In the NFL, we often hear about the importance of who teams play and how that impacts an entire season. With just 16 games, replacing five or six mediocre opponents with postseason contenders can have a dramatic effect on a team’s win/loss record.
It's different in Major League Baseball, where inferior clubs experience hot streaks over the course of a long season while teams destined for the playoffs have their occasional lulls and slumps.
For postseason contenders, it’s about taking advantage of opportunity. The old-school thought process was to play .500 against the other good teams and punish the rest to win a division. If memory serves, the 2010 World Champion San Francisco Giants were four games under .500 against clubs that won more than half their games and 26 games OVER .500 versus squads that had a losing record.
With less than half the schedule to be played out, here is a look at what teams are in favorable or difficult positions to run the table in the second half.
National League Prospectus
NL Central - Pittsburgh and Cincinnati occupy the two top spots in the division. As was mentioned the other day in an article I penned about runs scored/runs allowed, St. Louis is poised to make a serious run if their bullpen situation can be rectified.
However, the Cardinals play teams that are above .500 in 37 of their remaining 76 contests, including 19 against division front-runners: the Dodgers (eight), Washington (seven) and San Francisco (four).
Conversely, the Pirates and Reds have far fewer matchups against quality opponents, with the Bucs facing 26 foes over .500 and Cincy 24. Of the Pirates' final 77 tilts, 33 are against Houston, San Diego, Colorado and the Cubs, giving them a real opportunity to make the playoffs.
Cincinnati has no excuses for starting slowly after the All-Star break. After playing three home contests against the hated Cards, their next 16 games will be against losing teams before facing Pittsburgh on Aug. 3.
NL East – This division is less clear with Washington and Atlanta both taking on 35 teams with winning records among their remaining engagements. The Nationals will have an opportunity to build on their four-game lead in the division starting Friday, since the only non-division team they face between now and Aug. 5 is Milwaukee (four games).
The Braves' season could come down to two elements: what their record is against Miami (having to play them 13 times) and their 10-game road trip through D.C., Frisco and San Diego.
The Mets appear to be in a more precarious situation: New York has 41 conflicts with winning teams. Also, the Mets are just 20-20 on the road and 41 of their last 76 matchups are away from Citi Field.
NL West – The Dodgers and Giants both have 40 losses, but San Francisco has the far easier schedule, at least on the computer screen, playing 27 games against winning teams. By comparison, Los Angeles has to take on 36 winning teams. The Dodgers at least return several starters back to the lineup and have to hope they can be healthy and productive.
Arizona has the toughest remaining slate among the division contenders, facing 39 foes over .500. Nevertheless, if they can stay within three games of the division lead in the loss column, they may put themselves in reasonable striking distance by Sept. 18 when they play the Padres (three times), Rockies (seven), Giants (four) and Cubs (three).
American League Prospectus
AL Central – This division is filled with slightly above-average to crummy clubs, which means ample opportunities for victories. The first-place White Sox and the trailing Indians have cleared the most difficult part of their schedules and at this moment have just 36 and 38 games respectively left on the schedule against teams over .500.
The Indians should have a real chance to stay in the race with only three contests left with the Yankees, Angels and Texas. If Chicago can still be in first place come Aug. 3, that would be hugely significant, as 16 of their next 19 encounters are on the road—including tough trips to Kansas City, Boston, Detroit and Texas.
Detroit was a prohibitive favorite to win the division after acquiring Prince Fielder, but only recently climbed above .500 for the first time since May, thanks to their current five-game winning streak.
Are the Tigers ready to take over the Central?
They might be, but it will be an arduous task. Detroit has 54 contests left against winning clubs, including a breathtaking 29 (that is correct) between this Friday and Aug. 12. Gulp.
AL East – Every team in this division plays mostly quality teams the rest of the way. Baltimore has the easier slate with 51 tilts versus .500 or better outfits and Boston has the most challenging schedule left with 59 such meetings.
The Yankees already have a seven-game lead in the division, and if they can go 14-10 or 13-11 in their final 24 August engagements, they should be in fine position to take the American League East.
Tampa Bay really needs everyone healthy and ready to produce since they'll only play one team with a losing record in their remaining 37 road games.
Boston is offensively capable of being a wild-card team; however, they play the second-most battles against winning teams the rest of the way. Toronto can play long ball and score in bunches, but with a depleted starting pitching staff, it's hard to take them seriously.
AL West – The squad from Anaheim has crawled to within four games of Texas and plays six fewer contests (38 vs. 44) against winning clubs than the division leaders. The Angels have two separate road trips in the Eastern Time Zone in which they will face the Yankees (three times), Detroit (seven) and Boston (three).
Texas still has 22 matchups with the AL East, including 13 away from the Lone Star State, which will not be easy. What this race is more likely to come down to is the 13 hookups between the Rangers and Halos (nine left at the Big A) before Oct. 1.
Oakland might have the same record as Boston and Toronto at 43-43, yet 64 of their final 76 matchups are against teams that have an equal or better record than they do.