Monday, July 20, 2009


"The woods are...dark and deep... and [there are] miles to go before I sleep."-- Robert Frost

Perhaps, the saving grace of the latest trial Joe G's team had to endure in Disney's House of Hell is that it ended the ceremonial 1st-half of the Yankees season. It enabled his team to beat a hasty retreat, leave the ignominy behind them, rest, recuperate, marshal their stamina and energy, and rejoin the battle. As consequence, the Yankees opened the 2nd half by reeling off four straight victories, the last three via the improbable feat of three consecutive, dramatic 2-1 victories. More improbable still, the streak has lifted the team into first place and drawn them even with the Red Sox.

To lend historical perspective, the Bombers haven't achieved equivalent success through 92 games since 2006. That year, you may recall, the Yankees also stood at 55-27 in late July but nonetheless didn't catch Boston until August 1st, the day they moved into a first-place tie atop the division. A lead they never relinquished. Two weeks later, they travelled to Fenway and over a five-game series, re-staged the '78 "Boston Massacre", sweeping the opening double header on Friday and taking the next three games as well, dealing the Red Sox's 2006 season the death blow from which it never recovered.

(Praise be to autumnal New England color-- gray skies, black mourning dresses, the blues of dejection, and Fenway in jaded green-- green with the bile of envy. To every October its Bucky and every Yom Kippur, Kaddish at the Green Wall. Amen.)

Ah, but I digress. Worse, the nostalgia invites hubris, the expectation that history will repeat itself. Don't count on it. At the risk of sounding like Cassandra, I'd urge you nonetheless to heed the omens.

Leave aside the 2009 Yankees 0-8 record against the Red Sox for a moment, though it suggests malign karma of its own. Just look at the team's respective schedules for August and September. Behind our backs, the Scheduling Gods have contrived to tilt the playing field and to secure Boston the inside track for taking the division.

While the Red Sox finish the 2009 season with series against Baltimore, Kansas City, Toronto, and Cleveland, the Yankees's route to October follows a longer, more treacherous road and pits them against more formidable opponents along the way. Simply fending off Texas and Tampa and holding on to a playoff spot will test the Yankees' mettle, endurance, and capability on its own.

The vagaries, disparities, inaninities, and outright injustices that bedevil the major league baseball schedule is, by now, notorious. In its composition, the irrational is only exceeded by the arbitrary.

The interleague schedule accounts for much of the inequality because it assigns teams in the same division a different set of interleague opponents. In 2009, for example, while the schedule pit the Yankees, Red Sox, and Orioles against each team in the NL East, inexplicably, for the Tampa Rays, it substituted the Rockies for the Braves; for the Blue Jays, the Red for the Mets.

Then, there's the capricious artificiality of the so-called "natural rival," Commissioner-engineered as often as it is organic, against whom a franchise plays 6 games every year. The idea of the Nationals, Pirates, Marlins, Padres, Rockies, Mariners, or Twins serving as any team's "rival," genuine or otherwise, is laughable. It smacks of the hustler's stamp of "genuine imitation leather." Apart from distorting the wild-card race, which the unbalanced intra-league schedule accomplishes anyway, the "natural rival" pretense saddles the Yankees, Mets, White Sox, Cubs, Cardinals, Royals, A's, Giants and perhaps a handful of other franchises, with more arduous and demanding games than those in settings where fans regard the outcome no differently than any other.

Never mind the tedium of two Mariners-Padres' series. Does the taxing urgency and freighted tension of a Phillies-Blue Jays series or for that matter, a Red Sox-Braves series, ever match Yankees-Mets or Cubs-White Sox? What Boston baseball fan seethes or sulks because the Red Sox lose to the Braves. Apart from the Francoeur family, is there a single Bostonian, still alive that is, who roots for the Braves-- better yet, who ever rooted did?

Perhaps, the 16-14 disparity between the National and American leagues in team size makes the interleague schedule's anomalies unavoidable. But how does the league justify the inequities in the intra-league schedule and among teams that play in the very same division?

More specifically, how does the league justify a schedule that sends the Red Sox to the West Coast twice and the Yankees three times. Just as disproportionate, however, is their respective timing.

The Red Sox completed their final road to the Pacific Time Zone for the 2009 season on May 17. That's right: MAY! The Red Sox traveled to the West Coast the 1st time in April for 6 games in Anaheim and Oakland (April 10-15). They returned in May for their 2nd to face Anaheim and Seattle (May 12th-May 17th.)

The Yankees, meanwhile, don't conclude their third and final odyssey through the Pacific Time Zone until September 23rd. Their 1st trip closed the season's first-half (July 10-12). Their 2nd is Aug 13 to 19 in Seattle and Oakland. (Directly, after which, they happen to play in Boston, August 21-23. Their 3rd trip takes them to Disney's House of Hell via Seattle, as I mention above, from September 18-23.

Like the Red Sox, the Rays, if you're interested, also play only two series in the Pacific Time Zone. Their 1st the Rays completed in April against Oakland and Seattle. The 2nd the Rays play in August from August 7-12th against Seattle and Anaheim. The Rays, however, returned to Tampa to play Boston in April, however; unlike the Yankees, who have to travel to Boston, following a West Coast trip, in August. The Rays also return home immediately after their 2nd West Coast trip in August.

Now, I concede no statistic-- none I've seen anyway--conclusively establishes the hardship exacted of baseball players when sent 3,000 miles away to play games three hours later than accustomed. Consider however the divide between the Yankees home and away record against Anaheim, Oakland, Seattle since 2000.

LAA20-2318-26-5.6 %
OAK26-1517-19-16.2 %
SEA24-2022-180.0 %
TOTAL 70-5857-63-7.0%

The difference between a 70-58 team and 57-63 team is about the difference between a team that qualifies for the playoffs and one that doesn't. (Incidentally, from 2000-2009, the Yankees' overall winning percentage on the road is five percent (-5.0%) less than at home.)

Or more perhaps, more illustrative, ask a Boston, New York, or Philadelphia beat reporters what players say privately about West Coast road trips. They'll tell you even the best-conditioned athlete isn't immune to the fatigue, insomnia, dehydration with which bi-coastal travel burden everyone. Why would 6-hour flights, travel delays, late nights, deferred start times, disrupted body clocks, and jet lag exhaust an athlete and diminish his performance any less than you or I.

The Yankees exit the All-Star break with the Dog Days still ahead of them. Yet through the murky summer haze, flecks of autum color sprinkle the horizon and in the distance, the first dim, faint contours of October have started to emerge.

Disney's Angels have ensconced themselves in the West, while precocious, stout Texas lingers, maturing into a contender faster than anyone anticipated. In the Central, Detroit, Chicago, and Minnesota vie to distinguish themselves amid epidemic heartland mediocrity. Meanwhile, in the East, after a year's pause, Boston and New York have resumed their epic battle. With the Tampa upstarts-- spry, prolific, and with inexhaustible reserves of talent-- proving last year no fluke, injecting themselves into the rivalry and establishing a permanent claim to the throne.

Don't let the AL East's current standings deceive you however. Certainly, at this writing, Boston and New York stand atop the East with an identical 55-37 record. (Although Boston owns the tiebreaker because its 8-0 record with 10 to play all but guarantees them the season series.) While Tampa lags, on the loss side, five games behind them.

Teams' actual records index past performance however. By contrast, the sabermetricians have shown, run differential-- i.e. the difference between teams' Runs Scored (RS) and their Runs Allowed (RA) and the Pythagorean expected record it projects (RS^2/(RS^2+RA^2) -- predicts for more accurately how they will fare in the future. And the three teams' Pythagorean record doesn't bode well for the Yanks. Their (+61) run differential trails behind Tampa and Boston, each at (+79) respectively.

More ominous still for the Yankees' designs on the division is, as explained above, the taxing schedule, including two West Coast road trips, ahead of them. To document the more onerous schedule the Bombers' face, at least vis a vis Boston's, I post two charts below. To dramatize the comparison, the charts below encapsulate the Yankees' remaining schedules in addition to that of their three principal competitors' for the AL East title and/or AL wild-card, Boston, Tampa, and Texas.

"Chart A", below, groups each team's forthcoming opponents by AL division and lists the remaining number of games against each.

"Chart B" (i) list the sum of each team's remaining games home and away (ii) lists their respective winning percentages home and away; and (iii) uses a weighted measure of their opponents' records to quantify the difficulty of the four rivals' remaining schedule. To calculate a schedule's "weighted difficulty," I account for the frequency with which a team plays a forthcoming opponent, instead of treating each one equally. For example, if the Yankees play the Red Sox 10 times more this season and the Rangers only 5, the difficulty of the Yankees remaining schedule reflects the 2:1 ratio, weighting the Red Sox winning percentage twice as much as the Rangers' winning percentage in the final equation. Below, then, WEIGHTED SCHEDULE DIFFICULTY = (Opponents' Winning Percentage) * (Remaining Games versus Opponent ) / Total Games Remaining.

NYYBal(9), Tor (11),TB (10), Bos (10) Chi (7), KC (3) LA(4), Tx (3), A(7), Ms (7)
Red SoxBal(11), Tor (9),TB (8), NY (10)Det(4), Chi (8),KC(4), Cle (4) LA (3), Tx(6), A's (7)
T. RaysBal(11), Tor (12),Bos (8), NY (10) Det (7), Chi(4), KC (4) LA (3), Tx(6), Ms (5)
RangersBl(3), Tr (4), Tb (6),Bos (6), NY (3) Det(3), KC(3), Cle(3), Mn (4) LA (10), A's (11),Ms (9)

#= gms left#vs. teams +.500Wght. Sched. Difficulty Home #/%Rd #/%
NYY34 of 71.515 35/.644 35/.543
Bos39 of 71.506 36/.68934/.522
T.Rays38 of 70 .525 36/.66733/.447
Tex35 of 71.50732/.604 39/.476

Apart from two onerous West Coast road trips spared their Boston nemesis, the season's final 10 weeks besets the Yankees with a more competitive schedule, in the aggregate, as well. On the other hand, the more stout competition Tampa has to overcome -- at least, as their opponents' collective winning percentage gauges it-- offers little comfort.

First of all, the Rays complete their final West Coast trip in August-- not during the third week of September after which the Yankees return, by contrast, to battle Boston and Tampa in games likely to determine the fate of their season. Secondly, while the Yankees are running their late September gauntlet through Disney's House of Hell, the Rays will be clicking their heels, echoing Dorothy, and extoling home. 15 of Tampa's last 18 games are in the Orange Juice Can (the last three agains the Yankees) where they've played .690 baseball the last two seasons. Finally, Tampa plays Texas six more times, 3 during the final week in September, meaning that if Texas' less arduous schedule lets them linger in the wild-card race, the Yankees won't be able to gain ground on both.

So savor the Yankees' flirtations with 1st place while it lasts. For the road to October heads West through dark, treacherous, unchartered territory and runs through Disney's House of Hell.