs now play roughly the same opponents as their division rivals.

The wild card races, though, remain full of inequity, with teams from different divisions competing for the same prize while playing significantly different schedules.

It’s not a problem this season in the NL, where the wild-card race exists almost entirely in the Central. And frankly, baseball doesn’t seem to view it as a problem at all — commissioner Bud Selig loves the unbalanced schedule, loves how it creates a greater number of games between division opponents and enhances their rivalries.

OK, fine, I like that aspect, too.

But let’s not pretend this is a fair fight.

Through Saturday, the New York Yankees, Baltimore Orioles and Tampa Bay Rays had the third, fourth and 10th most difficult schedules based on the records of their opponents, according to STATS LLC. The Royals ranked 11th, the Indians 17th and the Rangers 26th.

Think of it this way: The league’s worst and fourth-worst teams, the Astros and Seattle Mariners, play in the AL West. The second- and third-worst clubs, the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins, play in the AL Central.

So, the unbalanced schedule allows the Indians and Royals to play nearly one-fourth of their games against two of the three worst teams in the AL, and the Rangers to play nearly one-fourth against the worst and fourth-worst clubs.

That’s right, the Rangers live in AstroWorld. And my goodness, they should be ashamed if they fail to overtake the Rays or Indians for a wild-card berth.

Texas is 14-2 against Houston, a team that much prefers “earning” the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft to winning in 2013. And that’s with three home games against the Astros remaining.

Three gimmes — or, at least, the closest thing to it.

The Toronto Blue Jays, owner of the league’s fifth-worst record, are the only “breather” in the AL East; the Orioles need one more win to make the East the only division with four teams above .500.

For additional evidence of the East’s superiority over the Central and West, consider that the East clubs have a .561 winning percentage against teams outside their division.

That’s the equivalent of a 91-win season, and would tie for the eighth-best such percentage since the advent of divisional play in 1969, according to one club’s research. Nine of the top 10 belong to the AL East, an indication that this is not all just cyclical.

The winning percentage of the Central and West teams against the East?

A decidedly modest .442 — the equivalent of a 72-win season.

The Royals, Detroit Tigers, Los Angeles Angels and Oakland Athletics are the only clubs from the Central and West with winning records against the East. The Astros, of course, drag up the rear with their 9-21 mark — and they’ve got three games left against the Yankees.

Again, I’m not trying to diminish any team’s achievements, the Indians’ in particular. Indeed, our emphasis on strength of schedule in September often is overstated. “Spoilers” relish their trouble-free existence. Contenders deal with far greater pressure, particularly when — like the Indians — they are competing in a pennant race for the first time in years.

Consider what happened over the weekend. The Indians, playing at home, won their first three games against the Astros by scores of 2-1, 2-1 and 4-1 before finally producing a 9-2 rout on Sunday. One Cleveland official expressed surprise at the Astros’ strong pitching early in the series, saying, “Guys that walked guys all year for Houston suddenly are pounding the zone in the mid-90s.”

Weak schedule or not, the Indians are an underdog, a low-revenue club with a popular manager, Terry Francona — a compelling postseason narrative waiting to happen. But when you compare opponents, the accomplishments of another low-revenue club, the Rays, are that much more impressive — a near-miracle, actually.

I know I’m shouting in the wind — the unbalanced schedule isn’t going away, at least not before Selig’s scheduled retirement on Jan. 15, 2015. And maybe it shouldn’t go away, given the historic appeal of traditional rivalries.

I get it. And I’m fairly certain that baseball would suffer a different form of damage if, say, the Yankees played the Astros as often as they played the Red Sox.

Still, why should one team have it easier than another?

As one AL East executive says, “If part of what you are selling as a sport is the determination of a true champion, an unbalanced schedule is emphatically not the way to do it.”

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