It’s kind of remarkable, well, more like stupid, that there’s such an imbalance between the American League and the National League in 2014. One of Bud Selig’s biggest achievements, in his mind anyway, was the inclusion of interleague play into the MLB regular season. For the longest time, the only way teams in different leagues played each other was if they both made the World Series. That changed in 1997.
Initially, teams would play interleague against the opposite division. The AL Central would play the NL Central and so on. That changed in 2002, when teams starting rotating through the divisions on a yearly basis. From 2002 to 2012, all interleague games were played before the All-Star Break, so that games against the other league didn’t affect the postseason races. In 2013, the Houston Astros moved into the American League and created two 15-team leagues. Because of that, interleague play goes on all season long.
Since 2004, the American League has won more games than the National League in interleague play every single season. Since interleague play began in 1997, the National League has had a better record just four times. So far this season, the American League is 118-95 in interleague play through August 4.
Before diving more into the interleague issue, here’s this week’s injury update. The Arizona Diamondbacks are without Paul Goldschmidt for most, if not all, of the regular season after he suffered a fractured hand. As it turns out, the Diamondbacks got retribution for the accidental Goldschmidt injury and the 95 mph fastball that Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen took in the back resulted in a fractured rib. Struggling designated hitter Nick Swisher is day-to-day with a strained wrist for the Indians. The hits keep on coming for the Rockies as Carlos Gonzalez’s ankle injury has flared up once again. Eric Hosmer has a stress fracture in his hand and the Royals, who are in the thick of the Wild Card race, will miss his bat and elite defense. Some tough breaks for the Angels this week, who once again lost Tyler Skaggs with a flexor tendon strain in his pitching arm. Also, reliever Joe Thatcher is out until September with a bad ankle. The Marlins lost their best starter when Henderson Alvarez hit the DL with a shoulder issue. Brewers starter Matt Garza was placed on the DL with a rib cage strain. David Phelps is out with an elbow injury for the Yankees. Nate McLouth is out for the Nationals with shoulder trouble. It’s that time of year for injuries, so make sure to keep an eye on all of the reports.
Back to the travesty that is interleague play. Obviously there’s a huge imbalance between leagues because of the rules of play. The American League has the designated hitter and the National League still has pitchers hitting (for no good reason). There’s nothing more frustrating as a fan of an American League team than seeing a pitcher leave a game from something related to having to hit. On the flip side, National League fans have to be upset when their team goes to an American League park and doesn’t have a regular designated hitter.
There are ways to try and quantify the impact of both. Consider that American League teams may need to use their designated hitter in the field to put the best offensive players in the lineup and that weakens the overall defense. When the Cleveland Indians used to play interleague games, Travis Hafner had to sit the bench, save for a few pinch hit opportunities because his bum elbow prevented him from playing the field. The Red Sox had to use David Ortiz in the field. The Tigers have had to use Victor Martinez in the field. It’s something, but it’s probably not enough on a game-by-game basis to close the gap.
Here are some stat line comparisons between leagues:
AL DH: .246/.316/.411
NL DH: .200/.273/.322
AL P: .093/.116/.114
NL P: .125/.157/.154
Those are some serious discrepancies for AL DHs and NL DHs in interleague games played in AL parks. The pitcher differences are there, but they’re not nearly as impactful as the DH differences. Some people could make a case for shorter starts from AL starting pitchers as a difference maker, but the specialization of the game and the better bullpen performances over the last couple of decades has to mitigate that notion.
Keep in mind that there’s an inherent difference between the AL and NL and how the benches are constructed. NL teams have more pinch runner/defensive replacement types than the AL. Putting those players in as the “designated hitter” is almost laughable. It’s really remarkable that it’s 2014, there is a wealth of analytics data available, and there’s still such a sharp divide between leagues because of one simple change to the game.
Purists and traditionalists who still, inexplicably, like to watch pitchers weakly ground out and flail hopelessly at breaking balls will fight tooth and nail for the game to stay the same. It hurts the game. Being a fan of an AL team, it’s easy to find NL games unbearable to watch. Had I been exposed to something different growing up, maybe the nostalgia about the pitcher hitting and occasionally running around the bases in a jacket would lead to a different mindset.
Baseball will probably continue to ignore this massive chasm between the leagues because it would be a fundamental change to the game. Instead, Commissioner Selig can continue to do stupid things like use the All-Star Game to determine home-field advantage for the World Series or have an odd number of teams in each league to force interleague play throughout the season. It didn’t matter last season, but remember when the Detroit Tigers took on the 100-loss Miami Marlins in their final series? The Tigers were swept because the series didn’t matter to them, but that could have had an enormous impact on the season for the teams in the playoffs because of home-field implications or division races.
With interleague play for the remainder of this season and for the foreseeable future, factor into your handicapping that AL teams at home are basically using a league average hitter at DH while the NL teams are using a well below average hitter. The difference seems to be pretty substantial and may not be calculated properly into the line. And the difference in NL parks between AL pitchers and NL pitchers is nominal at best.