UPDATE: A twitter follower, @scottwthurston, informs me that mathematically, the “Astros effect” is barely two wins over 19 games. That is, he tweets: “A .~500 team (M’s) vs a ~.400 (Hou) is expected to win 61.88% of the time. That’s 11.75 expected W’s over 19 games, compared to 9.5 wins in 19 against teams from 2012 (other teams =~.500). Since M’s likely aren’t quite .500 team, effect may be even less.”
He elaborates: “Expected winning % for Team A facing Team B is: Team A Win %^2 / (Team A Win %^2 + Team B Win %^2).
So there’s that.
The popular wisdom is that the Mariners will ride the ineptitude of the Houston Astros, newly installed not only in the American League, but fortuitously in their division, to a wave of “free” wins that will push them towards, or perhaps over, the .500 mark.
Actually, I subscribe to that theory myself, at least, well, theoretically. The Astros look to be, once again, a perfectly dreadful team, having stripped their roster of most of their established players over the past couple of years, and coming off back-to-back seasons of 106 losses in 2011, and 107 losses in 2012.
This is not to say they won’t eventually be good. That’s a question for another day, but Billy Beane, the GM of the A’s, told me earlier this spring, “All that stuff (their poor records and rebuilding program) is temporary. I think they’re going to be a great franchise, because they’ve got revenues, they have smart people running things, and they’re doing what needs to be done. My guess is, once they get there, they’re going to be there for a long time….Over the long-term, the inclusion of the Astros is going to be a pain for certainly us.”
My followup question to Beane was: What about the short term?
“I don’t know; we’ll see when we get there,” Beane replied. ” I’m not foolish enough to go out and make assumptions until we start playing the games. As soon as you do, you find yourself on your back, looking up at the stars. I have a lot of respect for the people who are running that organization. I think they are going to be really good. Obviously, it’s a big city with big revenue. If someone perceives them as not being competitive now, I think that will be short term.”
The Mariners will play 19 games against the Astros. That should help push their win-total northward, but it shouldn’t necessarily alter the balance of power in the AL West, because the A’s, Rangers and Angels — the three teams the Mariners are chasing — also get 19 new-found games against the Astros. But it could help all those teams in the race for the American League’s two wild-card spots, because the clubs in the other divisions only get the Astros six or seven times, in most cases.
Let’s look at how the Astros impacted the race last year in the National League, when Houston resided in the six-team NL Central. The Reds, who won the division by nine games, went 10-5 against the Astros. Not a huge factor for them. But the runnerup Cardinals went 11-4 against the Astros — and earned the second wild-card berth by two games over the Dodgers. Considering the Dodgers played Houston just six times, and went 2-4, you’ve got to say that those Astros games definitely helped the Cardinals clinch a playoff spot. And it definitely helped the Pirates in their ultimately unsuccessful quest to put up their first winning season since 1992. The Pirates were 12-5 against the Astros, but still finished at 79-83. For those wondering if the Pirates will reach the elusive 81-win total this year, you might want to factor in the loss of 17 games against Houston (Pittsburgh does get the Astros three times in interleague).
The Brewers are an example of a team that didn’t clean up on Houston, and paid a price. They were just 8-9 against the Astros, and finished five games out of the wild card. The Brewers lost two out of three to Houston in the final week when they were still battling for a playoff spot. Conversely, in 2011, the Brewers were 12-3 against the Astros, and won the division by six games. The Cardinals were 10-5 against the Astros in 2011 and earned a wild-card berth by one game over the Braves (who were 5-1 against the Astros).
Another team that will miss the Astros is the San Francisco Giants. Their 8-1 record against Houston helped them win the NL West last year, and ultimately the World Series. And the Arizona Diamondbacks are another team lamenting Houston’s departure. They are 12-1 against the Astros the past two seasons. Last year, Arizona’s 6-0 mark against Houston helped the Diamondbacks finish exactly .500.
No manager wants to hear that they are expected to clean up on the Astros, or any other ballclub, for that matter. Teams can develop more quickly than expected, and even bad teams can have pitchers with good days, or put together good stretches. Eric Wedge told me, regarding the Astros, “I learned a long time ago, you don’t take anyone for granted on any particular day, any particular series, week, month or year. It’s the big leagues, man. They’re all good. They all deserve to be here. And it’s baseball, which is the most slippery sport out of any sport, if you ask me.”
That’s all true, but it would still behoove the Mariners to take full advantage of their 19 games against the Astros –starting with a three-game series at Safeco Field to start their home season.
In case you’re wondering where those 19 games against Houston are coming from, here’s the dope.
Last year, the Mariners played 41 games against the AL Central, going 25-16. This year, they play 34 — seven fewer. Last year, the Mariners played 46 games against the AL East, going 18-28. This year, they played 32 — fourteen fewer. That’s 21 fewer games against those two division, but they play two more interleague games — 20, compared to 18. Subtract those two extra interleague games from the 21 fewer against the AL Central and East, and you come up with 19.
You’ve got to figure that 14 fewer games against the beasts from the East will be beneficial to the Mariners, considering their .391 winning percentage against the division last year (though the Yankees ain’t what they used to be). Of course, they are also playing four fewer games against the Twins and Royals, against whom the M’s were 15-3 last year.
To go into even more detail on the schedule shift, here is a listing of how many games the Mariners are losing against each AL team outside the Western Division (including Seattle’s 2012 record against each of those teams):
Indians: 4-4 last year, seven games this season (-1)
White Sox: 1-8 last year, six games this season (-3)
Tigers: 5-1 last year, seven games this season (+1)
Royals: 7-1 last year, seven games this season (-1)
Twins: 8-2 last year, seven games this season (-3)
Orioles: 1-8 last year, six games this season (-3)
Red Sox: 4-5 last year, seven games this season (-2)
Yankees: 3-6 last year, seven games this season (-2)
Rays: 4-6 last year, six games this season (-4)
Blue Jays: 6-3 last year, six games this season (-3)