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June 16, 2008

Prospectus Today

Interleague Insanity

by Joe Sheehan

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Through two series of interleague play, the Red Sox are 5-1 while the Rays are 3-3. The White Sox are 4-2 while the Indians are 2-4. The Braves are 4-2, the Phillies, 1-2. The Diamondbacks are 3-3, and the Dodgers are 1-5. Interleague play has the potential to create situations in which a division winner or wild-card entrant into the postseason is actually the team with the second-best mark among its competition in its own league. Interleague play has changed the outcomes of playoff races, and has the potential to do so in every season.

Had only National League games gone towards NL playoff position last season, things would have been even more muddled than they actually were. The Cubs had one fewer interleague series than the Brewers did, and the two were separated by just a half-game in NL contests. The NL West was even more convoluted, because through 162 games, the Padres had the best record of the three contenders in NL games, 83-64, as compared to 79-65 for the Rockies and 82-65 for the Diamondbacks. Interleague play is what put the Padres into the one-game playoff, and subsequently out of the postseason.

Looking back, you can see just how unfair this arrangement was to the Padres. Each of the three teams played the Orioles, Red Sox, and Rays three games each. Here are the "not in common" interleague series (all three games) for the three teams:

Diamondbacks: Orioles (.426), Yankees (.580)
Rockies: Royals (.426), Yankees (.580), Blue Jays (.512)
Padres: Mariners (.543), Mariners (.543)

The Padres drew the short straw, even conceding that they didn't have to play the Yankees. They had the toughest interleague schedule of the group, the worst interleague record, and they missed the postseason because of that gap. Now, no Padre will blame the scheduling for their falling short, because of the well-established credo that you take responsibility for your performance, play the schedule you're dealt, etc. But there's no way you can look at the schedules these three teams played and believe that it's "fair" when all three are fighting for the same two playoff spots.

I've written at length in the past about the deleterious effect effect interleague play has on fairness in scheduling. Every year, the Mets play the Yankees six times. Every year, the Marlins play the Rays six times. The current season notwithstanding, that's a substantial edge for the Marlins over time. In individual seasons, the distribution of opponents through interleague play has often led to teams fighting for a division title while playing widely disparate schedules. The best example this year is in the NL Central, where the Cardinals will get six games against the Royals-another longstanding advantage (sorry, Rany)-while the Cubs are tussling with the White Sox.

Go back through the standings, and you find interleague play reversing intraleague play results. In the AL in 2006, the Tigers were 80-64 in AL games, the Angels 82-62; the Tigers won the wild card. In 2002, the Red Sox were 88-56 in AL games, better than the A's at 87-57, and tied with the Angels. The two AL West teams advanced on the strength of 16-2 and 11-7 interleague marks. A year before, interleague was the entirety of the two-game edge the Braves had over the Phillies in the NL East race.

The interleague schedule doesn't even seem to have any kind of logic this year. The Red Sox play the Brewers, Reds, Phillies, Cardinals, Diamondbacks, and Astros. I guess that's "NL Central plus," but it's not immediately clear. The Yankees play the Mets twice, the Astros, Padres, Reds and Pirates, which I guess is also "NL Central plus." Solving for X, the Sox get 12 games against the Brewers, Phillies, Cards, and Diamondbacks, while the Yankees play six against the Mets, the Padres, and Pirates. That's a significant advantage for the Yankees; when they're 2 games out headed into the All-Star break, remember the schedule.

The solution is for all the teams fighting for the same postseason slots to play the same schedule. That ship has sailed, of course, because Bud Selig decided long ago that interleague play was a popular idea, such a good one that all the games had to be played in warm-weather months, and two-thirds of them on weekends within those months. It's an attendance driver, don't you know, and you would never waste those on Tuesdays in April and September.

If interleague play is with us to stay, though, can be do away with the fantasy that it exists for anything other than the handful of matchups it was created for? Interleague play happens so that the Yankees can play the Mets six times, the Cubs and White Sox can get together for two series, the Angels and Dodgers can snarl traffic in the Southland, and the Giants and A's can do similarly up in BARTland. Those are basically it. There are five second-tier geographic matchups that can barely be called rivalries: Orioles/Nationals, Royals/Cardinals, Rays/Marlins, Reds/Indians, Rangers/Astros. Then there are the other 12 teams, who get randomly pitted against each other while those nine series are played out each year.

So keep those nine matchups twice a year. Play them on weeknights in April and September, because of the wild amount of interest in interleague play, as opposed to the lack of appeal that "watching baseball in the weekend spring sunshine" has been shown to have. Array the other 12 teams as you will. (Some of those will play just one interleague series a year. Call Congress.) Take the other six to 12 games and use them to play more intraleague games. Not only will you restore some, although not all, of the integrity to the pennant races, you'll be able to create a schedule that has much more logic than the current version, which is impossible to follow. Having to play up to 20 opponents, some 19 times, some three, is a scheduling nightmare. Lop off four opponents and the process regains some sanity.

Interleague play's affect on the integrity of the game is real, and MLB's refusal to consider it in drawing up the schedule is an embarrassment. It's time to change it in a way that retains its limited strengths while cutting down on how it doles out advantages to teams fighting for postseason berths worth millions of dollars.

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

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