Monday May 23rd, 2011

Five Cuts from the first weekend of interleague play ...

1. The interleague gap narrows. For nearly a decade, interleague play has been a golden opportunity for American League teams to pad their records, as the National League hasn't won the season series since 2003, and most years it really hasn't been all that close, except for 2004 when it was 126-125. Since 2005 the AL has a .561 winning percentage; for perspective, such a success rate computes to a 91-71 record if playing a 162-game season. In other words, the average AL team becomes playoff-caliber when playing the average NL team.

But in the first interleague weekend of 2011, the NL got off to a comparatively strong start, tying the AL at 21 wins apiece, especially since eight of the 14 series were played in AL parks.

2. Hope you enjoyed interleague's showcase weekend. With only a few exceptions, the matchups this weekend were interleague at its best. Three of the five two-team markets were competing, in addition to in-state battles for Florida, Ohio and Missouri, the renewal of the ancient rivalry with the Cubs and Red Sox. There were even personal storylines in the Rangers-Phillies series (Philadelphia's Cliff Lee facing his former club) and Tigers-Pirates (Detroit manager Jim Leyland going against the team he led to its most recent winning seeason, back in 1992). It's a small stretch, but even the White Sox-Dodgers series had some familiarity, as the two clubs share a spring training site.

That covers 10 of the 14 interleague series, though finding a theme for the other four is a bit tenuous. The Astros-Blue Jays series is, the, uh, battle of two teams with retractable roofs? Thankfully, any game Toronto's Jose Bautista plays right now is worth watching, and that is a major draw of interleague: letting fans in a market with a team in one league see the stars of the other.

Such intrigue in the majority of interleague series won't always be the case, however. Check out the schedule on June 17, when interleague resumes, and try to find half as many good storylines. Thankfully, SI's Tom Verducci has a few remedies in mind.

3. The AL's inherent advantage. Last week Leyland criticized interleague play, saying it had "run its course," and he seemed particularly upset that he couldn't use his designated hitter in NL parks. Without a DH, he started Victor Martinez at catcher twice, taking Alex Avila out of his lineup, and used the opposite arrangement in the third game. Martinez and Avila have been his second and third best hitters this year. The Tigers only scored three runs in their first two games before winning on Sunday, so it's understandable that Leyland wants to maximize his lineup -- except that the AL typically has the edge in interleague games (as evidenced by their aforementioned .561 winning percentage the past six seasons).

AL clubs are constructed with a premium placed on having a ninth quality batter, to make sure the DH slot is filled adequately for the 153 games per year AL teams play in AL parks. NL clubs are more likely to distribute its player personnel resources differently, spending money on an extra reliever or maybe several good pinch hitters rather than one stud designated hitter. NL teams need a deeper bench, but that helps less when needing one additional starting bat.

Collectively, the NL DH's over the weekend have a batting line of .194/.255/.337 with a home run every 49 at bats and a .592 OPS. Compare that to the control group of AL DHs, who this season are batting .263/.341/.407 with a home run every 36 at bats and a .748 OPS.

Conversely, AL pitchers this weekend went 4-for-43 for a .093/.093/.116 batting line for a .209 OPS, as opposed to NL pitchers who had a .135/.167/.170 for a .337 OPS. Admittedly, this is a very small sample size, but the gross difference of OPS between the different leagues' DHs is 156 points, which is 28 points greater than the pitchers' difference. Admittedly, NL pitchers are also more proficient with sacrifice bunts, but generally the ability for a pitcher of either league to reach base is so small that having a more productive DH -- especially one who can drive the ball in the middle of the lineup -- is generally more beneficial.

Plus, losing a star DH can be overcome. Take Boston for example. The Red Sox annually lose David Ortiz's bat -- yes, he struggled early the last two seasons but those slumps were over by the bulk of games against the NL -- yet they've been among baseball's best teams in interleague play. Since the start of 2005 the Sox are 34-20 record (.630) in interleague games played in NL parks, a winning percentage that is 73 points better than their success rate (.557) against AL teams during that time period.

4. Unfamiliarity breeds unpredictability. The thinking goes that pitchers have the upper hand over hitters when there's less familiarity, but in the small sample size of the first weekend of interleague anything could and did happen.

There were scoring outbursts: three of the five teams that hadn't scored 10 or more runs in a game yet this year -- the Nationals, Pirates and Red Sox -- all did so on Friday night, in their first interleague game.

And there were virtuoso pitching performances, as the there were seven starts with a game score of at least 80 in the three-day weekend. (Game score is a Bill James-created stat that evaluates a pitcher's start with one number. There have been 56 such games in the 53 days of the season thus far, so seven in three days is twice the average.

The Giants' Tim Lincecum threw a shutout against the A's; the Phillies' Cliff Lee had 10 strikeouts in eight shutout innings against the Rangers; the Mariners' Erik Bedard had nine strikeouts in eight shutout innings against the Padres; the Angels' Ervin Santana threw seven strikeouts in a shutout of the Braves; the Rays James' Shields had 13 strikeouts in a shutout of the Marlins; and the Tigers' Rick Porcello allowed one hit and two walks in eight shutout innings.

5. Injuries marred the weekend. The roster of players set to return from injuries Monday, when teams return to league play, is impressive and headlined by the Phillies' Chase Utley and the Rangers' Josh Hamilton and Nelson Cruz. Over the weekend, however, players were moving in the opposite direction.

Just since Friday these players were placed on the disabled list: Marlins' Josh Johnson, Pirates' Pedro Alvarez, Indians' Travis Hafner and Alex White, Phillies' Shane Victorino, Giants' Mark DeRosa, Dodgers' Juan Uribe and Orioles' Derrek Lee and Brian Roberts. That doesn't include guys already on the DL. The Red Sox, for instance, used Alfredo Aceves and Tim Wakefield in spot starts.

Other notables left games early or were late scratches. The Brewers' Ryan Braun had a sore shoulder; the Rays' B.J. Upton had muscle tightness; the Cubs' Marlon Byrd was hit in the face with a pitch; the White Sox' Carlos Quentin had a sore knee; and the Cubs' Matt Garza fell ill.

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