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June 3, 2003

Prospectus Today

Mixing and Matching

by Joe Sheehan

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Interleague play kicks off tonight with 14 mixed matchups. This year, we again have a new set of games, with the AL West taking on the NL East, the AL East playing the NL Central, and the AL Central and NL West hooking up for 18 games.

Mostly, anyway. The odd sizes of the AL West and the NL Central complicate things, for one. Then there's MLB's desperate need to schedule the six or seven series for which the whole concept of interleague play exists, so the Yankees will again play the Mets home-and-home, the Cubs will play the White Sox and so on. Some teams will play as many as 18 interleague contests, while others will play just 12.

All of this schedule-rigging trades fairness for a few extra bucks. Of course, MLB already tossed fairness out the window with regard to the wild-card spot years ago, as interleague play and the unbalanced schedule mean that teams fighting for the league's fourth slot can play wildly differing slates. Most notably, the 2001 Cardinals edged the Giants for the NL's last playoff spot by two games, benefitting not only from a weaker division, but a much weaker set of interleague games.

Now, however, all the gerrymandering means that even divisional rivals can play disparate opponents, or even different numbers of interleague games. How much does that affect schedules? Below, I've calculated the impact of non-common interleague games for teams who sustain playoff hopes. The winning percentage of these teams, and the specific non-common opponents, are also listed.

AL East      Opp. Pct.   Non-Common Series

Red Sox       .472       Pirates, Brewers, Astros, Phillies, Marlins
Yankees       .496       Reds, Cubs, Astros, Mets (2)
Blue Jays     .525       Cubs, Pirates, Reds, Expos (2)
The Red Sox catch two of the worst teams in baseball by playing just two of the four contenders in the AL Central. The Yankees miss both bottom-feeders and instead get the Reds and Cubs. In what is shaping up to be a heck of a race, that's significant. The Jays get the worst of it, mostly due to what is at least a reasonable natural rival designation, the Expos.

AL Central   Opp. Pct.   Non-Common Series

Twins         .390       Padres, Rockies, Brewers (2)
Royals        .513       Dodgers, Rockies, Cardinals (2)
White Sox     .482       Dodgers, Padres, Cubs (2)
The Twins, already stretching their lead in the Central, could put the division away over the next month. They're the only AL Central contender to play the two low teams in the NL West, and they continue to benefit from the odd decision to make the Brewers their designated rival for interleague play. Pete Schoenke couldn't have drawn it up better for the Twins. That's a tough .482 for the White Sox, who will see a bevy of nasty right-handers during interleague play. I'd be shocked if Jerry Manuel made it to the All-Star break.

AL West      Opp. Pct.   Non-Common Series

Mariners      .466       Mets, Braves, Padres (2)
A's           .588       Braves, Marlins, Giants (2)
Angels        .504       Marlins, Mets, Dodgers (2)
Here's another example of the designated rival rule creating a significant fairness issue. There's no real reason for the Mariners to play the Padres six times. The A's get a nice attendance boost when the Giants come to town, but is it worth the ground they could lose to the M's in the West?

NL East      Opp. Pct.   Non-Common Series

Braves        .448       Rangers, Orioles, Devil Rays
Expos         .516       Angels, Rangers, Blue Jays (2)
Phillies      .524       Angels, Red Sox, Orioles
Here's where it starts to get fun, as the Expos play 18 interleague games, the other two teams 15. If the Braves control the East come the All-Star break, don't be surprised to see Bobby Cox french Bud Selig during the Home Run Derby.

NL Central   Opp. Pct.   Non-Common Series

Cubs          .468       Devil Rays, Orioles, Blue Jays, White Sox (2)
Astros        .473       Orioles, Devil Rays, Red Sox, Rangers (2)
Cardinals     .507       Blue Jays, Orioles, Red Sox, Royals (2)
Reds          .452       Blue Jays, Devil Rays, Indians
All these teams play the Yankees, as part of Bud Selig's attempt to level the playing field. Next year, the Bombers will play 121 road games. As the records indicate, it's a fairly even field. The Cubs have to be happy about both missing the Red Sox and catching a White Sox team that they match up against very well. The Cardinals' figure above is inflated by the Royals' hot start. They'll be playing a shadow of that team.

The Reds really do play 12 interleague games.

NL West      Opp. Pct.   Non-Common Series

Giants        .543       Twins, White Sox, A's (2)
Dodgers       .466       White Sox, Indians, Angels (2)
Rockies       .415       Indians, Twins, Tigers
Diamondbacks  .476       White Sox, Indians, Twins
All four teams play the Tigers, but the Rockies play them twice. (Yes, Denver baseball fans, that's double the Brandon Inge!) Just one of the two series is included in the above calculations. The Giants get the worst of it, with six games against the A's and three with the Twins while the Dodgers catch the Tribe and the Halos. The Rockies' schedule gives them a chance to make up ground.

Three more points about interleague play:

  • At some point, we'll see graphics and info boxes and hear commentary about how so-and-so is the all-time leader in something in interleague play. When you come across this, I encourage you to think evil thoughts about the source of the information. If there's a more ridiculous subset of performance records than interleague play--random opponents played in June and July--I'm as yet unaware of it.

  • I've made this point before, but I'll do so in advance this year. Ignore all of the happy talk from MLB about how many more people are going to interleague games than have been attending regular-season ones. Interleague games are played in June, when the weather is warm and school is out of session. The schedule this year is skewed towards weekend games (four of the six IL blocks are on weekends), which always have higher attendance. Even accounting for that, most of the remaining boost to the average is for the handful of high-profile series (Yankees/Mets, et al).

    Interleague play doesn't do nearly as much for ticket sales as MLB would have you believe, and the way in which they whitewash this with press releases about attendance gains shows them to either be deceitful or ignorant.

    Besides, if interleague play is such a boon for attendance, why not move it to weekdays in April? That's when teams need the bump, when the kids are in school and it's 37 degrees and hailing in Detroit.

  • I might be marginally more accepting of interleague play if it didn't force such dry days on the baseball calendar. Because you have to leave time for rained-out interleague games to be replayed (lest a common day have to be found on which teams in different leagues can travel for a makeup game), there are some awfully baseball-free days: two scheduled games yesterday, just one on June 9.

    This is, however, an improvement over recent years, which had multiple completely dark days scattered throughout interleague play.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

Related Content:  Interleague,  Interleague Play

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