If you’re like me, for years you’ve felt like that Chicago Cubs’ interleague schedule is always harder than the rest of the NL Central. I could never really point to any empirical data on the matter. But when, like this weekend, I watched the Cubs getting stepped on by a team like the Red Sox, I couldn’t help but look to the sky and ask, “what’s the deal, Dude?”
Was I just being a typical, self-loathing Cubs fan? Do the Cubs really stumble into bad match-ups year in and year out, or are those of you who complain just chewing sour grapes (which, by the way, are served bountifully at the Cubs’ post-game clubhouse buffet)?
After reviewing some arguments and a little bit of data, it’s looking like we were right: interleague play is necessarily imbalanced, and the Cubs have unluckily born the brunt of that imbalance.
First, the “rivalry” games are, by nature, imbalanced. Just look at the Mets, who get the privilege of playing the Yankees every year. But, I imagine they’re happy to do it for a series that the fans really enjoy (see also, Cubs/White Sox). Where the “rivalry” crap becomes, well, crap, is in the fact that it forces MLB to manufacture rivalries that don’t exist. And when those “rivalries” happen every year between Good Team X and Bad Team Y, you’re going to have imbalance. Think the Cardinals have any complaints about playing the Royals six times a year?
Rockies’ GM Dan O’Dowd agrees. “Interleague play is only designed for a few markets – the natural-rivalry markets,” he said in an article on the subject by Jayson Stark. “I’m talking about L.A.-L.A., San Francisco-Oakland, both Chicago teams, both New York teams. But if you’re not in one of those markets, you get what’s left over. And that’s where the problems start.”
Second, the imbalance of the leagues – 14 in the AL, 16 in the NL – leads to scheduling issues, creating more imbalance. Case in point, the NL Central (6 teams) is facing the AL East (5 teams) this year. Think that’s an easy scheduling feat? It’s not. And when faced with such an issue, I suspect MLB and its teams will follow the dollar – that means marquee match-ups, fairness be damned.
As the Stark article points out, the only AL East teams the Cubs face this year? The Yankees and Red Sox. Joy. The only AL East teams the Cardinals *don’t* face? The Yankees and Red Sox. Joy.
There are dozens of examples of this kind of inequity in interleague scheduling – some much more egregious than the Cubs’ travails – but it’s the nature of the spectacle. Until and unless the leagues balance out, there will be scheduling problems. And even if the leagues were balanced, you’d still have seasons in which one team has a tougher road to hoe than the others in its division.
So, imbalance happens from year to year. But, if the imbalance were spread out evenly over all of the teams over enough seasons (sometimes you have a tough year, other times an easier year – balanced imbalance, if you will), we’d have no reason to complain. Unfortunately, it’s been all imbalanced imbalance as far as the Cubs are concerned.
A poster at Sons of Ivy compiled strength of interleague schedule information for the Cubs and the other NL Central teams from 2004 to 2010, and came up with some interesting/frustrating/unsurprising results.
From 2004 to 2010, the winning percentages of the NL Central teams’ interleague opponents shakes out like this:
Cubs – .524
Pirates – .510
Brewers – .510
Astros – .505
Reds – .497
Cardinals – .474
Obviously a small part of those numbers comes from the fact that, if the Cardinals are always good, their opponents will have a slightly worse record (by virtue of losing to the Cardinals); and the obverse would be true for perennially crappy teams like the Pirates. But that explains a swing of maybe a game or two. It doesn’t explain this enormous chasm of difference between the Cubs’ opponents and the Cardinals’ opponents.
And, believe it or not, the difference isn’t explained by the “rivalry” games, either. If you take out the rivalry games (i.e., Cubs v. White Sox, Cardinals v. Royals), and look only at interleague opponents unique to the Cubs and Cardinals, the winning percentages of the Cubs’ interleague opponents from 2004 to 2010 is .525. For the Cardinals, it’s just .496.
That means that, setting aside imbalance issues created by the “rivalry” games and the different sizes of the leagues, the Chicago Cubs have just been unlucky in interleague scheduling.
Just another block of wood to throw on the God-hates-the-Cubs bonfire. I’m not sure that MLB cares much for them, either.