Schedule's impact will soon be felt by Windy City's two teams
Strength of schedule often leads to overreactions to a team's performance
The Cubs will soon play five straight series against serious playoff contenders
Chicago's other team must face the Angels, A's, Rangers and Indians
In any small stretch of the season, a team's strength of schedule can lead us to over- or underrate its short-term performance. This is one of the many reasons to rein in evaluations in April, as hot starts and cold streaks are often as much about the guys in the other dugout as how well you're playing. The canonical example in recent seasons is the 2009 Blue Jays, who opened with a baby-soft slate that featured none of their AL East rivals until the middle of May. A 22-12 start included just six games against eventual postseason teams, and when the Jays began facing the Yankees, Red Sox and Rays, things turned quickly. Toronto finished the year 75-87, playing .414 ball after that strong start. The Jays were fundamentally a .500 or so team that got to beat up on inferior ones for a month.
No team had that kind of soft open this season, so the standings you see aren't overly influenced by the schedule. Frankly, as baseball moves into an era of much higher parity -- especially in the Plains-flat National League -- it's harder to play three or four weeks of games against notably good or bad teams. As we head into May, though, you can see where some teams are going to be tested, while others could rack up wins.
The best examples are in Chicago. After a trip to Phoenix to play the Diamondbacks over the weekend, the Cubs play five straight series against legitimate contenders, including five games against NL Central favorites, the Reds. They then get those 15-8 Marlins and their first interleague series, the Red Sox. That's three weeks of games against teams that are either expected to contend or are have strong records so far. We should have a pretty good idea by Memorial Day as to whether the Cubs will make the NL Central race a four-team affair.
While the White Sox' schedule isn't quite so daunting on the whole, it's interesting for its dichotomy. After finishing up with the Yankees today, the Sox will play eight straight against the Orioles, Twins and Mariners, marking an opportunity to make up for their 10-15 start to the season. If they're not pushing .500 by the end of that stretch, however, look out. The White Sox will play the three AL West contenders (Angels, A's, Rangers) followed by a two-game series against the AL Central-leading Indians, then have an interleague series with the Dodgers and a 10-games-in-10-days road trip to Texas, Toronto and Boston. There's not a soft touch in there, and the road swing could break a team whose OBP and bullpen issues have relegated it to the worst record in the AL so far. The White Sox have to take advantage of next week's slate in advance of the brutal schedule that follows.
The team the White Sox are chasing is also going to be put to the test in May. The Indians, who swept the Mariners and Orioles and went 4-2 against the Royals on their way to 15-8, play four straight series against teams around .500 or better to start the month, getting the Tigers at home before taking off to the West Coast (at the A's and Angels) and coming home to face the Rays. After a week of Mariners and Royals, things get brutal: the White Sox, Reds, Red Sox, Rays, Blue Jays and Rangers through the first week of June. We know the Indians can hit; their pitching, now thinned by the absence of Carlos Carrasco, is going to be tested over the next five weeks. If the Indians are still in first place on Flag Day, we can take them seriously.
The Angels and Phillies have it rough in May. The Halos take an AL East road trip to Tampa and Boston, and after a week at home (Indians and White Sox), go on the road again to all their divisional foes: the Rangers, A's and Mariners. Their first interleague series is against the Braves, and then they get the A's again. The Phillies pay for a soft April (just two series against teams expected to contend for postseason berths) with a hellish May: Starting May 6, they'll have three weeks of series against teams expected to contend -- including two showdowns with the Braves -- and the surprising Marlins.
As we watch one team or another rack up wins or losses over the next month, remember to keep an eye on the schedule. The perception of "hot" and "cold" is often less a matter of chemistry or psychology than it is the function of decisions made by a scheduling algorithm back in September. The Rockies are 16-7 because they're a good team that could win the NL West...and because they may not have played a single team that will reach the postseason. Putting short-term performance in the context of the opposition played is an important key to discerning its significance.
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