If the offseason is all about trying to come up with reasons why 2023 could be better for the Nationals than 2022 was, here’s another one to add to the list: The schedule should be easier, perhaps by a significant amount.
It was kind of glossed over among all the changes announced via the new collective bargaining agreement last year, but let’s remind you now Major League Baseball made a dramatic change to the scheduling process. Instead of facing the teams from only one division in the opposing league each season (plus one designated interleague rival), everyone will now face everyone from the opposing league each season.
Yes, the Nationals will face all 29 other MLB clubs this year, and every year for the foreseeable future. It’s the first that’s ever happened in this sport, and while it was done to allow fans to see more teams and more players on a regular basis, it has the added effect of diminishing the volume of games being played within a team’s own division.
The Nationals faced fellow NL East rivals a total of 76 times last season (19 games a piece against the Braves, Mets, Phillies and Marlins). They will now play only 52 games within the division (13 games a piece).
If you’ve forgotten, the Nats were abysmal vs. the NL East last year. They finished 17-59 against those four opponents, a .224 winning percentage that registered as the lowest ever since division play began in 1969. Yeah, it was a disaster.
The Nationals actually went 38-48 against everybody else in the majors, a far more respectable .442 winning percentage that would equate to a 72-90 record over a 162-game season.
So, the Nats are losing 24 games vs. the NL East, plus another two vs. the NL West. (They’ll play 31 total against that division after playing 33 last year. They’ll continue to play 33 total games vs. the NL Central.)
That’s 26 games that were played against NL opponents in 2022 but will now be played against AL opponents in 2023. Who will those interleague games come against?
The Nationals and Orioles will continue to play each other four times, twice a piece in each town. The Nats will now play the four other AL East teams (Yankees, Blue Jays, Rays, Red Sox) three times each for a total of 12 games.
Under the old format, they would’ve played 16 games against the AL Central this year. That number drops to 15 this year, three a piece vs. the Guardians, Twins, White Sox, Tigers and Royals.
And they’ll also play 15 games against the AL West, three a piece vs. the Astros, Mariners, Angels, Ranges and Athletics.
That should make a real difference, because the Nationals are trading away games vs. teams from good divisions for games vs. teams from lesser divisions. They lose 24 games against four NL East opponents who collectively produced a .552 winning percentage last season, plus two games against the NL West (which had a division-wide .522 winning percentage). Those 26 games will now come against AL East and AL West opponents who combined for a .516 winning percentage.
Think of it this way: If this year’s schedule applied last year, and the Nats continued to play .442 ball against non-division opponents, they’d have added five wins to their season total. They’d have gone 60-102 instead of 55-107.
What’s the big deal about five extra wins for a team that still would’ve been awful? Maybe it wouldn’t have meant much in 2022. But if you subscribe to the belief the Nationals could enjoy a 10-game improvement in 2023 based solely on a better roster, then add five more wins based solely on a better schedule, they’re suddenly looking at a 70-win season.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. This is all way too simplified. It doesn’t actually work like this. The roster may not be improved enough to win 10 more games. And it’s foolish to get caught up in scheduling like this, because for all we know the NL East could be worse in 2023 while the AL Central and West are dramatically better.
But if you’re looking for some reason to feel optimistic here on Jan. 10, with five weeks still to go before pitchers and catchers report, what’s the harm in making a big deal out of the new schedule?