We are in the midst of interleague play in baseball. For the next couple of weeks all but one game will involve a National League team playing one from the American League, with the rules of the home team being enforced. I absolutely hate interleague play. Baseball is a game of beautiful traditions, and one that should be completely and absolutely above shameful gimmicks like interleague plays. Seeing things like the two Chicago teams or the two New York squads play is mildly amusing, but it isn’t worth all of the disruption and meaningless matchups that the rest of interleague play creates for us. Those classic matchups become less and less compelling each time they are played as well – a subway series World Series wouldn’t be the novelty it was last time we saw it now that the teams play every year. If I had my way I would not only end interleague play immediately, but also purge the records of every one of the stupid games that has ever been played.
Besides the general ugliness, interleague play creates issues for handicappers as well. Teams play other teams that they may not have seen for years, and they have to play in unfamiliar buildings with rules that they aren’t used to. So much of what goes into handicapping depends on what has happened in the past, so when there is no history to draw from the complexity increases. People spend a lot of time and effort trying to determine the impact of interleague play, and how to handle it in their picks. They come up with rules to follow – AL dominance, for example. Personally, I think that that’s mostly a waste of time. There are some differences between interleague play and regular games, but the fundamental elements of handicapping are still mostly the same.
The main rule that people look to with interleague play is AL dominance. Much has been made over the fact that the American League has dominated interleague play. Last year they won 138 of 252 interleague games – 54.8 percent – and the AL has come out on top in each of the six seasons, and in eight of ten. While there are a few factors involved, I really don’t think that the AL dominance is that big of a deal. First, the easiest explanation for why the AL is dominant recently is just that they are the better league. They have won four of the last six World Series, and 17 of the last 26. They have the two most consistently dominant franchises in the sport along with a couple others that have proven to be consistent contenders. We’ve often seen players that have been stronger in the NL than they are when they move to the AL or vice versa, and there is more depth at many positions in the AL than the NL. So, is it really a major surprise that the AL is on a hot streak right now?
More significantly, does it really matter if the AL is the better league? They have only won 55 percent of games or so, so that means that the NL has won 45 percent of games. Would you rule out betting on a team with a .450 record playing against a team with a .550 record? Of course not. Maybe you would be concerned if one league had won 80 percent of the games played, but at this level there is no reason to believe that the NL can’t win any given game. As long as either team can conceivably win a game then it’s all about the handicapping. The AL dominance is a trend, but it’s far from an overwhelming one. The AL certainly hasn’t expressed their dominance this year – they are just 40-39 through the first 79 games played.
There’s another problem with taking any significant meaning from the strength of the AL – the schedule. If every AL team played a series against every NL team every year and they were consistently dominant then you may be able to make a better argument that the AL is better than the NL in a meaningful way that can be useful in handicapping. The unbalanced schedule, though, means that you can’t compare the schedule of two teams in different divisions because they have played different opponents. If two teams in the NL were otherwise similarly talented, but one played their interleague game against the AL Central while another played the AL East then the results should be different.
There’s one more reason why the AL should absolutely have a small edge in interleague play – the DH rule. Half of interleague games are played with a designated hitter. The AL always plays with a DH, so they invest in a player to play the role, and that player gets used t playing that role. The NL can’t afford the luxury of carrying a DH just for these situations, so they are forced to make due. That means playing their best hitting player who isn’t good enough to be in the starting lineup. There’s a good chance that he won’t be as good of a hitter as the AL DH will be, and even if he is he isn’t used to the challenges of being a DH – keeping yourself involved and ready to hit when you aren’t playing in the field as well. Essentially, then, the AL is playing with nine hitters at home against about 8.5 hitters from the NL. Of course they are going to win a few more games. The impact of that isn’t going to even itself out in the NL home games because not enough NL pitchers are effective enough at the plate that they are a significant advantage over a AL pitcher who isn’t used to hitting.