Out of Their League

Teams from the National League have been dominated by their American League counterparts in recent years, by almost every measure, and the trend will only continue this season. How did this happen?
April 09, 2006

Mark shapiro has aproblem with baseball's competitive balance. What gnaws at the ClevelandIndians' general manager is not, however, the familiar, well-worn argumentabout the payroll discrepancies between high-revenue ball clubs and low-revenueones. A new revenue-sharing system, instituted in 2003, and whip-smartmanagement from some savvy G.M.'s have cooled that issue. The problem now forShapiro is that, since a preponderance of the best teams in baseball are in theAmerican League, a run for an AL playoff spot is a veritable Ironman Triathloncompared to the Easter Parade that occurs in the National League. ¶ Shapiro'sIndians won 93 games last season-and went straight home, where they could watchuncomfortably from their sofas as the NL's San Diego Padres (winners of 82games, a record-tying worst for a playoff team), the Houston Astros (89 wins)and the Atlanta Braves (90) played on. Cleveland was the fourth AL team in thepast four seasons to win 93 games and not qualify for the postseason. No NLteam since the 1999 Cincinnati Reds has won that many games and missed out. ¶"Our initial plan was to build a club that could win 88 to 90 games year inand year out, which would give you a chance to win [a playoff spot] everyyear," says Shapiro, Cleveland's G.M. since November 2001. "There's noquestion that things have changed drastically since then, and that idea is nolonger true. Now we have to win 93 to 95 games to be a consistent contender,and with a $60 million payroll, I don't know if that can be done year afteryear."

Rarely has theimbalance between the leagues been so pronounced. In an SI poll in which majorleague G.M.'s were asked to rank the game's 10 best teams, eight of the top 11clubs were in the AL (box, page 50). Of the 44 votes for the best andsecond-best teams in baseball, 38 were cast for AL teams.

Says one ALadvance scout, "The National League is a joke, and you really see thedifference when you're in interleague play. Put it this way: We're alwayslooking to go 10 games over .500 in interleague play when we start the season.If we've got 18 games against the National League, we're looking to be no worsethan 14-4." The Indians, by the way, won 15 of 18 from the NL lastseason.

Overall, the ALwent 136-116 (.540) against the NL last year, but the difference was morestriking among the best teams. The four AL playoff clubs (Boston Red Sox,Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Angels, New York Yankees) were 47-25 (.653); thefour NL playoff teams (Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals andSan Diego Padres) were 31-32 (.492). Those four AL clubs featured a host ofsluggers such as Vladimir Guerrero, Paul Konerko, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez,Alex Rodriguez and Gary Sheffield. The only NL playoff team to break .500 ininterleague play last year was Albert Pujols's Cardinals (10-5).

The superiority ofthe American League, measurable in a variety of ways, is a deep-rooted trend atleast five years in the making. Consider:

• From 2001 to'05, 20 AL teams won 93 games or more, but four of them didn't make theplayoffs. Only 12 NL teams won that many games in the same span, and all ofthem reached the postseason.
• The AL is undefeated in the past nine All-Star Games (8-0-1).
• The AL has won six of the past eight World Series while winning more than 70%of the games (29-12).
• The NL champion has won only one of the past 21 World Series games by morethan two runs.
• The AL has not lost back-to-back World Series since 1981-82.
• Not since the 1986 Mets has the team with the most wins during a full seasonin the NL won the World Series. The AL's best team has done so seven timessince then.

"It's going tobe even more pronounced this year because it seems like every team in the ALhas improved," says one AL G.M. who asked not to be named. "I'm sorry,[winning] is just not the same in that league. Give [G.M.] John Schuerholz and[manager] Bobby Cox in Atlanta their due, but look at that league they'recompeting against."

Oakland A'scatcher Jason Kendall, who joined the AL last season after nine seasons withthe NL's Pittsburgh Pirates, says that AL teams benefit from having the DH."There's no breathing room in an AL lineup like there is in the NL,"Kendall says. "That's the only difference I see." But the DH has beenaround since 1973, and this kind of imbalance didn't exist before. So why isthe AL now in a league of its own? Following are a few theories.

Brainpower

Only three ALteams have changed general managers since Opening Day of 2003. Seven NL G.M.jobs have turned over in that same time. More AL G.M.'s, such as Shapiro, BillyBeane of the A's, Brian Cashman of the Yankees and Theo Epstein of the Red Sox,have been quick to embrace the importance of statistical analysis in evaluatingplayers and building a roster. For instance, as power gained importance inbaseball, those G.M.'s turned their attention to players who hit home runs anddrew walks rather than focusing on players with traditional"tools."

"There aren'tas many great athletes playing baseball, especially as artificial turf came outof the game," the advance scout says. "You used to go to Kansas City,St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Toronto and see so many really goodathletes. That's not what the game is now. And I think the AL made thattransition quicker than the NL."

Colorado G.M. DanO'Dowd disputes that notion, saying, "I think it's cyclical more thananything. It's not because they drafted better or developed better. Go backfive years and you'll find the National League was better. It goes incycles."

He has a point.Five years ago the NL's Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series, and four NLteams with between 86 and 90 wins missed the playoffs (the AL had no suchteams). Casting an eye further back, the NL won every All-Star game but onefrom 1963 to '82, and had a 12-8 edge in the World Series in those 20years.

One thing's forsure, however: AL G.M.'s are getting a better bang for their buck nowadays,because the league's supremacy is not directly reflected in team payrolls. NLclubs accounted for eight of the 12 highest payrolls last season and 14 of the25 highest-paid players. Says Toronto G.M. J.P. Ricciardi, "The Twins,Indians and A's have done a really good job with young players without spendinga lot of money. And Tampa Bay and Detroit are coming next."

Superpowers

The Yankees andthe Red Sox each spent over 20% more on payroll last season than any otherteam. Both clubs have won at least 93 games for four consecutive years, raisingthe playoff bar for the other AL teams. "Absolutely, they have aneffect," O'Dowd says. "You saw it with Chicago last year and a teamlike Toronto this year. It forces you to raise the level of your play."

Adds Shapiro,"With their resources, you almost expect Boston and New York to win 95 to100 games every year. That makes the competition that much harder for everybodyelse.

"Just look atwhat happened this winter. Every team in the American League added payroll.Some went up dramatically, like Chicago, Detroit and Toronto. Then you look atthe National League and you had teams that pulled back, like Arizona, Atlanta,Houston, Cincinnati, Colorado and Florida. You didn't see anybody in the ALpulling back."

Comedy Central:Canceled

The AL Centralearned that derisive nickname in the first five seasons of the wild card(1995-99), when the Indians won all five division titles by an average of 16games. In 20 combined seasons the division's other five teams finished with awinning record once (1996 White Sox).

Minnesota andChicago have won five of the six division titles since then while emphasizingthe acquisition and development of young pitchers. Last season the Indians,White Sox and Twins ranked 1-2-5, respectively, in the league in ERA, whileaccounting for six of the AL's 11 individual leaders. None of those sixpitchers-Kevin Millwood of Cleveland, who is now with Texas; Mark Buehrle, JonGarland and Jose Contreras of Chicago; and Johan Santana and Carlos Silva ofMinnesota-were in the league before 2000.

"People keptsaying we didn't score a lot of runs," says White Sox manager Ozzie Guillenof last year's championship team. "Look at the pitching we see in thisdivision every night. It's the best pitching of any division inbaseball."

Trade Deficit

Of the 14 freeagents who signed contracts worth more than $20 million and switched leaguesover the past two winters, nine wound up in the AL, including A.J. Burnett ($55million for five years from the Blue Jays) and Adrian Beltre ($64 million forfive years from the Mariners). The NL's top free-agent imports were PedroMartinez ($53 million for four years from the Mets) and Carlos Delgado ($52million for four years from the Marlins; since traded to the Mets). But it wasthe trade market last winter that affected the league imbalance even more.

The AL importedsuch NL players as Josh Beckett, Milton Bradley, Luis Castillo, Troy Glaus,Mark Loretta, Mike Lowell, Lyle Overbay, Vicente Padilla, Jim Thome, JavierVazquez and Brad Wilkerson. The list of established players who left the AL forthe NL was less impressive, including Danys Baez, Bill Mueller, Edgar Renteria,Aaron Rowand and Alfonso Soriano.

Says Beane,"There is not a team in the AL that is not improved to some extent thisyear. That's what you've come to expect when you play in the American League.It's a hyper-competitive league."

The AL'ssupremacy, however, will likely again be most evident in October. And the bestmeasurement of it, as Shapiro and the Indians can grimly attest, will probablybe the teams home on their couches as much as those still on the field.

[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
Top-Heavy

SI asked the 30major league G.M.'s to rank baseball's 10 best teams. Twenty-two G.M.'s agreedto participate (14 of them from the NL) and according to their weighted ballots(10 points for a first-place vote, nine for second, etc.), eight of the game'stop 11 teams are in the AL.

American League  
National League

NEW YORK YANKEES [AL] 196 points
CHICAGO WHITE SOX [AL] 183 points
BOSTON RED SOX [AL] 136 points
ST. LOUIS CARDINALS [NL] 130 points
LOS ANGELES ANGELS [AL] 128 points
OAKLAND A'S [AL] 85 points
ATLANTA BRAVES [NL] 82 points
NEW YORK METS [NL] 74 points
CLEVELAND INDIANS [AL] 66 points
TORONTO BLUE JAYS [AL] 37 points
MINNESOTA TWINS [AL] 26 points
HOUSTON ASTROS [NL] 22 points


SI.COM

More baseball news plus Tom Verducci's weekly Insidercolumn at SI.com/baseball.

Power Shift

Already the stronger league, the AL got the best of theNL again this winter as these players switched sides through free agency andtrades

NATIONAL TO AMERICAN
JIM THOME: Phillies to White Sox
A.J. BURNETT: Marlins to Blue Jays
LYLE OVERBAY: Brewers to Blue Jays
MILTON BRADLEY: Dodgers to Athletics
JAVIER VAZQUEZ: D-Backs to White Sox
TODD JONES: Marlins to Tigers
TROY GLAUS: D-Backs to Blue Jays
JOSH BECKETT: Marlins to Red Sox

AMERICAN TO NATIONAL
AARON ROWAND: White Sox to Phillies
TOM GORDON: Yankees to Phillies
EDGAR RENTERIA: Red Sox to Braves
ALFONSO SORIANO: Rangers to Nationals

Says one AL scout, "THE NATIONAL LEAGUE IS A JOKE.We're always looking to go 10 games over .500 in interleague play."

ILLUSTRATIONIllustration by Daniel Adel SHOW OFFORCE
American Leaguers Konerko (top), Guerrero (Angels cap) and Ortiz (34) have beenputting the hurt on the NL, to the chagrin of such stars as Martinez (bottomleft) and Pujols.
TWENTY-FOUR PHOTOS(TOP ROW FROM LEFT) CHUCK SOLOMON; JOHN BIEVER; TIM DEFRISCO; EDDIE MICHELS/AP; DAMIAN STROHMEYER; CHUCK SOLOMON; ROBERT BECK; BRAD MANGIN; (MIDDLE ROW FROM LEFT) ROBERT BECK; JOHN MILLER/AP; CHUCK SOLOMON; LEON HALIP/WIREIMAGE.COM; ROBERT BECK; HEINZ KLUETMEIER; TIM DEFRISCO; JOHN IACONO; (BOTTOM ROW FROM LEFT) RON VESELY ; CHUCK SOLOMON; HEINZ KLUETMEIER; CHUCK SOLOMON; DAMIAN STROHMEYER; JOHN IACONO (2); TOM DIPACE; BACKGROUND BY SI IMAGING TWELVE ILLUSTRATIONS

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)