Interleague play: not quite popular as MLB would have you believe

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In the past few years, when interleague play was confined to certain segments of the season, Major League Baseball would issue these press releases about just how popular it was and how attendance spiked dramatically when the interleague series began. The clear impression they were trying to make was just how successful interleague play was as a concept.

Maury Brown at The Business of Baseball, however, crunched the numbers from and concludes that MLB’s enthusiasm about interleague play was really a lot of calendar-dependent noise:

While the rest of the season is yet to be played, the numbers compellingly show that interleague is not as popular as the past numbers have been said to be. It’s not that the “rivalries” aren’t popular, they are (they averaged 30,876 across the Rivalry Week in May this year), but rather balanced interleague throughout the season pulls in pretty much the same crowds as traditional interleague has.

None of this is to say that interleague should be removed. What it does say is don’t use those past numbers as propaganda to say how much more popular interleague is since it came into place in 1997. As the numbers now show, it’s pretty much a wash. Enjoy it for what it is, not some monumental popularity shift added to the regular season.

It was always notable that the big interleague p.r. push came after big weekend series between popular rivals, typically just as the warm weather finally showed up. Now that we have random Philly-Anaheim and Colorado-Seattle matchups in midweek during cold weather and everything else, we are seeing that baseball is, more or less, baseball.

Evan Longoria: ‘I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base’

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The Rays were busy over the weekend, trading starter Jake Odorizzi to the Twins, designating All-Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment, and then picking up C.J. Cron in a deal with the Angels. The Rays saved about $4 million — Odorizzi’s $6.3 million less Cron’s $2.3 million salary — and picked up a prospect. They’re still on the hook for Dickerson’s $5.95 million salary until they can find a trade partner, which seems likely.

Those are some head-scratching moves if you’re a Rays fan or a member of the Rays. Dickerson hit .282/.325/.490 with 27 home runs, 62 RBI, and 84 runs scored in 629 plate appearances last season, part of which resulted in his first trip to the All-Star Game. Designating him for assignment is strictly a financial move, assuming he can be traded. The Rays are currently operating with a payroll below $70 million. This comes just a week and a half after Rays ownership proposed the public footing most of the bill for the club’s new stadium. And the Rays had traded third baseman Evan Longoria — then the face of the franchise — to the Giants earlier this offseason.

Longoria expressed sympathy for Rays fans for having to put up with this. Via Andrew Baggarly, Longoria said of the curious Dickerson move, “I just kind of feel sorry for the Rays fan base. … I’m not going to take too many shots but it’s pretty obvious that guy is a valuable player and didn’t deserve to be DFAd. Corey was our best player last year.”

Longoria isn’t quite on the money there. By WAR, Dickerson ranked fifth among position players on the team, according to Baseball Reference. FanGraphs is also in agreement. Still, it’s indisputable that Dickerson, who turns 29 years old this May, more than pulled his weight. The Rays do not have a surfeit of starting outfielders, so it wasn’t like they were making room for other capable players. Mallex Smith, who put up a .684 OPS in 282 PA last year, is slated to start in left field at the moment. Designating Dickerson for assignment, as well as trading Longoria and Odorizzi, were simply cost-cutting decisions.

The Rays’ M.O. has been part of the problem leading to the current stagnant free agent market (sans Eric Hosmer‘s eight-year deal on Saturday). Teams like the Rays, Phillies, Reds, and Tigers have been explicitly putting out non-competitive teams in order to facilitate a rebuilding process. Longoria is right to express sympathy for Rays fans, who see their favorite team worsening a roster that went 80-82 last year. The Rays haven’t finished at .500 or above since 2013 and doesn’t figure to halt the streak this year.