This is the eleventh season of Interleague play. For the first five years, it was a somewhat balanced schedule. The teams in the National League East played the teams in the American League East. The teams in the National League Central played the teams in the American League Central. And the teams in the National League West played the teams in the American League West.
Then in 2002 that all changed. Supposedly, MLB went to a system similar to the NFL, where teams from a division would play one division in the other league (or in the NFL's case conference) one year, then the teams from the next division the second season, the third division the third year, and then go back to the original division and rotate once again.
And then on top of that, each team would play a ‘rival' in a home and away series once a year.
But it really hasn't gone according to plan. In fact, a closer look at who the Braves have played show a somewhat muddled schedule over the last six years.
Most teams in the NL East played the teams in the AL Central, but the Braves played only the Twins, Tigers, and White Sox. They also played the Texas Rangers, from the AL West, in Atlanta. Then the Braves played a home and road series with Boston, their designated ‘rival' team. So they played teams from all three American League divisions.
The NL East was paired up with the American League West, but the Braves played three of the four teams in the West. Atlanta did not play the Angels in 2003, but they did play two teams in the AL East (Baltimore and Tampa Bay) and did not play the Red Sox at all.
Again the NL East was paired up with the AL Central, but instead of playing all the teams in the Central, the Braves played all teams except the Twins and played both the Red Sox and the Orioles.
The NL East went against teams from the AL West, but the Braves did not play the Mariners. They again played both the Red Sox and the Orioles, two teams from the East.
This is the only season in the last seven years that has some normalcy. The Braves played all five teams in the American League East three times.
And this season the NL East is paired with the AL Central, but the Braves are playing only three of the five teams in that division. They are not playing the Royals or the White Sox.
So now let's take a look at what the other National League East teams are doing in Interleague play this season:
The Braves, Mets, and Phillies are playing 15 Interleague games this season, while the Marlins and Nationals are each playing 18 Interleague games.
The Mets play only two (Tigers and Twins) of the five teams in the AL Central. They do not play the Indians, White Sox, or the Royals. New York does play its cross town rival, the Yankees, in a home and away series. Then the Mets also play the Oakland Athletics from the AL West.
The Phillies play four of the five teams in the AL Central. They do not play the Twins this season. But Philadelphia plays Toronto, its designated rival, for three games.
The Marlins play four of the five teams in the AL Central. They do not play the Tigers. Florida does play six games against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
The Nationals play three of the five teams in the AL Central. They do not play the Royals or the White Sox. But the Nats play six games against the Orioles and then three additional games against the Blue Jays.
So each team can complain here. The Braves can say, ‘heck we have to play six games against our ‘rival,' but the Phillies only play three times against their designated rival.' The Mets can scream about playing the Athletics, the only team outside of the AL Central or AL East that a NL East team has to play. The Phillies can complain about being the only NL East team not playing six games against its designated rival. And the Marlins and Nationals can both complain about playing three more Interleague games than the other three National League Eastern Division teams.
Interleague play is just not fair.
This really shouldn't be much of a surprise. MLB hasn't figured out how to adequately schedule games within each league, much less Interleague games.
While each team in the National League East plays the other four teams 18 times each, the difference is when the teams play teams from the other divisions. The Braves, for example, play the Cubs nine times this season. They play seven games each against the Reds, Brewers, Cardinals, Dodgers, Giants, and Padres. Then Atlanta plays six games each against the Astros, Pirates, Diamondbacks, and Rockies.
So what should they do? Well my first suggestion is to take away something they won't take away: the rivalry match ups. Major League Baseball is going to want the Yankees and the Mets every single season, which is the only reason the ‘rivalry' games won't be taken out of the equation. They want the Yanks and Mets on ESPN on Friday night, FOX on Saturday night, and again on ESPN on Sunday night.
But if they did take away those rivalry games, then there would be a greater chance of having every team in each division play the same exact teams. How hard is that? Look at the NFL.
This year, for example, the teams from the NFC South will play all four teams in the AFC South. Then next year they'll move on to the AFC West. Yes, the NFL is a little easier numerically to have a balanced schedule. They have four divisions with four teams in each division in each of the two conferences. But this should be a model for what Major League Baseball should / could do to make Interleague play more fair.
Again, it would require MLB to take away the ‘rivalry' games. But here's how it could work, using Atlanta as the example:
In a year when the National League East plays the American League East or the American League Central, the Braves could play the other four teams in the NL East 16 times per season. You could have two three-game series at home, two three-game series on the road, and then a two-game series both at home and away.
Then the Braves would play the other eleven National League teams six games per season – three at home and three on the road. Then the Braves could play six games per season – three at home and three on the road – against each team in the American League East (and this also applies in years the NL East would play the NL Central).
That would equal 160 games. They would simply have to work out a system where the other two games are somehow matched up, preferably against the teams in the same division. Each team would be able to play the same amount of games against every other team in the league and against each team in the designated division of the other league for that season.
Then when the National League East is paired up against the American League West (a division with only four teams) the schedule is even easier to configure:
Atlanta would play 18 games (nine at home, nine on the road) against the other four NL East teams. They would then play six games (three at home, three on the road) against the other eleven teams in the National League. Then they would also play six games (three at home, three on the road) against each of the four teams in the American League West. This would equal 162 games.
A schedule like this would probably require Interleague games to be completely mixed in with the rest of the schedule. In other words, you wouldn't have designated times (like this weekend) of the season set aside for Interleague play.
Something must be done. There just needs to be a more uniform system in place so that teams are not watching their division rivals play easier schedules. The NFL can do it, so certainly MLB can give it a try.
Bill Shanks is the author of Scout's Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Team, a look inside the Braves‘ traditional scouting and player development philosophies. He can be heard on 680 the Fan in Atlanta and 105.5 the Fan in Macon. Email Bill at firstname.lastname@example.org.