MLB Analysis: Interleague Play is the Absolute Worst

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MLB’s interleague play has plenty of critics. The complaints range from uneven schedules to creating “rivalries” where none exist. Its supporters claim, among other things, that fans like it, it boosts attendance, and we all get to see a wider selection of MLB’s marquee players in action at the ballpark. Let me state right up front that I’m no fan of interleague play. Most of what I don’t like about it probably has more to do with my advanced age than anything else. But at least one negative aspect of interleague play has nothing to do with my status as a geezer, and everything to do with crowning champions.

When a team at almost any level wins its league, division, section, conference, or whatever else they chose to call it (let’s call it a “group”) that team has demonstrated it’s the best team in that group. And how does it demonstrate that prowess? The teams in the group fight it out amongst themselves for the top spot, and whoever beats its opponents from that group the most lays claim to the group title.

Let’s take college football as an example, setting aside for the moment the BCS system’s problems once conference championships have been decided. To win a college football conference title a team has to have the best record against the teams in its conference. Simple, right? And to get to the conference championship game in a conference with divisions, a team has to have the best conference record in its division. Same deal each time. And that’s the way it should be, right?

Well, thanks to the genius known as Bud Selig, that’s not how it goes in MLB. At the end of the season, all games count the same. Division games count the same as out-of-division games, and league games count the same as interleague games. Now I don’t have a problem with teams in the same division having slightly uneven league schedules. Over the course of 162 games, playing a game or two more against a league team than your division opponents play is understandable given the complexities of scheduling and the numbers of teams in divisions and leagues. I do have a problem with declaring one team a division winner over another team based on a record that includes a significant number of games against teams one team played and the other did not. Are you still with me? Let me give you an example.

In the National League Central this year, the two teams in first and second as of May 19th were the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds. This weekend MLB played interleague ball. Well, most of it did. The Reds played the New York Yankees, but the Cardinals played the Los Angeles Dodgers in a 3-game set. Okay, that’s the way it has to be with the number of teams in the league. All will come out even once the whole 162-game schedule is played, right? Wrong.

The Reds’ interleague schedule includes 3 games against the Yankees, 6 games against the Cleveland Indians, 3 games against the Detroit Tigers, and 3 games against the Minnesota Twins. That all makes sense. They’re playing teams for the most part from the center of the country and they get a shot at the Yankees thrown into the mix. Good for them. What about their division rivals the Cardinals? You’d think they’d have pretty much the same schedule so that when it comes time to decide who’s the best team in the division you’d be comparing apples to apples, right? Wrong. The Cardinals play 6 games against the Kansas City Royals, a team the Reds don’t play, and 3 games each against the Indians, Tigers, and Chicago White Sox, another team the Reds don’t play. They both play 15 interleague games, and they both play the Tigers and the Indians. But the Reds play 6 games against two teams the Cardinals don’t face – the Yankees and the Twins – and the Cardinals play 9 games against two teams the Reds don’t face – the Royals and the White Sox.

When it comes to determining which team is the better team, which team wins the division, how do you tell? Do you give it to the team that played mostly apples and a few oranges, or the team that played mostly apples and a handful of avocados? We know that you can’t just eliminate the non-common games from consideration. The history of MLB’s All Star game tells us games that don’t count have a tendency to get phoned in. None of the division races were particularly close last year, but in 2010 the National League West, home of the World Champion San Francisco Giants, was decided by 2 games, and the American League East was decided by 1 game. This isn’t about one team having an arguably weaker schedule than a division rival; it’s about teams in the same division having schedules that are a valid basis for comparison and ranking, for a shot at the championship.

As I said at the outset, I’m no fan of interleague play. Maybe I’m just too old school to get worked up about the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Kansas City Royals squaring off against each other during the regular season. Honestly, most of my objections have to do with tradition, nostalgia, sentimentality, and the fact that the Oakland A’s lost 11 in a row in AT&T Park to the Giants. But not this one…

Jonathan Dyer has been a baseball fanatic since playing Little League in the 1960s, and he’s been following the Oakland A’s since moving to the Bay Area in the late 1970s when he watched Rickey Henderson play for Billy Martin. Dyer, the author of three novels, now brings his long-term perspective to writing about baseball, connecting the modern game to its historic context. You may email Jonathan directly at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dyer_jp. You can follow his progress on two new novels he’s writing at