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Intangibles of Interleague Play
by Hollywood Sports - 06/17/2011
If its the middle of June and the NBA and NHL seasons have just ended, then it must be time for two straight weeks on interleague play in baseball. Supposedly, interleague play remains popular amongst baseball fans. I can see New Yorkers getting excited about the annual encounters between the Mets and the Yankees. But for every natural rivalry from cross-town or even cross-state opponents, there are three or four uninspiring matchups like the White Sox versus the Diamondbacks. Personally, I see interleague play as just another Bud Selig gimmick that serves to further degrade the integrity of the 162-game season since it skews disparities in strength-of-schedule between divisional rivals. But those are just my personal tastes that I will forego in a heartbeat if these AL versus NL matchups offer more opportunities to beat the book. And they do. Here are some of the unique intangibles of interleague play to consider when handicapping these games.
The most notable aspect of interleague play is the effect of the designated hitter. The Tigers' Jim Leyland made headlines last month when he declared that American League teams had a distinct disadvantage when playing interleague games in a National League park where the DH is not in effect. The former long-time NL manager with the Pirates said that the appeal of interleague play
has worn off for me. It certainly was a brilliant idea to start with — it was a tremendous idea — but it has run its course … It had a purpose, and I think in some cases it served that purpose, but it’s run its course. AL teams playing in NL parks face two distinct disadvantages. First, they lose their designated hitter slot which is often filled by one of the best hitters on the team. While these managers can still put these sluggers on to the field somewhere, the AL club still loses a regular bat somewhere. And at what defensive cost? Second, AL pitchers are generally not as accomplished taking swings than their NL counterparts who regularly get at-bats. The result is that these AL teams take a hit in either two offensive slots in the lineup or just one spot (with the pitcher) while accepting a defensive liability by asking their normal DH to put on a glove. On the other hand, NL teams may not be equipped to take advantage of having a DH when playing in an AL park. Many NL clubs stock their bench with situational players that help with lineup moves later in the game when pinch-hitting for the pitcher and double-switches become strategic. These role players do not offer the same offensive services as the David Ortiz's of the American League world.
There are some subtler aspects to interleague play to consider as well. How adept is the American League manager at juggling the lineup late in the game when dealing with the pitcher in the batting line up? For wily veterans like Leyland who have years of experience managing things like double-switches or balancing the increased stress on the bullpen, this is not a problem. However, some AL managers may have gotten to their position without much experience in this aspect of the game -- and I do not want to pay for their
on-the-job training. On the other hand, there are some NL teams that rely on the unique advantage their manager possesses in orchestrating late inning moves relative to their opponent -- and they possess a roster of players designed to thrive in these situations (Tony LaRussa's St. Louis Cardinals come to mind). These clubs may forfeit some of their native advantages when playing in an AL park where managers can get by with being on auto-pilot with their lineup.
Another aspect to consider relates to the starting pitchers. Generally, the opposing hitters may not be very familiar with the starting pitcher at hand since AL and NL teams rarely face each other. Is there a starting pitcher who typically performs better when facing a team for the first time. Check out how a pitcher does over time against one team. Starting pitchers who regress the more they face a regular foe may offer nice value when now facing a team that is unfamiliar with his stuff. Also, check out how a pitcher fares from inning-to-inning. Rookie pitchers, in particular, are vulnerable to regression later in the game when hitters get better reads. Do these inning-specific split stats suggest that the pitcher-in-question performs better when more unfamiliar to the batter? If so, these pitchers may offer better value than expected against unfamiliar clubs from the other half of the league.
In closing, lets maintain some perspective. Since we are making decisions against a money line, the key determining factor is finding relative value against this money line. It would be folly to just bet against all the AL teams playing in NL parks. The Yankees are still strong propositions even if they are playing in Wrigley Field without a DH. When handicapping baseball, we are analyzing factors as to how they relate back to the basic money line proposition. For the next two weeks, interleague play changes the typical dynamic we usually see from game-to-game. Assessing if -- and when -- these intangibles alter the conventional outlook to a specific matchup offer us a unique opportunity to take even more advantage of our daily baseball decisions. Best of luck for us -- Frank.