Should Interleague Intrude on Pennant Races?

OAKLAND -- Interleague play used to be an early-season novelty. Now, it has expanded all the way into September, and it's having a big impact on pennant races.

OAKLAND, Calif. -- The 2014 season marks the second year where lame duck Major League Commissioner Bud Selig’s grand experiment – Interleague Play – will occur throughout the Major League schedule – including in the middle of pennant races.

The Oakland A's are in the middle of such a pennant race, and they will be hosting the Philadelphia Phillies for two games in September. September. Otherwise known as the home stretch, when division titles and playoff berths are decided.

“It is what it is,” says A’s manager Bob Melvin, whose team finished off a two-game series against the New York Mets on Wednesday. “Everybody has to go through these things. I think we play the Phillies even later in the season, in September, so with 15 teams in each league now, there has to be interleague games, one interleague series every series of the year, so we just have to deal with it.”

The fact is, though, it’s not even. Not every team plays the same amount of interleague games before and after the All-Star Break, and not every American League team plays the same amount of games in National League stadiums after the break.

Interleague play began as a novelty -- an experiment -- meant to draw fans in after the 1994 strike, but before the home run chase of 1998. It has expanded steadily over the 18 years it has been in existence. In the first year, 214 games were played, and in 1998, 224 were played. In 1999 and 2000, that number moved up to 251 games. From 2001 to 2012, the number plateaued at 252 games per season played between interleague opponents. In 2013, that number skyrocketed to 300, and included an interleague match-up on the final day of the season. Instead of a novelty, interleague play has now started to play a direct role in playoff races.

The interleague formula has never been perfect, largely because once the opponents started rotating – from NL West playing AL West and so on, to each division playing the other league’s divisions in a rotation – the so-called regional rivalries were kept intact: Dodgers-Angels, Giants-A's, Astros-Rangers, Nationals-Orioles, Yankees-Mets, and so on.

There were originally two main issues: not every team had a natural regional rival, and when the regional rivals played, strange match-ups were the results, with the Padres playing the Mariners, or the Rockies playing the Red Sox. The second issue was the fact that the leagues – and divisions -- were unbalanced: there were 16 teams in the National League, and 14 in the American, with a six-team NL Central and a four-team AL West.

That last problem was fixed – to some extent – by the move of the Houston Astros to the American League West (thereby eliminating the Houston-Texas regional rivalry series). But that problem presented another: the math no longer worked. No longer could games be played only before the All-Star Break, or in a small, two-week window.

The Astros joining the American League in 2013 evened the number of teams in each league, forcing interleague play throughout the season, placing interleague play square in the middle of key division races. That’s become a big factor for, among others, the two Bay Area teams.

The biggest side-effect? Having an American League contender playing stretch-run games in National League parks – where pitchers who have next-to-no experience swinging a bat for – in many cases – years, will have to put their fingers, hamstrings and obliques on the line. And, before you ask: yes, key injuries are going to happen. It’s only a matter of time. In fact, it’s already happened.

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For American League teams either leading their division or within seven games of a Division lead at the All-Star break, that nightmare is very real. Of those seven teams, all but the New York Yankees have at least two games in National League parks in August or later.

How crucial could those games be? Take, for example, the case of former Yankees' pitcher Chien-Ming Wang.

Wang finished April 2008 with a 5-0 record, leading the American League, and became the first AL pitcher to six wins that season. Through 2008, Wang had the third-highest winning percentage of all starting pitchers over the previous three seasons. He was the quickest Yankee to 50 career wins since Ron Guidry, getting to the plateau in 82 starts. He was at the top of the Yankees rotation, ahead of Andy Pettite and Mike Mussina. Then, on June 15, Wang tore a Lisfranc ligament in his right foot, and suffered a partial tear of the peroneus longus. He did it while running the bases against the then-National League Houston Astros.

The Yankees finished 89-73, and out of playoff contention by eight games – eight games that Wang could very well have won.

Wang started 2009 0-3 with a stupefying 34.50 ERA, and since that injury suffered in interleague play, he is 8-14 with a 6.60 ERA in 39 games and 31 starts, striking out just 83 hitters and surrendering 1.4 home runs per nine innings pitched, when he had never allowed more than 0.7 in his entire Major League career beforehand. From 2009-13, Wang never started more than 11 games.

Had Wang continued his front-of-the-rotation dominance in 2008, and not taken that one wrong step, maybe the Yankees don’t finish eight games out of first. Maybe Wang doesn’t become a footnote for the rest of his career. Maybe.

Back in 2008, though, the bulk of interleague play was still limited to the month of June, with several dates scattered in May. No interleague game was played after the All-Star Game. Now, imagine an American League team in the middle of a pennant race – right in the heat of a battle for a playoff spot – playing in a National League park, putting their best pitchers at risk, in August and September, instead of mid-June.

Teams in the aforementioned category – within seven games of a division lead at the break – will play 13 such games this year. Those 13 games could decide a pennant.

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As many as three teams from the American League West could conceivably make the playoffs in 2014, and, because of an ill-fated trip to Atlanta, of all places, the A's chances for scoring a third-straight division title may be in jeopardy.

Going into the series against the Braves, Oakland held a two-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. The Angels had won two games in a row, while the A's had dropped two straight.

In the A's case, a team already slumping had to face an unfamiliar pitching staff on unfamiliar ground in three games in a row. The Oakland pitching staff, which was already under pressure thanks to a nearly 1.5-run per-game drop in offensive production in the wake of the trade that sent slugger Yoenis Cespedes to Boston, was faced with hitters they’d not only not faced earlier on in the season, but in many cases, had never faced.

Playing Atlanta for the first time this season, Oakland dropped the next three straight, falling percentage points behind the resurgent Angels for first place, falling out of the top slot in the West for the first time since April 6, and then splitting a two-game inter league set against the New York Mets before a crucial series against the Angels this weekend.

And, yes, the trading deadline, for many contending teams, makes some of the “we’ve never seen these guys before” arguments moot, as does the amount of player movement in the offseason, over a larger sample size of games. And, yes, the Mets did down the Athletics on Wednesday, scoring seven runs off of former Chicago Cubs starter Jeff Samardzija, who, despite spending the majority of the year in the National League, had not yet faced the Mets in 2014. But, the fact remains, instead of playing games in August and September against their own leagues, or their own divisions, contending teams are having to face unfamiliar rosters and an unfamiliar set of rules.

“I think there will be a difference,” says Affeldt, who’s Giants are within smelling distance of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who play four interleague games down the stretch. “Personally, I’m not a fan of it. I think that, with interleague, you’ve got to think about with teams having an AL team coming in, and all of the sudden, your pitchers are hitting at kind of an important time. If they’re not used to hitting, there’s a lot of potential stuff that could happen. Our guys are always hitting, and they’re running and doing different things, so everybody’s aware of it.”

Even so, the Giants have still had those two relievers go down thanks to running the bases.

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In the case of San Francisco, though, the Giants had to face one of the hottest teams in the Majors in the Kansas City Royals. In the month of August, the Royals (as of the writing of this piece) are 15-4, and had come in to their Aug. 8-10 series against San Francisco having won five of their last six.

“That’s just part of baseball,” says Giants manager Bruce Bochy. “Everybody in our division plays them at least three times this year, so it’s just kind of the luck of the draw, or in our case, bad luck.”

Oh, and then to top it off, they had to face the Chicago White Sox ace Chris Sale at home at AT&T Park in their first game back from Kansas City. Affeldt, for one, who started his career with the Royals, would rather be facing National League opponents in the middle of a dogfight with the Los Angeles Dodgers

“We’d possibly know them a little bit better, so yeah, sure,” Affeldt says. “I guess as an athlete, you have to adjust. It’s just another challenge, and you’ve got to do it, but I think, when it comes to interleague, you have to change a lot of things. You have to run the game differently, if you’re a manager, in the American League or the National League, depending on where you’re at. I think, if anything, it has to do with, I personally like the National League style of play, but I’ve also played with a bunch of pitchers who are used to hitting, swinging, running the bases, bunting and are used to it. When you bring in the American League, I’d be a little bit nervous as a manager, because your pitcher has to square to bunt, the ball hits him in the fingers; you’re running to first base, you blow out a hamstring – I mean, there’s a lot of stuff.”

Sale – who didn’t have a single at-bat in his time at Florida Gulf Coast in college, nor in the minor leagues – is competent with the bat, and the White Sox aren’t in the midst of a pennant race, but manager Robin Ventura was less than thrilled about having his best arm being put at risk.

Ventura admitted to cringing a bit whenever his lefty stepped up to the plate.

“Yeah, it’s a little different,” he said with a weary smile. “You’re interested. You’re paying more attention when he’s up there, because he hasn’t swung the bat all year. But he is a pretty good athlete. I’ll give him that. His swings weren’t all that bad. He ran down the line. He looks like he could actually run the bases.”

Another quirk of the new interleague schedule is the emergence of two-game series against unfamiliar opponents, late in the season. For Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford, that’s not unlike what he experienced in college at UCLA. In college baseball, it’s normal to have a three-game weekend series against conference opponents, and a midweek game against an out-of-conference foe.

“Those are a little bit different,” he says. “It’s hard to compare, I guess, between college and professional baseball, because, really, you don’t play two games against anybody else in the minor leagues or anything like that. We try to just take it one game at a time, and as long as we do that, it doesn’t really matter if it’s a two-game series or a four-game series.”

Affeldt has a solution, and it’s one that makes a lot of sense, before the math gets in the way: Restrict interleague play to before the All-Star Break.

“I personally think that’s how we should do it, but I don’t know if I’m in the majority or not,” he says. “For me, as a reliever, it doesn’t affect me much, but I think that I kind of, the interleague situation, if you’re going to do it, I’d rather them just get it out of the way and then go on with different stuff, especially with the run right there in September.”

Is there a way to fix interleague play, and keep it marketable? Is there a way that the regional rivalries can be preserved, while adding historical match-ups -- like Dodgers-Yankees, for instance – or World Series rematches, like Giants-Indians, Pirates-Yankees, Phillies-Red Sox, Cardinals-A’s, Cardinals-Red Sox or Dodgers-A’s? The answer is, like interleague play itself, perhaps too complicated at best, and inequitable, at worst.

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