Matt Kelly wrote a piece for MLB.com about a week ago that looked at each team’s opponents for the month of April. With two charts, Kelly showed the combined 2016 winning percentage of opponents in April:
And the 2017 projected winning percentage of opponents in April, using FanGraphs Depth Charts:
The Rays sit at the top of both tables. Obviously this is not the type of chart a fan wants to see her/his team headlining. But it’s a bit of a good news/bad news situation.
The bad news is pretty straight forward. Thanks to series with the New York Yankees (x2), Toronto Blue Jays (x2), Boston Red Sox, Detroit Tigers, and Houston Astros, the Rays don’t face a single team that had a losing record in 2016 throughout the entire month of April. The worst team they face, by 2016 record, is the Houston Astros, who many have slated as potential pennant winners this season.
If we move from “what they did in 2016” to “what they are projected to do in 2017,” the news gets a little better. While the Rays still have the toughest April in baseball, the winning percentage drops from .541 to .525. This makes sense. The American League is as clustered as it has ever been, with as many as 12 teams competing for the playoffs in 2017. That means at least a few of the top teams from last year are bound to slip, while new teams will begin to rise.
This is where the news goes from bad to hopeful for Tampa Bay. Although they have a tough road ahead of them this month, April also presents an interesting opportunity. Of the 26 games the Rays will play, 20 are against division opponents. So really the “tough April” just comes down to a division-heavy schedule. Given that all four of the non-Rays teams in the AL East finished over .500 last season, it makes the schedule look a lot more daunting than it actually is. The Rays know they have to play every division opponent 19 times during the regular season. If they want to make it to the playoffs, they’ll have to finish somewhere around .500 in the AL East, and do slightly better than .500 against the rest of the league.
With that in mind, if the Rays can make it out of April over .500 (or even right at .500) it will be a great sign for the rest of the season. Although the Rays are bound to have one of the hardest schedules in baseball for the entirety of the season (playing in the AL East will do that), their out-of-division schedule will get busier going forward, and it will be filled with teams of lower quality than the Astros and the Tigers.
The Rays have a tough task ahead of them in April. They will be tested by some of their top competition for a wild card in the American League. If they get off to a slow start, it could cause some to begin to write them off after the 68-win season last year. But if they come out of April with a respectable record, Rays fans will know they have a team to be reckoned with in 2017.