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Strength of schedule shows up in subtle ways

With March Madness only now subsiding, it's hard for even a baseball fan not to have "strength of schedule" burned into his retinas for a few more weeks, right next to Digger Phelps' ties. The phrase will fade away soon, though, because strength of schedule plays little role in baseball. Or does it?

Even with interleague play and the unbalanced schedule under which teams play intradivision rivals about 18 times a year, other league members about six and intraleague teams three, most fans generally assume that at least teams in the same division face equally difficult schedules – certainly compared to other sports – over the course of a season. This assumption certainly exists when considering individual players: Given the randomness of each day's starting pitcher and other factors, there's no reason to think that any hitter or pitcher faces a considerably harder strength of opponent than another.

Looking into the matter further uncovers some interesting tidbits.

Naturally, one of the beefs some folks have with the wild card is that the unbalanced schedule and interleague play do leave teams in different divisions, fighting for the same playoff spot, facing schedules of varying strengths. This is an undeniable fact. The Orioles face the powerhouse Yankees and Red Sox 36 total times this season, while the Indians face them 13 times. Good luck, Sammy.

The extra "marquee rival" series – three extra games between the Yankees and Mets, the Giants and A's, etc. – provide another difference even within divisions. All told, it would appear that there are some not-so insignificant variations among teams' schedules.

Using 2004 records, here are teams' aggregate strengths of schedules for this season, weighted by how often they play each opponent:

Not surprisingly, these fall roughly in reverse order of finish, because, for example, one of the reasons the Royals now face teams with good 2004 records is that they lost to them a lot last year. Carrying that over is misleading.

A more accurate way to approach it is to use projected records for 2005. This is subjective, of course, so I used not my personal predictions, but what feel like consensus opinions. (A's will slide back a bit after the pitching trades, the maturing Indians will improve a few games, etc.) Here are the numbers based on expected 2005 strength – and yes, I made sure all the projected records added up to .500:

I was pretty surprised at these numbers. Discounting the Devil Rays, who simply get slammed because they're the doormats of the AL East, they range only from .487 (Giants) to .511 (Mariners). This is quite little, the equivalent of 79-83 and 83-79 records. As for the Orioles, who face the Red Sox and Yankees 23 more times than the Indians, their schedule beats Cleveland's by just 13 points, or 2.1 wins.

These differences could play a role when the wild card is decided, but it should be a pretty silent one. We all know that even an extra three-game series against a strong team can easily go either way, particularly given the vagaries of pitching rotations and injuries.

Which brings us to the most race-altering injury we can imagine: that of Barry Bonds. A fair question becomes how Bonds' indefinite absence from the Giants lineup – something that many analysts believe could downgrade a 90-win-type team to a 78-win team – could shake things up in the NL West, and elsewhere.

Of course we have to see how long Bonds is out, but two months is not an unreasonable guess. (My official prediction is six weeks, but what the heck.) Bonds' missing two months would allow the Rockies to play half their Giants schedule – nine of 18 games – against a Bonds-less San Francisco lineup; the Dodgers play eight of 19 games during that span. Meanwhile, the Diamondbacks play just five games against the Giants in April and May, the Padres only three. That's a nice opportunity for the arch-rival Dodgers to get a bunch of games in before Bonds comes back.

Then there's the advantage the Astros might have in the NL Central. They play four games against the Giants in mid-May, while all of the Cardinals' and Cubs' games against San Francisco come after July 1. So if Houston takes three of four in a series without Bonds, let's remember that come September.

These are the team strength-of-schedule issues. What about individual players? Do some hitters wind up facing considerably more talented pitchers during a season?

Or does it all come out in the wash?

For this we turn to Baseball Prospectus, which has kindly kept such data. Below are the batters in each league – they vary widely because of the DH – who faced the easiest and hardest pitchers last year, as ranked by OPS allowed (minimum 400 plate appearances):

It's pretty hard to make a case that some batters face significantly easier or harder pitchers than others – particularly in the National League, where the range from top to bottom is only 30 points. Should we read into how Paul DePodesta said goodbye to three of the five hitters with the easiest pitching schedules last year? That seems pretty silly, given the minuscule differences among most players.

Here are the pitchers' strength of opponents, again with a minimum of 400 batters faced:

Perhaps Johan Santana won't face quite as easy a schedule this year, and Kris Benson could find himself with a little better luck, but again, I wouldn't read too much into these. It will be fun to look back at them at the end of the season, though.

One very interesting note among the pitchers, though: Russ Ortiz, late of the Braves and now of the Diamondbacks, has been scrutinized very heavily in part because of his opponents last year. Almost 40 of his 205 innings came against the Expos, whom he dominated to the tune of a .131 batting average and 1.13 ERA. That, some claim, skewed his overall ERA down to a misleadingly decent 4.13.

But looking at his overall schedule, it was nothing remarkable at all. In fact, the .738 OPS of Ortiz's batters faced was not only in the middle of the pack, it was exactly the same as that of Ben Sheets and one Roger Clemens.

Which leaves us with the overall point – when strength of schedule does get discussed in baseball, it's often only anecdotally, and with little overall understanding of how it generally evens out. It probably helps or hurts only a few teams a year, and very few players. And if you can tell me which ones before the season starts, I'll buy the tickets to Vegas.

Alan Schwarz is the senior writer of Baseball America and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His book, "The Numbers Game: Baseball's Lifelong Fascination With Statistics," is published by St. Martin's Press and can be ordered on Alan's Web site.