June 30, 2003
A few weeks back, I took a look at how the varying interleague schedules teams would be playing might impact the divisional races. With interleague play mercifully behind us for another year, how did things shake out?
Much was made of the Red Sox's playing the Pirates and Brewers while the Yankees were tussling with the Reds and Cubs. Sure enough, the Red Sox picked up two games in those contests (4-2 vs. 2-4), adding fuel to the argument that the schedule is unfair. The Yankees went 11-1 in the rest of interleague, however, sweeping all six of their games with the Mets, while the Red Sox were going just 2-3 against the Marlins and Phillies (with a rainout to be made up on September 1). The Blue Jays had the toughest interleague slate of the three and performed the worst, going 9-9.
Despite a wide range of opponents' performance (Twins: .390 through June 2, Royals: .513, White Sox: .482), the three AL Central contenders posted nearly identical interleague records, all losing eight games. The Royals avoided a 10-8 mark only by having one game with the Diamondbacks rained out, so it's fair to say that interleague play wasn't a big factor in the divisional race.
It will be interesting to see how the D'backs and Royals make up that game. The two share just one off day the rest of the season, September 4, but with both teams in the midst of road trips that day, it seems highly unlikely that they would be forced back to Kansas City to play one game. That leaves the day after the season ends, September 29, as the likely day for any makeup, and puts a premium on both teams getting all their games in for the rest of the year, lest more than one game have to be made up. I predict that, with this in mind, one of the two teams will end up sitting out a three-hour rain delay at some point.
MLB has been lucky so far in that they haven't had the bloated playoff format complicated by makeup games and one-game playoffs piling up after the end of the season. One of these years, their luck is going to run out.
The A's had a significantly tougher schedule than the Mariners did (.588 vs. 466), but covered it just one length behind the M's (9-9 vs. 10-8), thanks in no small part to Rondell White's Amazing Bat O' Grand Slams. The Angels gained a little ground on both teams with an 11-7 run against essentially an average schedule.
The Braves were delivered a tasty interleague slate, with 60% of their games against some of the worst teams the AL had to offer: the Rangers, Orioles and Devil Rays. They pounded it to the tune of 10-5, making up ground on both the Expos (9-9) and the Phillies (8-6), who each had games against the Angels and a good AL East team (the Blue Jays and Red Sox, respectively).
No NL Central team had a big advantage in interleague play, and any edge the Cubs might have had (a .468 opponents' mark, third-worst of the four contenders) was in part washed out by losing Sammy Sosa for five of their 18 contests (2-3; 7-6 rest of games). It will be fun if four teams that have been separated by four or fewer games most of the season have their fate determined by how well they played the Yankees (Reds and Cubs, 2-1; Astros, 1-2; Cardinals, 0-3).
As expected, everyone made up ground on the Giants, who deserve credit for going 10-8 against one of the tougher interleague cards. The Rockies and Diamondbacks, however, were the big winners this year, going 9-6 against a .415 schedule and 10-4 against a .476 one, respectively, and turning the NL West into a four-team race. The Diamondbacks doing a tour of the game's worst division while they were fighting a terrible injury bug is just the kind of lucky break that makes you wonder if Bob Brenly really is baseball's Forrest Gump.
I haven't known exactly where to wedge this in, but I wanted to at least mention it at some point. For all the talk about competitive balance in baseball--talk that has largely died down since Bud Selig stopped beating the drums on the Issue That Never Existed--18 of the game's 30 teams are above .500. Of the ones that aren't, three (the White Sox, Marlins and Reds) are within 5 1/2 games of a playoff spot. That leaves just nine teams who should nominally have no "hope and faith" halfway through the season, and that list includes teams with new (or newish) ballparks in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Texas, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee.
The lesson is that baseball has the best competitive balance in real sports, and that balance exists without a series of rules that drag successful teams back to the pack in a short period of time. Winning seasons, playoff appearances and championships shouldn't be distributed like trophies at a youth soccer tournament, where everyone who shows up eventually gets their moment in the sun. Success should be meaningful, and in baseball, it is.
This year's standings have absolutely nothing to do with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement; the situation we see this year is more or less the same one that you could have found in 2001 or 2002. Competitive balance in baseball is good, has been good, and will continue to be good, and it's a shame that the powers that be can't sell that the way they want to sell goofy All-Star gimmicks.