The 3-2 Pitch by Andy Iskoe | For nearly two thirds of the 20th century Major League Baseball was a fairly stable industry.
There were only 16 franchises each and every year with an occasional move taking place. But the number of teams remained steady (eight in each league) until the AL expanded by two teams in 1961 and the NL did likewise a year later.
Over the next 40- plus years baseball has undergone many changes. The number of franchises is now 30. Prior to 1969 there was only the World Series between the single teams that finished first in each league.
In 1969 each league was divided into two divisions, creating the first set of post season matchups prior to the World Series. A quarter century later each league was divided into three divisions and a wild card team was added, creating yet another level of playoffs.
Shortly thereafter, in 1997, came the most radical development to affect major league baseball since the AL’s introduction of the designated hitter in 1973. Prior to 1997 teams in the AL faced the NL only in spring training and the World Series. But beginning in 1997 a not so insignificant part of each team’s 162 game schedule would be against teams in the "other" league that would count in the standings.
While many "purists" decried the so-called bastardization of America’s National Pastime and voiced concerns about the integrity of the game due to what would be often very imbalanced schedules, the public at large responded very favorably to the new scheduling dynamics.
And interleague play has been with us ever since, comprising roughly 10 percent of a team’s schedule each season.
The 2008 version of interleague play gets underway this coming weekend with 14 series taking place – eight in NL ballparks and six at AL venues. Because there are 16 teams in the NL and just 14 in the AL, two NL teams will play one another while the other 28 teams engage in interleague play. The Chicago Cubs will host division rival Pittsburgh in the lone NL series this weekend.
The AL has dominated interleague play in recent seasons. Between 2001 and 2004 AL teams won 497 regular season interleague games while NL teams won 511, a net edge of plus 14 games for the senior circuit. The NL had a six-game edge in 2002 and a 22-game edge in 2003. The American League had a 12-game edge in 2001 and a two-game edge in 2004.
But things took a dramatic turn in 2005 as AL teams went 136-116 against the NL and followed that up with an astounding record in 2006 of 154-98. Last season saw the AL again dominate along the lines of 2005, going 137-115 in these regular season interleague contests. That’s a net edge of +98 games over the past three seasons and an overall winning percentage of better than 56 percent.
Breaking down the results further, over the past three seasons AL teams have won over 63 percent of their home games (240-138) while winning barely under 50 percent of road games (187-191).
Will the AL domination continue this season? After peaking two seasons ago at + 56, the AL’s edge dropped back nearly all the way last season to its 2005 level. A case can be made that a further narrowing, if not outright reversal, of the gap should occur this season.
Here’s a look at four interleague series this weekend that happen to match up geographical rivals:
Nationals at Orioles: Baltimore has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the early season. Despite trading away staff ace Erik Bedard, the Orioles are playing .500 baseball nearly a quarter of the way through the season. Washington is struggling and having trouble filling its new ballpark.
There is some young talent on the Nationals but it has yet to jell. The pitching staff is very much a work in progress, although some early-season efforts by Tim Redding and John Lannan are encouraging.
• Orioles -125 tops in starts by Garrett Olsen, Daniel Cabrera or Jeremy Guthrie.
• Nats as underdogs facing Steve Trachsel.
• Nats +125 or more with Redding or Lannan.
• Over 8 or less in any matchup.
•Under 9½ or higher in any matchup
Mets at Yankees: The action in the stands is as entertaining as what’s happening on on the field when these crosstown rivals meet. Both teams have gotten off to sluggish starts this season. For the Yankees, it’s been due largely to key injuries than a lack of production. For the Mets, it’s been a lack of production from Carlos Beltran and Carlos Delgado although there is plenty of blame to spread around. Still, both teams are very talented and the Mets start the week three games above .500 while the Yanks are right at the break even mark. The Mets’ starting pitching has been just average.
New Mets ace Johan Santana, while limiting base runners, has again been victimized by the gopher ball. The Yanks have gotten better than expected starts from vets Mike Mussina and Andy Pettitte that have offset the poor efforts turned in by a couple of counted upon youngsters, Philip Hughes and Ian Kennedy. Darrell Rasner, called up to replace the injured Hughes, has turned in a pair of quality starts in his lone two efforts.
• Yankees as underdogs against Santana if Mussina or Pettitte pitch.
• Mets as underdogs against Mussina or Pettitte in starts by Santana or John Maine.
• Over 8 or lower in any matchup.
• Under 9 or higher if Santana or Maine oppose Mussina, Pettitte or Rasner.
Astros at Rangers: Both teams have played better than anticipated in the first month and a half although neither is expected to contend for the playoffs in the long run. Houston has gotten more offense while the Rangers have benefited from surprisingly solid starting pitching.
Interestingly, none of Houston’s starters has posted scintillating stats, but the bullpen has been solid. Houston ace Roy Oswalt has settled down after a rough first few starts and remains the ace of the staff.
• Either team as a +120 underdog or more in most matchups.
• Texas +130 or more against Oswalt.
• Over 9 or lower in all other matchups.
• Over 8 or lower if Oswalt’s start.
Dodgers at Angels: Both teams are playing winning baseball, but each begins this week riding a four-game losing streak. The Angels offense has been in a slump while the Dodgers woes have resulted from both poor starting pitching and a lack of offense. OF Andruw Jones is continuing to struggle mightily, showing no signs of breaking out of his season long slump.
The Angels have been hit with injuries, the latest being Chone Figgins, who has been a key to their offensive success. Fundamentally both teams have above average starting pitching and bullpens which suggest a low scoring series.
• Dodgers as +120 underdogs or more in starts by Brad Penny or Derek Lowe.
• Angels as dogs or -120 favorites in starts by Ervin Santana, Joe Saunders or Jered Weaver.
• Under 9 or higher in all other matchups.
• Under 8 or higher if Penny or Lowe opposes Santana, Saunders or Weaver.