This weekend brings the start of interleague play, marking the 16th season of commissioner Bud Selig's experiment with having teams from the two leagues play each other during the regular season, something which had never happened prior to 1997. This season will also be the final one in which interleague play will follow its long-established format with most teams playing one interleague series in May, followed by five more in mid June. Next season, the Astros will move to the American League West, leaving both leagues with 15 teams, an odd number that will necessitate interleague play throughout the season. With that in mind, here are five thoughts on the past and future of interleague play.
When interleague play began in 1997, the only interaction between the two leagues since the creation of the American League in 1901 had been the World Series (created in 1903), the All-Star Game (1933) and player transactions. Then, in 1998, Selig's Brewers moved from the American League to the National League in conjunction with that year's expansion. Two years later, Major League Baseball dissolved the leagues as independent legal entities, eliminating the individual league offices and presidencies. That same year, the umpires' disastrous labor negotiations resulted in MLB taking over the umpires, who had formerly been divided by league, and setting up a new system in which umpiring crews would work not for one league or the other but by geographic region across both leagues.
With the Astros becoming the second team in a 15-year span to switch leagues next year, necessitating season-long interleague play, the leagues seem more and more like vestigial constructs from a bygone era than meaningful entities in their own right. As a result, interleague play, which seemed so radical 16 years ago, now feels about as cutting edge as a dialup internet connection. Of course, cutting-edge was never really baseball's thing, but the glacial pace of change in the game isn't the only reason that MLB passed on yet another opportunity for radical realignment.
In reality, there's no good way to do it. The most fair arrangement would be to eliminate all leagues and divisions, have every team play every other for three games at home and three more on the road, then take the top however many finishers, seed them, and hold a playoff tournament with the top seed facing the lowest (etc. etc.) in the first round. However, that would necessitate a 174-game season, league-wide agreement on adopting or eliminating the designated hitter and would largely eliminate the pennant races. Any other solution would involve unbalanced schedules and either unbalanced leagues or leagues with odd numbers of teams necessitating interleague play.
The biggest and most legitimate criticism of interleague play as it is currently structured is the fact that it creates inequalities in the strength of schedule between division rivals. That's partially a result of the "natural rivals" concept which has teams play six interleague games (three home, three road) against geographic rivals (such as the Yankees and Mets, White Sox and Cubs, Dodgers and Angels, etc.), but also partially a result of the uneven leagues. Under the current system, which finds all of the league's interleague action occurring simultaneously, there is always one intraleague NL game being played during interleague play because there are two more teams in the NL than in the AL. The result is that over the last 15 seasons most American League teams have played 265 interleague games (plus or minus one), but only one NL team, the Expos/Nationals, has played as many as 262 and others have played as few as 211 (the Pirates), 219 (the Cubs) or 220 (the Cardinals and Reds).
Next year's realignment is expected to address this issue to some degree, with all teams playing the same number of interleague games thanks in part to the leagues and divisions all being of equal size. There has also been some talk of reducing the natural rivals series to three games or perhaps two home and two road. Maintaining the natural rivals concept at all will guarantee that things remain unequal, but certainly these are steps in the right direction.
Given that inequality, I was curious as to what teams have benefitted most and least from interleague play over the last 15 years. The Yankees have the best interleague winning percentage (.595) and the Pirates the worst (.384), but that's a reflection of the quality of those teams over the last decade and a half, not of their relative fortunes in interleague play.
To find out which teams were helped and hurt most by interleague, I took every team's interleague record from 1997 to 2011 (1998 for the expansion Rays and Diamondbacks) and subtracted it from their overall record to get their intraleague record. I then subtracted their intraleague winning percentages from their interleague winning percentages. Here are the top and bottom five:
That the top five is mostly AL teams and the bottom five is all NL teams reflects the relative strength and weakness of the two leagues over the last 15 years. The outlier is the Marlins, who have gone 35-10 (.778) against the Orioles and Blue Jays and went 34-21 (.618) against the Devil Rays from 1998 to 2007. In 1997, the Marlins beat the Mets for the Wild Card by four games and were five games better than New York in interleague play. That wasn't the result of unbalanced scheduling, however. The Mets went 2-7 against the Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers that year, while the Marlins went 6-3 against the same three teams and swept the Orioles while the Mets took just two of three from Baltimore.
It's worth noting that the Marlins and Mets played equal interleague schedules in 1997 because there was no emphasis on natural rival games that year. The Yankees and Mets played just three games, all at Yankee Stadium, and both teams played just 15 interleague games. Though MLB has yet to make any final decisions about how next year's interleague play will work, the latest rumors suggest that baseball is hoping to return to that type of scheduling next year. That means that, despite the fact that interleague will be played all season long, there will actually be fewer interleague games. This year, most teams will play 18 interleague games. Next year, they may only play 15, and there will likely not be more than two interleague series happening at any one time.
However, while MLB might do away with the expanded natural rivals schedule, they're not expected to scrap the concept entirely. That would mean the Yankees will always play the Mets, even if the AL East is matching up against the NL Central that year, the Cubs will always play the White Sox, etc., ensuring some degree of imbalance in the schedule.
It would be good to see some balance in the schedule after 16 seasons, and adding some novelty to the natural rivals series by having them only occur every three years would be welcome. Unfortunately, it's likely MLB and the teams involved (which means the men who count the money, not the ones who play the game) don't agree.
As for the interleague games taking place this weekend, there are four natural rival series being played (Cubs-White Sox, Rangers-Astros, A's-Giants, Orioles-Nationals), but the most interesting series is the lone NL-only matchup, between the first place Cardinals and Dodgers, particularly Friday night's matchup of Lance Lynn (6-1, 1.81 ERA) and Ted Lilly (5-0, 2.11). Still, there are some interleague matchups that are compelling because of where the opposing teams are in the standings rather than on the map.
One of those is the Braves and Rays, two teams who are effectively tied for first place in their division. They'll meet up in pitching-friendly Tropicana Field with Tommy Hanson and James Shields facing off in Friday's opener and Tim Hudson and David Price matching up on Sunday. Another is the Yankees and Reds, who enter the weekend series in the Bronx with nearly identical records and will have aces Johnny Cueto and CC Sabathia going on Sunday afternoon.
Mets vs. Blue Jays and Marlins vs. Indians also involve teams that have records right around those of the Yankees and Reds, though ones that seem less sustainable. The key pitching matchups in those series are young lefties Jonathon Niese of the Mets and Ricky Romero of the Blue Jays in Toronto on Friday night and the Marlins' Josh Johnson and the Indians' Derek Lowe in Cleveland on Sunday.
Then there's the Phillies and Red Sox, two perennial contenders currently licking their wounds in last place. Those interested in rubbernecking will want to wait until Sunday's matchup of Josh Beckett and Cliff Lee, which will find Lee looking for his first win of the season despite a 1.95 ERA in five starts.