Whether we like it or not, strength of schedule is still an important part of baseball’s balance of power. In an ideal world, one of perfect parity, divisions would be eliminated, and teams would play schedules of similar strength across the season. Of course, that isn’t the case. In fact, fairness is not always the best possible way to create a league, because you need a little randomness to ensure that fans can reasonably expect their team can compete; that’s how the league prospers.
In the Yankees’ case, the AL East does not work to their benefit. They’re the Yankees, so I doubt anyone’s going to feel bad for them, especially considering they had nearly two decades of just one competitor in the division. Now, I would argue that every team is capable of competing in 2017, and the Red Sox and Blue Jays are two very formidable foes. This is a strong division.
This is reflected in a strength of schedule statistic, one that Baseball Reference keeps track of. Strength of schedule measures “the number of runs per game their opponents are better (or worse) than the average team”, which is a run differential of 0.
In 2016, the Yankees had the second-hardest schedule in baseball, second only to the Baltimore Orioles, to no one’s surprise. Four of the five top teams in that category are in the AL East! Considering there is actually a lot of parity in the league, it’s remarkable that one league has such a difficult slate of games.
This year, like all years, is brand new. In theory a very difficult schedule is hard to repeat itself perpetually, but the Yankees have been in the top ten in strength of schedule every year since 2008. This year, on the other hand, is a different matter. To get an idea of strength of schedule going into the year, I took FanGraph’s projected run differentials for the season, and calculated strength of schedule based on the Yankees’ 2017 schedule:
There are some interesting tidbits, and some caveats. Firstly, are the Orioles going to be that bad? Projection systems have seemed to underrate Baltimore the past few years, and once again, they see the team has a below-average club. If that’s the case, 19 meetings against a team like that, combined with an average Rays team, would mean the AL East schedule wouldn’t be as grueling as it has been in the past.
Everything else, except maybe the Angels being a bit overrated, isn’t a surprise. There are of course going to be surprises, and there’s a ton of variation over the course of a major league season, but this is a good sign. The Yankees aren’t a great team, and they’re probably mediocre. By these same metrics, they’re about as good as the Pirates.
At least by this measure, the schedule isn’t going to make them climb uphill in that respect. A .089 strength of schedule is a far cry from 0.3, which would net them about .2 runs a game without having to improve their club at all. Revel in the small victories, because they’re going to need every single one to compete in 2017.