The Tenth Inning – Week 10 ]]> include($base_url . “/includes/header.htm”); ?>
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Now in the fourteenth year of interleague play, the American League has once again opened up a lead of the National League in head-to-head competition. After this weekend, 26 teams have now played two interleague series, with four NL teams (Astros, Diamondbacks, Cubs, and Padres) having played only one series, and the AL is ahead 45-39. History would suggest that the 6-game edge will only expand as the cross-league play continues over the next two weeks. The AL has won the head-to-head battle every single season, and coupled with the All-Star Game domination that is nearing the same streak – save for one ugly tie – the proof exists that the junior circuit is simply better than the senior one. Sure, the NL has won six World Series since the strike to the AL’s eight, and that includes the Yankee dynasty from 96-00 when they won four of five. But there’s no denying the AL has been the better league in head-to-head competition during the regular season since 1996.
One of the biggest reasons for the lopsided record head-to-head between leagues is the designated hitter. I have heard both sides of this issue, and here’s the final verdict, once and for all – the differing rules regarding the DH significantly benefits the American League, end of story. First off, there is not a single bench player on any NL team that can hit with the likes of Jim Thome, Hideki Matsui, David Ortiz (circa 2004), and the like. Even some teams with deep benches and veteran hitters – the Mets’ Gary Sheffield, the Phillies’ Matt Stairs, to name a few – are not the type of hitters that the AL DH’s are. Thus, any game played in an AL park finds the AL team with a deeper, more balanced lineup. Just look where the DH’s hit in the order for the NL teams – most hit sixth or lower unless the manager elects to use an everyday player as the DH and replace him in the field with someone else, in which case the replacement usually hits in the lower third anyway. It’s simply the economics of the game – no NL team can pay money for nine starting-quality hitters and then only play eight in any given game outside of three interleague series a year, but AL teams need those nine hitters to compete for a playoff spot.
Conversely, in games played in the NL parks, the advantage is a wash. Sure, the AL loses a big bopper in the middle of the order in many cases, or is forced to play a sub-par defensive player in the field, but for anyone that has watched Manny Ramirez, Ryan Howard, Adam Dunn, or Prince Fielder play defense… exactly. Meanwhile, whatever player is removed from the order now becomes, in most cases, the best pinch hitter available on either bench. It’s not like NL pitchers can hit that much better than AL pitchers, and with the rate players change leagues in today’s game, a number of pitchers (C.C. Sabathia, Carl Pavano, Josh Beckett, Kevin Millwood, A.J. Burnett, Brad Penny, just to name a handful) are experienced as hitters in the NL anyway. Put that together with AL managers that have previously managed or played in the NL (Girardi, Scioscia, Leyland, Francona) and even the style of play is no longer an advantage for NL clubs. There’s just no way around the fact that the additional hitter is a significant edge for the American League.
The other big issue is the time of year that the interleague games are played. This one helps explain why NL clubs can win World Series but cannot seem to overcome the AL in the regular season. Success over 162 games is built upon four things – solid and consistent starting pitching, clutch hitting, good middle and late relief, and no significant injuries to any major or star players. The playoffs are a totally different beast, where injuries become less of a factor as teams scrap for wins, and the importance played upon the starting pitching becomes two or three-fold compared to anything else, and in a seven game series with the way the schedule is now, a team’s best pitcher could go three times. In a regular season three-game set, that’s not the case. Often times teams are throwing fourth of fifth starters, and that always favors the better offensive team, and in nearly every scenario, that is the AL club. Plus, as anyone who has ever played baseball at all at any level will tell you, it’s much easier to hit in warm weather than in cold weather. The ball flies out of the park more in June than it does in October, and teams are more apt to use their entire bullpen during a series as opposed to just their top two or three relievers. Both AL and NL clubs have good pitching at the top, the NL tends to be better through the 4-9 area, and the last two or three spots are barely average on any team, so again, the edge is negligible for the NL, and it’s partly negated by the weather and by the first issue on this list.
I like interleague play, and since it’s not going away, I suggest that everyone else get to at least accept it, if not like it, too. There are still things that need to be fixed, primarily the unbalanced schedule which finds every AL team playing 18 games but only four NL teams with 18 games and the other twelve teams playing 15 games. Aside from that, teams in the same division don’t play the same teams, and those ever-enticing Tampa Bay-Colorado and Toronto-Cincinnati matchups simply don’t make sense when everyone else is playing East-East, Central-Central, or West-West. But the fact remains, there are still two more weeks of interleague play, or as it has become over the past fourteen years, the American League win-padding portion of the Major League Baseball schedule.
2009 Playoff “Dead List”
This week, watch for…
This Week – Interleague Rivalries
Look for my column, “The Tenth Inning,” every Monday for the UltimateCapper
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