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Which months will be the most difficult on the 2016 Yankees schedule?

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With Opening Day approaching quickly, let's turn our attention to what comes ahead, in the form of the 2016 schedule.

Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Winter is ending. Legitimate baseball games that count are just a few weeks away. If the sights and sounds of meaningless baseball games aren't enough to placate fans, then it can be tempting to look ahead towards the season that is about to come.

The Yankees will open their season on April 4th, starting a three-game series against the Astros; that much is clear. Well, the entire schedule is clear, really. Glancing over the upcoming 2016 slate, several questions spring to mind: Do the Yankees have a challenging schedule? When are the toughest stretches? The weakest?

Let's break down the schedule month-by-month. The table below shows monthly projected strength of schedule, by winning percentage, based on FanGraphs projected standings. Also included are the number of days off, as well as the percentage of games played at home.

Month SoS Rate of home games Days off
April .509 52% of 23 games 4
May .501 45% of 29 games 2
June .484 62% of 26 games 4
July .512 38% of 26 games 5
August .515 50% of 28 games 3
Sept/Oct. .520 53% of 30 games 2
Total .507 50% of 162 games 20

Taken as a whole, the schedule appears to be somewhat challenging. Given that the Yankees have the (mis)fortune of playing in a solid division, it isn't much of a surprise to find that the overall projected winning percentage of their opponents is above average, at .507.

Things get more interesting after breaking up the schedule. The toughest month of the early slate is April, as the Yankees' opponents sport a projected .509 winning percentage to start the season. However, New York will have ample time to rest in April, as is the norm with MLB schedules early on.

May is a tad lighter than April, with a more palatable .501 opponent's winning percentage. Even easier is June, which looks like it could be the most favorable month of the year to the Yankees. June's .484 projected winning percentage is by far the lowest the Yankees will face, and the 62% of games played at home is easily the highest such figure of the season. In fact, the Yankees only play four games in June against teams projected to be above .500 by FanGraphs (one game against the Blue Jays, and three against the Tigers).

It seems clear that the first half will be the time for the Yankees to strike and pile up wins. In 2015, the Yankees struggled to a 40-47 record against teams above .500, but crushed under-.500 teams, to the tune of a 47-28 record, the fifth best mark in baseball. A sub-.500 record against good teams isn't exactly the hallmark of a championship team, but the Yankees' success in 2015 against weaker opponents was enough to earn a postseason spot. If they are to do the same in 2016, they will have to start strong against their weaker first half competition.

The schedule becomes more difficult in the second half. July does include five off-days, but four of those come in a row during the All-Star break, when all of baseball earns the same respite. Otherwise, July features just one other day off, a fairly stingy .512 opponent winning percentage, and a dearth of home games.

Things get even tougher down the stretch. The Yankees play 30 of their final 58 games at home, but that is the only advantage afforded by the late season schedule. They will have to close out the season by facing opponents with a projected .520 winning percentage in September/October, and they will have to do so with just two off-days. The final month appears brutal, with a 30-games-in-31-days stretch comprised of tough match-ups against all four division rivals, plus an unenviable interleague date with the Dodgers.

Despite all of the talk of focusing on youth around the Bronx, the Yankees will still rely heavily on veterans this year. If some of them falter again down the stretch, as they did in 2015 (see: Alex Rodriguez, Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, Brian McCann), the second half of 2016 could be similarly unpleasant. Attacking a difficult second half schedule, packed with tough opponents and lacking in days off, with an aging, worn-down core of veterans sounds like a recipe for another second half swoon. Those Yankees entered August with a .569 winning percentage, but limped from August 1st to the finish at a .483 clip.

The beginning of the year will be crucial to the Yankees. New York must take advantage of their relatively weak competition (plus their high rate of home games and days off) early on if they plan to make the playoffs in 2016. Should their record linger around .500 (or worse) as they enter July, then the Yankees can expect their place in the standings to fall as the temperatures rise this summer.