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June 10, 2004

Prospectus Today

Institutional Imbalance

by Joe Sheehan

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It's no secret that I don't like interleague play. It's a gimmick that throws the schedule into chaos for the sake of letting the Yankees play the Mets six times.

If that's an exaggeration, it's only a slight one. The selling point of interleague play is the eight or nine "natural rivalries" that are played out each season, with the rest of the interleague schedule built around them. Whatever nonsense is spread about allowing fans in cities of one league to see the stars of another is just smoke and mirrors, because in some places, it will take 30 years for the entire other league to make a visit.

I wouldn't mind as much if MLB would just admit that interleague play exists for the natural rivalries. Ratchet it down, make interleague just those games each year and force everyone else into two matchups built around those two weekends. MLB would rather sell the idea that interleague is hugely popular, publishing context-free attendance figures--four of six interleague series are on the weekend again, all are in June, and the natural rivalries will drive the attendance gains--as part of the perpetual misinformation campaign.

My bigger problem is with how interleague play screws with the schedule. We already have a problem in that the heavily unbalanced schedule creates different paths to the wild-card slot. Now, interleague play creates the possiblity of a wide gap between the schedules of teams in the same division. Think it doesn't matter? The Mets get six games with the Yankees every year; the Marlins get six with the Devil Rays. If the NL East race stays this close, that could make a huge difference.

Here's a breakdown of what the teams still harboring hopes of being relevant this year will be dealing with over the next three weeks. (Records through Sunday were used. I got caught up in draft stuff and got this out a bit late.)


AL East      Opp. Pct.   Non-Common Series
Yankees       .479       Padres, Diamondbacks, Mets (2)
Red Sox       .506       Padres, Giants, Phillies, Braves
Orioles       .478       Diamondbacks, Giants, Braves, Phillies
Pretty similar schedules, as all three teams get a crack at the Rockies, and there's not a ton of difference between playing the Mets or the Braves and Phillies, at least by record. The Red Sox are slightly disadvantaged by missing the Snakes.

AL Central   Opp. Pct.   Non-Common Series
White Sox     .495       Braves, Marlins, Cubs (2)
Twins         .456       Mets, Diamondbacks, Brewers (2)
Getting the right 1998 expansion team makes most of the difference here. This is certain to be a good race down to the wire, just as it was last year, and just as it is each year, the natural-rivalry rule gives an edge to the Twins. It's a smaller gap than in past years, but I'd still rather play the Brew Crew six times than the Cubs.

AL West      Opp. Pct.   Non-Common Series
A's           .541       Reds, Cardinals, Cubs, Giants (2)
Angels        .537       Brewers, Cubs, Astros, Dodgers (2)
Rangers       .566       Cardinals, Reds, Marlins, Astros (2)
Are you kidding me? Compare the figures for the A's and Angels to those of the Yankees and Red Sox, and then decide if the wild-card race is affected by interleague play. The Rangers' figure is one of the highest I've seen in the three seasons I've looked at this. If they can get through June and still be above .500, I'll be very impressed.

NL East      Opp. Pct.   Non-Common Series
Marlins       .470       Indians, White Sox, Rangers, Devil Rays (2)
Phillies      .507       White Sox, Twins, Royals, Red Sox, Orioles
Braves        .493       White Sox, Royals, Indians, Orioles, Red Sox
Mets          .529       Twins, Royals, Indians, Yankees (2)
The Marlins play the Devil Rays, the Mets play the Yankees, and the Phillies and Braves split up their unnatural rivals of the past few years. When the Mets get good again, they're going to want to rethink the three home dates with the Yankees every year. Playoff dates bring in more money.

I didn't list them above, but I should note that the Expos have an interleague series in Seattle. Was there any doubt? I mean, there's just no way that you could have the Expos get to a million travel miles this year without sending them entirely across the country for one freaking series. Was there no other solution for those games? The Expos couldn't have played, say, the Tigers, with the Marlins getting shipped to the Northwest? No, that might have been fair to the Expos.

I'd say someone at MLB should be ashamed, but that ship has sailed.


NL Central   Opp. Pct.   Non-Common Series
Reds          .512       A's, Rangers, Indians (2)
Cardinals     .468       Rangers, A's, Royals, Mariners
Astros        .521       Mariners, Angels, Rangers (2)
Cubs          .566       Angels, A's, White Sox (2)
Brewers       .511       Angels, Mariners, Twins (2)
Should I have listed the entire division? The Pirates have been pretty bad lately, and every time I watch them, Lloyd McClendon irritates the hell out of me. ("Runner on second, no one out?" "Bunt!" "Runners on first and second, no one out, pitcher can't find the plate?" "Bunt!" "Can't find my car keys?" "Bunt!" "Peace in the Middle East?" "Teach them all to bunt!")

The Cubs match the Rangers for a historically difficult interleague schedule, albeit in 12 games instead of 18. They and the Pirates are the only two teams who play both the Angels and the A's in interleague. The Cardinals get the benefit of one traditional series with the Royals and a chance to rekindle their heated rivalry with the Mariners.

(Aside: the three most random interleague matchups: Mariners/Expos, Mariners/Cardinals, Twins/Diamondbacks.)

In contrast to the Expos' schedule, which on a map would look something like one of those Family Circus comics where Billy runs all over the yard looking for where the dog buried Bil Keane's soul, the Brewers had a fun little weekend. On a day when 18 teams had to travel for their interleague matchups, when 12 of 16 National League teams had to get on a plane (and two more did so on Monday), the Brewers had to get all the way to Anaheim...from San Diego.

The Expos get a road trip to Seattle for no apparent reason in the middle of the worst schedule ever. The Brewers get to traipse about 90 miles on one of the biggest travel days of the season.

I'm just sayin'...


NL West      Opp. Pct.   Non-Common Series
Padres        .434       Yankees, Devil Rays, Mariners, Royals
Dodgers       .554       Orioles, Yankees, Angels (2)
Giants        .505       Devil Rays, Orioles, A's (2)
Everybody plays the Red Sox and Blue Jays, but the Padres catch the Devil Rays and two of the worst teams in the AL while the Dodgers are playing the Orioles and the Angels. That's a staggering difference, and one that could help the Padres take control of the NL West this month.

A vibrant, relevant, challenging regular season is where baseball's greatness lies. With every decision in the past decade, the game's caretakers have moved it further from that, and closer to the "warmup for the playoffs" that defines the other sports' regular seasons. A scheduling gimmick that adds little to the season but detracts a lot from the fairness of it is perhaps the nadir of this thought process.

It's time to dump interleague play, before some team wins a division because of the ridiculous unfairness it creates.

--

Below, I've included everyone's record through Sunday and their interleague schedule.


Yankees 35-20       Col, SD, @Ari, @LA, NYM (6)
Red Sox 33-23       SD, LA, @Col, @SF, Phi, @Atl
Orioles 25-27       Ari, SF, @LA, @Col, Atl, @Phi
Blue Jays 25-32     LA, Ari, @SF, @SD, Mon (6)
Devil Rays 21-33    SF, Col, @SD, @Ari, Fla (6)

White Sox 30-24     Phi, Atl, @Fla, @Mon, Cubs (6)
Twins 30-26         NYM, Phi, @Mon, @Ari, Mil (6)
Indians 25-29       Fla, @NYM, @Atl, Col, Cin (6)
Tigers 25-31        Atl, Fla, @Phi, @NYM, Ari, @Col
Royals 20-34        Mon, NYM, @Atl, @Phi, Stl, @SD

Angels 33-23        Mil, ChC, @Pit, @Hou, LA (6)
A's 31-24           Cin, Pit, @Stl, @ChC, SF (6)
Rangers 30-24       Pit, Stl, @Cin, @Fla, Hou (6)
Mariners 21-34      Hou, Mon, @Mil, @Pit, SD, @Stl

Marlins 32-25       @Cle, @Det, ChW, Tex, TB (6)
Phillies 29-26      @ChW, @Min, Det, KC, @Bos, Bal
Braves 28-28        @Det, @ChW, KC, Cle, @Bal, Bos
Mets 28-28          @Min, @KC, Cle, Det, NYY (6)
Expos 18-37         @KC, @Sea, Min, ChW, Tor (6)

Reds 34-22          @Oak, Tex, Cle (6)
Cardinals 32-24     @Tex, Oak, @KC, Sea
Astros 30-25        @Sea, Ana, Tex (6)
Cubs 29-26          @Ana, Oak, ChW (6)
Brewers 27-27       @Ana, Sea, Min (6)
Pirates 24-29       @Tex, @Oak, Ana, Sea

Padres 31-25        @Bos, @NYY, TB, Tor, @Sea, KC
Dodgers 30-24       @Tor, @Bos, Bal, NYY, Ana (6)
Giants 28-28        @TB, @Bal, Tor, Bos, Oak (6)
Diamondbacks 22-35  @Bal, @Tor, NYY, TB, @Det, Min
Rockies 21-34       @NYY, @TB, Bos, Bal, @Cle, Det

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,  Rivalries

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