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AL (Dis)Advantage During Interleague Play

Posted by Andy on June 26, 2010

I think most folks would agree that the American League has a distinct advantage when teams from the two leagues meet during interleague play. When the games are in NL parks, the two teams are evenly matched--the AL team sits their DH and both teams bat their pitchers in the last spot in the order. When the games are in AL parks, the AL gets to play their full lineup including their DH, and the NL has to pick a bench player to fill in as the DH. Since NL teams don't usually carry an extra good everyday hitter, there's a significant disadvantage in having to use a bench guy to hit in the pitcher's place. While that bench guy will certainly be a better hitter, he certainly will not be as good as the AL team's DH, otherwise he'd be a starter.

But there's one clear disadvantage for AL teams in interleague games in NL parks: the offensive game of its pitchers. Clearly the AL pitchers are (on average) not nearly as good with the bat, whether swinging away or attempting to sacrifice. But there's one other big area on offense in which they are also not as good: running the bases.

Tonight, Clay Buchholz got hurt running from first to second on a ground ball. This came after he singled in his first major-league at-bat. I'm sure Terry Francona wishes now that he'd instructed Buchholz to leave the bat on his shoulder for the entire at-bat. Even if Buchholz misses only this game and no starts in the coming weeks, that loss alone was enough to give up Buchholz's single.

This is not the first injury for an AL starting pitcher running the bases. Chien-Ming Wang got hurt in this game, spraining his foot while running. He missed the rest of the 2008 season and pitched poorly in 2009. His performance was related by many to continuing foot and leg problems stemming from the running injury.

The loss of Wang cost the Yankees dearly--perhaps even a playoff spot in 2008. The Red Sox might have just lost their best starting pitcher, too. That big advantage we thought the AL had in interleague play might not be so big after all.

This entry was posted on Saturday, June 26th, 2010 at 8:15 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

39 Responses to “AL (Dis)Advantage During Interleague Play”

  1. Spartan Bill Says:

    They were talking about this (in the hypothetical) in one of the Angels @ Cubs broadcasts last week, It appeared that one of the pitchers was given the instructions not to swing the bat

    Now is Scioscia feels that he would rather take the out than get a pitcher on base; shouldn't Piniella's move be to Intentionally walk the pitcher?

    I realize variables such as score, outs and whatnot might change the strategy, but isn;t this something a manager might want to consider in certain circumstances?

  2. @ Spartan Bill:

    Not necessarily. As you said, there are a lot of variables. As a National League fan, I have (many, many times) hoped the pitcher didn't take the bat off his shoulders, simply to avoid the double play. I think that's the most common reason for avoiding the swing. While you could be right, I would say that in general, it's because a pitcher can create TWO outs by swinging, but only ONE by striking out. At least, that's my experience in watching a lot of baseball.

    As far as other situations go, you could be right. However, I don't know that there's ever been a baserunner so bad that a manager would rather have him on base every time than try to create the out.

  3. I don't think the AL teams are evenly matched in the interleague games at NL parks at all. You're talking AL teams that have designed their lineup to have a real hitter as opposed to a pitcher, and thus you're not only removing a bonafide hitter from the lineup, but forcing adjustments to the lineups that don't come into play in a standard game.

    The DH advantage also gets neutered somewhat in AL ballparks during interleague - the NL teams that build a lineup over 8 actual hitters and a pitcher now get a) a hitter to place in the lineup and b) the pitcher doesn't have to hit, lessening injury risk, fatigue, and (in rare cases) retaliation.

    I haven't run numbers on this, obviously, but the benefit to the NL seems staggering, and that they're unable to take advantage more often speaks more to the strength of the AL as a league on a whole than it does the fairness factor.

  4. Rather ironic that Buchholz was injured while running the bases. While he obviously has very little experience, he is regarded by his teammates as one of the fastest guys on the team, and even appeared in a game last summer as a pinch runner.

  5. As an NL fan, I feel that if an AL team can't retain their DH in an NL game by giving him a position to play on the field, tough luck. A guy who can't play defense has no business being in the Major Leagues anyway, as far as I'm concerned.

  6. I really think that either both leagues should be DH or (preferably) both leagues should be pitchers hit. It's a competitive imbalance due to roster construction and experience. Also, AL pitchers are more likely to get hurt if they never practice swinging or sliding or generally running the bases. They simply don't have the know-how or the muscular training to do so in a consistently safe way.

  7. A) competitive imbalance argument is crazy.... start with a salary cap before getting into DH discussions.....
    B) the NL team gains something by playing in an AL park (a bench bat over a pitchers bat) while an AL team loses something when playing in an NL park (your DH presumably being a better hitter than your pitcher)

  8. "the NL team gains something by playing in an AL park (a bench bat over a pitchers bat)"

    I'm not following the argument of those who say this is a "gain" for the NL team. Is the AL team using the pitcher to bat? That's the only way it would be a gain.

    In 95% of their regular season games, an NL team only needs 8 players that are good enough to start. Some are lucky enough to have an additional player that could start elsewhere but this is extremely rare as if a player is good enough to start, he's not going to play/sign with a team in which he won't.

    So, in AL stadium, the AL team essentially has 9 MLB regulars starting and the NL team has 8 regulars and one bench player starting. How is this a gain for the NL team?

  9. Rich has encapsulated my point nicely. I thought it was so obvious that the AL teams have an advantage in interleague play, I'm surprised to hear anyone try to argue the other way. Look at the results, for starters.

  10. When I read the original post where Andy wrote "I think most folks would agree that the American League has a distinct advantage," my thoughts were that, while I couldn't agree more with the underlying thought, there will definitely be debate on this matter.

    I've heard the arguments many times from AL folks (including managers and broadcasters - mostly the Yankees because I am in the NY metro area) saying that NL pitchers are so much more proficient because they practice hitting and the AL team is hurt for not having one of its regulars in the lineup. I'm pretty sure I even heard someone trot out statistics regarding how NL DH's aren't that much worse than AL DH's (of course no one challenged these statistics by pointing out that the player added to the NL lineup isn't always listed as DH since teams often give a star a half day off and play a backup player in the field).

    The problem with the argument presented by Thomas @7 is that it only accounts for half the game. Of course NL offenses will be more potent than usual when using a DH and AL weaker without, but the pitchers face the reverse situation since they are now facing a weaker/stronger offense. The other factor is that pitchers in close games generally only have 2 or 3 plate appearances because they will usually get pinch hit for if they are giving up runs and the lineup wont cycle over many times if it is low scoring - the AL team then has a potent bat to come off the bench as a pinch hitter.

    It is unfortunate that it is so difficult to assemble stats on this topic (since we don't know who a manager would have played under a different set of rules), especially because this is a statistics blog.

  11. I had an additional point on the injury issue which I wanted to separate out from the discussion of AL/NL disadvantage. The Wang injury and the Buchholz injury (from what I saw of it) were essentially running injuries (and the Wang injury, in particular, a freak injury). They didn't get injured changing directions, stepping on a base funny, sliding or in a collision with a fielder. Yankee management has completely over-reacted to the Wang injury by cowering in fear every time a pitcher might have to run the bases, but there pitchers got injured running, something they do countless times during training and covering or backing up a base during the course of play.

    Regarding Spartan Bill's @1 point about intentional walks of the pitcher, the pitcher is told not to swing either because of fear of a doubly play (as David wrote) or fear of injury (this happened with Mariano Rivera against the Mets last year, but he ignored the instruction not to swing). Walking a batter isn't going to help you in the first department versus taking the easy strikeout and the injury fear only makes any sense when you factor in losing the pitcher for an extended period of time (given the unlikelihood of an injury taking place). In any event if the offense really felt that it would benefit more from striking out than taking a walk, it could instruct the batter to simply swing at the pitchouts (though I doubt many players would follow this directive easily).

  12. Spartan Bill Says:

    Evan, I didn't make ti clear, but in the context I mentioned injury wasn't the issue behind the IW.

    Would you rather have the SP hustling on the bases or resting on the bench> In other words are you better off allowing the baserunner and getting a tired pitcher next inning?

  13. Oh, how absent-minded of me. I have actually thought about a similar point while watching games*. Of course the point about intentional strikeouts trumping intentional walks could still be valid. Anecdotally, I think we have all seen situations where a pitcher was seemingly gassed from running the bases (although I'm not sure I would say "hustling" to describe a fair number of pitchers) and he subsequently gave up runs, but this might be similar to a guy making a great catch and then leading off the next inning where we only remember it when it happens. It would be interesting to look at ERA numbers for innings in which the pitcher had run the bases the previous inning, not sure if the PI is capable of producing this kind of data. If indeed there is an impact, I would wonder if it is more physical or mental in terms of the pitcher not being sufficiently prepared for the next inning, probably a little of both.

    * Pitcher on 1st, grounder but not a DP ball would you rather have the pitcher on 2nd or the (often) leadoff hitter on 1st? Not a common play, but I would think that you would frequently be better off throwing to first, especially if the batter is a SB threat.

  14. I fee the same way as Andy does. AL teams obviously have the advantage.

  15. Any starts out"

    "I think most folks would agree that the American League has a distinct advantage when teams from the two leagues meet during interleague play."

    I don't think it's anywhere close to an accepted fact. I've heard people argue that tha NL has an advantage, that the AL has the advantage or that niether does.

    I fall into the "about even" camp. The main thing that hasn't been discussed (although Thomas touched on it) is that teams have limited resoures in terms of money, roster positions and time.

    Clearly the AL DH is a better player the NL "ninth man," which gives the AL team an advantage at home. But the NL team will take that roster position and that salary and use it to benefit the team in another area. Let's say both teams have below average second basemen. The AL team might just live with it and use its resourses for a DH, while the NL team will go get a second baseman. At the NL park, the NL team now has an advantage at second, but the AL DH is sitting on the bench.

    The same goes for pitchers batting. It is stated that NL pitchers spend more time practicing hitting than AL pitchers. I suppose that might be true. You'd think that an AL team, knowing that they will play several games in NL parks, would give the pitchers some practice. But even if they do, any time spent practicing hitting is at the cost of pitchiing practice, so it's a wash. I suppose you could argue that there's nothing like game experience, but I think since (as far as I know) all minor leage parks use the DH, the quality of hitting by pitchers is pretty low even in the NL. I haven't seen a comparison of NL vs. AL pitching stats, but i doubt if it's much difference. (Of course I am fully aware that if I'm wrong on this point it will be pointed out to me in a matter of hours)

    That being said, while I prefer non-DH ball and would like to see it everywhere, my second choice would be for both leagues to adopt it. For a sport to have two sets of rules at the same level seems silly to me.

  16. I think most folks would agree that the American League has a distinct advantage when teams from the two leagues meet during interleague play. When the games are in NL parks, the two teams are evenly matched--the AL team sits their DH and both teams bat their pitchers in the last spot in the order.

    I am astonished that anyone thinks this way quite frankly.

    When an AL team plays in an NL park there's a good chance they're doing it without one of their key bats. When an NL team plays in an AL park there's even less chance of it than in a regular NL game.

    And every time interleague play comes along I am reminded how NL rules force a manager's hand. NL lovers like to say that there's more strategy but there's really less.

    For starters just having fewer baserunners means there are fewer situations where there's any decision to make.

    Ooh, we got a runner on and the pitcher is up...what's he gonna do?

    Ooh, we have a good scoring opportunity, the pitcher's spot is up and we're down by a run or two (after say the 5th inning) what's gonna happen?

    The vast majority of times those decisions are automatic.

    NL ball means the best players spend less time on the field doing what they do best, and often it's because of what they do worst.

    Okay, a little off track but you get the point.

  17. Verlander just GIDP with bases loaded and no outs...shoulda kept the bat on his shoulder.

  18. Counterargument such as Rasputin's and others here assume (incorrectly) that the strength of the AL and NL lineup is the same ad therefore subtracting the DH hurts the AL more. This is a fallacy.

  19. The advantage is not in adding or subtracting the pitcher or DH. The advantage the AL holds over the NL is that most AL lineups are solid 109 whereas most NL lineups are generally only solid 1-6. So when the NL adds a bat in AL parks, or the AL subtracts the DH in NL parks, the AL still has an advantage by still having a deeper stronger lineup. Also lost in the arguement is that AL pitchers get better in NL parks because of not having to face as strong of a lineup which only furthers the AL advantage. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying every NL team only has six good hitters, but the majority do. And I'm not claiming every AL lineup is solid 1-9 but the vast majority are. And to reinforce earlier posts, the NL advantage of the AL losing the DH is only an advantage if the strength of the AL and NL is identical

  20. With regard to the last two posts, OBVIUOSLY it's an advantage to the AL team if it's a better team. Same thing's true for an NL team. The only way that saying one team has an "advantage" makes sense is to say, given two teams WITH AN EQUAL AMOUNT OF TALENT, one team or the other is more likely to win. For two temas to be equal, if one team has a better DH, the other team has to be better somewhere else.

    In other words, if the AL wins more than the NL, if could mean EITHER that the AL has an advantage OR that at this moment the average AL team is better for some reason than the average NL team.

  21. First of all, I don't buy the reasoning that the DH rule provides such a great advantage to the AL. NL teams regularly keep a bat on the bench, and the interleague play just gives this bat that much more opportunity to shake off the ol' cobwebs -- at least, for one month a season.

    THe difference would only be valid if there was a significant difference between won-loss ratios at AL parks as opposed to NL parks, which just isn't there. Period. These are the same arguments they had in the Seventies when the rule {which, by the way, I could really live without, personally} was first implemented. Perhaps someday, we MIGHT finally realize that the DH is neither the salvation of the game, nor it's ruination.

  22. Frank, I don't have access to the numbers at the moment but I believe the AL has won a lot more games in both AL and NL parks. That would indicate an advantage either due to the DH factor or something else that's been mentioned--AL pitchers being better due to usually facing a DH or the AL is just better.

  23. I'm sure Boston fans find the advantage in losing Ortiz for every game in NL. That would sound like an advantage... or maybe the advantage is having him play the field? I'm not sure I get it? Additionally, in looking through the team by team DH stats (for what the apparent "starter" is when clicking on the 2010 team) I'm not really overwhelmed by any of the guys... certainly not more than one or two. So, we're saying that the AL has an advantage because guys like Mark Kotsay or Andrew Jones (both batting around .210) are getting ABs over NL bench players like Jim Edmonds or Pat Burrell or Edgar Renteria (all of whom are batting decently enough)? I'm not sold on that.

    Also, as a Phillies fan, I'm thrilled to let Howard get 2 games (mostly) off while not losing his bat in the lineup.

    NL teams need a bat on the bench because they constantly are using Pinch Hitters, so the bench players in the NL are much more relevant day to day then AL bench players are... and getting them some extra ABs definitely sounds like a negative. I mean, really? Why would it be important for a team to get guys that are going to get ABs in the late inning of relevant games playing time?

    I'm not sure where the giant negative is for NL teams.... but I am seeing a giant negative for AL teams, that being a pitcher hitting, and not only a pitcher hitting but one that gets 3 ABs a year and probably never even practices.

  24. Andy, if the percentages are not affected by park factor {or league factor}, this proves my point.

  25. Counterargument such as Rasputin's and others here assume (incorrectly) that the strength of the AL and NL lineup is the same ad therefore subtracting the DH hurts the AL more. This is a fallacy.

    I make no such assumption.

    It's not a matter of lineup strength as it is resource allocation. An AL team is going to build a lineup based on having a DH. An NL team is going to build a lineup without one. The NL gets to play with its best lineup plus something while the AL team is required to play with its best lineup minus something. And considering that it's an offense only position that something is liable to be substantial especially on teams that actually have a chance of winning something.

    The AL is winning more because the teams in the AL are simply better, and not by a little.

  26. Thomas @23 wrote:
    "I'm sure Boston fans find the advantage in losing Ortiz for every game in NL. That would sound like an advantage... or maybe the advantage is having him play the field? I'm not sure I get it?"

    I don't believe that anyone is suggesting that AL teams have an advantage under NL rules (I am certainly not suggesting that). The advantage that AL teams enjoy over NL teams is that AL teams have a greater advantage from AL rules than NL teams have from NL rules.

    Rasputin @25:

    I would ask you how you know that AL teams are better (by a lot) than NL teams? Without being able to quantify the advantages that each league enjoys from playing under its own rules at home during interleague games we lack any way to normalize the relative quality of the teams in each league. Also, I would note that the games won and runs scored are relatively close this season (numbers on the front page of BR).

  27. Spartan Bill Says:

    @ 25 Rasputin

    The AL and the NL don't set their rosters that differently. They either carry a DH (Matsui, Guerrero, Ortiz) or they have something like 4 starting OF's who they rotate thru the DH role.

    However, the NL teams all try to have a primary Pinch-Hitter on the bench. It isn't that big a stretch to put that guy in the lineup. it is also a chance to give the starters a break from playing a position once or twice and letting a top reserve in the lineup.

    One aspect neutralizes the other.

  28. Charles Saeger Says:

    Wow. I thought it was so obvious that the AL starts at a disadvantage that I'm surprised anyone would argue to the contrary. Spartan Bill has it; it's usually not hard to find someone to DH. By contrast, AL pitchers might bat twice a year, and furthermore, a pitcher coming up with an AL team won't bat at all in the minors. And, as for results, the current imbalance in interleague play didn't happen until about 2005. Before that, the two leagues went about .500 against each other.

  29. "And every time interleague play comes along I am reminded how NL rules force a manager's hand. NL lovers like to say that there's more strategy but there's really less."

    How is it less? In what way is deciding whether or not to let your pitcher hit with RISP, 2 outs in a game he has given up 1 run in 6 innings less difficult than deciding whether or not to let your 9 hitting SS hit in the same situation?

  30. Let's be sure that when we say "AL" we mean to include all 14 teams in the AL, and not just the Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays. Get outside of the AL East and the majority of teams certainly are not strong 1-9 in their batting orders.

  31. The argument that the NL has any advantage in the NL parks seems ridiculous to me. The batting average for all NL pitchers in 2008 was roughly .140 while the AL pitchers went 31 for 274. That comes to a .113 batting average. If we assume that the NL and AL pitchers had roughly the same number of at bats, then that means the NL pitchers had 38 hits over that same span of time. Did those 7 extra hits for the NL really sway the outcome of those games? I doubt it.

  32. There seems to be almost no difference between "hitting every fifth day" and "hitting twice a year". 2008 pitchers had a slight advantage in batting average, but almost none in on-base percentage. Which means they're making outs at relatively the same rate regardless if 30-odd extra hits wind up landing fair.

    2008 AL pitchers: 325 PA, .118/.162/.150
    2008 NL pitchers: 5578 PA, .140/.178/.177
    2007 AL pitchers: 322 PA, .147/.178/.182
    2007 NL pitchers: 5577 PA, .146/.177/.188
    2006 AL pitchers: 317 PA, .125/.152/.176
    2006 NL pitchers: 5648 PA, .132/.167/.175

    The AL's advantage is that their roster translates better in to the NL game. The NL roster does not translate to the AL game. I'd be curious to see the W/L records split by AL vs. NL parks. I'd guess it's much closer to .500 in NL parks.

  33. flyingelbowsmash Says:

    If a pitcher (i.e. professional athlete) gets too gassed running 90 or 180 feet to pitch the next inning, he needs to get his arse in shape. I don't think that is too much to ask for from millionaire athletes. Why are pitchers such pathetic hitters? They grew up hitting at least to the HS varsity level and many beyond. Here is a funny Onion post about coaching hitting to pitchers http://www.theonion.com/articles/hitting-coach-lets-out-long-melancholy-sigh-before,16883/

  34. Evan makes a good point in saying that there is no way to tell whether the AL has an advantage or is just better. At least at the moment. If my memory serves me right, interleague play started in 1997, so there is 13 1/2 years of data. Is that enough to make a judgement. I don't think so. I would argue we should continue this discussion in 2023, and if the AL still has such a large edge, then I might be prepared to say they have an advantage, although if Charles is correct, that the disparity has only been for the past 6 years, we may already have enough evidence to say, the AL is just better -- right now.

    It is not unusual in other sports, where all teams play by the same rules (what a concept!) for one conference to be much better for a time, only to have it swing back. Take the NBA for example. The East was buch better in the 90s, but the West was far superior in the last decade. Now that seems to be narrowing again.

    Is it possible that:

    1) by adding another regular, the DH forces owners to expend resources they might not otherwise spend, or
    2) having to compete with the top teams causes teams to have to be better just to be "competitive" and so the effect snowballs. My team, the Brewers, have been praised for doing what it takes to become competitive (I know they're under .500, but let's say it's 2 years ago). But would that team be competitive in the AL East? Not unless Mark Antonosio opened is checkbook even wider.

    I think 2 is more likely, but 1 is worth at least considering.

  35. Johnny Twisto Says:

    The other way to tell which league is superior is by comparing the performances of players who move from league to league. Anyway, people have studied it, and to the extent we can be sure of such a thing, the AL has been a clearly superior league over the past several seasons. It's probably starting to even up a bit now.

  36. Rob @31,

    In terms of offensive contributions made by pitchers you must also factor in proficiency in executing sacrifice bunts as well as things like double play rate, frequency of moving runners up in non-sacrifice situations and strikeout rates. But I don't think there are huge differences in the hitting ability of pitchers in each league (because pitchers are signed based upon pitching ability, not hitting ability).

    However there is another factor which gives each league an advantage in its home ballparks. Roster design. NL rosters should be designed with the assumption that the pitcher hits and the consequent increase in frequency of double switches and substitutions. Ideally this means that NL teams carry more players capable of playing multiple positions. The different rules also might affect decisions regarding the number of pitchers on the roster. Likewise AL teams should have rosters designed for an AL game where pinch hitters and double switches are less frequent. Bench players are more apt to be chosen based upon hitting ability or defensive ability at a position where a particular starter is deficient.

    Flyingelbowsmash @33:

    Pitchers are poor hitters relative to the rest of the league because they are selected entirely upon their defensive abilities, whereas position players are chosen primarily based upon hitting ability. Pitchers are superior hitters relative to the general population because they generally have superior hand eye coordination and strength, they also spend more time practicing and possess a greater understanding of pitching strategy than the general population.

  37. Johnny Twisto Says:

    Since 1997, home teams win 54.1% of the time.
    In interleague games, home teams win 55.3% of the time.
    The AL has won 52.3% of interleague games (1997-2003: 49.1%. 2004-2010: 55.3%)
    AL teams win 57.5% of interleague home games. NL home teams win 53.0%.

    So the average team wins 17.9% more often (54.1/45.9) at home than on the road, or 8.2 percentage points more often.
    AL teams in interleague win 22.3% more often at home, or 10.5 percentage points
    NL teams in interleague win 24.7% more often at home, or 10.5 percentage points.

    It looks like home field advantage is increased in interleague, but neither league seems to gain a bigger home advantage. I welcome other interpretations of these numbers.

  38. Johnny, according to a study Sean mentioned in a Times article ( http://bats.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/27/keeping-score-an-edge-to-friendly-confines/ ) home field advantage is mainly attributable to field familiarity. Therefore it is not a surprise that it increases in inter-league play. It would be interesting to see if the advantage is not as increased among the "rival teams" that play each season.

  39. Just did some quick excel work from Fangraphs.

    Unfortunately there are no interleague splits - but here's some food for thought.

    AL DHs (season long stats): In 3971 PA, .244/.329/.407 (OPS .736), ISO .163, wOBA .322
    NL DHs (interleague only): In 527 PA, .218/.288/.359 (OPS .648), ISO .142, wOBA .285

    NL Pitchers (season long stats): In 2541 PA, .159/.177/.195 (OPS .372), ISO .036, wOBA .162
    AL Pitchers (interleague only): In 309 PA, .105/.117/.120 (OPS .237), ISO .015, wOBA .104

    I'm not sure if this data proves anything besides the fact that AL rosters clearly are designed to have a player DHing (.736 isn't a bad position-wide OPS, although less than I expected) while NL teams clearly have to deploy a bench player if they aren't giving a regular a day off.

    Yes, NL pitchers suck less at batting than AL pitchers, but there has to be a lot of noise in those numbers, not to mention 309 PA is a tiny sample size (yes, 527 PA is a small sample size too, but that's almost a full season for some regulars)