As NL hoards top starters, game must change—but not by adding DH
VIERA, Fla.—Will the last great pitcher to check out of the American League please turn out the lights? Given a choice (and, oh, by the way, money), elite starting pitchers keep abandoning the AL for the National League, while the recent elbow injury suffered by the Rangers' Yu Darvish last week added to the severe talent drain hitting AL rotations.
In the spike marks of Zack Greinke (2012) and Bartolo Colon and Matt Garza (2013), Jon Lester, Max Scherzer and James Shields all left the AL as free agents for the NL last winter. They were accompanied by Jason Hammel, Brandon McCarthy and Brandon Morrow. (The talent headed in the opposite direction this past offseason wasn't nearly as impressive: Justin Masterson, Kris Medlen, Ervin Santana and Edinson Volquez.)
Now Darvish might be facing Tommy John surgery. It's a most unfortunate turn for one of the game's most exciting pitchers, but given his elbow trouble last year that brought an early end to his third season in the majors, it's one that was right on schedule with the trend I warned about before he threw his first major league pitch: pitchers from Nippon Pro Baseball hitting The Third Year Wall in the majors.
How much talent has the AL lost? And is it about time we give the NL the DH in part to make this a fair fight? (It's the worst idea imaginable, but more on that below.) First, the scorecard:
• Forty-eight percent of all starting pitchers to get an AL Cy Young Award vote in just the past four years will not be in AL Opening Day rotations this year: free-agent exiles Colon, Lester, Scherzer, Shields and Dan Haren, injured pitchers Darvish, Matt Harrison and Matt Moore, the struggling Ricky Romero and the retired Josh Beckett.
• Nine of the top 22 AL pitchers from just two years ago, as ranked by ERA, won't be pitching for an AL team any time soon: Colon, Darvish, Lester, Scherzer, Shields, Hiroki Kuroda (who returned to Japan to pitch), Doug Fister (traded), John Lackey (traded) and Andy Pettitte (retired).
You tell me who are the drawing card starting pitchers in the AL, the kind that might influence you to buy a ticket to watch them work as part of the road team. I'll give you the league's top four top returning strikeout pitchers: David Price, Corey Kluber, Felix Hernandez and Chris Sale (currently mending from a foot injury). Where do you want to go next? Garrett Richards? Yordano Ventura? Masahiro Tanaka and his torn UCL? The classic ace is hard to find in the league.
Now consider the Nationals, the team with the best rotation in baseball. Only two of their starters are homegrown: Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann. Sixty percent of their rotation was acquired from the AL in the past three years: Gio Gonzalez (traded from Oakland), Fister (traded from Detroit) and Scherzer. And who wouldn't rather pitch in a league without the designated hitter?
"It wasn't that much different," Fister said, "because I saw a lot of the same hitters, the way players switch leagues so often these days. The only thing I did as a point of emphasis last year was try to get my ground balls faster—to attack and get weak contact whenever I could. I'm not a big strikeout guy, so for me I didn't notice a big difference in that regard."
Fister's strikeout rate did go down—from 18.1 percent of plate appearances to 14.8 percent. But more importantly, he was able to attack NL lineups more aggressively with a bailout always waiting for him in the ninth spot in the batting order—and, nearly as significantly, often in the eighth spot. Fister's strike percentage jumped from 64.5 percent to 67.8 percent while getting a career-high swing rate (46.9 percent of all pitches) and a career-high first-pitch strike percentage (65 percent). He seemed to be saying, "Here it is NL, go ahead and hit it into the ground."
"The pitcher's spot isn't as big as people make it out to be," Fister said, "because there are a lot of guys who swing the bat well that you have to make pitches against."
That's occasionally true, in the cases of pitchers who can swing it such as Madison Bumgarner and Travis Wood, but there's no denying an NL pitcher gets a built-in break without the DH. And Fister took full advantage of the almost automatic out: Pitchers were 4-for-40 against him (.100), with no extra-base hits, no walks and no runs scored.
"Really, it's not just the pitcher, but mostly the eighth spot, too," said one AL executive. "That means a starting pitcher can have the equivalent of two quiet innings built into a game: the eighth and ninth spots three times. So pitching seven innings may be like five or six innings in the AL."
That's the dirty little secret of the NL: The eighth spot is a veritable wasteland, too—perhaps because it is such a difficult spot in which to hit. With a pitcher hitting behind that spot, the hitter can have difficulty knowing when a team is attacking him and when it may be pitching around him.
NL tablesetters last year (the 1 and 2 spots in the batting order) got on base more often than their AL counterparts (.325 OBP to .322), NL middle-of-order hitters (3-6) packed more punch (.752 OPS to .734) and even the NL's 7 hole hitters were more dangerous (.689 OPS to .680). But look what happens when pitchers get to the bottom two spots. The first table below shows how eight-place hitters did in the two leagues in 2014:
And here's how the No. 9 hitters in each league fared last season:
Here's the short version of how much easier it is for an NL pitcher to face the bottom of a lineup: NL 8-9 hitters are 49.5 percent less likely to hit a home run than their AL counterparts and they hit 30 points lower when they put the ball in play (.267 vs. .297).
Scherzer, who made 37 starts for Arizona from 2008 to '09, is returning to the NL after five years pitching for Detroit. Of course, it's not proper form to admit it's easier to pitch in the NL, and Scherzer wouldn't go there, anyway.
"I didn't care," Scherzer said of his league preference when he reached free agency. "I do love it from a competitive standpoint because I feel like I can help win a ballgame in more ways in the National League—get a bunt down, get a hit, run the bases. I take it seriously knowing if I can really do my job I can help the team win.
"The one I thing I know will be different is I'm a creature of habit and I can't have the same routine that I had in the AL. I would go back in the clubhouse, maybe watch some video, see how my ball is moving, just sit down and relax … and in the National League you can't always do that because you have to be aware of when your spot in the batting order is coming up. So at least in that sense, it's going to be different for me."
The AL is less exciting without Darvish, who has the most sublime ability to spin the baseball—with more speeds and more spin axes—than anybody else in the majors. The Third Year Wall he hit actually dates to 2006, when the Red Sox, while bidding on Daisuke Matsuzaka, sent their crack quantitative analysts on the research trail of pitchers who jumped from NPB to MLB. They found a clear trend that such pitchers began to break down in their third year after the jump.
Rangers assistant GM Thad Levine told me before Texas signed Darvish, "The anecdotal assessment suggests starting pitchers have a two-year window of success followed by a rapid decline, followed thereafter by disappearance. Even a lot of the relievers have had success quickly, reaching a hot peak followed by a rapid decline."
Texas believed Darvish to be something of an exception because of his more Americanized training programs and 6'5", 215-pound frame. Still, Darvish had some traits common to pitchers in the NPB system, including extra rest between starts there, games with high pitch counts that are routine (in 2010 alone, at age 23, he threw 140 pitches or more in a game nine times—as many times as all the pitchers in the majors combined over the past 12 years), and occasional use of the split-finger fastball.
As Darvish's immediate future hung in the air, players association executive director Tony Clark wondered aloud about the immediate future of Baseball As It Was Meant To Be (a.k.a., NL-style baseball). The comments to the St. Louis Post Dispatch by Clark (who spent 101 career games as a DH) were perfunctory and nothing new. The DH debate has gone on for years. It is getting recycled again because the game is undergoing a serious re-examination of its broad appeal, because offense is trending downward and—here's the worst reason of all—because of daily interleague play created by 15-team leagues.
The 15-team leagues were a lousy idea from the start, especially because it created interleague games all year long, when they should be confined to two weeks before or after the All-Star break and be done with. Instead, baseball has continued to dilute the identity of the leagues, which continues to dilute the uniqueness of its jewel events that draw from league-vs.-league conflict: the All-Star Game and the World Series.
Conflict and controversy are more appealing than balance and homogeneity. What's next? Might as well throw 30 teams in one big "division" and just arrange the top 10 finishers in some version of a College World Series bracket.
The AL is a dumbed down version of baseball, especially now that several teams are considering eight-man bullpens, a farce that makes a bench nearly irrelevant. (You basically are left with a two-man bench, because teams will have to hold a backup catcher for an emergency.) Strategy and surprise are dulled in the AL. In terms of plot complexity, it's the difference between Gilligan's Island and Lost. Think of the greatest World Series games you've ever seen, and chances are they were played under NL rules (including Game 6 in 1975, 1986 and 2011). Why legislate that basic appeal of the game completely out of baseball?
There's nothing wrong with the healthy debate about which version is better. Long live the differences between the two leagues.