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The Indians’ AL Central-heavy schedule is a big deal

Playing more division games could be a bigger deal than it seems.

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Detroit Tigers Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

During the series against the Tigers last week, whether watching on television or listening to the radio broadcast, I could not escape talk about the Indians schedule versus the AL Central. I’m sure you know by now that the Tribe has only played 15 of its 45 games against division rivals and that none of those games have come against the miserable White Sox. This is significant because the AL Central is deeply terrible, particularly those White Sox.

All that talk got me thinking, then it got me doing math, and then it made me wonder if Hammy, Rosey, Rick, or Matt (we’re on a first name basis) fully understand how significant having a back-loaded AL Central slate is for the Indians.

First, some detail about exactly how bad the Indians’ division is, to remind us all how fortunate the Tribe is to not be in the AL East.

As of today, the season has elapsed 54 days and the AL Central has had more than one team over .500 on 13 of those days and only one team above .500 on 21 days, leaving 19 days with no teams above .500. Teams in the division have a combined record of 89-137, which is a winning percentage of .394. At 22-23, Cleveland leads the Central, but would be no better than tied for third in any other division (AL East).

However, the Tribe is 10-5 (.667) against intra-division opponents.

So, there’s the significance, right? The Indians are 17 percentage points better against AL Central teams than they are overall. If they played the AL Central more their record would be better. This is true, of course, but you can take it a step further.

The Indians have won two-thirds of its games against the Central and in the series immediately after an intra-division opponent they’ve won 60 percent of their games. Thus, my hypothesis is that playing AL Central teams has a residual effect, where the Indians continue to play better in the next series.

To calculate this effect, I simply examined the schedule and counted wins and losses in series immediately following AL Central opponents; when Cleveland played two division rivals in a row (i.e., Kansas City April 6 to 8 and Detroit April 9 to 12), I counted the second series as a series immediately following in addition to the opponent immediately following the second series. Make-up games were counted as stand-alone series for the sake of simplicity, as I wanted to limit the opponent immediately following an AL Central opponent to a single team (i.e., Detroit April 9 to 12 and Toronto April 13).

In breaking the schedule down this way, the Tribe won 9 of 15 games in the series proceeding a division rival, with games against the Tigers, Blue Jays, Orioles, and Astros counted. Not only was the Indians’ win percentage better in those games than overall, but it also exceeded the combined percentage of their opponents (.553). Now, I understand that the Indians were not likely to only win 8 of their 15 games simply because their opponents’ combined records were closest to that winning percentage (not how life works). However, I think it is somewhat informative that Cleveland outperformed its opponents’ combined winning percentage.

To see if the Tribe was the only beneficiary of this post-AL Central bump, I found records in series immediately after playing an AL Central opponent (using the same method) for AL East and West and NL Central teams (because the NL East and West have the same record against the AL Central: 0-0). What I found was 60 percent (9/15) of the teams who had played against the AL Central were better than .500 in the series immediately following.

The teams faring better against their next opponents were a little surprising, as the Rays (7-5) and Jays (8-7) were among teams that managed a winning total despite an overall record below .500 (others included Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, Pirates, A’s, Mariners, and Cardinals; see my work here). Teams doing worse following an AL Central opponent were also surprising, with the Brewers (3-5), Astros (2-4), and Angels (3-6) faring worse after AL Central opposition; the bottom three (Rangers, 2-5, Orioles, 4-12, and Reds, 0-3), however, came as no surprise.

Among AL Central teams (see my work here), only Cleveland has a winning percentage above .500 against opponents immediately following AL Central teams. The Royals have earned 71 percent of their total wins against division rivals, but have managed a .263 winning percentage in series immediately following an AL Central team. Likewise, the White Sox have 6 of their 13 wins against a division foe but just a .154 record in games following.

My statistical acumen is not so advanced to say unequivocally this is signal or noise at this point, just over one-quarter through the season, and although my hypothesis is correct so far we’ll need to wait and see if the effect lasts all season. The Indians have 61 games (19 series) against AL Central competition remaining; of 38 series remaining on the schedule, only 10 would not be considered a series immediately following an AL Central opponent. Were the Indians to maintain good winning percentages against AL Central opponents and opponents immediately following, it would put the team in a very good spot come October.

Hell, the Indians don’t even have to be as good (liberal use of “good” here) as they have been against AL Central teams or opponents immediately following division rivals in order to finish the year with a solid record. For instance, if the Indians were to win 60 percent (instead of 67 percent) of their remaining 61 division games, they’d go 37-24 (rounding wins up). Thus, if you forecast the Tribe to win 50 percent of games against teams outside the AL Central (which would factor in a bump for series following an AL Central opponent, as the Indians are below .500 as of this writing), you add another 28 wins to the total, giving the team a final record of 87-75. Is this a great record, meh, it’s worse than fans expect from this club, but it seems like more than enough to win this garbage division. Then, come October, randomness rules.

Some will say poor competition down the stretch could lead to a lack of preparedness for a playoff team, but what if that poor competition makes the Indians better? I think, and the numbers so far show (for the Indians and other teams), that playing awful teams is proving to be a panacea for the Tribe. Of the many unmeasurable things that lead to success — chemistry, luck, home field advantage, momentum, and so on — simply being successful and gaining confidence will lead to other favorable outcomes. And there’s really no better way to be successful than to beat up on these awful AL Central clubs.

This Indians team has warts all over right now, all made more glaringly obvious by being below .500, but the schedule could help erase some of those issues. The Indians strength of schedule is .482 (29th), and that’s reason to believe many more wins — and wins in the next series — are around the corner. I may be alone, but I need that optimism right now. Almost as bad as the Indians need more games against the AL Central.