Reduced intradivision play is a welcome change

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The Cleveland Guardians clinched the American League Central on Sunday with a 10-4 win over the Texas Rangers, and there are certainly some reasons to think that’s neat. They weren’t close to being the favorites — the defending Central champs the White Sox and the post-Carlos Correa Twins were ahead of them there — and they’re the youngest team in the league, too. However, the Guardians are also having a season that, on the surface level, is merely on par with that of the AL wild card contenders: Cleveland is currently 86-67, while the Blue Jays (86-67), Rays (84-69), and Mariners (83-69) are right there with them.

A weaker divisional foe in comparison to some wild card winners isn’t all that out of the ordinary, but the Guardians stick out for a couple of reasons. This is the first year with three wild card winners, for instance, and Cleveland hasn’t exactly covered themselves in glory, comparatively, to the final one of those. There’s also how the Guardian’s season has actually gone down, outside of the straight wins and losses. They’re just 20-23 against teams under .500, which is two problems in one: they’re under .500 in those games, and have also played just 43 of them. Compare that to the Blue Jays (82 games against better-than-.500 teams), the Rays (77), and the Mariners (“just” 65, but with a winning 36-29 record), and you can see that the quality of competition hasn’t been there for the AL Central champs in the way it has for the teams scratching and clawing for a wild card spot.

The Guardians also have the worst run differential of the bunch, and this despite the fact that the Jays and Rays are part of what is one of the toughest divisions in the literal history of divisional play. As Rob Mains covered at Baseball Prospectus last week, through a lens of how teams did outside of their own division, the current AL East is one of the greatest divisions ever, with as good an argument as any other that they are the actual best, while the 2022 AL Central is one of the very worst.

Cleveland has actually done alright against the East, West, and in interleague — 13-16, 18-16, 12-8 — but there is simply no escaping that 43 of their 86 wins have come against divisional opponents, and that their division has two of the three worst AL clubs in it, while everyone besides the Guardians is under .500 on the year.

This is all unbalanced schedule trouble combined with a general lack of effort, which is something the Guardians’ front office has relied on quite a bit in the past, too. Not that they’re alone in this: the Twins and White Sox haven’t exactly rolled out dominant forces after aggressive offseasons the last few years, either, with everyone mostly content to give things a shot but not too much of one, considering the quality of their competition. It’s the kind of behavior that’s allowed teams to win 100 games even if they actually weren’t that good — as I wrote in 2019, winning 100 games is easy when most teams aren’t trying, and an expanded postseason wasn’t going to increase the effort levels any. The Guardians are as young as they are not just because they have talented young players to play, but also because it’s much less expensive to do things that way, especially given their competition.

Here’s the good news, though: the unbalanced schedule is a thing of the past as of 2023. Teams will still be facing their divisional foes regularly, but Cleveland (and the White Sox, and the Twins, and all of the Central) will find themselves facing off against better-than-.500 opponents with more regularity, since things won’t be quite so intradivisionally focused with this new emphasis on each team facing every other team during the year. So, one of two things will happen thanks to this change: teams like the Guardians will have to put in some effort so they can’t win the division without actually trying to do so, or, the Central’s awfulness is going to be even more obvious, because they’re going to get beat down by the rest of the league and no longer be able to rely on intradivision play to inflate their records.

The part of me that thinks a sub-.500 division winner would be very funny is hoping for the latter, but the rest of me, that wants teams to actually try to win, to put on competitive baseball games and seasons, needs the former to happen. Cleveland has this incredibly young roster and a low payroll because of it: they have plenty of money to spend, even if they’re going to say they do not. The White Sox are owned by professional miser Jerry Reinsdorf, and still actually managed to spend this year — whether that keeps up is another thing, but it’ll be harder to go back to the old ways if clubs like Cleveland’s actually put in the effort with the schedule change. The Twins have plenty of room left to spend — their owners are some of the richest in the league, but you wouldn’t know it from their spending habits. The Tigers and Royals tried in 2022 in their own way, but that way is possibly going to change now that their front offices are getting a makeover. And they’ll have to, if they want to put someone who can win something besides the Central on the field.

Will any of the teams bother to do that, though, is the question. At least, by reducing intradivision play and rebalancing the schedule somewhat, we can even ask that question while hoping the answer is satisfactory.

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