Leyland: Interleague Play Unfair With No DH

Tomorrow, Jim Leyland’s Tigers will commence their interleague play this year with a visit to Pittsburgh, Leyland’s old employer. And Leyland doesn’t want any part of it. He doesn’t have any use for AL-NL games any more, and the reason he gives is a 38-year old elephant in the room. Baseball’s two leagues have different rules, and teams built to take advantage of different rules — yet teams in each league play games against each other, playing 15-18 games a year by a different rulebook than they play the other 140-odd games of the season. Leyland is quite vehement:

I think this was something that was certainly a brilliant idea to start with. But I think it has run its course… It’s not really doing what it was supposed to — there’s no rivalries for most of the teams…

We play with the DH rules. The American League gets penalized, even though the record’s been decent over the years. We get penalized. Their pitchers are hitting and bunting all year, and they get the advantage of letting their pitchers rest and using the DH when they come here, and we gotta use guys six straight days without Victor Martinez or Alex Avila or somebody. That’s ridiculous. Totally ridiculous, and they ought to look into it…

At some point, I don’t know if I’ll be around to see it, but at some point you’ve got to get baseball back to the same set of rules.


Leyland’s making two separate points, one of which I agree with more than the other. First, while it is deeply strange for the leagues to have different sets of rules, it isn’t necessarily unfair. As long as every team plays the same number of games away from their comfort zone, it more or less all evens out. However, it absolutely is unfair when an NL division race can be decided by which team had to face the Red Sox and which team got to face the Royals, or an AL race can be decided by who got the Pirates and who got the Phillies.*

* In my column two weeks ago, I argued that the Pirates’ owners have been stealing revenue sharing money to line their pockets while putting a terrible team on the field for 20 years, and therefore the major leagues should consider drastic punitive action like relegation. So some readers started to accuse me of having it in for the Pirates. I don’t. I feel awful for their fans that the team has been terrible for so long. Their owners — and the general managers they hired, the dreadful Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield — are to blame.

Of course, it seems a bit strange for Leyland to be the one to raise the complaint. First of all, writes Baseball Nation’s Grant Brisbee, “While he makes sense, part of me wonders if he should just clam up and be thankful that he gets to play the Pirates.” Beyond that, the American League’s record in interleague play has been a lot better than just “decent over the years.” The Tigers in particular and the American League in general have dominated the National League in interleague play. Since the beginning of interleague play in 1997, the Tigers are 134-113 against National League teams, a crisp .543 winning percentage; overall, AL teams are 1806-1652, a .522 winning percentage.

Leyland’s two points raise somewhat separate concerns. The first is about rules, and the second is about fairness. Playing by different sets of rules is not inherently unfair, just as playing in different ballparks is not inherently unfair, as long as each team faces the same number of games outside of its comfort zone. A team can be built to take advantage of its home ballpark just as well as a team can be built to take advantage of the DH.

Indeed, the home ballpark can arguably be more well-tailored to the team and the specific opponent, especially in the days when infields were not as primly manicured as they are now, and teams could instruct their grounds crews to water the hell out of the dirt between first and second base to slow down someone like Maury Wills. Decades before that, teams would move the outfield walls in and out on a dime, depending on what kind of hitters were coming to town. That doesn’t happen any more. But each ballpark plays slightly differently. Baseball is the only major American sport whose leagues play by different rulebooks — but it’s also the only major American sport whose arenas are nonstandard. The DH disparity is weird, but it isn’t any weirder than having differently-shaped ballparks.

On the other hand, unbalanced schedules — of which interleague play, with its forced “rivalries,” is definitely a part — are absolutely unfair. It’s unfair for the Blue Jays to have to play nearly 55-60 games against the Red Sox, Rays, and Yankees, while the Rangers get to play 55-60 games against the Angels, Athletics, and Mariners. (It’s also unfair for the AL West teams to play in a four-team division while the NL Central teams play in a six-team division and everyone else plays in a five-team division, but that won’t get fixed without more expansion, which isn’t happening in a struggling economy — so we’ll leave that aside for now.) Frankly, it’s unfair for Leyland to get to play the Pirates while the Indians have to play the Reds.

Baseball scheduling is still more fair than other sports, like college football, in which strength of schedule is almost as much a determinant of wins and losses as strength of team. But it’s not as fair as it used to be, when there were eight teams in every league and they all played each other an equal number of times. Moreover, at least in college football, strength of schedule actually factors into consideration for the championship — in baseball, facing a tough schedule gets you no more than the smallest violin in the world.

Jim Leyland’s right that he probably won’t be around to see the end of interleague play or the DH — the former is simply worth too much money to baseball, and the latter is just too entrenched in culture. He’s also right that the current state of affairs is deeply unfair. He’s only wrong about one thing. His team is benefiting.



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Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is a product manager for The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @alexremington.


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Brad Johnson
Member

Mr. Leyland seems to forget that his club is paying Victor Martinez to fill most of those DH games while the majority of National League teams have a guy like Ross Gload or Matt Stairs to call on in AL lands. That, sir, is unfair.

Pat
Guest
Pat

I agree. Is there any evidence to suggest that AL teams playing away suffer more than NL teams playing away? Intuitively, it seems to me that an NL team in general not keeping a solid hitter with poor defense on their roster, to plug into the DH spot, hurts the NL team more than the AL team having their pitchers hit. Some NL team’s DHs would be utility guys who have to hit in the bottom third of the order.

It seems like a strange comment to make without any evidence. I’m not sure who actually has the advantage, but as Alex points out, it probably matters less than park factors and not at all when the “discomfort” is distributed equally.

Brad Johnson
Member

A good place to start looking would be b-ref. You could also try posing the question to Tango.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu

All time record: 1,808 AL – 1,652 NL.

The NL was better 1997-2003, and then the balance shifted. I think it has more to do with the relative strengths of the leagues more than with the fairness of the rules.

Yirmiyahu
Member
Yirmiyahu

1997 – 2003: 863 NL – 833 AL.
2004 – 2010: 975 AL – 789 NL.

Mike
Guest
Mike

Defense is important here, though. You are allowed to put whoever you please in the DH spot, which allows two advantages to the National League club that they didn’t have previously. The first is that players such as Prince Fielder or Ryan Braun, who are great hitters, are allowed to take a break from defense, while someone on the bench (who is probably on the bench due to their defensive and/or baserunning skills) is allowed to play defense in their place. The second is that you are able to rest your star players. If anything, it puts the AL and NL on even footing when the American League is the home team….Separate from the DH issue is that starting pitchers are now able to stay in the game longer because they don’t have to be pinch hit for, further evening things out….

Whether or not there is a huge advantage for the National League club when they are at home, I don’t know…

fly eli
Guest
fly eli

According to this:

http://www.platoonadvantage.com/2010/11/no-american-league-just-really-has-been.html

AL is .470 in NL parks, but .519 from 2006-2010. He has some interesting points about what baseline is for road team (ie, AL vs. AL). Hope that answers the question about whether the inequality is more about when the pitchers hit or when there’s a DH.

the fume
Guest
the fume

You mean it’s unfair that an AL team has to pay salary for another starter that an NL team doesn’t have to, right?

david
Guest
david

i guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree.

i can’t agree to that. me either.

Redbirds16
Guest
Redbirds16

Not really.

NL teams don’t carry guys like David Ortiz, Jim Thome, or Vladimir Guerrero on their rosters for the obvious reason that everyone in the NL has to play the field. Yet these type players are integral parts of AL teams and the strategies these teams use to build their ballclubs.

Therefore NL teams are at a disadvantage in the AL parks, AL teams are at a disadvantage in the NL parks because of how the teams are constructed in light of the rules by which they play. Yet given that every team (save a few NL teams every year, who end up playing against NL opponents while everyone else is off playing interleague) plays the same amount of interleague games, everyone faces the same rule-based ‘inequalities’.

The real ‘inequality’ issue, if I’m not mistaken, is that teams don’t play the same opponents the same amount of games. Highlighted in the example above, the Tigers play the Pirates while the Indians play the Reds. This is unfair because the Tigers don’t play the Reds this year and the Indians don’t play the Pirates or whatever. Expand that across the league, and one team is going to benefit from a ‘weaker schedule’ than another team. Like NCAA football, there’s a ‘strength of schedule factor’.

While I’m not a fan of cr*pping on a particular team just because they’re bad presently, it is true that the Tigers have the advantage this year. Over the long run though (say two decades), this should average out and ‘strength of schedule’ really shouldn’t be a factor. The Reds are a better team than the Pirates. Although, as any baseball fan knows, any team can win on any day, so don’t assume the Tigers are going to manhandle the Pirates and the Reds will play the Indians tough (especially seeing as how the Pirates just swept a 2 game series in Cinci).

If this is a topic to whine about, there have to be many others as well. Playing in Wrigley in April is very different than playing in Wrigley in July. So a team that plays Wrigley away games at a certain time of year can gripe and moan too about ‘inequalities’ in their schedule but at the end of the day… hot air.

chuckb
Guest
chuckb

Is it also true that, since AL teams pay salary for an extra starter, NL teams can increase the amount of money they pay to their starters, thus providing them with a theoretical advantage? In other words, an NL team and an AL team pay the same amount of money for their starters but, because the AL teams have to pay 1 more starter, the NL pays more per starter, thus giving them better starters than the AL teams have.

I don’t know if this is true (aside from the Red Sox and Yankees, of course) but it’s something worth looking at.

Buster Posey
Guest
Buster Posey

Not 100% true… the NL would probably have a higher % of their team salary go toward bullpen and bench guys, because they are used more (more pinch hitting, double switches needed for when the pitcher’s order spot comes up.)

So, while true they aren’t spending $3-10MM a year on a DH, they do have other positions that get relied on more.

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