In the era of unbalanced schedules, strength of a particular schedule is an unfortunate topic. Teams battling for the same playoff slots -- the wild cards -- play wildly disparate sets of opponents, and on the margins, that can make it hard to say which team is really better. Over just one month of the season, the gap can be quite wide, and have a substantial impact on short-term expectations.
There are 15 teams left in contention for the ten MLB postseason berths, and those 15 have significantly varied paths over the next four weeks. For the purpose of this exercise, we've calculated everyone's strength of remaining schedule using the winning percentage of their opponents, weighted for games against. Winning percentage isn't perfect -- you may have heard that the first-place Orioles have been outscored on the season -- but 135 games into the year, it's safest to use raw winning percentage instead of using a more advanced methodology in estimating team quality.
The numbers (see table below) show that the Oakland A's have the most difficult path to the postseason. Holding the American League's No. 2 wild-card slot, the A's will play the toughest schedule -- a .548 SOS -- of any contender, and they will play 17 of 26 games on the road. After a three-game set this weekend in Seattle, the A's play 17 straight games against contenders, including a vicious road trip to Detroit, New York and Texas starting September 18.
The flip side of this is that they control their own destiny to perhaps the greatest extent than any team; Oakland will get seven cracks at the AL West-leading Rangers and it will play every potential wild-card foe save the Rays, Yankees and White Sox. However, it's a brutal stretch drive that has already, with a sweep at the hands of the Angels, begun poorly. The Angels, who clawed their way back into contention with that sweep, finish with the second-toughest schedule in the AL, but do get 16 of their final 25 games at home.
The gap is really apparent when looking at the wild-card race, where the White Sox (.477) and Tigers (.474) could make up ground. Of the eight AL contenders, they have the two easiest slates coming in, loaded with games against the three teams pulling up the rear in the Central. The Central should be an entertaining race anyway, especially the four-game series that kicks off Monday at US Cellular, but the soft slates ahead mean that the loser of the battle for the division crown is in good shape to move up and snatch a spot in the Coin Flip Game between wild-card winners. That the White Sox play a slightly tougher schedule than the Tigers is compensated for by getting that big four-game series at home and Detroit playing 16 of its last 26 on the road.
For the most part, division rivals will play similar slates. The exception is in the AL East, where the Yankees manage to have a weak schedule coming in (.485), especially as compared to the Orioles (.506) and Rays (.525). The Yankees' divisional slate is backloaded with games against the Red Sox and Blue Jays, two series each, and there's a stray series in Minnesota also weakening the slate. In fact, the last time New York will play a contending team in September 23 (A's) at home; it closes at Minnesota, at Toronto and hosting the Red Sox. The Yankees' last road game against a contender is this coming Sunday in Baltimore. If they can't arrest their decline over the season's final four weeks, it will be disappointing, because the schedule sets up wonderfully for them.
Over in the NL, there's a similar disparity between the Dodgers and the Giants. The Dodgers play the most difficult schedule of the seven NL contenders (.534), thanks to late-season interdivisional series against the Cardinals, Nationals and Reds, arguably the three best teams in the league. That stretch, which begins September 13, will likely determine their fate. Los Angeles also play 14 of its final 24 games on the road.
San Francisco, on the other hand, has a soft schedule coming in, with a quirk: it has no games remaining outside the NL West. The Giants' final 28 contests this year, dating to Labor Day, are all within the division. It's the right year to have that kind of finishing schedule, as these are the only NL West clubs to be above .500. The teams' respective schedules will make it hard for the Dodgers to catch the Giants.
As in the AL Central, teams in the NL Central have an edge on the field, with the three lowest strength of schedule marks among the seven contenders. The Cardinals' SOS (.464), weakest among the 15 contenders, may even understate how soft their homestretch is. The Cardinals play five of their next six series against non-contending teams, with only a four-game trip to Los Angeles breaking that up. They get nine straight games against the Cubs and Astros at mid-month. What seems like a tough final week, hosting the Nationals and the Reds, could be much less so; both of those teams may have clinched their division crowns by then and be focused on preparing for the playoffs. Ask the 2011 Rays about the advantage gained in closing your season against a good team with absolutely no investment in the outcome of the games.
National League teams looking to make up ground on the Braves can't look to Atlanta's SOS (.494) for solace but perhaps this will help: the Braves play 15 of their final 24 games on the road -- although just one of those series is against a team above .500.