By now, we all ought to agree that when it comes to the American League vs. the National League, it's still no contest. Remember back in May, when everyone was trumpeting the demise of the AL? The seniors were outhitting the juniors. They were outscoring them. A switch had been flipped, a tide had turned, a chalk line had been crossed.
Except ... no. It's just not happening. With interleague play going into its final weekend, it's become painfully obvious once again that the AL is still the indisputable champion of the leagues. It's hardly a contest.
We suspected that, of course, from the All-Star Games. (The AL has won the last 10 games that didn't end as embarrassments in Milwaukee, and 16 of the last 19.) The World Series pretty much confirmed it. (Three of the last four Series winners have been from the AL -- and all of them in sweeps. The NL hasn't won two World Series in a row since 1981 and '82. The record in that time: AL 16, NL 10, Bud Selig and the owners, 1.) And now, interleague has again knocked us all over the heads with it. (This year, the AL leads 124-84. That's going to be five years in a row the AL has beaten down the NL)
But why? Why does the AL continue to knock the junk out of the NL? Why is it so far and away the better league? How has Junior become Senior's daddy?
I've got a few ideas here.
1.) The Designated Hitter
Like it or consider it the evil spawn of Ray Wise, the DH clearly makes a difference. Despite that early season blip that showed the NL was out-hitting the junior circuit, the AL has now taken the lead in batting average (.264 to .258), on-base percentage (.332 to .329), slugging percentage (.409 to .408), OPS (.741 to .738) and runs per game (4.59 to 4.49). A lot of that is due to the DH, of course, even as bad as some of these DHs are (I'm looking at you, Jose Vidro, Travis Hafner and Gary Sheffield). Yet it's not all about what the DH does, necessarily, but what it prevents.
For every Carlos Zambrano or Micah Owings who actually knows how to swing a bat, there's a Greg Maddux or a Mike Pelfrey and a dozen other hackers. Nothing kills a budding rally like a pitcher with a useless piece of wood in his hands.
It comes down to this: The batting average for NL pitchers is .145. Thanks to the DH, AL fans don't have to see that.
2.) More good teams
Sounds so simple, doesn't it? Earlier this year, everyone was going nuts over the Diamondbacks and the Cubs and the Phillies and those zippy Marlins ... at least while they were playing other NL teams. But all we had to do was wait 'til interleague to get here, and what's happened?
The results are a little wanky now because of all this commingling, but what the heck: 10 of the NL's 16 teams are below .500 right now. The AL has five. You want to look at the other side? Seven of the top 10 teams (by winning percentage) are from the AL. The NL has the Cubs, the Cardinals and the Brewers. Ooooooo. Scary.
3.) Better pitching
Despite going against lineups with DHs in them, the AL has a lower ERA (4.08 to 4.24) this year, which mirrors the past several years. AL pitchers also give up fewer walks, have a better strikeout-to-walk ratio and allow fewer baserunners per nine innings.
You can argue that the NL has more top pitchers with lower ERAs -- and that's true -- but, again, they're going against lineups with Maddux and Pelfrey and a bunch of other bat-challenged pitchers in them. The NL lineups are simply easier to get through.
4.) The NL West
Maybe this is just a bad year for the Mild, Mild West. But come on already. Any league that has an entire division playing as poorly as this one can hardly be called superior in much of anything. I mean, the Diamondbacks are 11 games under in the past six weeks, and they've dropped all of 2 ½ games off their lead. Losing that much ought to have some consequences, shouldn't it?
I will give credit to the Rockies, the only NL West team with a winning record in interleague this year (though, historically, a losing one). This weekend, the Rocks get the Tigers (110-98 in interleague, 10-5 in '08). Good luck with that.
5.) The Phillies
One of the best teams in the NL this season -- though, evidently, not a great one -- the Phils have only three wins against the AL this year in 12 games against the Red Sox, Blue Jays, A's and Angels. This is hardly historic, considering the Phillies have a losing record in the 12 seasons of interleague play. But it confirms: Even good NL teams have a hard time playing with the big boys.
6.) The history
Forget the stats for this one. Every tradition-loving baseball player who ever donned a pair of sanitaries knows that the richest history in the game lies east of the Mississippi, specifically with the Yankees and the Red Sox. And if a player who wants a taste of that can't work something out with those teams, he has to settle for the NL, with the Phillies or the Mets. The AL rules on the East Coast, where baseball cut its teeth.
And speaking of the Mets ...
7.) The Mets
Does any big-market team suffer more in a comparison of the AL and the NL than New York's little-brother Mets? The White Sox stand in the Cubs' shadow, but that's more geographic and socio-economic than anything else. And at least they've won a World Series recently. The Angels still aren't L.A.'s team, despite the name change, but they've won, too, in the last decade. By comparison, the Mets haven't won a World Series in more than two decades and have turned shooting themselves in the foot (see: '07 collapse, Willie Randolph firing) into a painful art form.
8.) Strikeout kings
Largely because pitchers try to hit, the NL has long led the AL in strikeouts. But it's not just the poor helpless pitchers striking out. The NL's ability to produce big, swing-and-miss so-called hitters has been nothing short of appalling in the past few years.
The AL hasn't had a player lead the majors in strikeouts in more than a decade (though Jim Thome tied in '01). In that time, Sammy Sosa, Preston Wilson, Jose Hernandez, Thome (with the Phillies), Adam Dunn and Ryan Howard all have shown us how to come up empty -- a lot -- in the NL.
All the whiffing reached a head when the Reds' Dunn broke Bobby Bonds' long-held Major League record for strikeouts in '04. Then the Phillies' Howard broke Dunn's record last year (with 199 in 144 games). This year, Howard already has 109 Ks in 71 games, putting him on pace for yet another record. If you believe baseball is a no-contact sport, the NL is your league.
9.) Young arms
This is an adjunct to No. 3. The NL has some great young arms: Edinson Volquez, Tim Lincecum, Cole Hamels, etc. But the AL can match with Felix Hernandez and Jon Lester and Ervin Santana, etc. Of the Top 20 ERAs this year for pitchers under 25, half belong to the AL and half to the NL.
But do I have to repeat? It's a lot tougher to pitch in the AL. A lot.
10.) The Royals
One of the worst teams in the AL over the past couple of decades -- though not a completely meritless one this season -- the Royals only wish they had the good fortune of playing in the NL full-time. Since interleague play's inception in '97, the Royals are .415 in all games. Against the NL, they're not good, but they're a much better .471. And this year, they're 12-3.
That's right. The Kansas City Royals, like the rest of the AL, own the NL right now.