clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

It’s time to end Interleague Play

20 years in, Interleague Play is a failed experiment.

MLB: Miami Marlins at Oakland Athletics
They could have done this at a Giants game
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

I remember when Major League Baseball announced Interleague play, back in the late 90’s. Interleague play was part of Bud Selig’s plan to bring the fans back after the 1994 strike and cancelled world series, one that severely damaged major league baseball and which many credit for laying waste to the Montreal Expos.

In other words, it was conceived, explicitly, as a gimmick. A way to get people talking about baseball again, a way to bring more attention to the sport. American League teams versus National League teams, for 100 years limited to just the World Series, would now happen every year! Of course to do away with a century old schema on a whim, there was some justification put forth. At the time, it was things like “Fans in Pittsburgh and Philly can finally see Ken Griffey Jr.!” Sure, fans in two team markets like the Bay Area could see any player, but what about all these poor fans who only get exposed to half of the league?

Well, it turns out, fans don’t care about that. In baseball, there is no LeBron. Miguel Cabrera, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, as great as they are, only bat four or five times in a game. And get out, more often than not. And the greatest pitchers, well, you’re lucky to see them once in a series. Baseball is not really comparable to other, more star-centric sports.

Believe it or not, there have actually been a number of published studies that have reviewed the impact of interleague play, isolating its influence on attendance, all other factors equal. These studies all reach the same conclusion. By and large, fans care LESS about interleague play than regular games. The only exceptions are where local rivalries can engage fans. Yankees-Phillies, Cardinals-Royals, Cubs-White Sox, and perhaps A’s-Giants. Ironically, interleague play is only popular in markets where fans could already watch players from both leagues whenever they wanted, undermining the basic justification for the damn thing in the first place.

This makes intuitive sense. Winning is the number one factor in attendance, and if the team is winning, the opponent is not going to make that big of a difference. And if there is an exciting pennant race or wild card chase, a game against a division or league rival is going to be more interesting than a game against a relatively irrelevant team in another league. The exceptions are only the local rivalries, for obvious reasons.

The only saving grace of interleague play used to be that it was for a limited period of time, twice in a season. We could deal with the gimmickry in a more contained manner. However Bud Selig unleashed year-round interleague play with the completely unnecessary move of the Astros to the AL West division. With an odd number of teams in each league, the choice was either to have the impractical solution of two teams resting at all times or have interleague play happening throughout the season.

I was at one of the Marlins-A’s games at the Coliseum last week. It was the first time in many years that the two teams faced off, but the fans weren’t exactly clamoring for this contest. I can’t say that anyone was particularly excited to see the Marlins. The fans were there for the A’s, except for one extremely annoying Marlins/Raiders fan from San Jose we sat next to, who had to emphasize that he roots for the A’s all the time except when they play the Marlins because he was born in Miami. We get it dude. We don’t care. And also we don’t care about your flag football team, about your road trips to see the Raiders, or about the fact that your cousin is a parole officer (yes, seriously he felt that it was important to go on and on about these topics). His lady literally dragged him out of his seat as they left the game early (thank God). But I digress...the point is I don’t care about this “fan” or the Marlins. Nobody cares. Playing a bad AL team that we at least have some history with is far more interesting to me than the Marlins.

Then of course there are the league rules. I read articles recently that the A’s pitchers were taking bunting practice. They are under strict instructions to swing the bat as little as possible. So when the A’s go to NL stadiums, at best we will see a sacrifice bunt. And NL fans, who for some reason enjoy watching pitchers bat (and no, the Madison Bumgarner exception does not make the rule) hate the DH. Unless they have a beast of a pinch hitter on their bench they are typically throwing a below-average bat into the lineup, just because they need some warm body. This entire exchange is an exercise in stupidity.

Perhaps the biggest reason to get rid of interleague play is that the American League consistently dominates the series. All time, the AL has won 16/20 seasons, and holds a .528 winning percentage. That would project to a decent season (85 wins). If we go back just to 2004, the AL would be 13-0 and project to about an 89 win season. I am not exactly sure why the AL is so dominant over the NL but the bottom line is that there’s no compelling interleague competition. There’s no additional intrigue in an interleague matchup.

So while I might enjoy the novelty of hosting the Washington Nationals (with the most likely suspended Bryce Harper) this weekend, I truly do not understand the point of interleague play. Rather than have a bunch of series against irrelevant National League teams, I’d much rather have more than one series in Oakland against the Red Sox, Tigers, Orioles, or another AL team with whom the A’s have some direct competitive interests.

All the data shows that Interleague play is a failed gimmick. It never gained any meaningful traction, and has not really been popular among fans, aside from the few, very limited local matchups. So why keep it?

For now, the math requires it. At the moment, it is going to be hard to maintain my anti-interleague play stance, because Bud Selig, in an attempt to sustain his “legacy” permanently instituted year-round interleague play by placing 15 teams in each league. Otherwise, teams will have off days that fall on weekends, significantly damaging attendance.

If we must maintain the interleague play for local rivalries and weekend scheduling, we can at least minimize it until MLB has a chance to expand to two 16 team leagues. One interleague series happening at all times, and as much local, sensible rivalries as possible. If the local angle isn’t there, maybe have some world series rematches or something with an actual theme to make it interesting. Interleague play is a gimmick that has never been welcomed by the fans. It’s time to correct one of Bud Selig’s blunders and close the book on it.