Wednesday, June 16, 2004

Inter-League Play, Does it Effect League Leaders?

*** The following excerpt is taken from a SABR, Society for American Baseball Research, Internet discussion group and discusses the impact of Inter-League play on season leader races. Specifically, this piece deals with the Triple Crown categories of AVG.,HR and RBI for offense, and W, K an ERA for pitchers, and how the winning totals may have been influenced by Inter-League competition. This article is reproduced with permission of its author, James Vail, and we would like to thank him for allowing us to do so.

Inter-League Play and Triple-Crown Stats
James Vail

Although Albert Pujols and Bill Mueller are officially credited as the 2003 batting champions, it turns out that inter-league play was decisive in both incidents of victory. Pujols won the NL title at .359, with Colorado's Todd Helton second at .358. Pujols' full-season stats were 212 hits in 591 AB, but he hit .397 in inter-league play (31 for 78), leaving him with a .353 average against NL-only competition (181 for 513). Helton's season stats were 209 for 583, but his inter-league ledger (18 for 51) produced a .353 mark, makng his NL-only figure .359 (191 for 532), a point higher than Pujols' league-only performance.

Mueller led the AL for the full 2003 season, hitting .326 compared to teammate Manny Ramirez's .325 and Yankee Derek Jeter's .324. Mueller was 18-for-65 (.277) in inter-league play, while Ramirez went 19-for-61(.311) and Jeter 21-for-77 (.273). As a result, Mueller (153-for-459) and Jeter (135-for-405) were actually tied in AL-only competition at .333, while Ramirez trailed both at .327 (166-for-508).

Neither instance would be that big of a deal if they were isolated incidents. But I went back --- using the data available at and checked each of the six triple-crown statistical races (batting average, home runs and RBI for hitters, ERA, games won and strikeouts for pitchers) for the years 1998-2003, and, as fate has had it, 18 of the 72 cases involved (25 percent) have been determined by inter-league performance. In three of the instances --- the 2003 AL batting race noted above, plus the 1998 leaderships in games won for both leagues --- factoring out inter-league performance created ties for league-only leadership which do not exist in the official records (or, in one case, a different tie than the one currently recognized). The other 15 incidents all produced changes in circuit leadership for the triple-crown stat involved.

In addition to the two cases described above, a full list of these incidents includes the following, given chronologically:

1998 NL ERA: Greg Maddux was the official NL leader at 2.22, with Kevin Brown second at 2.38. But Maddux posted a 0.82 ERA in four inter-league contests, and his actual average against NL-only competition was 2.44. Brown had a 4.74 ERA in three inter-league games, while his mark against senior circuit opponents only was just 2.19. So Brown actually led against league-only opposition.

1998 NL GAMES WON: Tom Glavine won 20 contests for the season, compared to 19 for runner-up Kevin Tapani. Glavine's record in inter-league play was 2-0, with one no-decision, giving him 18 wins against NL opponents. Tapani pitched in three inter-league contests, winning one, losing another, with a no-decision in the third. So his also won 18 games against senior-circuit opponents, producing an NL-only tie.

1998 AL GAMES WON: Rick Helling, David Cone and Roger Clemens each won 20 contests for the season. But Cone won three games in inter-league play, giving him only 17 wins against AL clubs. Helling and Clemens both won just twice in inter-league competition, so their AL-only victory totals were 18 apiece.

1999 NL HOME RUNS: Mark McGwire topped the circuit with 65 homers, followed closely by Sammy Sosa at 63. McGwire's season total included six smacked in inter-league play, while Sosa had only two against AL opposition. So Sammy's NL-only total was actually 61, while McGwire's was just 59.

1999 NL ERA: Randy Johnson led the league with 2.48, with Kevin Millwood second at 2.68. But Johnson posted a 0.84 ERA in three inter-league games, and Millwod was at 4.50 in his three starts against American League teams. Millwood's NL-only ERA was 2.51, while Johnson's was 2.70.

1999 NL GAMES WON: Mike Hampton topped the NL with 22 wins, while Jose Lima won 21 for the season. Hampton's total included four inter-league victories, but Lima's only two. So Lima won 19 games against NL opponents, Hampton just 18.

2000 NL HOME RUNS: Sosa had 50 dingers for the season, runner-up Barry Bonds had 49. But Sosa had nine inter-league homers, while Bonds had seven. So Bonds actually had 42 in NL-only play, while Sosa had 41.

2000 AL GAMES WON: Officially, David Wells and Tim Hudson tied for the league leadership with 20 wins apiece. But two of Wells victories came in inter-league play, while Hudson won all his games against American League competition.

2001 NL RBI: Sosa had 160 RBI for the season, Todd Helton 146. Sosa had 20 ribbies in inter-league play, Helton just five. So Helton had 141 against NL-only competition, Sosa 140.

2001 NL GAMES WON: Curt Schilling and Matt Morris both had 22 wins for the year. But Schilling's ledger included two inter-league victories, while Morris had just one. So Morris won 21 against NL clubs, Schilling 20.

2001 AL ERA: Freddy Garcia posted a season ERA of 3.05, with runner-up Mike Mussina at 3.15. Garcia's four inter-league starts equated to1.78, while Mussina's five games against NL opponents produced a mark of 3.69. That left Mussina at 3.06 against AL-only opponents, and Garcia at 3.24.

2001 AL GAMES WON: Mark Mulder won 21 games for the season, with Jamie Moyer and Roger Clemens tied for second at 20 apiece. Mulder won four inter-league decisions, and Clemens won one. But all of Moyer's victories came against AL opposition, so his 20 league-only wins were better than Clemens' 19 and Mulder's 17.

2001 AL STRIKEOUTS: Hideo Nomo was the season leader at 220, with Mike Mussina second at 214 and Roger Clemens third with 213. Nomo and Mussina both had 22 inter-league strikeouts, and Clemens only 12. So Clemens led against AL-only competition with 201, while Nomo had 198 and Mussina 192.

2003 NL HOME RUNS: Jim Thome had 47 for the season, followed by Richie Sexson and Barry Bonds at 45 apiece. But Thome had six dingers in inter-league play, Bonds nine and Sexson just three. So the NL-only totals were Sexson 42, Thome 41 and Bonds 36.

2003 AL GAMES WON: Roy Halladay had 22 wins for the season, with Andy Pettitte, Jamie Moyer and Esteban Loaiza at 21 apiece. Halladay had three inter-league victories, Pettite and Moyer two each, and Loaiza just one. So Loaiza led with 20 wins against AL-only competition, while the other three pitchers all had 19.

2003 AL STRIKEOUTS: Loaiza had 207 Ks for the year, followed closely by Pedro Martinez at 206 and Halladay at 204. But Loaiza had 25 strikeouts in inter-league play, Halladay 26 and Martinez just 10. So Pedro topped the AL-only list with 196, followed by Loaiza with 182 and Halladay at 178. Apparently, in Loaiza's case, what inter-league play can take away, it can take away again in a different fashion.

Perhaps predictably, the most-affected statistic among the triple-crown categories was games won by pitchers (seven leadership changes among 12cases), where leadership is often determined by just one victory, and the least-affected was runs batted in (just one change in 12), where there is often a large gap between first and second place. Totals for the other triple-crown stats are: home runs and ERA, 3 of 12 each; batting average and Ks by pitchers, 2 of 12 apiece. Clearly, I have not had time to do a more thorough study (and don't plan one at the moment), but if inter-league play can alter 25 percent of triple-crown leaderships, it can easily change the outcomes of other statistical titles at an even higher rate, especially those (like hits, doubles, triples, saves, et al) in which the difference between first and second place is often small.

Beyond whatever "injustices" may or may not be perceived in all of the above, the rate at which inter-league play affects these outcomes is also important because league leaderships --- particularly those for triple-crown stats --- are a key determining factor in who wins the MVP and Cy Young trophies. Of the 168 MVPs awarded through 2003, 57 of them went to RBI leaders (33.9 percent), 41 to home run champs (24.4 percent)
and 31 to batting title winners (18.5 percent). Of the 86 Cy Young awards to date, 56 (65.1 percent) went to league leaders in games won, 29 (33.7 percent) to ERA champs, and 25 (29.1 percent) to strikeout leaders.

None of the 18 incidents cited above can be said to have seriously altered the outcome of MVP voting (although Bonds finished second to teammate Jeff Kent in a relatively close 2000 NL voting, and might have fared better had he been recognized as the circuit's home run champ --- not that he needed yet another trophy). In contrast, four of the dozen Cy Young awards given since 1998 were certainly influenced by the arguably "false" outcomes produced by inter-league results. Tom Glavine and Roger Clemens won the 1998 trophies, Randy Johnson won the NL version in 1999 and Roy Halladay won the AL award last season.

I'm not about to suggest that separate MVPs and CYAs should be given on the basis of league-only and full-season performance, as that would be absolutely stupid and baseball already has more than its share of stupidity in play at the moment. But there are obvious team-by-team variations in the relative quality of inter-league opponents which affect competitive balance as a whole, and I do think that the degree to which inter-league performance may --- perhaps unjustifiably --- alter perceptions about who is deserving of those trophies is very relevant to any discussion about the relative value and/or facility of inter-league play as a whole.


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