MLB looks a lot different in 2023. The average game time has decreased 27 minutes. Stolen bases have increased 37%. Batting average is up four points. For the most part, the rule changes have worked as intended, with a faster pace and more action on the bases.
The most impactful change, however, has been the one least discussed: the new schedule, which has each team playing the other 29 in at least one series a season for the first time in MLB history. The biggest lesson so far from the schedule? The American League East is absolutely destroying the competition, with all five teams over .500.
Check the out-of-division record for each division (through Saturday):
AL East: 92-44 (.676)
NL East: 72-69 (.511)
NL West: 63-64 (.496)
NL Central: 73-80 (.477)
AL West: 60-70 (.462)
AL Central: 57-90 (.388)
The entire AL East, when not playing one another, is playing at a 110-win pace over 162 games. Pretty incredible, although maybe we shouldn’t be surprised. Last season, the AL East was 248-182 against non-division teams, a 93-win pace. Even the Boston Red Sox, who finished 78-84, were 52-34 when not playing their division rivals. The change in the schedule from 19 games against division opponents to 13 means 24 additional games outside the division — creating the possibility that, for the first time, every team in the same division finishes over .500.
Elsewhere in the AL, the central division is playing at a deplorable 100-loss pace. Even the first-place Twins are just .500 outside the division. So the AL East is really good, the AL Central is really bad, and how teams navigate the difficult and soft portions of their schedules will be a deciding factor in the playoff races.
Now, not everyone loves the new schedule. The argument goes that if you’re going to break teams up into divisions and award an automatic playoff berth to the division winner then you should have more games within the division. More division games also decreases travel and, in theory, fosters division rivalries, although I’m not sure many fans have been itching for more Kansas City Royals–Detroit Tigers or Colorado Rockies–Arizona Diamondbacks games. In the old schedule, teams played 76 division games (47% of the schedule); the new format allots just 52 division games (32%).
The best thing about the new schedule is that it now guarantees teams will visit every city at least every other season. This upcoming weekend, for example, the New York Yankees will play in Cincinnati. Even though interleague play began in 1997, the Yankees have played just three series in the Queen City: in 2003, 2011 and 2017. The Los Angeles Angels will play at Citi Field in August for the first time since 2017, giving New York Mets fans a firsthand look at Shohei Ohtani — a player owner Steve Cohen will no doubt be pursuing in the offseason. Miami Marlins fans are surely eagerly anticipating that visit from the Oakland Athletics in early June, just the fourth time the A’s have played in Miami.
Whether you’re for or against more division games, we can all agree: There is no perfect schedule. The last time that happened was 1968, the pre-division era, when each league had 10 teams and played one another 18 times with the league winner advancing directly to the World Series. When the American League had 14 teams and two divisions from 1977 to 1993, it did play a relatively balanced schedule in all but the first two years, with 13 games against division opponents and 12 games against the other division’s teams. The AL East was usually the stronger division in those years, and the balanced schedule produced some awkward results, such as in 1987 when the Minnesota Twins won the AL West with just 85 wins while four AL East teams won at least 89 games. The Twins took advantage of their automatic spot in the ALCS, beat the Tigers and then won the World Series.
The split into three divisions in 1994 and then the introduction of interleague play only complicated the schedule. The Houston Astros‘ move to the AL in 2013 at least created six five-team divisions, instead of the National League Central with six and the AL West with four.
There have been some calls to eliminate divisions altogether and go back to a balanced schedule — or even to move toward a massive realignment, which would be more likely to happen when MLB inevitably expands to 32 teams and forms eight four-team divisions.
For now, this is what we have: 13 games against division teams, two series totaling six or seven games against other league opponents, and one series against each team from the other league. I like it; I think it’s the best format we’ve had since 1968.
The AL East being so strong and the AL Central being so weak can create some interesting stretches of games where teams face a run of tough opponents or easy ones — especially if the A’s are mixed in with a stretch of games against the AL Central.
When the Tampa Bay Rays got off to a flying start this season, they did play a bunch of weak teams: The Tigers, Washington Nationals, A’s, Cincinnati Reds and Chicago White Sox (twice) were all on the schedule during the Rays’ 23-6 start. However, the Rays have since played the Pittsburgh Pirates, Yankees (twice) and Baltimore Orioles, bringing their overall opponents’ winning percentage to .509, which actually ranks as the eighth-toughest schedule played so far.
The five toughest schedules played so far, in terms of opponents’ winning percentage:
1. Boston Red Sox: .550
2. New York Yankees: .530
3. Detroit Tigers: .528
4. San Diego Padres: .526
5. Chicago White Sox: .517
And the five easiest:
1. Los Angeles Angels: .467
2. Texas Rangers: .470
3. Minnesota Twins: .472
4. Seattle Mariners: .477
5. San Francisco Giants: .480
And bad news for the scuffling Mets: They’re sixth on the list of easiest schedules played so far. They’ve played just three of their 13 games against the Atlanta Braves, haven’t played any of their 13 against the Philadelphia Phillies and have yet to play any of their 16 games against the AL East. Meanwhile, they’ve already played the A’s (swept them) and Tigers (got swept).
The Mets host the Rays for three games starting Tuesday, but they need to get healthy in a hurry. Check out this slate of opponents starting May 30: Phillies, Toronto Blue Jays, at Braves, at Pirates, Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals, at Astros, at Phillies, Milwaukee Brewers. Depending on whether the Pirates are for real and whether the Cardinals turn things around, that’s nine straight series against tough opponents. The rotation will be without Jose Quintana and while Carlos Carrasco should be back by then, Max Scherzer’s neck and back issues that caused him to miss a start last Tuesday are cause for concern.
Here are three other tough stretches to note:
1. Tampa Bay Rays: Current-June 11
We could pick any number of stretches from AL East teams, but after playing the Yankees, Orioles and Yankees in their past three series, the Rays next play the Mets, Brewers, Blue Jays, Los Angeles Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Red Sox, Twins and Rangers before finally getting a respite with four games in Oakland. Not that the Rays are in any danger of a collapse, but this stretch could allow the other AL East teams to get back in the race, especially now that Tampa Bay’s rotation is without Drew Rasmussen after he was placed on the 60-day IL with a flexor strain and Tyler Glasnow is still out (along with Jeffrey Springs). The Rays seemingly have an endless supply of pitching, but at some point, all these injuries are likely to catch up to them.
2. Texas Rangers: June 30-July 30
The Rangers are off to an impressive start, not just with their win-loss record but with a dominant run differential. They’ve cleaned up against the Royals (5-1) and they’ve gone 4-2 against the A’s. A monthlong stretch starting June 30 will be a test: Astros, at Red Sox, at Nationals, Cleveland Guardians, Rays, Dodgers, at Astros, at Padres. They also will finish the season with seven games against the Mariners and three against the Angels in what could end up as a four-team race in the AL West.
3. Philadelphia Phillies: Sept. 12-end of season
The Phillies are middle of the pack in strength of schedule so far, although they haven’t played the Braves or Mets yet. They haven’t played the Nationals either, so they do always get them sprinkled in the rest of the way (although the Nationals have looked better of late). But their final three weeks will be interesting: Braves, at Cardinals, at Braves, Mets, Pirates, at Mets.
On the other end, here are three easier runs to consider:
1. Boston Red Sox: July 28-Aug. 17
Things never really get that easy in the AL East, but this looks like a 19-game stretch in which the Red Sox — assuming the starting pitching hasn’t completely collapsed by then — could make a run: at Giants, at Mariners, Blue Jays, Royals, Tigers, at Nationals.
2. San Diego Padres: June 9-July 2
The Padres are under .500, though the good news is they’re done with the Braves and have already played the Dodgers six times. Here’s a stretch in which they need to do some damage: at Rockies, Guardians, Rays, at Giants, Nationals, at Pirates, at Reds. They also end the season with the A’s, Rockies, Cardinals, Giants and White Sox, so maybe they’ll end up making a very late run.
3. Houston Astros: Current-June 18
The defending champs are scuffling along with some injuries to the rotation, a homerless Jose Abreu and Alex Bregman and Kyle Tucker well below their career norms. They might very well be mediocre, but if they’re not, they need to get hot now against this stretch: Cubs, A’s, at Brewers, at A’s, Twins, Angels, at Blue Jays, at Guardians, Nationals, Reds.
In the big picture, let me remind you that we’re only a quarter of the way through the season. As the Yankees’ general manager recently implored when the team was 16-15 and scuffling: “Don’t give up on us.” Indeed, even though three of the team’s five starters have ERAs over 5.00, the Yankees are in the thick of the battle in the best division in history. The Rays can’t keep playing at this level all season, not with all those pitching injuries, so there’s the chance this turns into a historic five-team race.
Of course, only one team can win the division — and even if all three wild cards go to the AL East, that means at least one team will miss the playoffs. FanGraphs’ projected standings do have all five teams finishing over .500 and give all five at least a 30% chance of making the postseason (with odds for the Red Sox and Orioles well below those of the Rays, Blue Jays and Yankees).
The Orioles are maybe the most intriguing team in there, as the computer projections still aren’t in love with the rotation. That makes sense: The Orioles are 18th in rotation ERA, 21st in strikeout rate and 23rd in home run rate (even though Camden Yards is now a tough home run park). But they can hit, they have speed in the likes of Jorge Mateo and Cedric Mullins, and they have a dynamite 1-2 bullpen duo in Felix Bautista and Yennier Cano, who has come out of nowhere to begin the season with 19⅔ scoreless innings (with just four hits and a 20-to-0 strikeout-to-walk ratio).
It will be a tough road in the AL East, but if the Orioles can hang in there until late August, it’s worth noting this: Only three of their final 11 series are against AL East opponents, with two of those against a Red Sox team with its own shaky rotation. Maybe the Orioles will be chasing 100 wins, which they haven’t done since 1980.
The only problem: Will that even be enough to win the division?