The masses of baseball fans have been fascinated with interleague play from the earliest days of the sport in the United States. For most of the history of the game, there were two primary major leagues, and people have always wanted to know who was the best club in the land. In the late 1800s, the first interleague showdowns between majors were played between the champions of the American Association and National League.
Years later, after the AA disbanded, the American League took up the mantle as the second top-level professional baseball league. The first World Series was played in 1903 between the AL and NL pennant-winners, and the discussion regarding regular-season interleague play started shortly thereafter. In fact, there were numerous serious attempts at introducing the contests before it finally happened in 1997.
Today, the separate legal entities of the National and American Leagues have been dissolved and brought under the single umbrella of Major League Baseball. While they’ve kept the title of “league,” they act more like conferences in other sports. Interleague play is now a firmly entrenched tradition that fans enjoy every year, and it is expected to grow even further in the MLB’s future if pundits’ predictions are correct.
But you don’t want a Major League Baseball history lesson on interleague play, at least not exclusively. You’re here to read about betting and to generate earnings! We hear you loud and clear, which is why this article is going to highlight some of the basic tenants to remember when wagering on these showdowns between the American and National League organizations.
For the majority of the past decade or so, this article could essentially be written in five words: “bet the American League teams.” In fact, between the years of 2005 and 2016, there were only two seasons in which betting on literally every AL side during interleague play wouldn’t be profitable.
The oddsmakers have responded by building the historical dominance into the prices. Suddenly, with a fast-improving National League, a top-heavy American, and odds that frequently reflect the past, there’s tons of value created by interleague play that’s just waiting to be found! Let’s examine some of the ways in which you may do just that.
Interleague Play – League Records
When handicapping interleague matchups each year, it’s always a good idea to look over the historical data. While some of the older information may no longer be relevant to the current rosters, strong trends could be attributed to a franchise’s stadium or location.
What’s most apparent, looking at the all-time records, is that it appears more natural for American League teams to play by NL rules than vice versa. We’ll get into some of the details as to why that’d be a few sections down.
Like we briefly mentioned in the introduction, the American League has owned a great deal of interleague play’s past. Entering into the 2018 MLB season, the AL was ahead 1,503 – 1,257 in the head-to-head record for the last ten years. In that stretch of time, the National League has had fewer wins in every single campaign.
American League vs. National League Records:
|Season||Number of Interleague Games||AL Total Wins||NL Total Wins||AL Winning Percentage|
The leagues were the most hotly contested in 2013 when the American League won 154 games and lost 146. Winning a percentage of only .513 of their interleague games, it was the closest the two leagues were matched in the decade. Their most one-sided season came in 2008 when the AL won 149 out of 252. That’s an almost 60% rate of winning!
In the following table, you’ll see a team-by-team breakdown that further displays how much better AL clubs have taken to interleague matchups. When sorting by winning percentage, nine of the top-ten winningest organizations are all from the American League. At the other extreme, seven of the bottom-ten squads belong to the National League. Furthermore, only two NL sides have a winning record in these showdowns!
This shows you how much more trying changing the rules must be for NL teams. Looking at the team records, not all of the clubs with high winning percentages have been traditionally good. It seems that despite their overall franchise records, these AL sides still fare better when taking on the National League.
All-Time Interleague Play Records, by Team:
|Boston Red Sox||229-156||0.594||American|
|New York Yankees||226-156||0.592||American|
|Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim||212-171||0.554||American|
|Chicago White Sox||206-179||0.535||American|
|New York Mets||185-179||0.508||National|
|St. Louis Cardinals||172-170||0.503||National|
|Tampa Bay Rays||183-184||0.499||American|
|Toronto Blue Jays||190-193||0.496||American|
|San Francisco Giants||176-180||0.494||National|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||174-179||0.493||National|
|Kansas City Royals||181-199||0.476||American|
|San Diego Padres||150-207||0.42||National|
Examine Team-by-Team Records
When breaking down upcoming matchups, an excellent place to start is with the clubs’ historical interleague records. Beyond the all-time head-to-head results between leagues, many sites will allow you to research how a franchise performs against specific divisions. While this data doesn’t provide a deep insight into the exact reasons for the past outcomes, it can alert you to some critical patterns and trends.
One way to cultivate this data to make it more useful is to place teams on different tiers. Label them as “top teams,” “mediocre teams,” and “bottom-feeders,” or some similar naming convention. Then, focus on how the squad you’re researching performs against the organizations of each tier.
Studying the table above, money appears to play an enormous role in interleague success. Looking at the top three National League sides in terms of winning percentage, they’re the Mets, Cardinals, and Cubs. These are hugely lucrative franchises in large markets with massive nation-wide fan bases. It’s possible that they’re able to spend more on their roster, meaning they can accommodate filling the DH spot easier in AL stadiums.
Interleague Play Scheduling
Before we break into some specific working betting strategies, there’s just a bit more information about interleague play itself that you should know. Initially, the games were only played in the months of June and July, right in the middle of the season. This changed in 2013, after the Houston Astros left the National League for the American, giving both leagues an equal fifteen franchises apiece.
Now, we get interleague play throughout the season, including on opening day. This will have an impact on the lifetime records eventually, as pitchers already have an advantage early on in the year. Imagine an American League team playing in a National League pitcher’s park in April; putting runs on the board will be a nightmare!
To help with futures betting, you may also want to understand the divisional rotation Major League Baseball uses to determine which teams will match up in interleague play each season. The divisions are on a three-year rotation.
Teams will play twenty total interleague games each year. After being paired with a division, a club will play four of those squads in a single three-game series. They’ll play two 2-game series against the fifth organization. The last four interleague showdowns will take place in another two 2-game contests versus their “natural rival.”
When you’re handicapping win totals well before the season starts or looking at next year’s futures odds immediately after the World Series, take these twenty interleague games into consideration. Here is a chart of the division matchups so that you may prepare:
|Year||National League East vs.||National League Central vs.||National League West vs.||American League East vs.||American League Central vs.||American League West vs.|
|1997–2001, 2006, 2009, 2012, 2015, 2018||American League East||American League Central||American League West||National League East||National League Central||National League West|
|2002, 2004, 2007, 2010, 2013, 2016, 2019||American League Central||American League West||American League East||National League West||National League East||National League Central|
|2003, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2014, 2017, 2020||American League West||American League East||American League Central||National League Central||National League West||National League East|
Home Field Advantage
The biggest variable impacting interleague play happens to be where the game is played. Anytime two teams from different leagues square off, the contest is performed under the home team’s league’s rules. While there are always multitudes of factors to account for when handicapping a baseball game, when it comes to interleague play, the designated hitter is most significant.
The Designated Hitter
The designated hitter is a position that exists in the American League exclusively. This player is usually a potent batter but does not take the field on defense. They only exist to occupy what would otherwise be the pitcher’s spot in the lineup. Because the DH is used in the vast majority of AL games, the league’s franchises invest in the position and that spot in the lineup.
Playing by National League rules isn’t a massive adjustment for AL squads. It’s just a matter of replacing the designated hitter with the pitcher and moving all the batters that follow the DH up one spot in the lineup. While it’s not ideal for an American League team to have to either bench one of their best bats or force them to play defense, where they’re weaker than whoever they replace, they still seem to adapt better than NL sides.
However, the effect the rules have on the team strictly depends on the club. Often, when betting, you’ll find that underperforming or injury-plagued AL teams on the road should be bet against. Losing the DH spot in the lineup hits them much harder due to their already depleted roster. These squads need all of their talent available just to be mediocre, so it’s a tough decision whether to bench the DH or make him field.
Pitchers’ Hitting and Base-Running Abilities
Meanwhile, the National League franchises must insert a player into the DH spot who wouldn’t normally be in the lineup. Since their typical batting order is built with their pitcher’s at-bats in mind, incorporating the designated hitter becomes a challenge.
They can either use one of their substitutes and plug them in, disrupting the usual order, or they can move someone from the field to the DH spot. With option B, someone further down the roster is subbed into the game where they’ll be in the field, and they can bat ninth like the pitcher. While AL clubs invest heavily and have potent batters to utilize as a designated hitter, the National League squads must either sub out a starting fielder to DH or use a backup reserve.
Where the NL does have the advantage is the familiarity and comfort their throwers have at the plate. There are pitchers in both leagues that are proficient batters as well, but the bulk of these athletes are in the National League. Throwers like Max Scherzer can absolutely dominate on the mound while providing some actual offensive firepower as well. A pitcher who can hit is a massive advantage in an interleague game played in an NL ballpark.
A fascinating player to keep an eye on when handicapping in the future is Shohei Ohtani, the Japanese superstar who plays for the Los Angeles Angels. He’s both a big-time slugger and a quality starting pitcher playing in the American League. On days Ohtani doesn’t pitch, he actually occupies the designated hitter role. When he’s healthy, future Angels’ interleague games are smart to target, since he’ll adapt to NL rules perfectly.
When betting on athletic endeavors, the participants’ mindsets and motivations are always significant variables. Contests between clubs located within close proximity to each other take on a more intense feel. These natural rivals compete for a local fan base all the time but don’t get to face off too often, giving the games a bigger feel when they finally happen.
Don’t count out underdogs in rivalries during interleague play. The added motivation and pressure can add some variance to the game, impacting the outcome. Also, the road team is less bothered by home field advantage. The ruleset will still work against them, but the athletes will still wake up in their own bed and play in front of a healthy showing of their own fans.
Here are some of the MLB’s critical interleague rivalries:
- Baltimore Orioles vs. Washington Nationals (The Beltway Series)
- Chicago Cubs vs. Chicago White Sox (Windy City Series)
- Cincinnati Reds vs. Cleveland Indians (Ohio Cup)
- Kansas City Royals vs. St. Louis Cardinals (I-70 Series)
- Miami Marlins vs. Tampa Bay Rays (Citrus Series)
- New York Mets vs. New York Yankees (Subway Series)
- Oakland Athletics v. San Francisco Giants (Bay Bridge Series)
A Changing Tide
While the American League has traditionally gotten the best of their counterpart during interleague play, the tide does appear to be changing. In 2018, while the AL has the three highest-ranked squads in the MLB, the National League probably has clubs four through twelve. So, while their top teams aren’t as exceptional, they have much more depth and parity. Sure, those three juggernaut teams continue to run over opponents, but the NL sides are taking the majority of interleague matchups now.
National League Value
From a betting perspective, the historical one-sidedness of interleague series still weighs heavily on the betting lines. The expectation of AL dominance is built into the odds, meaning National League clubs possess more value than ever. Too often, an NL team that deserves to be +120 on the moneyline is priced at +160 or so, which is exciting for bettors.
However, if the National League continues their solid showing in 2018, this edge may go away. With several immensely talented up-and-coming organizations comprised of young rosters starting to make waves in the MLB, it might not be long before the NL gains some ground on the lifetime win-loss record.
For the most part, betting on interleague play involves the same baseball betting strategies as other games, besides the points described in previous sections. But there are a few unique scenarios to look out for when making your wagers. If there’s one type of bet that’s frequently affected by the interleague matchups, it’s totals betting. Here are some winning wagers that we’ve found.
National League Road Team with High Scoring Averages
Remember those few NL squads with winning records in interleague play? They were all well-funded clubs with deep pockets to use on lots of talent. These are the teams who don’t find it as difficult to replace their pitcher’s spot in the lineup when playing in an American League ballpark because they have the hitters available on the bench to play either set of rules.
When analyzing upcoming contests, look at the scoring averages for the sides involved. It’s been found that National League teams with high offensive averages rack up a ton of runs on the road. For these situations, bet the “over” on the totals odds. The line will be artificially low in anticipation of the NL team struggling, but high-scoring offenses tend to show up no matter the location.
Teams in Hitting Slumps
It takes time for hitters to catch up to pitching each season. They need intelligence on their tendencies, where they locate their deliveries, and what pitches they throw and when. Handicappers hammer the “under” early in the year as a result.
Similarly to the start of the season, lineups are unfamiliar with the pitchers in the rival league. You want to find teams who are already struggling at the plate because they’ll perform even worse during interleague play. Look for clubs in recent hitting slumps with numbers below their averages for the past ten games or so.
Under – Two Lefties on the Mound
Another totals betting strategy during interleague play is to look for left-handed starting pitchers. When both clubs start a lefty, the result is often a low-scoring game. The majority of the throwers in the MLB are right-handed, so that’s what batters are most accustomed to facing. Once again, this just adds one more layer of unfamiliarity in an already uncomfortable situation. The odds of the game going under rises drastically if the two lefties are below-4.00-ERA starters.
Interleague play has become a central tradition in Major League Baseball since 1997, and it now makes up roughly one-eighth of the total regular-season contests. Over the course of the last decade or two, the American League has owned the head-to-head, winning more games than the NL in every single year. This appears to be due to the different rules regarding the designated hitter.
Many of the variables you should break down when handicapping for interleague play are consistent with the rest of the year. However, there are some additional factors you should consider, such as how each side will adjust to the rules. High-scoring National League teams tend to compete well in AL stadiums, but on average, they struggle to fill the designated hitter’s spot without messing up their lineup.
In 2018, the National League finally looks ready to turn the tables on the American League. While the best MLB teams are in the AL, there are more good squads in the NL. With numerous young, scrappy teams, the historical underdogs have been winning a large portion of their contests against the American League. Get out there and get some value on NL lines now, because the way things are heading, it won’t be long before the odds adjust!