The Cubs Have One of the Lightest Schedules This Season, But the NL Central Should Be Tough
As we continue to check annual pre-season items off our list, it’s time to address the Cubs’ projected strength-of-schedule in 2018. And for that, we turn to FanGraphs, where Jeff Sullivan has reviewed the data.
To start, we can see that among all National League teams, the Cubs’ +2.5(ish) extra wins from their relative schedule strength is second in the NL, behind only the Nationals (+2.75). Interestingly, the Cardinals (+1.5) and Dodgers (+1.25) follow just behind the Cubs and Nationals, but in a full tier lower.
The Mets, Phillies, Braves, Brewers, and Pirates are the only other National League teams that project to notice benefits from their schedules this season, although each should only see about +1 win or fewer. On the flip side, the Giants have a neutral schedule, and the Reds, Rockies, D-Backs, Padres, and Marlins are all negative (but by less than 1 win).
But let’s go back to the Cardinals and Dodgers for a minute, because they present a good talking point about strength-of-schedule, in general.
As we all know by now, the best teams tend to have the softest schedules, because, logically, they don’t ever have to play themselves. And when the best teams are in a division with a bunch of bad teams, that effect is most keenly observed thanks to the unbalanced schedules that have teams playing their own divisional opponents more often than other teams. For example, the Washington Nationals are not only one of the best teams in baseball on paper, they’re in a division with many of the worst teams, especially the Marlins. Hence, they are on top.
The Dodgers, also a great team, aren’t #1 or #2 in the NL thanks to the relative strength of the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Padres, and Giants. While none of those teams are necessarily threats to steal the division, each did a lot to improve this winter (Giants, Rockies, Padres) and/or were good last season (Rockies, D-Backs).
And that brings me to the Cardinals.
Frankly, I’m surprised to see them so high up, given that they have to play the Cubs so often (and that the Brewers are no slouches, either), but there they are. The Reds and Pirates are probably going to stink this year, but is that really enough to prop the Cardinals up so much – indeed, over the Dodgers? Well, there’s a good explanation: if you recall, despite what we all seem to think, the Brewers are actually projected by FanGraphs to be below average this season, so that probably moves the needle. But still, it’s pretty strange. And maybe the Cardinals are also getting a little extra fortunate with their scheduling.
As for the American League, you can head over to FanGraphs for more specifics, but the Indians have BY FAR the lightest schedule, and the Rangers have BY FAR the toughest. While the spread in the National League from top to bottom was just 3.6 wins, it’s a staggering 5.5 win differential in the AL.
Sullivan adds one final graph to his post, which I found particularly interesting: projected average divisional wins.
- AL EAST: 84.3 Wins
- AL West: 83.2 Wins
- NL Central: 82.2 Wins
- NL West: 81.6 Wins
- NL East: 77.6 Wins
- AL Central: 77.1 Wins
While this look doesn’t tell you which division is easiest to win per se – you try competing with the Nationals in the East – it could help clear up which divisions are tougher, overall. And by that measure, the NL Central figures to be pretty strong this season, perhaps even the strongest in the National League.
I still expect the Cubs to eventually run away with the division – and their 2nd best in the NL strength of schedule should help – but it won’t be a picnic. Or maybe it will. Baseball is weird.