Joe Maddon would like an easier path to the playoffs for his Tampa Bay Rays. Or at least that’s the sense I got after reading his comments on the unbalanced schedule this past weekend.
Last night, before the Rays got shellacked by the Boston Red Sox, Joe Maddon spoke with reporters about the 2010 season, and he opined on the challenging path to the playoffs. Since the Rays are suffering from the bad luck of playing in the American League, they’ve had to face the Red Sox, Yankees and Blue Jays 52 times this season, and Maddon says these teams are wearing down his club. His solution? A “balanced” schedule, whatever that means.
“I’m saying yes,” he said, answering the question of whether or not it’s been tough to reach the playoffs this year than in 2008. “Because of the [rise] of Toronto and now Baltimore, tThis is definitely a reason to argue in favor of a more balanced schedule. We wouldn’t have to see these teams as often.”
Maddon then had the audacity to complain about the remainder of his team’s games this year. The Rays have to face the Yanks, Blue Jays and Orioles, and somehow, this is, in his words, a “form of baseball masochism.” For what its worth, 15 of the Rays’ final 25 games are against teams over .500 while the Yanks play 19 of their final 24 against winning teams. Maddon attempted to clarify, “It not just about not playing the Red Sox as many times or the Yankees as many times. It’s about not playing anybody that amount of times.”
Since the dawn of the three-division league and the advent of Interleague Play, the idea of a balanced schedule as long eluded Major League Baseball. That’s because it’s tough to pinpoint what exactly a balanced schedule is. Under the current 162-game iteration, teams play their intradivision rivals more than they do teams in their league but in other divisions. For example, the Yankees play the Rays, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Orioles 18 times apiece this year, and while Tampa Bay may bemoan that tough slate, it’s one that impacts all four of its division rivals. That attention on the division isn’t the problem.
For Maddon and those who dislike this unevenness, the interdivision games and interleague contests are the real problems. The Yanks, for instance, played the AL Central-leading Twins just six times this year while the Rays drew them in eight games. The Yanks face Oakland and Seattle ten times each while Tampa Bay plays those two teams just nine times each. In a division that could be decided by as little as a game or two, every edge matters.
Over the course of a long season, the unbalanced schedule inevitable and unsurprisingly balances out. Based upon team records as of today, the Yanks’ opponents have a combined .496 winning percentage, and the Rays’ opponents have a combined .501 winning percentage. (The Red Sox, because they play both Tampa Bay and the Yanks 18 times each and the Braves six times, suffer from a schedule with a .508 winning percentage.) The numbers show that Tampa Bay’s opponents are a combined 1234-1241 while the Yanks’ are a combined 1220-1258. Over the course of a 162-game season, the difference between a .496 team and a .501 team is 0.8 wins. Maddon is crying over spilt milk.
If MLB truly wanted a balanced schedule, they would have to figure out what exactly that means. Does it mean each team plays every other team the same amount of times? Does it mean the combined weighted winning percentage of one team’s opponents must equal that of every other’s? Does it mean eliminating Interleague Play and restoring a system where the Yanks would play division rivals 13 times and the other AL teams 12 times? Whatever the answer, the schedule still rarely be perfectly even.
Barring a collapse, both Tampa Bay and the Yankees will make the playoffs this year, and Maddon’s criticism focuses more on the fact that it’s now tough for Tampa Bay to secure home-field advantage than anything else. The real issue is how the Rays will be the AL’s second-best team but will have to settle for the fourth seed in the playoffs. That, and not the unbalanced schedule, doesn’t make sense.