If you haven't seen it already, Daniel Moroz has a great piece up at Beyond the Boxscore that looks at unbalanced schedules and quantifies how much they affect teams, specifically those in the AL East. After Erik's piece the other morning and our subsequent discussion on "Floating Realignment", I figured this was a very timely piece and should be passed along. Daniel basically concludes that a 70-win team in the AL East only stands to gain around one win through unbalancing a schedule, which is a pretty negligible difference. For the Orioles and Blue Jays, having a more balanced schedule isn't going to help increase your win total by five, in other words. Don't get your hopes up.
My immediate question, though, was "What about the Rays?"
We're not a 70-win team at the moment and would balancing schedules help us get closer to the Yankees and Red Sox? Obviously not, because if we balanced the schedule, the Yankees and Red Sox would also be facing weaker teams as well! Any wins that the Rays might have picked up, the Yankees and Red Sox would too. Since we're competing for the Wild Card against teams all in our division, it shouldn't matter at all how often we face the Yankees and Red Sox as long as all our schedules are equally tough.
Suppose, though, that there was a team in another division that we could realistically consider to be a threat for the Wild Card, like the Mariners for instance. Hypothetically, assuming both divisions have relative strengths similar to now, if both the White Sox and Rays were 92 win teams and were competing for the Wild Card, the White Sox would have a 1.5 game advantage* over the Rays just through having a weaker schedule. In the heat of a race, that's quite a bit of a difference.
* I didn't actually run this number; I got it from Daniel in a conversation we had in the comments of his article. In fact, I'm totally stealing all the research in this article from Daniel. He's pretty awesome.
Of course, this hypothetical situation is a bit unlikely. It'd require one division to be exceedingly strong (like the AL East right now) and also for another division to have two teams of equal strength, which is possible but necessarily likely. In the National League right now, for instance, the divisions are close enough in relative strength that I doubt the unbalanced schedules would have this large an effect on the Wild Card race.
Right now, there aren't any other teams outside the division that look to have the same strength as the Rays, so we don't have to worry about our schedule putting us at a disadvantage. It might be a nice idea for Major League Baseball to consider balancing the schedules up, but like Daniel points out, it's unlikely to have that large an effect on a team's win total or odds at the playoffs. And the Rays certainly don't have to worry about it keeping them out of the playoffs this season.