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May 16, 2008

Prospectus Today

Interleague Advantages?

by Joe Sheehan

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With just four night games on the docket, I took a rare evening away from Extra Innings to attend a USC alumni wine-tasting event last night, not expecting to write for today. When I got home, intending to catch up on Lost, I caught a small part of an exchange between Mark Grace and, I believe, Thom Brennaman, on the Diamondbacks broadcast. The topic was interleague play, with Grace talking about how NL teams don't have a bat available to DH in AL parks, and while I didn't hear this part, I assume he was concluding that this puts NL teams at a disadvantage in interleague play.

The thought marinated overnight in a pool of the Finger Lakes' finest vintages. It's not a new one, but for some reason, the argument stuck in my head. I don't want to single out Grace-this is more a case of me hearing an idea and wanting to check it out than criticism of his take on the situation. I am curious, though; how does this play out in real life, or more accurately, how does it play out in 2008?

See, tied into the whole "offense is down in the AL" thing is that the league has put forth a weak crop of designated hitters. Some teams haven't identified one, some are rotating four outfielders through the slot, and a number or teams have gone through two specific DHs so far this year. Here are the EqAs for the AL DHs, where "DH" is definedů well, as best as possible, based on who's started there and what moves the teams have made lately.

Orioles: Aubrey Huff, .270
Red Sox: David Ortiz, .263
White Sox: Jim Thome, .266
Indians: Travis Hafner, .237
Tigers: Gary Sheffield, .265
Royals: Billy Butler, .255; Jose Guillen, .211
Angels: Garret Anderson, sort of, .257
Twins: Jason Kubel, .231; Craig Monroe, .290
Yankees: Hideki Matsui, .307
A's: Frank Thomas, .254
Mariners: Jose Vidro, .188; Jeff Clement, .218
Rays: Jonny Gomes, .276; Cliff Floyd, .387 (30 PA)
Rangers: Milton Bradley, .335
Blue Jays: Matt Stairs, .291

This is the AL's competitive advantage in interleague play? Conceding that some of these EqAs don't quite reflect the true talent level of the players involved, it's fairly easy to see that very few AL teams are getting good production from the DH slot, or even expect to. Jose Vidro? Aubrey Huff? Garret Anderson? There's no chance that players of that ilk are going to be positive contributors in a role where you need a .300 EqA to be an asset.

This isn't that large an aberration. One of the AL's most frustrating trends is the inability of its teams to properly utilize the DH slot. This is a side effect of the shortening of benches and lengthening of bullpens. Teams can't put creative, high-offense platoons together because there's no room to carry two guys who can hit. Often, the DH slot ends up the home for a contract that has been forced off of the field because it couldn't beat out better players. Of the 14 AL teams just five could be said to have good DHs coming into the year-the Red Sox, Indians, White Sox, Yankees (crediting them for Matsui), and Rangers (crediting them for Bradley). The Tigers, Royals, and Blue Jays had reasonable hopes for average DH production from one player. The Angels were going to be rotating outfielders through. The Twins and Rays had reasonable platoons. The Orioles and Mariners had little hope of getting good production. The A's ran Mike Sweeney out there for two weeks, then picked up Frank Thomas; I have no idea how to categorize that.

Grace is not alone in his perception of the AL DH slot, but the fact is that the position isn't wildly productive, and it's certainly not a considerable advantage for the teams involved. The flip side of the argument, that NL teams don't have a viable hitter able worthy of the "designated" title lying around, is also generally wrong. Most teams have at least one bench bat comparable to the middle ground of AL DHs. The Diamondbacks themselves have Jeff Salazar, or perhaps Micah Owings if they wanted to be really creative. The D'backs' opponents last night, the Rockies, can put Ryan Spilborghs in the lineup. More commonly, NL teams use the DH as an opportunity to improve their defense without sacrificing offense. We'll see Endy Chavez in left field, and Moises Alou only appearing with a bat, or Chris Duncan DHing with Skip Schumaker in left field. Being able to hide a poor glove at DH and improve the defense is, loosely, what having the DH does, and that advantage is available to NL teams six to nine games a year.

The DH slot simply isn't all it's cracked up to be. Not every team has a David Ortiz or an Edgar Martinez, and in fact, it is those teams, and only those teams, who are disadvantaged by interleague play. The teams that have a full-time DH and good players at the other position the DH might play are the ones who are missing a player this time of year. There aren't many of them; the Red Sox with Ortiz, the Indians with Hafner, the White Sox with Thome are the only three of note. Every other AL team can put their DH in the field-or already does with some regularity-or isn't losing a hitter with enough ability to make a stink about.

There are a million reasons to dislike interleague play, and for that matter, a number of reasons to dislike the designated hitter rule. When you add them together, though, 2+2 adds up to about 4.001. It's just not that big a deal.

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

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