The general consensus this offseason when Major League Baseball altered its scheduling to reduce the number of divisional games each team played was that it helped the Orioles.
Fewer matchups against the teams of the juggernaut American League East division meant — or at least many assumed — a more favorable schedule, leading to more wins. Baltimore now faces the rest of the division 52 times instead of 76 times a season.
“Just on paper, you’d think it would be good for all of us to play outside of the division, instead of all of us beating up on one another throughout the year,” outfielder Austin Hays said.
But the New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Rays, Boston Red Sox and Toronto Blue Jays each face the rest of the league more, too. If those clubs take care of business against the supposedly lesser opposition of some other divisions, and the Orioles do the same, the equation remains as it was — the change equals out, as Hays recalled players in the clubhouse during spring training deciding.
Sure, there’s a benefit to playing 24 fewer matchups against American League East competition. The Yankees, who went 47-29 last year in divisional games as part of their 99-63 record, will feel that benefit too. As will the rest of the division.
On Friday, when asked how long it would be before the Orioles were legitimate American League East contenders, Yankees manager Aaron Boone said, “as far as I’m concerned, they’re a tough team to beat and are contenders now.”
But for the Orioles to make a concerted push toward the playoffs — the stated goal of this team throughout the winter and spring — the 52 games will matter as much as the 76 did. The head-to-head matchups will still be the best way to make up ground against other American League East teams, be it for a divisional race or in the wild card. And should Baltimore make the postseason, it will find itself facing teams such as those — the cream of the crop.
“Individually, it’s going to affect a little bit, because if you play more East teams, you’re gonna know every pitcher, you know every hitter,” outfielder Anthony Santander said. “But at the same time, we got the opportunity to play with other teams. They might have a losing record. That way, we might have more chance to win, but like I say, if our mentality’s to go out there and compete, it doesn’t matter who we’re going to face. You have to go out there and smash those teams.”
Last year, the Orioles’ surprise run to playoff contention was fueled by out-of-division games. Baltimore had a losing record against all four divisional rivals and finished 34-42 in the American League East; outside of the division, manager Brandon Hyde’s club went 49-37.
And to begin 2023, Baltimore has dropped four of its six games against American League East competition. The Rays, though, opened the season with nine games against teams outside the division and won them all by at least four runs.
The importance of replicating that out-of-division success remains, with more of them to play. The Orioles will need to take care of business against teams such as the Oakland Athletics, who hold a losing record and lost Monday’s opener at Camden Yards.
“We need those games to make it to the playoffs,” Santander said.
But it also heightens the importance of the now-52 divisional games. Should Baltimore find itself in a playoff push, those head-to-head matchups will be pivotal in deciding the division and wild card places.
Baltimore — and the rest of the division — traded 24 American League East games to face every team in the league.
“I guess we’ll have to go back at the end of the season and see the rest of those games that would’ve been AL East against the extra NL teams, how’d that go,” infielder Adam Frazier said. “You just take a glance at it, yeah, it helps. But at the same time, maybe we have the Blue Jays’ number, or the Rays’. Maybe we have one of their number and we win more games than we lose against them. And now the NL takes it to you, then it doesn’t help you.”
So at the end, even with the perceived benefit of facing the American League East fewer times each year, not much changes. The games against American League East rivals will decide the division — and likely the wild card. And there are now just fewer of them to decide it.