This will be the fourteenth season of interleague play in the Major Leagues. Perhaps the most controversial of Bud Selig’s innovations, interleague has had a good run with some wonderful moments, but it has also produced some head-scratching matchups, highlighted the gap in talent between the American and National Leagues, and introduced a level of imbalance that is, at least in my view, antithetical to the spirit of baseball. Despite the revenue boost it has given some clubs, it may be time to end — or at least reduce — the interleague experiment.
One of the draws of interleague has always been the chance to see teams and players you haven’t seen before, including creating regional rivalries that otherwise couldn’t exist outside of the World Series. There’s definitely something to be said for the drama of a Chicago series every summer, or bragging rights for Missouri or Ohio baseball. Certainly New York City turns itself inside out for the Yankees/Mets series every year, and between the Rays and Marlins they could even come close to filling an entire baseball stadium. But for every Dodgers-Angels series, you also see such natural regional rivalries as Toronto-Arizona, or Seattle-Atlanta, series which have about as much appeal to the average fan as… well, any regular season game, really. And digging a bit deeper, how exciting is a regional series once you get past the initial idea? Some, like the New York or Chicago matchups, LA freeway matchups, or Baltimore/Washington, have more cachet because you might have opposing fans taking the subway together to the game, or sharing a bar. But how much Cincy/Cleveland overlap is there, really? St. Louis/KC? Dallas/Houston? It might be a wonderful idea on paper, but I’m willing to bet that very few Ohio baseball fans are keeping close track of the record in the Ohio Cup. That in and of itself is not a reason to get rid of interleague play, but it is the concept’s most common defense; if it only makes a difference in a few major media markets, then it’s not a good enough reason to overwhelm other negatives.
One of those negatives is that interleague play is increasingly boring. The American League remains in the middle of a run of dominance that might not be unprecedented, but certainly feels that way. It feels that way because for the first time, we have empirical data that goes beyond four to seven games between top teams every October. The data we have, in addition, points to the kind of imbalance that doesn’t make for good drama. In the past five seasons, the American League holds a rather stunning 578-430 edge — a .573 winning percentage. Putting a spotlight on the competitive imbalance between the leagues can’t be good for the game. It’s certainly possible that that type of imbalance goes in waves — maybe the National League has had similar runs in the past. But the point is that before now, we had no way of knowing — the only time the leagues ever met were the All-Star Game and the World Series. Now, some might argue that more exposure is a good thing. But why? All of our standings, every goal of every team except for the final hurdle, is league based. Why do we need to know that the average American League team is significantly better than the average NL team?
This leads us into our final point: interleague play is inherently unfair. The same argument can be made for the wild card, but in interleague play it’s especially visible, because for the first time in modern baseball history, teams competing in the same division play different schedules. Case in point: this year, the Yankees have faced the New York Mets six times and the Phillies three. Meanwhile, the Red Sox have faced the Phillies — the defending NL Champion Phillies – six times and the Mets exactly zero. While that kind of imbalance is normal in football, hockey and basketball, it was previously unheard of in baseball — if you were going for the same title, you faced the same teams the same number of times. Even with the unbalanced divisional schedule, at least each team played their divisional rivals more than those outside the division. In this system, two teams competing in the same division can play as many as six games — easily enough to swing a lead — against teams of completely different talent levels. And given the breakdown of teams between both the two leagues and the divisions themselves, there is really no way to even those numbers out without adding even more interleague games.
So, while interleague was an interesting novelty at first, we’ve now become locked into a system that promotes imbalance while making boring the same things that used to lend additional weight to those special moments — the All-Star Game and the World Series — that used to be the only moments the leagues met. This is the problem with checking only one set of numbers: revenue alone does not tell the story. Get rid of the games against the Rockies, the Giants, and the Diamondbacks and give me more against the American League. At least with those games, there’s the Wild Card to think about.
Put it this way. It’s not that there’s anything inherently bad about interleague play. In the end, they’re still just baseball games, and they count just as much as any other. But given the flaws in the execution, and the increasingly lackluster draw of these contests, why continue to spend time on these games while ignoring potential divisional or intraleague matchups with arguably more impact on the season itself? When interleague was a novelty, there was something to recommend it. But it is a novelty no longer — now, more often than not, it’s simply another set of games. The American and National Leagues shouldn’t meet with as much fanfare as the Pirates and the A’s. It’s time to put this experiment to bed.