NL starting to make comeback in interleague play

This week’s Sunday Night Baseball showdown featuring the Los Angeles Angels of the American League visiting the St. Louis Cardinals of the National League (ESPN, 7 p.m.) gives us a chance to get caught up on evolving dynamics in Interleague play.

It’s clear right now that the American League’s dominance is over. The AL had beaten the NL heads up in regular-season meetings for 14 straight seasons from 2004 to 2017 inclusive. That included absolute routs in 2006 (154-98), 2008 (149-103), and 2012 (142-110). 

Betting markets took years to notice this development. There had been a long held media bias that the NL played “real” baseball because it didn’t use designated hitters. Supposedly, the AL couldn’t adjust when their pitchers had to hit. Plus, the senior circuit did win four of the first seven seasons, while carrying a “lifetime” lead for nine seasons through 2005. 

From that point on, carnage! Sharp bettors paying attention could virtually auto-bet AL teams in interleague action knowing they would get the best of it. Easy money. For more than a decade. Until last season. 

The AL’s gradual acceptance of “tanking” while building for the future (“Hey, it worked for Houston!”) has helped turned the tide. Last season, the NL went 158-142 (note that there was an increase from 252 total IL games to 300 beginning in 2013). That was keyed by an awful composite performance from the five AL teams that lost 95 games or more (Baltimore, Kansas City, Chicago White Sox, Detroit, Texas). They were 34-66 in total.

Tankers can’t be trusted to beat anybody. 

What’s been happening this year? A continuation of the same theme. The worst AL teams are serving as a heavy anvil. Dregs entering the weekend playing .410 ball or worse (Baltimore, Kansas City, Toronto, Detroit, Seattle) are a horrendous 10-33 vs. the National League. (Toronto and Detroit by themselves are 6-22.)  

At the start of the Angels/Cards series, the NL led the 2019 battle 74-56. That’s already 18 games over .500, when the NL finished 16 games over .500 a year ago. 

Is it time to auto-bet the National League? It might have felt that way this past Wednesday when Cincinnati rallied in the ninth to stun Houston, Pittsburgh rallied from six runs down to dump Detroit, and the Cubs crushed the White Sox 7-3. 

For now, it’s likely best to handicap every game clean, without assuming there’s some sort of “hidden” differences between leagues that the market is missing. But it is worth noting that only four AL teams currently have winning records against the NL (Tampa Bay, LA Angeles, Texas and the Yankees). And the five “juggernauts” most likely to make the playoffs (Yanks, Rays, Boston, Minnesota and Houston) are only a combined 23-20. 

Handicappers and bettors should be open to the possibility that NL teams could offer value up and down the board in interleague matchups through the rest of 2019. 

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