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May 22, 2006

Prospectus Today

Interleague Rain

by Joe Sheehan

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I've got to say a big hello to everyone who came out to Jacobs Field last Friday for the Cleveland Ballpark Feed. I was, unfortunately, unable to make the pregame festivities, which featured Chris Antonetti and Neil Huntington among others, but I really enjoyed the game itself, a snappy 4-1 affair that featured a completely unrecognizable version of C.C. Sabathia. It was great to meet and talk to the BP readers who made it out, and I wish we'd had more time to talk baseball. I look forward to the game in San Diego next month for more of the same.

A special thanks to Matt Tagliaferri, the genius behind the Tribe's innovative DiamondView system and our coordinator for the event. On Saturday, Matt was kind enough to give me and Will Carroll a tour of DiamondView, which couldn't have been more impressive if it had asked me if I wanted to play a nice game of chess. The sheer quantity of information held by DiamondView, along with an interface that makes using it comfortable, rather than intimidating, make it a powerful tool for player evaluation. The computer doesn't make the decisions; it makes it easier for the people who do so to make the right ones. That's how you integrate technology into the front office.

Flying into Cleveland Friday, I wasn't sure how many games I'd get to see. Rain was in the forecast for both nights, and Cleveland had been getting a lot of rain all month, according to the people I spoke to. Of course, I also knew that there was considerable precedent for playing the game. The Tribe has a penchant for playing in poor weather, even if it means waiting out long rain delays to do so.

This trend has been on my mind a lot lately. Cardinals' fans are only now recovering from watching Albert Pujols take a nasty spill on the on-deck circle in last Tuesday's game against the Mets, one completed after a long rain delay and on a wet field. While Pujols is fine, it was a scary moment. The game's greatest player could have had a historic season curtailed by a freak injury in a game that, as recently as a decade ago, would have been called. As mentioned, the Indians sit through long rain delays to get games in, and the Rangers and Red Sox recently slogged their way through six innings on a night that was arguably not fit for six outs.

The movement towards avoiding rainouts at all costs seems to be driven by three factors, two of which are clearly good for the game, the third perhaps not as much:

  • New ballparks, and even some old ones, have better drainage than they used to. This is probably the most important of the three trends. Fields are rarely unplayable now, because they can take a lot more water than they used to. This is subjective, but it's my opinion that you don't see standing water in the outfield nearly as often as you used to. That's the effect of the high-quality drainage systems in place.

    Even with better drainage, though, conditions can be become dangerous, particularly in off-areas of the ballpark. Pujols' fall came on the slick covering of the on-deck circle, and plays on the warning track or along the stands are usually wet ones in these situations. The mound can be treacherous; a number of Sox pitchers struggled with their footing in that May 12 game. Even a field that has been drained fairly well can be slick in spots, and players have to make plays and run the bases timidly in such conditions. It makes for bad baseball.

    The improved field conditions created by good drainage systems make it possible to play games that couldn't have been played a few years ago. Certainly, the investment made in such a system by the home team has been done with an eye towards having as few money-losing rainouts as possible. It may be time to recalibrate what constitutes "playable," taking into account not only the condition of the outfield but the entire field as well as the weather at the moment.

    I am absolutely certain that more games are played in rain--not mist, not drizzle, but rain--than ever before. In my mind, the combination of long delays and playing in the rain is aggressively anti-fan. No one buys a ticket to a ballgame so they can sit at the park for five hours, watch baseball for half that time, and be wet for all of it. Teams' unwillingness to employ more conservative rainout policies forces fans to choose between a lousy night and perhaps losing their investment in a ticket. Teams, however, have moved in this direction because…

  • More teams playing to capacity than ever before. It's hard to give out rain checks when there's no place to seat the recipients at future games. The Indians in the 1990s were the first team to completely sell out its ticket inventory early in the year, but teams such as the Red Sox, Yankees and Cardinals of recent vintage face similar problems. They just don't have the seats available to provide make-goods to ticketholders. Regular doubleheaders don't solve the problem, and day-night doubleheaders are about as popular among players, umpires and staff as nuanced positions are on talk radio.

    That baseball is more popular than ever before is an absolute good, but it does create practical concerns. One way in which teams have addressed the lack of inventory is by waiting out long rain delays (pregame; once the game starts, it's the umpires' call as to whether it continues) and playing in suboptimal conditions. These are considered better options than issuing refunds, even though ticket refunds are only applicable to the tickets. If you consider that teams have already gotten parking and concession money from people in the park, then they have gotten a decent bonus just for opening the doors that night, and ticket refunds won't hurt very much. Any revenue loss due to rain checks pales in comparison to what would be lost if, say, an Albert Pujols was forced to miss significant playing time to an injury suffered while playing in poor conditions.

    It's not just squeezing in the fans again that's a problem, though. It's squeezing in the games.

  • Teams make fewer trips to cities than they used to. This may be the biggest reason why last week's Mets/Cardinals game was completed. Up until 1996, you always made at least two trips to every city you visited, providing opportunities for early-season rainouts to be made up later in the year. Combined with the greater willingness to play make-up doubleheaders, the two factors made rainouts a reasonable option with obvious solutions.

    The twin expansions of 1993 and 1998, the introduction of interleague play and the return of the unbalanced schedule have changed things dramatically. Teams now play as many as 20 opponents in a season, and often visit a city, even within their league, just once a season. (You might recall that the early seasons of interleague play featured a complete off-day at the end of each IL cycle; this was an explicit concession to the difficulty of rescheduling a rainout across leagues.) A rainout for a team that makes just one visit to a city necessitates either a doubleheader--in a situation where a day-night doubleheader is impossible due to travel requirements--or a trip to the city to play one game.

    We've already seen the kind of travel havoc this can cause. The Astros played 20 consecutive games earlier this year when they were forced back to San Francisco to play one game between trips to Colorado and Los Angeles. The Diamondbacks have it a bit worse, going from Texas to Pittsburgh to play one game on June 19 before immediately flying to Tampa Bay. Go back to the last couple of seasons, and you'll see comparable silliness.

    The solution here is relatively simple: dump interleague play. It's the addition of four to six opponents, and two or three additional road trips, that creates this problem. For all the insistence of MLB that interleague play is wildly popular, it's not. There are the rivalries for which the entire concept exists (whatever Fox or ESPN showed last weekend), some second-tier matchups in that vein, and 60 series that are no different than intraleague matchups in terms of storyline and fan interest. The increase in ratings and attendance for interleague games is a function of the marquee series and the generous weekends/spring scheduling. (I have to say it again: if interleague play drove interest all by itself, wouldn't you play all the games on weeknights in April and September?)

    If completely dumping interleague play is a non-starter, then stop pretending the entire concept is interesting and just have the Yankees and Mets, Cubs and White Sox, etc., play a home-and-home each year. The notion of scheduling integrity is long past dead, so why force bad schedules on everyone just so your broadcast partners can have a hook or teams can pad the highest tier on their pricing plans? Concede that interleague play is a gimmick that works for a dozen series a year, series you're not willing to give up, and let everyone else play a baseball schedule that works, one in which you make two trips to each opponent you play each season.

Improved drainage systems have been a boon for the game, but they've made it much easier for teams to justify playing baseball on nights when baseball should not be played. The additional revenue they book by avoiding rainouts is valuable, but so are the health of the players and the experiences of the fans. Teams have to start balancing the latter two factors a bit more heavily in the face of the former.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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