Should a Strength of Schedule Metric Be Used to Seed MLB Playoff Teams?

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Should a Strength of Schedule Metric Be Used to Seed MLB Playoff Teams?
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The Major League Baseball season is long and hard for everyone, but the "hard" part is more pronounced for some clubs. In regard to peril, not all schedules are created equal.

So here's a reform question for MLB: Should the league take that into consideration when the postseason rolls around?

To the best of my knowledge, adding a strength of schedule component to the seeding for the MLB playoffs is not being discussed either openly or behind closed doors. The league has bigger fish to fry, and it was only last year that the league renovated the postseason with two new wild-card berths. There's no hurry for the league to make another major change.

I'm bringing up the strength of schedule question anyway, because SoS is a sort of buzzword this time of year with the NCAA tournament creeping up. Strength of schedule accounts for a large part of the Ratings Percentage Index, the rudder that helps steer the at-large selection process (my understanding is that the rest is all guesswork).

I'm not about to suggest that strength of schedule should be a primary factor for picking and choosing MLB's postseason participants. Teams should still have to, you know, actually win games in order to make the postseason. The cavemen who invented baseball long ago figured that was the most logical way to go about things, and time has proven them wise.

But a strength of schedule component would definitely shake up the seeding in interesting ways. That much is apparent with a quick look back at the 2012 postseason and how it would have been rearranged by strength of schedule.

 

How Things Actually Panned Out

The seeding process for MLB's postseason is straightforward. With two wild cards now in play, the three division winners in each league go straight to the Division Series and are seeded accordingly by their regular season records. For the Wild Card Game, the team with the better record gets home field.

If there are any ties that need to be broken, MLB's rules include the following tiebreakers:

  1. Record in head-to-head meetings.
  2. Record in intradivision games.
  3. Record in the last half of intraleague games.
  4. This is where things get tricky and I have to resort to simply quoting the rule itself: "Higher winning percentage in the last half plus one intraleague game, provided that such additional game was not between the two tied clubs. Continue to go back one intraleague game at a time until the tie has been broken."

More often than not, the head-to-head record tie-breaking rule is the only one that's going to be needed, and it was only needed to solve one tie last year. You should be able to spot it here.

Seed American League Rec. National League Rec.
1 Yankees 95-67 Nationals 98-64
2 A's 94-68 Reds 97-65
3 Tigers 88-74 Giants 94-68
WC1 Rangers 93-69 Braves 94-68
WC2 Orioles 93-69 Cardinals 88-74

There were no record ties among the six division winners or the two National League wild card teams, but deciding home field for the play-in game between the Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles required the league to resort to the first tiebreaker.

Joy R. Absalon-USA TODAY Sports
This was the series in which Josh Hamilton hit four homers in one game.

To that end, it wasn't a close call. The Rangers played seven games against the Orioles in 2012 and won five of them. Most notably, the Rangers took three out of four from the Orioles in Baltimore in early May—a series victory that loomed pretty large at the end of the year.

Obviously, home field didn't do the Rangers much good in the play-in game, as the Orioles handled them easily by the final of 5-1. Landing in Texas by virtue of a poor record against the Rangers could have cost the O's, but it didn't.

But had things been arranged by strength of schedule, things would have worked out differently for the Orioles, and there would have been one other major change as well.

 

How Things Could Have Panned Out

Let's say records were tossed out at the postseason door and the contestants were seeded based solely on their strength of schedule. How would things have looked in the 2012 postseason then?

Per ESPN.com, like this:

Seed American League Rec. SoS National League Rec. SoS
1 Yankees 95-67 .513 Nationals 98-64 .498
2 A's 94-68 .512 Giants 94-68 .495
3 Tigers 88-74 .495 Reds 97-65 .486
WC1 Orioles 93-69 .512 Braves 94-68 .501
WC2 Rangers 93-69 .504 Cardinals 88-74 .486

You'll notice two major changes here.

One is that the American League Wild Card Game would have been played in Baltimore rather than Texas by virtue of the Orioles' .512 SoS, which easily topped Texas' .504 SoS.

The Orioles had to consistently do battle with two teams that both won over 90 games in 2012: the Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays. On top of those games, the O's also had to contend with the Nationals and Braves in interleague play. 

The Rangers, by comparison, had to do battle with two slightly lesser teams than the Yankees and Rays in the A's and Los Angeles Angels. But the real kicker was Texas' interleague schedule, which featured two series against the Houston Astros and tilts against the Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres. It's no wonder the team went 14-4 in interleague play.

In addition to putting the AL Wild Card Game in Baltimore instead of Arlington, SoS would have seeded the Giants over the Reds, who won three more games in the regular season.

Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports
AstroLOLs.

As ridiculous as that sounds, the Reds did have an easier road to October than the Giants did.

Only two clubs lost over 100 games in 2012—the Astros and the Chicago Cubs—and they both happened to share a division with the Reds. The Reds went a combined 22-9 against them. To boot, the Reds also got to play six games against the Cleveland Indians in interleague play and three more against the Minnesota Twins.

The Giants didn't have it as easy, as their interleague schedule pitted them against the A's, Rangers and Angels.

For what it's worth, you get the same effect if you switch out SoS with ESPN.com's RPI metric, which is 25 percent team winning percentage, 50 percent opponents' average winning percentage and 25 percent opponents' opponents' average winning percentage. The Orioles would still host the Rangers in the AL Wild Card Game, and the Giants would still be seeded ahead of the Reds.

So either way, the point stands: Factoring in strength of schedule in some way could make a pretty significant difference in the seeding for the MLB postseason, resulting in different teams getting home-field advantage.

But should it?

 

The Best Way to Use Strength of Schedule Would Be...

Seeding for the MLB postseason boils down to two questions: Who's good and what's fair?

The league has always figured that teams' records can answer both questions. You are what your record says you are, and it's only fair that teams should be seeded by how many games they won in the regular season.

However, factoring in SoS or an RPI metric would highlight the fact that the schedules in MLB are unbalanced. And there is a degree of fairness to the idea of rewarding teams with tougher schedules for a job well done with a higher seed and, thus, home-field advantage in the postseason.

But though I see the merits of the idea, I just can't get on board with it. Rewarding teams with superior SoS's sounds fair, but punishing teams with inferior SoS's is at least equally unfair. A 162-game season contains a big narrative, and strength of schedule doesn't tell the whole story.

Frank Victores-USA TODAY Sports
Votto was hitting .342 with a 1.069 OPS at the time he went in for surgery.

Such would have been my argument if I was the Reds. They may have played an easier schedule than the Giants, but they also had to play 50 games without their best player when Joey Votto had to undergo knee surgery. To lose a player like him and still win 97 games is an impressive feat and one that shouldn't be cheapened by a lower seed in the postseason thanks to strength of schedule.

No doubt the Reds would also have argued that it wasn't their fault that the teams they played couldn't handle their own business elsewhere. Most notably, Cincinnati's SoS surely would have been stronger had the Pittsburgh Pirates not crashed and burned in the second half. There's clearly too much randomness in SoS to disregard a difference between 97 wins and 94 wins.

Beyond arguments like these, a superior SoS doesn't necessarily signal that a team itself is superior any more than its record does. If it did, it would have been the Yankees and the Nationals in the World Series last year rather than the Tigers and Giants, who had exactly the same SoS.

So while there is a fairness to the idea of using strength of schedule to seed the MLB postseason, there is also an unfairness to it that's topped by a sense of futility. Seeding teams by SoS would be a different way of doing things, but not clearly a better way of doing things.

This is not to say that the league should completely disregard the use of strength of schedule. Seeding teams by their records works well enough, but SoS would make for a darn good tiebreaker when teams have the same record. 

Should strength of schedule play a role in the seeding for MLB's postseason?

Submit Vote vote to see results

Using head-to-head records as the go-to tiebreaker in these situations is silly. Focusing on the outcomes of a select few games means you're neglecting the outcomes of well over 100 other games, leaving you with an incomplete notion of which team is truly better than the other.

In the case of last year's AL Wild Card matchup, the Orioles would have argued that they had a tougher road to their 93 wins than the Rangers had to their 93 wins and that they therefore deserved to be playing at home. And they would have been right.

If MLB is going to implement strength of schedule into its postseason formula, this is the way to do it. Instead of creating disputes with strength of schedule, MLB should use it to solve disputes.

It's either this or some sort of Thunderdome affair, but the league can look into that a few (see "many") years down the road.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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