Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Baseball [Print without images]

Thursday, June 26, 2008
Updated: July 3, 2:27 PM ET
Interleague certainly a significant part of the schedule

By Jayson Stark
ESPN.com

There's nothing quite like interleague play -- if you're C.C. Sabathia, whomping a 440-foot home run in your only chance all year to swing the bat.

And there's nothing quite like interleague play -- if you're the Kansas City Royals, a team that seems as if it has already won more games against teams from That Other League than it might win all year against its own league.

And there's really, really nothing quite like interleague play -- if you're the Tampa Bay Rays, attracting 97,500 living humans to your normally half-empty building to watch you sweep a Cubs team with the best record in the whole darned National League.

WORLD SERIES WINNERS RECORDS IN INTERLEAGUE PLAY
Year Team Record
2007 Red Sox 12-6
2006 Cardinals 5-10
2005 White Sox 12-6
2004 Red Sox 9-9
2003 Marlins 9-6
2002 Angels 11-7
2001 Diamondbacks 7-8
2000 Yankees 11-6
1999 Yankees 9-9
1998 Yankees 13-3
1997 Marlins 12-3
All of that stuff made for tremendous interleague theater this month. But it also caused us to ponder a more important question:

What does it all mean?

Are the big interleague moments just show time? Or are they more? Do they mean anything? Do they tell us anything?

If the Phillies have a 1-5 homestand against the Red Sox and Angels, is there any more cosmic significance to that than a 1-5 homestand against the Braves and Brewers?

If the Royals sweep the Cardinals, and the Tigers sweep the Dodgers, and the Twins sweep the Diamondbacks, what does that tell us about any of those teams?

So we went delving this week into the deeper inner meaning of interleague play. Here's what we found:

Stuff happens

It's a funny thing. Ask around baseball, and nobody believes there's much significance to any of this. We surveyed scouts and managers and GMs. And virtually to a man, they all tried their best to downplay the magnitude of all of this stuff.

"So much depends on how the pitching falls," said Red Sox manager Terry Francona.

"I try not to put much stock in it," said Cubs GM Jim Hendry, after a crazy week in which his team got swept in Tampa Bay, then swept the White Sox at home. "We lost one game in Tampa just because [Carlos] Marmol finally had a bad day. How many has he had all year? One? Two? And we were in all three games. We could have swept them. Instead, we got swept. But we didn't lose because we were overmatched."

And a scout who watched that 1-5 Phillies homestand told us: "I don't think the Phillies can be dismissed as the team to beat in the [NL] East because of interleague, because I still think they are."

Well, they might be. But the more we looked at this, the more we determined that if we make too little of interleague play, we're making a big mistake.

The interleague road to October

We didn't think 12 or 15 or 18 games in May and June would tell us much about which teams eventually show up in the postseason. Turned out we were wrong about that.

• Of the 88 playoff teams in the interleague era, only 20 of them (or 23 percent) had losing interleague records that year.

• And another seven of those 20 were only one game under .500 in interleague play.

• Most significantly, no team made it to October after having as rough a time in interleague play as the 3-8 records the Phillies and Dodgers have. (Worst interleague record ever by a playoff team: 4-11, by the '97 Astros, in the first year of interleague play.)

We found that surprising. But when we ran that research past an official of one contending team, he didn't sound shocked.

"You can't go 2-10, or 3-12, in interleague play and get to the postseason," he said, flatly.

Well, that sounds logical enough. But is it? Isn't it worse to have two bad weeks against the teams in your own league, the teams you're actually fighting for those playoff berths? It seems like it. Except that interleague time is "the one time all year," said the same official, "where you can lose that day and every team in your division can gain ground on you, because none of them are playing each other." Hey, good point.

The interleague road to late October

Meanwhile, we also found that World Series champs almost always kick some serious butt in interleague play.

INTERLEAGUE WINS IN
THE LAST FIVE YEARS
Year AL NL
2008 116 83
2007 137 115
2006 154 98
2005 136 116
2004 127 125
Just two World Series winners in the interleague era have had a losing interleague record. And all told, those 11 champs were a combined 37 games over .500 in interleague games (110-73).

But if you factor out the 2006 Cardinals (83-78 overall, 5-10 in interleague), a team that defied odds across the board, it gets even more pronounced. The other 10 winners had a .625 interleague winning percentage -- the equivalent of a 101-win season. Those same teams had just a .593 winning percentage against their own league.

So obviously, these interleague results are telling us something. But here's what they don't tell us:

Who's going to win it all.

No World Series winner since the omnipotent '98 Yankees -- a 114-win team that smoked everybody, regardless of league -- has been the team with the best regular-season interleague record that year. And you know those head-to-head matchups in June? They mean zilch in October.

Four times now, teams that met in the regular season met again in the World Series. A lot that told us about who would be riding the parade floats.

The Rockies won two of three in Fenway last June, outscoring the Red Sox, 20-5. You know how that World Series turned out. The 2006 Tigers swept an interleague series from the Cardinals. You know what happened that October, too.

And the Braves won an interleague series from the Yankees in 1999, only to get swept in the World Series. So just the 2000 Yankees' four interleague wins in six games against the Mets turned out to be a true indicator of where the World Series was heading.

Yeah, you might think those June games would have some impact down the line -- whether it was in confidence, familiarity or information-gathering. But all they really did was provide a powerful reminder of how different October baseball truly is.

"I think playing [Detroit] in the season helped us some," said Walt Jocketty, who was the GM of that Cardinals team. "At least we had some knowledge of their hitters and pitchers. But more than anything, October is just a completely different season."

And the facts prove it. So we wouldn't advise checking out any of these potential "World Series previews" you've been watching this month and then betting the beach house on the winners. Doesn't work that way. And even the participants know it.

We asked Hendry if he'd filed away any information last weekend from that (ahem) World Series preview the Cubs played against the White Sox. He had to laugh.

"To tell you the truth," he chuckled, "I really hate to act like 'See ya in October.' I mean, we haven't made too many appearances there. You know what I mean?"

According to schedule

OK, here's some good news: We did locate one conclusion about interleague play that everybody in baseball agrees upon: The schedule makes about as much sense as the income-tax codes.

For instance: The NL Central was supposed to be matched up against the AL East this year, right? But somehow, the Yankees and Red Sox had just two common opponents (Houston and Cincinnati).

So the Yankees' other 12 interleague games were against the Pirates, Padres and Mets (currently a combined 20 games under .500), but the Red Sox got stuck with the Phillies, Cardinals, Diamondbacks and Brewers (currently a combined 27 games over .500). And neither of them played the Cubs. Huh? If this AL East race ever tightens, think you'll hear any decibel-ized howling out of the New England portion of the old fan base?

But inside baseball, that howling has already started.

"I don't know how they do that schedule," said an official of one team. "There's no rhyme or reason to it."

"The schedule is just not fair," said Chipper Jones. "If I was the commissioner, I'd get rid of interleague play completely. ... And if they're infatuated with interleague play and they want to keep it, then let's play everybody. Why not? Just play 'em all. Let's even it up."

TRIVIALITY

Cito Gaston is one of two active managers who have managed their current team twice. Can you name the other? (Answer later.)

This subject comes up in owners meetings, in union meetings and in GM meetings. But nothing ever changes. And ultimately, the schedule does make a difference -- a difference that can literally determine who wins and who loses.

The Red Sox may have won the AL East last year, for instance. But the Yankees had a better record against AL teams. And the Rockies may have won the NL wild card last year. But that Padres team they beat in a playoff had a better record against NL teams.

In fact, we found 16 division or wild-card races in the interleague era that were altered by the difference in interleague records. So those goofy interleague schedules do matter. And while it may not be possible to make them all "equal," barring implementation of the Chipper Jones Play Nobody or Play Everybody Plan, baseball has to do a better job in the future of minimizing these inequities.

The AL rules again

Finally, in the pursuit of wisdom, we asked one long-time scout this week if interleague play gives him a different perspective on teams he covers. He was ready with his answer faster than you could say "Bud Selig."

"What I learn is how the top-shelf teams play against other top-shelf teams," he said. "And what you find out is that the National League still stinks.

Youch. Does that truth ever hurt. For a while there this season, it seemed as if the National League might have closed that much-ballyhooed league-superiority gap with the American League. But then interleague play started. And, uh, never mind.

Through Wednesday, AL teams had a ridiculous 116-83 record in interleague play. If that keeps up, this will be the second-most one-sided interleague mismatch in history -- trailing only the AL's 2006 wipeout (154-98). It's also going to be the fifth straight year the AL has outwon the NL. AL teams are now 133 games over .500 in that span.

Just three AL teams have losing interleague records this season, the same number as last year. The Orioles, Tigers and Twins -- three teams that are 11 games under .500 against their own league -- have gone a combined 29-13 against the NL. And the Royals -- who are an ugly 24-40 against AL teams -- are a mind-boggling 12-3 against NL teams.

"It's unbelievable that there could be that much disparity," said one AL executive. "Can the National League really be that bad?"

Well, in a word ... yeah. If interleague play has taught us anything, it has sure taught us that.

Raul Ibanez

Ibanez

Rumbling through the jungle

Trio bravo: For weeks, the Braves have focused on adding starting pitching. But in recent days, they've shifted their M.O. to adding a bat, who would almost certainly land in left field. Clubs that have spoken with the Braves report that they're targeting only guys who could represent another "certified threat" in their lineup. So given the dearth of that sort of creature, three to keep your eye on are Raul Ibanez, Jason Bay and Xavier Nady.

What about Matt Holliday, you ask, given his similarities to last year's marquee deadline attraction, Mark Teixeira? Nope. There is no indication the Braves are even interested, if only because their system isn't as loaded as it was last summer. This time around, says one baseball man who has cased out their organization, it would be tough for them "to muster up another truck to back up."

Halo heaven: Rumors seem to be everywhere that link the Angels with two of the biggest potential names on the pre-deadline market, Teixeira and C.C. Sabathia. But clubs that have checked in with the Angels say that, barring a big injury, they're not planning any major moves.

At this point, they don't even have an open position where they could plug in a hitter like Teixeira, even if he were available (which he isn't). And when asked about their interest in Sabathia, one executive who has spoken with them responded pointedly: "I wouldn't buy into that one."

Francisco Rodriguez

Rodriguez

Special K: The one cloud over the Angels' amazing start is that this is the last guaranteed year on the contracts of both Francisco Rodriguez and Vladimir Guerrero. And that raises questions about whether the Angels' brass will keep this team together.

According to one baseball man who has spoken with Angels management, the powers that be are split on whether to give Rodriguez the four-year deal, for north of $60 million, he's looking for. And they're still believed to be split even if Rodriguez signals he'd settle for three years, plus a vesting option. Scot Shields and the intriguing Jose Arredondo are both options if K-Rod leaves.

Vlad all over: On the Guerrero front, the Angels and agent Diego Benz had brief talks about an extension in spring training, got nowhere and then went on with their lives. But at least Guerrero's status is less pressing, since the Angels hold a $15-million club option for next year. And they'll almost certainly pick it up, now that Guerrero has proven his early-season scuffles were no big deal. In case you hadn't noticed, Guerrero leads the majors with a .422 batting average in June, with six homers and a 1.222 OPS.

"When you hear all these reports, and people talking about his wear and tear and bat speed, that's bull," manager Mike Scioscia told Rumblings. "This guy, he's fine."

What actually irks Scioscia more than the Vlad-might-be-done speculation is the conversation that often accompanies it -- that the Angels go as Guerrero goes.

"We have to be more than Vlad now," the manager said. "He's a huge keystone of what we need to do. But when we're struggling, I think there's too much focus on him, and what he needs to do and how he needs to carry us."

A.J. Burnett

Burnett

Can you spell A.J.: He may not be aware of it, but Toronto's perpetually puzzling A.J. Burnett has become a major topic of conversation around the industry.

While it almost seems like a given that he'll opt out of his contract at the end of the year, not everybody is so sure that a guy with a 5.07 ERA will rake in more as a free agent than the $12 million a year he has coming through 2010 in his current deal. "Let's put it this way," said an official of one team. "He has a lot of motivation to have a good second half. Doesn't he?"

Sure does. Which is one reason he figures to attract so much attention if the Blue Jays decide to put him on the market. Of all the rent-a-pitchers who could be available, he might be the most talented. But he also might be the least predictable.

"He's an underachiever," said an executive of one team that has kicked Burnett's name around. "But if you get him while he's hot for a couple of months, then you've got something. You just keep thinking he has a lot of reasons to pitch well down the stretch."

Oh, he does. But suppose you trade for him, and he doesn't get hot?

"If you trade for him thinking he's a rental, you'd better be careful," said an official of another interested team. "You could take him, and he might go 2-5 and say, 'I'm not going to opt out. I'll just stick around and take my $24 million.' And then you're stuck with him. So if you trade for A.J., I think you've got to do it with the idea that you've got him for two more years."

Incidentally, the Blue Jays still haven't placed Burnett in their display window, and they won't until they wait a few weeks to see if their purge of manager and coaching staff can get their club jump-started.

Deep dishing: Speaking of Burnett, the most over-ballyhooed trade rumor of the year is the talk linking him to the Cubs. We haven't found any indication that the Cubs have even batted his name around. And teams that have spoken with the Cubs report that if they do make a deal for starting pitching, they wouldn't pursue just any old arm. They're looking for pitchers who can make an impact. So while they may not have enough prospect depth to pull off a trade for C.C. Sabathia, you can expect them to make an aggressive run at him if he ever becomes available.

Mets rumor of the week: Latest name on the Mets managerial rumor mill: Yankees coach Tony Pena. But Mets officials have been telling people that A) Jerry Manuel has the inside track on getting a full-time gig if he can turn this team around, B) Omar Minaya is completely safe for the foreseeable future and C) the Mets aren't planning to make any deals or significant personnel changes until they give Manuel two or three weeks to right the ship.

Oliver Perez

Perez

On the other hand: All that stay-the-course talk notwithstanding, there might be one prominent Met on the market any minute now -- Oliver Perez. An official of one team who spoke with the Mets' brass this week reports the Mets are so fed up with Perez's inconsistency, they're about ready to listen to offers for him. On deck to replace him in the rotation: Tony Armas Jr., currently leading the Pacific Coast League in ERA (2.50).

Dunn deal: Here's an ironic twist to the whole Adam Dunn-J.P. Ricciardi mix-up: Guess which team is on Dunn's 10-team no-trade list? Yep. You've got it. It's J.P. Ricciardi's Blue Jays. So how much better off would the GM have been if he'd told his favorite radio callers: "Don't even ask me about trading for Adam Dunn. He has us on his no-trade list."

Junior Griffey rumor of the week: According to one baseball man who has spoken with both the Reds' and Mariners' brass, the Reds were talking to former Mariners GM Bill Bavasi about a deal that could have sent Griffey to Seattle after Griffey's 600th home run. But the Mariners have shown no interest in rekindling those talks since Bavasi lost his job. So if you were a betting man, bet on Junior to finish the season right where he started it -- in Cincinnati.

Indians rumors of the week: Seems as if the only Indians anyone ever talks about hitting the market next month are Sabathia and Paul Byrd. But one NL executive says the Indians have also let teams know they would talk about several of their bullpen arms -- starting with Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Perez -- and enigmatic 25-year-old outfielder Franklin Gutierrez.

Something brewing: Here at World Rumblings Headquarters, we're hearing the same noises that our buddy Buster Olney has been hearing -- that the Brewers loom as one of the most serious potential bidders on Sabathia, even if he's just a rent-a-starter. The Brewers have a deep system. And principal owner Mark Attanasio has made it clear to his baseball operation that it's time to go for it. So if Sabathia winds up somewhere other than Milwaukee, said one baseball man who has spoken with GM Doug Melvin, "it won't be because they're afraid to give up their prospects."

The Bedard Watch: Much as the Yankees need pitching, we're hearing they've all but decided Erik Bedard's personality issues would make him a no-go in their always-serene clubhouse. But apparently, the Phillies haven't reached that same conclusion -- not yet, at least. Either that, or it was just a coincidence that their director of professional scouting, Chuck LaMar, showed up in Atlanta last weekend for just one game of a Braves-Mariners series -- the game Bedard started.

TRIVIA ANSWER

Bobby Cox managed the Braves from 1978-81, then returned to manage them again from 1990 onward.

The Carlos Carrasco Watch: Carlos Carrasco is no household name to most fans. But among the scouting community, he's the most-watched pitcher in the entire Phillies system -- a 21-year-old right-handed rocket-launcher the Phillies would have to agonize over seriously before trading. One scout's review: "Why is this guy still in Double-A? He's a big-time arm with quality stuff who could eventually be a top-of-the-rotation guy. I don't see them trading him. I really don't."

The Joba Watch: After watching two of Joba Chamberlain's starts, one scout's conclusion is: "I think he ought to be a closer, not a starter. His pitch counts get so high that I don't know how deep he'll be able to get in the game. And he' s such a max-effort guy, I keep asking myself: 'What's he going to look like after his first surgery, if he keeps starting?' "

Naturalist of the week: Finally, Torii Hunter says he can't believe how much better his knees feel playing on grass than they used to feel on the lush Astro-concrete in the Metrodome.

"Hey, God knew what he was doing when He made grass," Hunter laughed. "When you start playing with nature and engineering grass, it's not really good for you. Just like organic food versus antibiotic food. Organic: Good for you. Anti-biotic: Not."

Headliner of the week

From the relentlessly brilliant satiric wits at The Onion:

Mike Lowell Second In All-Star Voting
But Leads In All-Star Superdelegates

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com. His book, "The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy.