MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Texas Rangers

At the conclusion of the 2013 MLB regular season, the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers both had 91-71 records, tied for the final American League Wild Card berth.

A one-game tiebreaker was required to solve the matter, but a more balanced schedule could have solved it long before. The Rays faced a more difficult schedule than the Rangers, an unfair reality of life in the AL East.

When Tampa Bay won the eventual tiebreaker, it seemed a matter of karmic justice.

After all, Texas went 53-23 against their own division, the AL West, which boasted a paltry .477 win percentage. The Rays, meanwhile, went 43-33 against AL East competition in a division with a .534 win percentage. Because teams play division opponents 19 times each, making up 46.9 percent of the schedule, division quality is a large determinant of record.

Tampa Bay played 97 games against teams with winning records to just 79 for the Rangers, and each was roughly a scratch team against winning opponents. Texas basically got 18 games against lesser opposition with which to gain a playoff edge and failed to do so.

This all seems terribly unfair, but an equalizing factor may have been at play, favoring teams in the East all along.

Unbalanced Schedules Are Unlikely to Change

The reason unbalanced schedules exist is pretty simple: travel. Divisions are, in theory, organized geographically, and by playing teams in close proximity more often, travel is minimized.

There’s also the idea of fostering rivalries, though most would tell you those can really only be developed through tight pennant races or playoff series. In reality, it’s all about air miles…and dollars.

In The Baseball Economist, J.C. Bradbury outlined this argument for the current division setup, writing, “Owners in divisions with strong-drawing visiting teams — like the AL East — will be reluctant to give up this valuable asset.”

Basically, a team like the Baltimore Orioles accepts a more difficult schedule for marketable perceived rivalries with teams like the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, while also receiving the financial benefit of those teams visiting nine or 10 times a year.

It’s far from perfect, as Rays owner Stu Sternberg admitted in September of 2012, saying, “It’s terrible,” and “The degree of imbalance…is so out of kilter.”

And that was before his team nearly lost a Wild Card berth due in large part to the schedule imbalance.

The imbalance is a major reason why many teams were in favor of adding a second Wild Card berth to each league, as it lowers the barrier for playoff entry. It also makes a division crown relatively more valuable, but that seems to be outweighed by the additional playoff opportunity. That additional opportunity may be the best the league can, or is willing, to do.

2014 Looks to Be Unbalanced Again

The scheduling format hasn’t changed for 2014, so teams will once again play nearly half their games against their four division rivals. And since no teams changed divisions in the offseason, any adjustment to the unbalanced nature of the league will come from teams getting better or worse.

Will that happen? It seems unlikely.

Fangraphs projection showed that players in the AL East are expected to produce 46 more wins than the NL East, the league’s worst division, a difference of 33 percent.

They also highlight just how important strength of schedule can be come playoff time:

For example, the Orioles and the Mariners are projected for just about identical WAR totals. Yet we give the Orioles a 12% shot at the playoffs, while the Mariners come in at 41%. The Mariners also have higher playoff odds than the Blue Jays, despite projecting for a lower WAR.

That hardly seems fair on the surface, but it would be unfair to sleep on another key factor that determines how difficult a road a team faces.

Terrifying Pillow Talk

It’s possible that the schedule imbalance isn’t quite as significant as it first appears, and the reason is something that doesn’t necessarily come to mind when one thinks of the schedule: sleep.

At the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference last weekend, Dr. Charles Cziesler of Harvard Medical School held a Competitive Advantage session to discuss the impact of sleep on athletes.

Before the baseball-relevant details, allow the following divergence to scare you as a human being:

  • Being awake for 18 hours straight has the same mental impairment on a person as a blood alcohol content of .05%.
  • A 24-hour stretch without sleep? Try a blood alcohol content of .10%.
  • The optimal amount of sleep for an average person is 8.2-8.3 hours-per-24-hours, broken in to no more than two sessions.
  • Poor sleeping habits in young men can drastically lower testosterone levels, to the levels of a much older man.

Now that you are sufficiently terrified of how little sleep you get, it’s worth discussing some of Dr. Cziesler’s finding about sleep and sport. While his discussion was primarily about the impact of travel back-to-backs in the NBA, which limit the ability of players to get adequate sleep, many of his ideas can be applied to baseball.

One reason that research on sleep may be thinner for baseball is that players stay in each city for multiple days, so sleep deprivation may only manifest itself in the first day after travel. On those days, Dr. Cziesler alluded to the possibility of shorter days at the clubhouse (and the obvious, league-wide need to create sleep-friendly environments at ballparks) to allow players to get a proper rest after flying.

Perhaps most importantly for baseball, sleep has an enormous impact on reaction time and the visual field, as well as exercise capacity. “Missed signals in the visual field” have shown to be significantly greater with sleep deprivation, and drawing a line from that cognitive impairment to poor fielding or slowed pitch recognition or any numbers of negative outcomes is not difficult.

The connection between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex is also impaired, which can cause a decrease in the link between cognition and emotion (though this did not manifest itself in more ejections the day after travelling in a simple, one-year study).

You’re Putting Me To Sleep

A lot of those notes are theoretical or based in research outside of the spectrum of baseball. So, some application is necessary.

How can sleep tie back in to the unbalanced schedule? The teams in the East divisions have things easiest when it comes to travel and, thus, sleep management.

Consider the following numbers that Dr. Cziesler provided for team winning percentages in the first game of a series:

Road Team Travelled Home Team Win%
No Travel 54.1%
East-to-West 56.2%
West-to-East 62.9%

Teams travelling eastward are at a massive disadvantage, losing nearly two-thirds of the time, far more often than the league-wide “home field advantage” would dictate. This manifests itself at the run level, too, with a home team expected to score 1.24 more runs when the visitor traveled west-to-east, a result that is even more significant for day games than night games.

So while the Rays played 18 more games against winning teams, the Rangers had to endure tougher travel conditions far more frequently. They visited the AL East for 17 games over five series, while Tampa Bay had to change time zones in far fewer instances.

To get a firm handle on the overall impact of strength of schedule and travel, a more robust, historical study on game-by-game results would be required. What this does show, however, is that an unbalanced schedule isn’t necessarily as simple as a team’s strength of schedule.

Travel matters, in part because sleep matters.