Major league shame

You think steroids are a plague in the baseball universe, right? My sense is that most Hardball Times readers are angry that so many players took steroids, while Major League Baseball, the union and the media looked the other way. Heck, I’m angry about it too. The institutions of baseball implicitly encouraged steroid use by not condemning it, because anyone who didn’t take steroids was at a disadvantage. Reportedly, it was this dynamic that led Barry Bonds to eventually go for it, because he was tired of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire getting all the media hype.

And that’s really the problem, isn’t it? The steroid scandal is all about unfairness. Since taking steroids without a prescription is illegal in this country, some players gained an unfair advantage by breaking the law and taking them. Taking steroids is cheating. The players cheated, and the owners looked the other way.

What if I told you that there is something else happening today, right in front of our noses, that is also causing a gross injustice. Teams and players are not on an even playing field because of it, just as they haven’t been during the steroids era. And it’s not only condoned by Major League Baseball, it’s arranged by Major League Baseball. It’s interleague play, and it’s time for it to stop.

The case

Think I’m overstating the case? Well, let’s look at some figures. This year, most teams played 18 interleague games, or 11% of their total schedule. To put that in perspective, that’s the same number of games that teams will play against each team in their own division. But there’s a big difference: teams generally play each other team in their own division the same number of times, but the 18 interleague games run the gamut from the Red Sox to the Pirates, and the games aren’t distributed evenly, or even randomly, between teams. They’re stacked.

The best example is the National League East, which is currently a close race between the Mets, Braves, Phillies and Marlins. The Marlins played the Devil Rays (twice), White Sox, Royals, Twins and Indians in interleague play. Two tough series out of six. On the other hand, the Braves played the Red Sox (baseball’s best team) twice, as well as the Tigers, Indians and Twins. Think there’s a difference between the Devil Rays, White Sox and Royals on the one hand and the Red Sox and Tigers on the other? You’re right.

To figure out just how big the difference is, I used the THT Dartboard method of rating teams. The THT Dartboard, developed by David Gassko, calculates the “true strength” of each team by looking at the basics of how well each team has performed this year, and also adjusts for each team’s schedule. I added an adjustment to the Dartboard by increasing the strength of American League teams 10% over National League teams.

Finally, I calculated the “true strength” of each team’s interleague competition. As you can imagine, I found a wide variance between teams. The Braves had it worst; their opponents had a combined projected winning percentage of .617. The Marlins’ interleague opponents had a combined projected winning percentage of .489. A .500 team playing 18 times against a .617 opponent would be expected to win seven games, but a .500 team playing 18 games against a .489 opponent could be expected to win nine times.

Nine vs. seven. Two games in the standings. That was the impact of interleague schedule on the National League East race.

In reality, the Braves went 4-11 in interleague play, while the Marlins were 9-9. The Braves played only 15 interleague games, thank goodness, but the reality was even worse than the projection.

The comparison

Two games may not sound like a lot to you, but let’s compare that to the impact of steroids. Let’s assume that a team has 30% of its offensive players using steroids, which increased their offensive production 10%. The result would be 3% more runs per game, and two games in the standings (assuming no other teams had players using steroids). We can argue about the specific assumptions, but the point remains that, on a team level, the interleague scandal has had about the same impact as the steroid scandal. It has given some teams an unfair advantage, to about the same extent as steroids.

By the way, interleague play didn’t affect only the NL East. In the NL Central, the Cubs only had to play 12 interleague games (how did that happen?), and half of those were against the White Sox. The Cubs’ interleague opponents had a combined projected winning percentage of .475, the lowest in the National League. Think it’s a mere coincidence that their current winning ways started during interleague play?

Really, this is outrageous. Major League Baseball is stacking the deck, on purpose, in front of our eyes.

A proposed solution

Personally, I wish that interleague play would be discontinued altogether. I know that’s not realistic, so let me propose something a little less drastic. I propose that interleague play consist of only two three-game series each year; one against each team’s “natural” rival (Cubs vs. White Sox, say) and one against another team in the opposite league, selected randomly.

The “natural rivals” could exchange home advantage each year, and by keeping the number of those games to a minimum, the inherent disadvantage of natural rivalries could be minimized. For instance, the Braves would have had to play the Red Sox only once this year and they could play their other series against a more average opponent.

The remaining 12 games could be played against teams in other divisions, but the same league. This might create some imbalance between division play, but that imbalance occurs already. For instance, the Orioles will play only six games against the Tigers this year, but 10 against the Angels. MLB could use the extra games to even out those sorts of odd distributions.

I’m sure that arranging the major league schedule must be a nightmare, but come on, people. Don’t use that as an excuse. The sham has gone on long enough.

The last word

Interleague play began when the steroids scandal was about to come full force, 1997, the year before McGwire hit 70 home runs. Its roots are the same: disregard for inherent fairness in favor of the almighty dollar. Fans like to see home runs, and they evidently like to see interleague games, so now we have home runs and interleague games. Major League Baseball is the sport that can’t say no, particularly when dollars are involved.

I don’t mean to go all Brattainesque on you, but MLB seems to have no heart. You get the feeling that if they could make money by giving away beer for 10 cents, they’d do it. Hmm. Wait a minute…

Interleague play is a travesty. Fans in Atlanta should be outraged, and MLB should be called to task. Stop the greed, Bud Selig. Right the wrong.

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