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June 27, 2007

Year Ten

Interleague Action

by John Perrotto

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Paul Konerko is very highly regarded inside baseball, so much so that White Sox General Manager Ken Williams believes the Chicago first baseman could wind up taking his job some day. So, Konerko is a good man to talk with when you want to gauge players' views on various issues. Thus, with interleague play having just celebrated its 10th anniversary and having come to an end for this season this past Sunday, it seemed a fitting occasion to ask Konerko about his thoughts on American League and National League teams playing each other.

"I think the novelty has worn off," Konerko states, pointing out that a rematch of the White Sox visiting the Pirates for a second straight year this season probably didn't stir fans' imaginations in either Chicago or Pittsburgh. "For the most part, they are just other games to play and they can be a bother at times because interleague play can play havoc with the schedule. The natural rivalry games, like White Sox-Cubs or Yankees-Mets, are still exciting. I know the people in Chicago gets excited when we play the Cubs. The other games, though? I just don't see the excitement anymore."

However, dollar signs always excite Major League Baseball, so it comes as no surprise when Commissioner Bud Selig says interleague play will continue at least until his term expires after the 2009 season. MLB set an interleague attendance record this season as 8,795,929 bought tickets for the AL-NL matchups. The average attendance of 34,905 was also a record.

On the field, interleague play further strengthened the argument that the AL is the superior league, as it had a solid 137-115 record against the NL. AL teams averaged 5.4 runs a game and had a 4.37 ERA, while NL teams scored 4.7 runs a game and posted a 5.01 ERA. Not surprisingly, three of the AL's top teams feasted on the weaker NL. The Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels were both 14-4, while the Boston Red Sox went 12-6.

Here is a division-by-division look at interleague play in 2007, including some interesting notes and tidbits along with how it could impact the pennant races:

AL EAST: Boston continued its strong recent trend of interleague play as it also went 12-6 in 2005 and 16-2 in 2006. The Red Sox have won 13 of their last 14 interleague series and are 17-5 in NL parks since June 12, 2005. The Red Sox averaged 4.72 run a game this season but hit 23 home runs, had a 3.88 ERA and converted all five save opportunities. � The New York Yankees weren't able to use interleague play to bite into the Red Sox' big lead, as they went 10-8. The Yankees won nine of their first 12, but finished with a thud by dropping five of six, including a three-game sweep at Colorado. Third baseman Alex Rodriguez tried to do his part, hitting .406/.512/.859 in 82 plate appearances with eight home runs and 23 RBI. � Toronto also went 10-8, and the memorable moments were staff ace Roy Halladay having a two-hit game against the Dodgers in Los Angeles, and Dustin McGowan taking a no-hitter into the ninth inning before settling for a one-hitter last Sunday against Colorado. � Baltimore went 6-12 in a stretch that caused Sam Perlozzo to be the first manager fired this season. The Orioles pulled the plug on him after being swept at home in consecutive three-game series by Washington and Arizona. � Tampa Bay wasn't much better at 7-11, and the Devil Rays had the distinction of having the worst ERA of any AL team with a 6.37 mark.

AL CENTRAL: As mentioned earlier, Detroit blitzed through interleague play and took control of the division race. The Tigers finished with a flourish, going 8-1 on a road trip to Philadelphia, Washington, and Atlanta that was capped by three-game series sweeps of the Nationals and Braves. Justin Verlander provided the individual highlight by throwing a no-hitter against Milwaukee on June 12, one of his four wins against NL clubs as he won all four starts and had a 1.80 ERA in 30 innings. � Cleveland couldn't keep pace with the Tigers, going 9-9 despite a soft schedule that included six games against Cincinnati and three each versus Washington and Florida. � After a 16-2 interleague run helped push it toward the division title last season, Minnesota went 11-7 this year. Left-hander Johan Santana enjoyed interleague play, though, as he shut out the New York Mets and had his first career extra-base hit with a double against Florida that raised his career batting average to a fine .258. � The Chicago White Sox's disappointing season took a turn for the worse in the interleague phase, as they went 4-14. That came after the White Sox had gone a combined 26-10 the previous two seasons. � Kansas City was 10-8 for second straight year. If nothing else, facing NL pitching got highly touted rookie third baseman Alex Gordon's season on track, as he went .361/.410./528 in 78 plate appearances.

AL WEST: The Angels widened their division lead with their franchise-best 14-4 romp through NL opponents that included three-game sweeps of the crosstown Dodgers on the road and Pittsburgh. Third baseman Chone Figgins broke out in a big way against NL pitching in with a .397/.447/.487 line in 85 plate appearances. Right fielder Vladimir Guerrero had 20 RBI. � Oakland went a respectable 10-8, but lost ground to the Angels. The Athletics also had their streak of 45 consecutive three-game series without being swept ended by the Mets last weekend in New York. Dan Haren won all four starts against NL clubs, posting a 2.25 ERA in 28 innings. � Seattle also fell further behind the Angels with a 9-9 mark after going 14-4 last season. While Ken Griffey Jr.'s first visit to Seattle since the Mariners traded him to Cincinnati in 2000 provided the highlight, center fielder Ichiro Suzuki had the top batting average in interleague play, as he hit .486/.538/.542 in 82 plate appearances. Ichiro also provided the most memorable quote of interleague play this season when he said the Mariners' first-ever trip to Wrigley Field to meet the Chicago Cubs reminded him of a stadium he played in while growing up in Japan. "It had a similar smell of fresh garbage," he said. Mariners closer J.J. Putz' performance certainly wasn't trashy, as he saved seven of the nine wins and pitched 8 1/3 scoreless innings. � Texas had something to celebrate in a difficult season, as the Rangers went 11-7 in interleague play, albeit all the games were against teams from the weak NL Central. Shortstop Michael Young hit .346/.400/.397 in 85 plate appearances and is the all-time interleague batting leader with a .347 average, one point higher than Larry Walker.

NL EAST: The Mets weren't world-beaters, but an 8-7 record enabled them to maintain their divisional lead. The Mets won the first game in all six interleague series and are 18-8 overall in series openers this season, tops in the major leagues. � Philadelphia stayed on the Mets' heels by also going 8-7, a vast improvement over their 5-13 mark of a year ago. First baseman Ryan Howard heated up by hitting six home runs against AL pitching, second-most among NL players to Griffey's eight to go with his .275/.315/.706 line in 54 plate appearances; Howard homered eight times in interleague play in 2006. Right-hander Adam Eaton had a surprisingly easy time with the deeper AL lineups, as he posted a 1.40 ERA in 19 1/3 innings, compared to a 6.85 ERA in 67 innings against NL foes. � If Atlanta winds up missing the playoffs for a second straight year after their record run of division titles, interleague play might be the difference, as the Braves were 4-11. In fairness, the Braves had a difficult schedule with six games against Boston and three each against Cleveland, Minnesota and Detroit. They finished the interleague stretch by scoring a grand total of one run in the last five games against the Red Sox and Tigers. The Braves are 24-39 against the AL in the last four seasons. � Florida went 9-9, a respectable figure in a season in which the AL dominated, but subpar by the Marlins' standards-their 105-81 all-time interleague record is the best in the NL. � Sparked by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman's five homers and 14 RBI to go with a .250/.278/.513 line in 79 plate appearances, Washington went 9-9. Chad Cordero added seven saves and a 3.38 ERA in 10 1/3 innings.

NL CENTRAL: Milwaukee suffered the greatest indignity of interleague play when the Brewers were no-hit by Verlander. However, that proved to be a catalyst for them to strengthen their divisional lead, as Bill Hall hit a two-run home run in the eighth inning the next night to give them a 3-2 win over the Tigers that began streak of nine wins in 10 games, all against AL clubs. The only Brewer who didn't enjoy interleague play was closer Francisco Cordero-he suffered both of his blown saves this year in a series at Texas against the same Rangers who traded him to the Brewers last July. Cordero had a 9.45 ERA in 6 2/3 innings against AL clubs, while his ERA is a microscopic 0.35 in 25 1/3 innings within the NL. � The Cubs stayed within hailing distance of the Brewers by going 8-4. Left fielder Alfonso Soriano, the $136-million man, led the way by hitting .327/.386/.673 in 57 plate appearances, and homering in all three games of a sweep of the hated White Sox last week at U.S. Cellular Field. He has a .308/.354/.496 line in 268 plate appearances against the NL. � St. Louis was only 6-9 as the Cardinals' World Series title defense continued to sputter. Perhaps, the Cardinals can take solace in the fact they went 5-10 in interleague play during the championship season of '06. � Houston went 9-9 for its first non-losing interleague record since 2003; third baseman Mike Lamb led the NL in batting average as he hit .421/.493/.719 in 74 interleague plate appearances. � Pittsburgh showed it can just as easily lose to AL clubs as NL teams, going 5-10 in the interleague phase that was highlighted -lowlighted?-by three-game road sweeps at the hands of the Yankees and Angels. Of course, the biggest indignity was being shut out on four hits by Seattle's Jeff Weaver, who entered the game with a season record of 0-6 and a 10.97 ERA. The Pirates are a pathetic 57-94 all-time in interleague play, including 20-54 on the road. Griffey's eight homers were Cincinnati's highlight, as the Reds went 7-11 for their fifth straight losing year in interleague play.

NL WEST: Arizona picked up ground in its three-way battle with the Dodgers and San Diego for first place in the division by going 8-7. That came after the Diamondbacks combined for an 18-33 mark in interleague play over the previous three seasons. The Diamondbacks had a couple of uplifting victories against AL teams, including coming from 8-1 down to beat Tampa Bay on June 19, and rallying from a 4-0 deficit to defeat Baltimore four days later. Second baseman Orlando Hudson hit .333/.435/.490 in 63 plate appearances, highlighted by a pinch three-run homer to help beat the Orioles. � The Dodgers were just 5-10, though there was a bright spot. They split the last six road games after losing 20 of their previous 21 games in AL parks. � The Padres went 6-9 for their eighth straight losing season against AL clubs. However, their 3.53 ERA was the best in the major leagues, and a visit from the Red Sox helped the bottom line as a Petco Park-record 133,311 attended the three-game series last weekend. � Colorado used interleague play to stay within sight of the leader, going 10-8 behind an NL-best 17 RBI by third baseman Garrett Atkins, who hit .262/.312/.507 in 77 plate appearances, while also getting six homers from right fielder Brad Hawpe (.279/.343/.639 line in 67 PA). The Rockies are a robust 21-12 against the AL in the last two seasons. � San Francisco went 5-10, including nine straight losses at one point. The Giants' .230 batting average was last in the major leagues.

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
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