Leagues Apart

The best way to rule the NL? Start signing AL players
September 13, 2009

Scouts are some ofthe last honest people in baseball, especially if they are eating and youpromise not to identify them by name. Four of those unnamed scouts were havinga press box dinner in May and trying to sum up a particularly bad outing byIndians closer Kerry Wood, who had signed with Cleveland over the winter aftera career blend of injuries and brilliance with the Cubs. He had come into agame against Kansas City the night before with a three-run cushion that shouldhave made for an easy save.

Wood gave up along home run to the Royals' Mike Jacobs, followed by an opposite-field homerto Mark Teahen. He walked Miguel Olivo and allowed a game-tying triple to DavidDeJesus. Finally, he allowed Willie Bloomquist to hit a fly ball deep enough toscore DeJesus, and the Royals won the game. "Someone needs to tellKerry," one of the scouts said, "that he ain't in the National Leagueanymore. He got promoted."

People aroundbaseball have been arguing for more than 100 years about which league isbetter. This used to be an argument worth having, even if there was nodefinitive conclusion. Players from the American League and National Leaguewouldn't face each other, except in All-Star Games and the World Series.Players didn't change leagues much either. The AL and NL were worlds apart.

Now there'sinterleague play, and players routinely jump from one league to the other, andthere is not much mystery left. These days the American League is the realsenior circuit. The American League has not lost an All-Star Game in 13 years,and it has won the majority of games in interleague play every year since2004.

Take the Royals.They have been the worst team in the AL for some time now. They are on pace tolose 100 games for the fifth time this decade, a feat so ludicrous that no ALteam has ever done it and the only NL team to pull it off was the expansion"Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" Mets of the 1960s.

Over the last fiveyears the Royals have lost more games than any team in baseball, but theirrecord against the NL in that period is 50--40. That's .556 baseball—good for90 wins if you stretch it out over a full season.

There are a lot ofstats like that. The Phillies, the Cardinals and the Dodgers figure to be theNL division winners this year. Combined, they have a losing record against theAmerican League (24--27). Last year the three NL division winners went 15--30in interleague play. As one AL executive says, "The American League issubstantially better than the National League. It isn't anecdotal, and it isn'tdebatable."

But it's theanecdotal stuff that really makes the NL look bad. Raul Ibañez had been a solidhitter for years in the AL; after joining the Phillies this year he turned intoWillie McCovey until a groin injury in mid-June shelved him for almost a month.Matt Holliday had been a National League superstar before he was traded toOakland last November. There he plodded along for 400 plate appearances. He wastraded back to the National League, to the Cardinals, in July, and he promptlyregained his superpowers. At last check he was hitting .378 for St. Louis.

Cliff Lee wastraded from Cleveland to Philadelphia, and he won his first five games andallowed just three earned runs in the process. Mike MacDougal was released bythe White Sox, and he became Washington's surprisingly effective closer. RyanFranklin was 27--49 as a starter in the AL; he's now the all-but-unhittablecloser in St. Louis. Even AL castoffs like John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Julio Lugoand, most recently, Jose Contreras (he allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings in hisdebut with the Rockies last Saturday, after going 5--13 with a 5.42 ERA withthe White Sox) have come into the NL and, at least for a while, regained theiryouth and contributed in pennant races. If you are a National League G.M.desperate to compete, you will want to keep your eye on the American Leaguewaiver wire this month.

For years the NLwas known as the more aggressive league. That image crystallized in the 1950s,when the NL was more proactive in signing African-American and Latino players.Over the next 30 years players like Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Maury Wills,Joe Morgan and Lou Brock created what would become known as the National Leaguestyle of play.

Well, now thatNational League style of play is best displayed by AL teams like the Rays andthe Angels. The top three teams in stolen bases are all in the AL. The AL alsohas four of the top five slugging teams.

Some defenders ofthe NL say the difference is the designated hitter and the imbalance created bythe large payrolls of the Yankees and the Red Sox. Maybe. But that doesn'texplain how the lamentable Orioles won 11 of 18 against the NL this year. Theone good bit of news for the NL is that, so far, its inferiority has not shownup in the postseason. The Phillies are defending champs, and the NL has wonfour of the last eight World Series. And how did our unnamed scout explainthat? "That means nothing; the World Series is a crapshoot," hesaid—with the emphasis on the first syllable of the final word.

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The Royals have been baseball's worst team since'05—but are a WINNING CLUB against the NL.

ILLUSTRATIONILLUSTRATION BY DARROW

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)