New schedule will make for some hot division races
By John Donovan, CNNSI.com
For fans, the issue is pretty simple: Do you like more games against teams in your division? Or would you rather see more out-of-division teams, maybe some glamour teams from across the country somewhere?
For fans -- true baseball fans -- the answer is easy enough.
Bring on the division rivals. This could get good.
Baseball's biggest story this season -- bigger than the "new" strike zone, bigger than the threat of labor unrest that could lead to a work stoppage, bigger than Comerica's power alleys or the Big Unit himself -- may be the return to the so-called unbalanced schedule. It will play a huge factor for every team in every division and quickly could separate the pennant pretenders from the pennant contenders. It should be -- it's designed to be, really -- a rivalry cooker.
The American League East's Boston Red Sox, for instance, play their fiercest rivals, the New York Yankees, a lot this season. Nineteen times in fact, six more than last year. The Indians play their rivals, the Chicago White Sox, 19 times, too (up from 13 last season). Heck, the Rangers open the season in Puerto Rico against Toronto, then play 19 consecutive games against Anaheim, Oakland and Seattle -- all the Rangers' direct competition in the AL West.
That's the unbalanced schedule. More games against teams within the division. And most people, inside and outside of baseball, seem to like it.
Sure, there are detractors, mainly because of what you won't see. The Braves, for instance, play the Dodgers only seven times this season, only four more than the Braves play the Yankees -- an American League team, for crying out loud. Fans in Atlanta, then, get only four chances to see Gary Sheffield or Shawn Green (Aug. 24-27 at Turner Field). And the chances of Dodgers fans seeing Braves' ace Greg Maddux at Dodger Stadium (May 11-13) are not all that great.
It works the same all over. Cleveland and Baltimore played in the same division, the AL East, until baseball sprang into six divisions before the 1994 season. Now the Indians are in the AL Central and the Orioles get to play them only six times. The last time fans in Camden Yards get to see Indians second baseman Roberto Alomar -- one of trillions of stars Baltimore let get away -- is on April 19, the last meeting of the year between the two clubs.
The unbalanced schedule, being unbalanced, makes for some strange scheduling, too. A game here. Two games over there. And there is the complaint that it is a tad unfair. The San Diego Padres, for example, get more games in the NL West this season -- and they were the only ones to finish under .500 in that division last season. Meanwhile, the St. Louis Cardinals get to beat up more on NL Central rivals like the Chicago Cubs, the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Milwaukee Brewers.
Still, most fans -- and, certainly, most people inside the game -- seem willing to give up the chance to see a lot of Sammy Sosa-Barry Bonds homerfests (there will be only six games between Sosa's Cubs and Bonds' Giants) in favor of, say, more Ken Griffey Jr.-Mark McGwire blastathons.
Griffey's Cincinnati Reds and McGwire's Cardinals reside in the same division, the homer-happy NL Central, so they play 17 times. Last year, they played only 13 times.
It's all about rivalries.
When the format was OK'd by owners in July -- commissioner Bud Selig said the schedule "fulfilled a dream of mine" -- statisticians everywhere went scurrying. One of the key stats everyone cites now is maybe the simplest one in baseball: Win-loss percentage. How teams play in their division against each other will be paramount this season.
That means that the Red Sox better play a good deal better than they did last season against the AL East (they were 23-26). Or else the Blue Jays, who were a division-best 28-21 against the AL East, could be the ones to challenge the Yankees.
Just about every division has its quirks like that:
In the AL East, only Toronto and New York (25-24) had winning records within the division last year. But there's potential good news for the Red Sox. Sixteen of their last 19 games are against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Orioles, who both struggled in-division, too. Tampa Bay was 22-27 last season, Baltimore an even 25-25.
In AL Central, the Indians were awful in the division at 21-30, and the White Sox took advantage (going 29-20). The Kansas City Royals, surprisingly, were 28-20. If they play that well this season, with the extra games in the division, there will be some heat applied.
The AL West will see the biggest schedule change because only four teams play in that division. The Rangers, for an example, played only 36 times against AL West teams last season, 56 against the AL East. This year it's 58 against the West, 41 against the East. That's 22 more games inside the division. The A's ripped up everyone last season, going 22-16. The Mariners chugged along at 19-19, while the Rangers and Angels were both sub-.500. The top two teams from last year in the division, the A's and Mariners, play 19 times this season, including six times in the first nine games and six more in the final nine.
In the NL East, the surprise could be the upstart Florida Marlins, who went a division-best 28-22 against their rivals. The Braves and Mets were 27-24 and 27-23, respectively. Could be a bloodbath.
In the NL Central, heavy with six teams, the Cards were the best in-house, at 37-25. The new schedule means that each team will play an average of 83 games in the division, compared to 63 last season.
Obviously, wins are wins no matter whom they come against. But the NL West shows the importance of the games in-division. Last season, the Giants won 97 games and beat the Dodgers by 11 games. But the Dodgers were much better against the NL West, going 30-21. The Giants were a mere 26-24. The difference last season: The Giants played 53 games against the Central and went 36-17. San Francisco gets only 39 games against the Central this season.
The Giants' situation illustrates a basic tenant to winning a division -- or at least sneaking in for a wild card -- in this unbalanced year. With fewer out-of-division foes to feed on, teams better make sure they take care of things in their own division first. Forget the teams across the country somewhere. Teams have to beat the teams in their divisions, their closest rivals.
Bring it on.