Strength of Schedule Matters in Baseball, Too

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Strength of Schedule Matters in Baseball, Too
(Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

It was during the 1990 Major League Baseball season that I gained a reputation among friends for my ability to predict the future. And all for what, at least to me, was just plain and simple logic.

A few days before the season got under way, I made a series of predictions as to how the season would turn out, including the final standings, league leaders in various categories, and who would win the major awards.

I did pretty well. I had three of the four divisional winners correct, missing only on the New York Mets, who would have won the NL East if they hadn't underperformed by eight wins relative to their Pythagorean W-L that season.

It didn't matter, because I correctly had the Cincinnati Reds, freed from Pete Rose's chronic mismanagement of his pitching staff, winning the pennant.

I predicted Rickey Henderson's MVP award, that Barry Bonds would have a breakout season, and that Cecil Fielder would, in his return from Japan, live up to the power potential he'd had for years.

All pretty good. But what everyone scoffed at was my predicted winner of the AL Cy Young Award: a 33-year-old righthander named Bob Welch, who entered the season with a career mark of 149-103, but had never won more than 17 games in a season.

Welch, who was set to open 1990 as the Oakland A's No. 3 starter, was best known for two things: that he struck out Reggie Jackson in a famous World Series confrontation as a rookie, and for overcoming a serious bout with alcoholism.

Why Welch? It seemed so obvious to me. He was a good pitcher, good enough to be the No. 1 starter on a lot of teams, pitching for the best team in baseball.

He would spend 1990 as a front-line pitcher facing other teams' third starters, who would not be as good as he was, with teams behind them not as good as Welch's. I figured he was going to pile up victories.

He ended up with as many wins as any pitcher in the last 40 years. And he won the Cy Young Award, simply because the voters couldn't get past that 27-6 record and realize that Welch was only the third-best pitcher on his own team that season.

My prediction should have not come to pass, but it did because no one took quality of opposition into account.

I thought about Welch and his 1990 season again last night, when the subject of Cleveland Indians pitcher Cliff Lee came up in an article and discussion about bad trades.

Lee was part of a "rent-a-player" deal for Bartolo Colon in 2002, years before he was an effective major league pitcher. Last year, Cliff Lee went 22-3 and won the AL Cy Young Award.

Lee also had more than his share of "Bob Welch luck," though. Pitching in a weak division, where 89 wins won the title, Lee dominated weak AL Central competition all season, and only faced the top teams in the AL East four times.

By contrast, runner-up Roy Halladay of Toronto pitched against the Red Sox, Rays and Yankees a whopping 16 times and also faced (and dominated) the hard-hitting Texas Rangers twice.

Lee got 6.13 runs per game support from his offense, Halladay, facing much tougher opposition, got just 4.72. Despite this, his numbers were nearly as good as Lee's.

This type of statistical overinflation is more common now, due to the unbalanced schedules. It even happens with entire teams.

Take last year's Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The team with the most bloated name in baseball also had the game's most bloated record. Everyone probably knows by now that the Angels overperformed relative to their Pythagorean prediction by a whopping 12 games...going 100-62 when they should have been 88-74.

I'm willing to give Mike Scioscia, a heck of a manager, some of the credit for that. Scioscia, as Earl Weaver once did with his Orioles teams, has gotten the Angels to outperform their pythag almost every season he's been there.

But it didn't end there. A total of 36 of their 100 wins came against the hapless teams in their own division: the 100-loss Mariners, the fire-saling A's and the minor-league pitching staff of the Rangers.

The Angels played 57 of their 162 games against these opponents. Granted, they did perform well against a few good teams: 8-1 against the Red Sox and 3-0 against the World Champion Phillies, for example, but they should have, considering how much they got to rest up for the good teams.

Despite this, a lot of people predicted that the Angels would win the AL pennant, going strictly on their overall record, and not taking into account how it was achieved. You know what happened.

Given the same luxury as the Angels had all season, to set their rotation and focus entirely on a single opponent, the Red Sox easily beat them in the Division Series.

There are other examples. The Kansas City Royals of the late 1970s were that era's answer to the 2008 Angels: a good team running up big win totals in a bad division.

As hitters go, you had the example of the Colorado Rockies of the 1990s, a team in a normally weak division that had the added statistical boost of a tremendous hitters' park.

To this day, a lot of fans remember Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla as great players, when they really weren't.

If some mid-major college basketball team starts the season 17-1, we don't rank them No. 1 in the nation based on their record. If Boise State goes 12-0 in a college football season, we don't put them in the national championship game.

If somebody hits .435 in the Mexican League, major league teams don't rush to sign them, offering million-dollar contracts.

Because while we all know that mid-major hoops team is good, and Boise State is tough, and that Mexican slugger probably does swing a good bat, their raw stats are misleading because their competition isn't very strong.

So why does this get overlooked so often at the major league level?

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