When's the last time you thought about Interleague Play? This is the 22nd season of Interleague Play -- it made its Major League Baseball debut the same year as Bartolo Colon -- and it has become so normalized that unless it's a rivalry game (Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox, Dodgers-Angels, Giants-A's), I
When's the last time you thought about Interleague Play? This is the 22nd season of Interleague Play -- it made its Major League Baseball debut the same year as Bartolo Colon -- and it has become so normalized that unless it's a rivalry game (Mets-Yankees, Cubs-White Sox, Dodgers-Angels, Giants-A's), I doubt you even notice they're happening anymore. This is the sixth season in which we have had an Interleague game every single day of the schedule, and all told, I doubt the average fan finds a Twins-Cubs game any stranger than a Marlins-Cubs one.
This, suffice it to say, is quite a journey from where we were when Interleague Play was first introduced. In 1997, Bob Costas called it a "slapdash deal that baseball has thrown together with its usual lack of thought." This was the general consensus, Interleague Play as a gimmick tossed at the wall as a cheap way to draw back fans after the 1994 strike. (Originally, it was going hand-in-hand with the elimination of the designated hitter.) But water eventually finds its natural level, and at this point, attendance at Interleague games is essentially the same as non-Interleague games. It's just the sport right now, and forever.
Which means, other than those rivalry series (and then only a few), there's only one particularly noteworthy aspect of Interleague Play left. And it's a good one. Last year, the American League had a better record than the National League in Interleague Play, 160-140. That's a pretty close margin -- it's roughly the winning percentage the Brewers had last season -- but that's not what's important about it. What matters is simply that the AL won. Again.
2017 was the 14th consecutive season that the AL had a better record than the NL in Interleague Play. Fourteenth! The first eight seasons of Interleague Play were a dead split, 4-4. The 13 after that, heading into this year, were all AL victories. It was close in 2013, when the AL won 154-146, and a massive blowout in '06, which the AL won 154-98, which was the AL beating the NL at the pace of a 99-win team. For all the chatter about Interleague Play, the two leagues have become much more of a piece in the past decade; the umpires are the same, the players are the same, the stadiums are roughly the same, everything's the same but the DH. But still: 14 years in a row! It's a curse!
There are various theories as to why this streak might be happening -- the DH messing with roster construction, travel-time disparities, random chance -- but it is worth noting: So far, 43 of the 300 Interleague games in ... the NL is in the lead. The NL has won 28 of the first 43 games, a whopping .651 winning percentage that's higher than anything either league has ever put up. The NL is playing against the AL so far the way the Dodgers played against everyone last year. This could finally be the year.
Of course, we have said that before. Here is FiveThirtyEight speculating that 2016 could be the NL's breakthrough; here is CBS doing the same last year, as late as August. And each time: The AL still came out on top.
There are reasons to think this really is the year, though. First off, 28-15 is quite the head start: The NL only needs to go 123-144, a .461 winning percentage (roughly last year's Orioles), to come up with the 151 wins necessary. But more to the point: For the first time in a decade, the NL seems to definitively have better teams than the AL. It's not particularly close.
The AL has the defending champions, it has the Yankees and Red Sox, it has Michael Trout and Shohei Ohtani. But it also has the Orioles and the AL Central. The O's alone could swing this: They are arugably the worst team in baseball right now -- and one that will presumably get even worse once it finally trades away Manny Machado, the AL MVP Award contender in the middle of its lineup -- and haven't even played any Interleague games yet. And the AL Central, a division that doesn't have a team with a winning record, has to play the NL Central this year, a division in which the Cubs are currently fourth.
Here's a fun fact: There are more teams with losing records in the AL Central than there are in the entire NL. I swear that this is true. There are only four teams in the NL with losing records: The Padres, the Reds, the Marlins and ... the Dodgers, the defending NL champions. This is where the primary disparity between the leagues lies; the NL teams who have taken a step backward in recent years have taken a step forward this year, and the AL teams haven't.
• AL teams who had a losing record in 2017 but have a winning record in 2018: 2 (Mariners, Blue Jays)
• NL teams who had a losing record in 2017 but have a winning record in 2018: 5 (Mets, Braves, Phillies, San Giants, Pirates)
Even if a couple of those NL teams fall back -- I'm looking at you, Giants and Pirates -- that's a steep hill for the AL to climb. Tellingly, four of the five best team records are in the AL; only Arizona reaches that level out of the NL. But the NL teams fattening up on bad teams in the AL, and there are a lot of bad teams. The NL will likely fatten up on them in the same way.
So yes, it is early. But every indicator -- early-season starts, depth of quality teams, pure regression -- points to the NL breaking the streak this year. I'll just go out and say it: The NL is coming out on top in 2018. It's finally happening. It almost has to. If it doesn't, maybe there is some sort of curse.
Will Leitch is a columnist for MLB.com.