The unique allure Major League Baseball always withheld over all the other professional sports in America was the differentiation between leagues. The American League and National League used to have completely different sets of rules and up until 1997, interleague play would only occur on the biggest stage: the World Series. To try and increase ratings, commissioner Rob Manfred and the MLB decided to change the traditional 162-game schedule drastically – now having every team play each other every year. It is an attempt by the league to draw interest by creating unorthodox matchups, however this ploy may end up backfiring. Aside from the “natural rivalries” – each team’s geographic rival from the opposing league – the draw towards interleague play does not appeal to larger-scale audiences. While an altering of the schedule provides a fresh variation on the regular season, the MLB went about this the wrong way. Whether a schedule adjustment was necessary is another debate, however instead of increasing interleague play, intraleague play should have been expanded.
When interleague was first introduced, each division would play one other division from the opposite league, and it would rotate every season. For instance, the NL East played the AL West in 2022 and would have been lined up to play the AL Central this upcoming year had the format remained the same. In 1997, teams only played 15-16 interleague games, however with the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays being added the following season, the schedule needed to be adjusted. Therefore, from 1999-2012, every AL team and four NL teams would play 18 interleague games, while the 12 remaining NL teams would play just 15 because there were two additional teams playing in the National League.
With the Houston Astros moving to the American League in 2013, this required at least one interleague matchup to be played almost every day, however it only increased the total quantity of these games to 20. For teams in a pennant race, it was a strange change to have to play some peculiar matchups that did not directly impact their playoff implications late in the season. Still, it was a flaw that could be easily overlooked because of the sparsity of these games.
In 2023, each team will play 46 interleague games, resulting in over 28% of a team’s games coming against opponents that will have zero involvement in their wild card or divisional races. It damages the product because while every game still withholds meaning, there’s an increased separation now occurring with less direct matchups between competing teams. Ever since the most recent expansion teams joined in 1998, every team played their division rivals 19 times a year, however with 26 additional interleague games, that number has decreased to 14. With this deemphasis on divisional play, it devalues the individual leagues.
Permanently adding the designated hitter into the NL already brought them eerily closer to the AL style of baseball. Eliminating strategies such as double switching, when to pinch hit for the pitcher, decreasing bunting and many other unique ways managers used to maneuver their lineup. Despite this aspect of the game leaving the sport, it was inevitable to add the DH position with teams wanting to protect their pitchers and offensive production around the league in a lull at the time. Though now, with rules being the same leaguewide and the schedule being universal, it has brought the MLB one step closer to essentially becoming like the NBA or the NHL.
In sports such as basketball, this sort of schedule is slightly more effective, however similar issues continue to reside in these leagues. In the NBA, divisions are completely meaningless, with a division title not guaranteeing anything and rivalries between “division rivals” being nearly obsolete with them only facing off four times a season. Winning the division used to award that team a top-four spot in the conference, but even that rule is now out of play. Knicks-Celtics, Lakers-Suns, 76ers-Nets are all division rivals, yet despite this, they only play one another in just under 5% of their regular season schedule. These matchups that could be potential playoff previews are diminished by the fact that they do not have enough games to make the rivalry meaningful. Division play is such an integral part of MLB baseball and lessening it will hurt the product on the field.
The abolishment of the traditional schedule toppled onto the expanded playoffs is taking the distinction away from baseball. Do not be shocked when all of a sudden, Manfred wants to go from a 12 to a 16-team playoff in a few years. In the NBA, 16 teams make the postseason, plus an additional four play-in teams. The playoffs should be earned, and over half the league, including sub .500 teams should not have the opportunity to compete for a championship. The meaning of the regular season decreases immensely with the more teams allowed in. All these changes are bringing baseball one step closer to becoming one and the same with every other North American sports league.
The MLB used the 2020 season as an excuse to try out many new rules from the universal designated hitter to the ghost runner in extra innings. These changes were supposed to be temporary, but most of the rule alterations remained. Baseball is no longer America’s pastime and while evolution is an important part of every sport, these adjustments are not bettering the game but ruining its authenticity.
There are intriguing storylines with specific interleague matchups. For example, watching Carlos Correa return to Flushing, New York and getting booed, or watching Correa return to San Francisco and getting booed, or even watching Correa play at Dodger Stadium annually and getting booed. Of course, there will also always be a World Series rematch, other free-agent reunions and the ability to see how certain players perform in unfamiliar ballparks. Though, with everything, this charade will age quickly. Seeing Aaron Judge in Coors Field will draw interest for a few games before people realize they would rather be watching Yankees-Red Sox and not Yankees-Rockies.
Viewership numbers have been inconsistent in recent years, though, for major networks such as ESPN and TBS, their rating were up in 2022. The only exception was FOX, whose average rating decreased by about 12% from the previous season, however, this can be attributed to them increasing the number of baseball games they covered. The World Series, which featured multiple memorable games and two relatively big market cities in Philadelphia and Houston saw the third-lowest ratings in World Series history. In fairness to this series, the three lowest ratings ever have all come in the past three seasons. This is clearly an issue that needs a resolution, even if these pitiful numbers can be partially blamed on COVID-19, unappealing matchups, i.e., Astros fatigue, and just non-competitive series. There have been phenomenal games, from a World Series no-hitter to home run barrages, but nothing crazy enough has happened to even draw 15 million viewers (A mark every other World Series prior to 2020 has hit). Because of this, it is understandable why the MLB is making its best efforts to regain its audience, though there are other ways than interleague.
Having 76 divisional games a season is a lot, it can get repetitive for the casual fan, no matter how optimal it might be. Instead of replacing it with nonsensical matchups, where the Kansas City Royals are playing the Arizona Diamondbacks one night and then the Pittsburgh Pirates the next, there should be a rise in intraleague play. Each league used to only have two divisions, therefore instead of each team having four division rivals, they would have five or six, providing more diversity to the schedule. And unlike interleague, all these games would be directly correlated to potential postseason position. As the schedule is formatted now, the Mets and Dodgers or the Yankees and Astros only face off in two series a year. These are iconic matchups that could be enhanced with more games.
An ALCS rematch will bring in more fans than an Astros-Marlins or Mets-Athletics game. Every team is slated to play another team in the opposing league, but it is only one series. In turn, if the MLB is trying to add spice to their schedules with unconventional teams playing each other, at least make it enough to where a rivalry can amount. Three games a year against a team will feel like nothing more than exhibition games, especially late in the season. Teams out of contention at least can play spoiler for their division rival in August and September but playing an interleague game that has no relation to their position will not draw fewer viewers and only serve as a chance to fill players’ stat sheets. There is no previous history behind these games because in the grand history of baseball, interleague is still a relatively new concept. There will be good games played, but will these matchups really intrigue fans enough to tune in?
Take the New York Mets for example. This was a postseason team that played the AL West last year. When they hosted the Rangers on a Friday-Sunday series, their average attendance for those games was 29,124 versus the very next weekend in a Thursday-Sunday series, the average attendance was 33,468. Both series took place in July, the prime of baseball season and against two non-contenders who finished within one game of each other. Obviously this is just one minor example, but the four thousand fan gap speaks volumes to the value fans still hold with division play.
An Astros-Phillies rematch will be a series to watch this season, but there is one of these kinds of series a season, with past World Series competitors losing value in the rivalry because teams are constantly changing. The 2021 champions do not even have their World Series MVP Jorge Soler, Dansby Swanson or Freddie Freeman on their roster anymore, ultimately turning that series into just a trip down memory lane. Interleague is a fun idea but should not be a regular part of the schedule.
There are endless intraleague rivalries that would pay major dividends from a viewership perspective if those games rose in quantity. Teams such as the Yankees and Dodgers are such iconic franchises, that they would benefit significantly by bringing them to returning postseason stops on more than one occasion. But even aside from those big-market organizations, every postseason matchup from the previous year would see an extended spotlight. Imagine back in 2016, having the Blue Jays and Rangers face off for an additional series with Rougned Odor and Jose Bautista just eyeing each other down.
Even this upcoming season, watching Joe Musgrove curse out the Mets, as two star-studded teams face off or watching Toronto seek revenge on Seattle for another three games after the soul crushing heartbreak of last year’s wild card. Not every intraleague matchup has to be nine to ten games, but the MLB could bring more drama, conflict, and in turn, more viewers to the sport if they flexed the schedule to cater to specific matchups.
Interleague baseball is not bad. The World Series is the glorified version of this, where the two best teams in each league face off to decide who is the best in baseball. However, the differentiation between the AL and NL is now a tough line to draw. The rules are the same, the style of baseball has become nearly identical and now they all play each other year-round. Earning an opportunity to even play the opposing league used to be an honor, but with over a quarter of the regular season coming against them, it somewhat diminishes its value. The beauty of interleague play is that it was rare and a matchup to look forward to. Taking away the novelty of it sabotages its specialty. Intraleague baseball will always be superior to interleague baseball.