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How tanking teams are affecting the Indians’ playoff hopes

A new perspective on the uphill battle the Indians face in their playoff hunt

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Los Angeles Angels Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

As the Indians get ready for the biggest series of the year against the Twins, I can’t shake the feeling that every series for the last few months has been big. Trailing in both the AL Central and the wild card, every game has an added intensity, a must-win feeling. It doesn’t help that every game seems to be against some other playoff team, too.

Then, when I turn my gaze to the scoreboard, there are the Twins and the Rays and the A’s notching a win — the Indians just can’t catch a break. It’s not like the Tribe has been bad lately; since a miserable May (12-17, .414) they have not had a month below .500 and have played .644 ball (58-32). That’s good!

But what if this isn’t just a feeling? What if we’re not collectively going crazy and the Tribe is actually facing a worse uphill battle for the playoffs? I think that is the case and the explanation is quite simple. To paraphrase James Carville, it’s the schedule, stupid.

In his brilliant article about tanking, Rob Arthur identified an increase in the daily percentage of teams with at least 5% playoff odds since 2014, which was 39.6% when his article published. Having <5% playoff odds means that team is having a bad season, and Arthur identified those bad seasons as a factor contributing to 35% of the decline in attendance at baseball games since 2014.

Playing teams with <5% playoff odds, obviously, is good for teams making a playoff push. Much has been made of that in the AL Central race, with the Twins playing the dregs of the league as they hurdle toward breaking the Indians’ reign over the division. But it’s not just the Twins, because more teams have nothing to play for (besides pride, I guess) than in previous years.

Whereas Arthur used the daily percent of teams with <5% playoff odds, I found the teams that had at least a 5% chance of making the playoffs at any point in August or September over the last five years. I found that 2019 has the fewest number of teams with even a remote shot at the playoffs, with just 16 (tied with 2018), and the collective winning percentage of those 16 teams is the highest it has ever been.

In August of 2019, teams that had at least 5% probability of making the playoffs at some point have a winning percentage of .610, which is the highest monthly average of the last five years. Though September is not yet halfway through, current winning percentages for those teams is also above previous seasons. As you can see below, though the numbers per league differ, this trend has been occurring in both the National and American Leagues.

Those winning percentages sans context of opponent quality are only informative to a point. So, I looked at schedules and determined the percentage of games each team from above has to play in August and September versus other teams with playoff aspirations. No surprise to Tribe fans, no one in the AL has as many games against teams with >5% playoff odds in the final two months of the season.

In terms of raw numbers, the Indians have a full week’s worth of games in August and September against teams with >5% playoff probability compared with the next most (30 vs. 23 for Boston and New York). The Rays, by contrast, have half as many games against competition with any playoff hopes. Of course, there are worse remaining schedules than Cleveland in the National League, but with as many teams in the hunt in just the NL Central and East as there are in all of the AL, that should come as little surprise.

I don’t have the tools to run a sophisticated analysis, like Arthur did, and provide correlation coefficients to show how strong a relationship the schedule and tanking teams have to the Indians struggle to keep pace. However, there are as few playoff-hopeful teams in the American League this year as at any point in the last five years and Cleveland has to play other playoff-hopeful teams more often than other American League teams. Thus, it seems logical that the perception the Indians’ playoff hunt is Sissyphean is not just a perception.

In other words, this shit is frustrating and it’s not all in our heads. It’s the stupid schedule.