Yesterday, the Yankees dropped a rather sleepy 5-1 decision to the Houston Astros, which coupled with the Boston Red Sox topping the Blue Jays 8-3, meant New York slipped back to two games back in the division.
Everyone knew the division race was going to be close, and essentially a two horse race at that. You know by now that the Yankees and Sox are projected to finish within a game of each other, and that the team picked to end up on top changes every three or four days. You also probably have a gut feeling that Boston seems to have an easier slate of opponents than the Yankees.
Your gut, so far, has been correct! After both teams finished up Monday afternoon’s play, Boston had played 54 games while the Yankees had completed 50, playing about two thirds of a game against the Nationals before being rained out. The breakdown of their opponent’s winning percentages looks something like this:
The Yankees have indeed had a tougher schedule so far this season. 47% of their games have come against a team with a winning record, compared to just 33.3% of Boston’s. It’s no mirage when you think that the Red Sox get to square off against the Orioles or Rays every second series; Boston’s faced these two far weaker teams 7 and 14 (!!) times respectively already this season. Almost 40% of Boston’s games have come against the two teams most consider to be the weakest in the AL East, and in Baltimore’s case perhaps the weakest in the entire league.
Cross that with the Yankees’ schedule so far, where they’re in the middle of their last series with the defending World Series champions. By tomorrow, they’ll be done with the season series with Houston and the Red Sox will still have seven games against the likely AL West champions. The Yankees have also gotten their first taste of Cleveland (.510 W%) and the sneaky-good Athletics (.528), and finished their season series with the Angels (.537) this past weekend.
More importantly, not only are the Yankees playing better teams, they’re winning those games. In the 24 games against .500 or better opponents, New York has gone 16-8 - a .666 winning percentage, almost identical to their full season W% - while Boston has a record of 10-8, a .555 W% against “quality” teams. Sample size issues notwithstanding, this shows that the Yankees can hang with any team in baseball, and that Boston may be a little overmatched when it comes to the big guns in MLB.
Finally, there’s what this means going forward. I write a lot about the little edges that can be exploited over a 162-game season, whether that’s proper lineup deployment or replay reviews. Strength of schedule does tend to even out over the long term, but in the short run, it can make a big difference. The hardest part of the Yankee schedule is almost over, and they’ll get their shot against Detroit, as well as two series each versus Baltimore and Tampa before the All Star Break. In contrast, the Red Sox get the very good Seattle Mariners twice, Washington and Anaheim once each, and a four game set with the Astros before the midsummer classic.
The Yankees still have to beat the bad teams, of course. Strength of schedule doesn’t mean anything if you split a series with the Marlins, or drop three of four at home to Baltimore. You have to beat the teams you should beat, but with the big guns in the AL behind them for the most part, it looks like the Yankees may have a slight edge over their mortal enemy for the time being.