Of all the reasons the Boston Red Sox just finished last for the fifth time since 2012, this one looms largest: the American League East.
The Red Sox didn't just struggle against their most immediate rivals, they received the Monty Burns thrashing of a lifetime. They went 26-50 versus the Yankees, Rays, Blue Jays, and Orioles -- the math working out almost perfectly to two losses every three games.
Only the 55-win Nationals boasted a worse record in their division (17-59), and they finished 46 games out of first place.
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Needless to say, 26 wins in the division does not make a playoff team. But help may be on the way in the form of a rule change earning far less attention than the pitch clock or shift bans, but which could impact the Red Sox more than any team in the game.
When MLB and the players agreed to a new collective bargaining agreement last March, they included a balanced schedule.
Starting this year, clubs will play only 13 games against each of their division rivals – down from the traditional 19 – and they'll also see the other 29 teams at least once, alternating home and away with some of them every other year.
Boston Red Sox
This change should level the wild card field. While the Red Sox must still navigate the beasts of the AL East, they'll play 24 fewer games against the iron of the division and 24 more against some of the dregs of the National League.
That's a potentially massive development for their playoff chances, since they won as many games outside the division (52) as the Yankees last year, and more than the Rays (49), Jays (46), and O's (49). But they couldn't compete against the softer schedules of the AL West, for instance, where the Mariners claimed a wild card in part by going 25-13 vs. the woeful Rangers and A's.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox actually won the season series with the Orioles (10-9), but they were abysmal against the Rays (7-12), Yankees (6-13), and especially Blue Jays (3-16).
So here's how the new schedule will work. Under the old format, the 2023 Red Sox would've continued to play 19 games against the division, plus four against the Phillies and 16 against the NL West.
Now, they'll keep their four games versus the Phillies and 15 versus the NL West, and pick up three games apiece against the mediocre NL Central, as well as the rest of the NL East, which includes the Braves, Mets, Marlins, and aforementioned Nationals.
They couldn't touch the Blue Jays last year. They'll get the last-place Reds instead. The Rays ran circles around them. Now they pick up three more games against the Pirates. The Yankees pounded them and the Orioles surprised everyone. How do the Nationals and Marlins sound?
Making matters even better, the Red Sox own by far the best record in the history of interleague play (288-195, .596). That puts them seven games ahead of the second-place Yankees, 27 ahead of the third-place Angels, and a staggering 49 better than the fourth-place Dodgers. They've outscored NL teams by 458 runs since interleague play began in 1997, nearly 100 more than the Yankees and 300 more than anyone else. That's a massive advantage.
Had the Red Sox maintained their averages and replaced 24 divisional games with 24 NL games last year, they would've finished 84-78 instead of 78-84. That may not sound like much, and it would've still missed the playoffs by two games, but marginal victories are hard to come by over the course of a full season, let alone six of them in the equivalent of a month.
If those wins came early enough, maybe Chaim Bloom and the front office would've been more aggressive at the trade deadline. Maybe they would've avoided a Blue Jays-instigated losing streak that sent them into a tailspin. Maybe they would've had more to play for in September.
There are so many ways the season could've unfolded that we'll never know, but if the Red Sox find a way to contend in 2023, don't be surprised if the new schedule plays a role in their resurgence.