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"Arena Baseball" - The American League's Superiority

After Thursday's games, the AL is a whopping 124-84 over the National League thus far in Interleague Play, with one final weekend to play.  Forty games over .500.  

And the run differential suggests it hasn't been a fluke. Entering Thursday's games, the AL had outscored the NL 1006 to 825.  After the American League took eight of nine from the NL yesterday, the run differential is now 206 runs between the two leagues in their 208 contests.  It would be worse, but on Thursday, with Yankees leading the Pirates 3-1 and surely en route to victory, the game was wiped from the books due to rain.

See? Even Mother Nature feels sorry for the National League.

Not to go all Jayson Stark on you, but...

*  The AL's current winning percentage over the NL is the equivalent of a 97-win season, if the two teams were playing a 162-game schedule against each other.

*  The AL is almost exactly one run better per game than the NL in Interleague contests.  In the average Interleague game, the AL would win 5-4, and they'd win 60% of the time.

Now, the news that the AL is the superior league talent-wise isn't new.

This is a chart of Interleague wins over the last four years, courtesy of ESPN:


Year AL NL
2008 124 84
2007 137 115
2006 154 98
2005 136 116

What is interesting, however, is that AL superiority was being called into question barely more than a month ago.  David Pinto, who operates the terrific blog and also moonlights for The Sporting News, penned this column on May 7 titled, How the Heck is the NL outscoring the AL?  

A Harvard grad and former guru for STATS INC., Pinto had some compelling ideas, as he always does.  In short, he surmised that the NL was outscoring the AL because their hitters were younger, and closer to their primes.  In the above-linked article, he showed graphically that the average age of AL hitters had been gradually rising for years, and that the average NL hitter had been getting "younger" since 2004, pardon the oxymoron.   

The theory was that, especially in an era of less PED proliferation, perhaps the average age of AL hitters had passed the tipping point of optimum effectiveness.  AL teams were giving too many at-bats away to players that were past their primes and thus underperforming, while NL teams (these are merely averages of course, not meant to be blanket assertions) were seemingly being rewarded for embracing the youth movement and giving a greater portion of at-bats to younger players.  

To Pinto's credit, anecdotally, when applied to some individual players and teams, this argument made sense.  Garrett Anderson continues to gobble up at-bats for the Angels - partially because of his large salary and name recognition - despite his ineffectiveness, even though an arguably better and far cheaper player in Reggie Willits lies in wait behind him.  Here we have a clear-cut example of the player past his peak (Anderson, 35) taking at-bats away from the player entering his peak (Willits, 27).  And of course, there were and still are plenty of hitters over the age of 30 who negatively affected the AL performance-by-age statlines in Pinto's data:  Sexson, Vidro, and Gary Matthews, Jr., to name a few.  

It was a thought-provoking argument:  the NL has more fully embraced the youth movement, and as such, it has better hitters on the cusp of their primes.  

But with the benefit of hindsight, with Interleague play almost fully in the rearview mirror, I would argue instead that, the AL simply has better players across the board, and especially better pitching in particular.  The NL's hitters were looking so good early in the season because their pitchers really were, and are, that bad.    

Just a few years ago, it seemed that occasionally an elder AL pitcher would go to the NL to cement his legacy and hang on for a few more years, where the slightly weaker lineups would help mask his declining velocity and bite on his breaking stuff. Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez fall into this category, as would Randy Johnson's second stint with the D-Backs.

Somehow, that phenomenon - the very real idea that weaker pitchers can survive in the NL - has spread to the point that virtually every NL team has at least one starter who is either an AL cast-off, or wouldn't be considered a starter by any AL team.  

Yesterday's A's game was a perfect example.  Rich Harden - the epitome of a dominant AL starter, like Beckett or Halladay, which, frankly, is a class above Peavy/Lincecum/Volquez et al, who've been humbled a bit against AL lineups in Interleague play - simply baffled the Phillies for eight innings, while Philly countered with Adam Eaton.  Yes, that Adam Eaton, the one who was kicked out of Texas after the 2006 season for using a fake starting pitcher ID en route to a 1.57 WHIP for the Rangers. Yet somehow, Adam Eaton and his peach fuzz are still getting in to clubs all over the NL every five days.  

Barry Zito, Cha Seung Baek, Chan Ho Park, Jorge De La Rosa, Doug Davis, arguably even Randy Johnson at this stage in his career - would those guys crack any AL rotation?  And that's just from one division, the NL West.

Wanna find a sleeper for your fantasy team?  Find the former mediocre AL starter who toiled in the AL East, then swapped to the NL.  If you stumbled into Bronson Arroyo or Ted Lilly this way in previous seasons, kudos to you.  

The rift between the talent was cemented in my mind when Kyle Lohse dismissed the AL as "arena baseball" in an interview this past offseason. The implication is that American League baseball is somehow less of a game than NL baseball is - second-rate, less worthy of reverence or attention or credence.  I wouldn't be surprised if he and other NL converts have developed this belief as a coping mechanism for their confidence.  Which, in Lohse's case, probably took a hit after that 7.07 era stink bomb he threw up in his final half-season in the AL in '06.  Dismiss the league, and he can dismiss his previous poor performance there, too.  

As more and more pitchers have undoubtedly begun privately feeling the same sentiments as Lohse, and noticing the same results, NL rotations are increasingly stocked at the back ends with these types of pitchers - guys who simply aren't good enough to survive in the AL.  And the AL rotations only continue to improve, widening the disparity, because each team has learned the painful lesson of...well, of what a pitcher like Kyle Lohse is like in the AL.  


My elder brother and I have been split between the Giants and A's since we were seven and five years old, since Lance Blankenship and Pat Sheridan, and our fan rift truly deepened during and after the 1989 World Series.  Now, as grown men and baseball die-hards, he'll tell you that he prefers the Giants and NL baseball because of the greater element of strategy and substitution involved in the game, and the tradition. And I respect our differences.

But I quietly prefer to watch the AL simply because, I firmly believe I am watching better baseball, and better baseball players.  And I think the AL's interleague dominance continues to bear that point out.