Friday, August 18, 2006

League Dichotomy

It's August, and the American League pennant races are really heating up. In the AL East, it's the Yankees and Red Sox still quite close, with a big weekend series at Fenway coming up. The Yankees are 2.5 games up, but that's not a whole lot, all things considered. In the AL Central, the once-invincible Tigers have lost 7 of their last 10 and are starting to look mortal. Granted, they still enjoy a healthy 6-game lead over the White Sox, but things are a lot closer than they were a month ago, making things a lot more interesting. The Twins are still in the race as well, only 8 games back.
In the AL West, we have the tightest race of them all, although the red-host Oakland A's have once again forged a second-half comeback and currently have a 5.5 game lead over the Angels, with the Rangers just 6 out. The A's have won 8 of their last 10 to give them this lead; on the other hand, we have the Mariners, who have lost 8 of 10 and dropped out of the race, now 12 games back. The AL Wild Card race is a tight 3-team race, barring a historic run by the Blue Jays, Rangers, or Angels. The White Sox currently lead the race by 1 game over Minnesota, with B0ston just a bare 2.5 back.
Simply put, there's a lot of good baseball in the AL and no matter what happens in September, some really good baseball teams will be left out of the postseason. The Tigers are on pace to win an amazing 105 games! The Red Sox, the team furthest back in the Wild Card race, are on pace to win 93 games. If we can assure the A's and Tigers a spot in the postseason (which we will, tentatively), that leaves just 2 playoff spots for the Yankees, Red Sox, White Sox, and Twins. Two of these teams will go home in October, despite the fact that they are all likely to win 90 games.
Which brings me to the point of this article . . .

Over in the National League . . . well, things aren't pretty. While the American League is setting the world on fire, the National League is limping along, threatening to set records for mediocrity. Oh sure, the Mets are a good ballclub; they're 73-48, 14 games up in their division, and on pace to win 98 games. Granted, the Mets have played most of their games within their own division, which is a pretty sorry division, all told. Even considering the low level of competition, no other team in the NL East is above .500. Oh, you can find some promising things to say about each team, I guess. The Phillies are in 2nd place, which sounds good, until you realize that their record is 59-62. The Braves have been a big disappointment (57-64), but at least they've got the young talent to portend better days ahead. The Marlins, although sporting a dismal 56-65 record, have to be considered a major surprise, considering many people predicted 100+ losses for them this year. They're on pace to go 75-87; not great, but a pleasant surprise. And the Nationals . . . okay, I lied, there's nothing promising about the Nationals.
In the NL Central, everyone expected the Cardinals to dominate, just as the Mets are doing this year and just as they themselves did the past two years, winning 105 games in 2004 and 100 games last year. Instead, the Cardinals have limped to a disappointing 65-56 record. Their starting pitching has been abysmal (outside of Carpenter), and their lineup has no depth and is getting older. They're on pace to win 87 games. That's not awful, but it's a major disappointment for any team to drop 13 games in the standings in just one year. But there is good news for the Cardinals: they're still in 1st place.
Yes, as dismal as the Cardinals have been, they've still been better than the rest of the sorry NL Central. The Reds are in 2nd place but, like the Phillies, it's not so much due to talent but rather by default; they're currently 62-60. That puts them 3.5 games out, still with a fighting chance despite their woeful pitching and defense. The Houston Astros still are a long shot at 7 games back, but despite their 58-63 record, we can't rule them out. The former NL champions have been a disappointment, although with their offense, it wasn't a complete surprise. What was a surprise was the big step back taken by the Milwaukee Brewers. After finishing an even 81-81 last season, it looked like the Brewers had the young talent to make a run at the Wild Card, especially give the bare opposition. But while their young hitters have hit (when healthy), their pitching has stunk. Ben Sheets has missed most of the season, and Chris Capuano has been the only reliably good pitcher they've had. The Cubs (52-69) and Pirates (47-75) were out of the race in May.
The NL West is probably a step better than it was last year, but that's faint praise indeed. The Padres won the West last year with an 82-80 record. The 1st-place Dodgers currently sport a 64-57 record, which means they're on pace for 86 wins. That's an improvement, but it's still a poor record for a division leader. Behind the Dodgers are 4 teams scattered thinly across the .500 line. The 2nd-place Diamondbacks are very much alive at just 3 games out, even though they're just 61-60. The defending champion Padres are in 3rd place at 60-61. To quote Major League, "60-61 is hardly a great job." A little further back are the Rockies (59-63) and Giants (58-63) who have played poorly enough to fall out of the race except for the fact that the rest of the division is only a few inches ahead of them.
What this also means is that the NL Wild Card race is an even bigger sham. If we've got the Dodgers and Cardinals winning their division with 86 and 87 wins, respectively, what the hell kind of second-place team deserves a spot in the postseason?
The Reds currently lead the Wild Card with their shockingly mediocre 62-60 record. Arizona is 1/2 game back, San Diego is 1.5 back, and 8 teams total are within 5 games of the Wild Card-leading Reds. It sounds like a close, exciting race, but it isn't -- it's not a "race" to the .50o line, it's a statistical regression. We'd expect about 8 or 9 teams to be right around average -- what we wouldn't expect is for so few teams to be above-average.
The 2006 NL is shaping up to be historically awful, in terms of wins and losses. The record for the team with the worst winning percentage to make the postseason was broken last year; the 2005 Padres were 82-80 and won the division. That broke the record of the 82-79 New York Mets of 1973 who, it must be said, not only won their division but won the NLCS against the Big Red Machine and took the dynastic Oakland A's to 7 games before losing the World Series.
So can we really compare the state of the 2006 NL to the 1973 NL? Not really. While the NL has had this deteriorating problem for a couple years now, the 1973 NL East was a fluke. From 1970-1972, the Pittsburgh Pirates won the NL East with 89, 97, and 96 wins, respectively. After the 1973 Met upset, the Pirates came back to win the division with 88 wins in 1974 and 92 wins in 1975. After that, the Philadelphia Phillies emerged as a power in the division, winning the division title three straight years from 1976-1978, winning 101 games twice before falling to 90 wins in 1978. In 1979, the Pirates had their last hurrah (literally) with a 98-64, division-winning campaign.
So the NL East wasn't a bad division at all in the 1970's; it was just one year, 1973, when the Pirates fell to 80-82 and the Mets won by default. It's probably true that the East was a worse division that the West in the 70's. The East sported two really good (and underappreciated) Pennsylvania ballclubs. The Pirates and Phillies were the powers of the NL East in the 70's, winning every division title except for 1973. But while these teams were indeed great, the rest of the division was weighed down by teams like the Expos, Cubs, and Cardinals, that drifted from mediocrity to awfuldom. Meanwhile in the NL West, the Big Red Machine was running wild, and the Dodgers were putting together a brilliant if less-historic run, winning 3 pennants in the decade. The NL West beat the NL East in the NLCS every year except 1971, 1973, and 1979. The Reds won 4 pennants; the Dodgers won 3.
The point I'm making is that the only other time in history that such a bad team managed to sneak into the postseason, 1973, doesn't really compare to the present day at all. The Mets won a weak 6-team division, and with a small number of teams per division, you're going to get your oddities, like the 1973 NL East, the 1994 AL West, and the 2005 NL West. But the Wild Card -- a race between all 13 non-division winners -- should produce at least one team better than 62-60. The problem has never been as league-wide as it is now -- at least, not in the modern era of free agency, the amateur draft, and increased competitive balance.
The point I was making about the 1973 NL is one I can make about the MLB today. The problem with the league wasn't overall bad play; rather, it was an imbalance. The good teams happened to be in one division, purely by a matter of chance. And baseball is set up not so that the two best teams go to October, but that the two division-winners go to October, no matter what division they may be in. The Wild Card was created to help compensate for that; the second-place 1973 Dodgers, who went 95-66, would have been rewarded with a playoff berth because they were simply in the wrong division -- they would have won the NL East by 13 games.
That imbalance is exactly what affects the MLB today; but instead of it being a divisional imbalance, it is a league imbalance. The general superiority of the American League has grown on us over the past few years. It becomes more evident every year as the AL whips the NL in the All-Star Game and dominates interleague play. Over the past 20 World Series, the AL has won 13. If you go back two more years, it's 15 of the last 22.
Every qualitative and quantitative measure has reinforced the same findings. I can't cite any specific studies, nor am I qualified to run my own, but I'm sure any measures taken to compare the leagues would find the AL superior.
The best I can do is to offer my own opinion in my favorite fashion -- position-by-position. I've noticed for a while that the AL enjoys an absurd advantage in shortstops. This has been true ever since the AL came up with Nomar/A-Rod/Jeter, Miguel Tejada, and Omar Vizquel, whereas the NL could manage was Rafael Furcal. The ascension of Michael Young, Jhonny Peralta, Carlos Guillen, and Bobby Crosby has only made the advantage more marked. But let's start at first base and see who's got the edge:

First Base:
AL: Mark Teixeira, Justin Morneau, Paul Konerko, Kevin Youkilis, Lyle Overbay, Richie Sexson
NL: Albert Pujols, Derrek Lee, Lance Berkman, Nick Johnson, Ryan Howard, Nomar Garciaparra, Carlos Delgado, Todd Helton, Prince Fielder
The NL laps the field with this one. Even assuming that Morneau Teixeira go on to compete for some MVP awards, and that Kevin Youkilis continues to get on base like a maniac, the NL has the edge. Albert alone would make the difference, but he's supported by borderline Hall-of-Famers like Berkman, Helton, Delgado, and Garciaparra, not to mention to young mashers in Howard and Fielder. There's also Nick Johnson, the NL equivalent of Kevin Youkilis.
Here's the snag: how do we consider DHs? We can't compare DHs between leagues, so we have to put all those AL DHs somewhere else to make a fair comparison. Even assuming that the existence of the DH favors the AL simply by giving more jobs to hitters, I still think this tips the balance back to the junior circuit. It all depends on how you want to look at it.
Here's the revised list:

AL: David Ortiz, Travis Hafner, Jim Thome, Jason Giambi, Frank Thomas, Morneau, Konerko, Teixeira, Youkilis, Overbay, Sexson
NL: Pujols, D. Lee, Berkman, N. Johnson, Howard, Nomar, Delgado, Fielder

There, it's advantage AL.

Second Base
AL: Brian Roberts, Robinson Cano, Tadahito Iguchi, Mark Loretta, Ian Kinsler, Placido Polanco, Jose Lopez, Luis Castillo, Howie Kendrick
NL: Chase Utley, Rickie Weeks, Jeff Kent, Dan Uggla, Marcus Giles, Ray Durham, Orlando Hudson, Jose Vidro, Josh Barfield, Craig Biggio
I think I'd have to call this one about even. Utley and Weeks are probably better players than any of their AL counterparts, but both suffer from severe defensive issues. Jeff Kent is valuable, but old, and Marcus Giles can't be taken for granted. The AL has a plethora of solid second basemen, such as Roberts, Cano, Iguchi, Polanco, and Castillo -- any one of whom could break out for an All-Star-caliber year at any given moment -- it's just not as top-heavy as the NL. But note the presence of Kinsler and Kendrick on the AL list; they could tip the balance quite quickly.
AL: Derek Jeter, Miguel Tejada, Carlos Guillen, Michael Young, Jhonny Peralta, Orlando Cabrera, Bobby Crosby, B.J. Upton, Brandon Wood
NL: Jose Reyes, Edgar Renteria, Omar Vizquel, Hanley Ramirez, Jimmy Rollins, Rafael Furcal, Khalil Greene, Bill Hall, David Eckstein, Stephen Drew, Adam Everett and assorted other hitless glovemen.
Even with Nomar defecting to the NL and A-Rod moving to third, the AL still dominates. It's a good thing Jose Reyes came into his own this year, or else the NL would just be a horde of above-average guys with some star-quality years in them. The AL has two legitimate MVP candidates in Jeter and Tejada, as well as two guys who hit like MVPs in Guillen and Young (their defensive skills are a bit lacking). Peralta showed every indication of ascending to their level last year with big-time power and a great glove, but has regressed this year. He's still a stud in the making. As if that weren't enough, the AL is grooming two future monsters in Upton and Wood, although it's doubtful that Upton will stay at short.
Third Base
AL: Alex Rodriguez, Troy Glaus, Eric Chavez, Joe Crede, Mike Lowell, Melvin Mora, Adrian Beltre
NL: Miguel Cabrera, David Wright, Chipper Jones, Scott Rolen, Aramis Ramirez, Ryan Zimmerman, Garret Atkins, Freddy Sanchez, Chad Tracy, Aubrey Huff
"And out of the NL West came a three-headed monster named DaveRyanBrera." The NL East alone wins the battle here, with the three young wunderkinds Wright, Cabrera, and Zimmerman. Cabrera is already a legitimate monster with the chance to become a historically great third baseman, and Wright isn't far behind him. Zimmerman's bat hasn't yet fully caught up, but he's the best defender of the three by far. And we can't forget old stalwarts and likely HOFers Chipper Jones and Scott Rolen, injury-prone though they may be. The AL has A-Rod, but he's not been himself lately, and neither has Eric Chavez, who just hasn't put together the career we all thought he was capable of. And after Troy Glaus, you've just got the above-average guys who are either overpaid (Beltre, Lowell, Mora) or likely to become so very soon (Crede).
Left Field
AL: Manny Ramirez, Carlos Lee, Carl Crawford, Raul Ibanez, Frank Catalanotto
NL: Jason Bay, Alfonso Soriano, Adam Dunn, Barry Bonds, Pat Burrell, Matt Holliday, Luis Gonzalez, Andre Ethier
This is just continuing the trend of excellent NL left fielders in recent years. It came to a head back in 2001, when the NL had MVP-caliber seasons from seven left fielders: Barry Bonds, Luis Gonzalez, Gary Sheffield, Lance Berkman, Albert Pujols, Brian Giles, and Cliff Floyd. And think what it would look like if the Brewers had kept Carlos Lee . . .
Center Field
AL: Grady Sizemore, Vernon Wells, Johnny Damon, Torii Hunter, David DeJesus, Curtis Granderson, Gary Matthews, Jr., Rocco Baldelli
NL: Carlos Beltran, Andruw Jones, Jim Edmonds, Mike Cameron, Ken Griffey, Eric Byrnes, Randy Winn, Aaron Rowand
Sizemore and Wells are a dynamic duo. While they can't yet match the output of Beltran or Andruw, they soon will. This is a pattern; the NL center fielders are getting older and decreasing in value -- Edmonds and Griffey especially -- whereas the AL has youth on its side with Sizemore, DeJesus, Granderson, and others.
Right Field
AL: Vladimir Guerrero, Bobby Abreu, Ichiro Suzuki, Jermaine Dye, Alexis Rios, Magglio Ordonez, Nick Swisher, Trot Nixon
NL: J.D. Drew, Austin Kearns, Ryan Freel, Shawn Green, Brian Giles, Brad Hawpe, Jacque Jones, Jeff Francouer, Jeremy Hermida
The Abreu trade only made more pronounced what was already evident. The AL sports two perennial MVP candidates, plus top-notch players like Ichiro. Drew is that good when healthy, which is rare, and after that it goes back to the good-but-not-great stars like Kearns, Hawpe, and Giles (at this age).
AL: Joe Mauer, Victor Martinez, Ivan Rodriguez, Jorge Posada, Jason Varitek, Ramon Hernandez, Kenji Johjima, Javier Lopez, A.J. Pierzynski, Mike Napoli
NL: Brian McCann, Michael Barrett, Mike Piazza, Paul Lo Duca, Johnny Estrada, Russell Martin
This might be even more pronounced than the "shortstop gap." The AL has possible MVPs (Mauer, Martinez) and former MVP-level players (Posada, Pudge, Varitek, Javy). The NL has McCann, who's a legitimate superstar, but that's about it. Michael Barrett hits very well, but is a woeful defender; ditto Mike Piazza, who's only getting older.
Starting Pitcher
AL: Johan Santana, Roy Halladay, Francisco Liriano, Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, John Lackey, Curt Schilling, Scott Kazmir, Danny Haren, Mike Mussina, Jeremy Bonderman, Jered Weaver, C.C. Sabathia, Erik Bedard, Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Barry Zito, Chien-Mieng Wang, Ervin Santana, Freddy Garcia, Jarrod Washburn, Kenny Rogers, Josh Beckett, Randy Johnson, A.J. Burnett, Bartolo Colon
NL: Brandon Webb, Roy Oswalt, Jake Peavy, Carlos Zambrano, Pedro Martinez, Chris Carpenter, Jason Schmidt, Ben Sheets, John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Chris Capuano, Bronson Arroyo, Dontrelle Willis, Tom Glavine, Aaron Harang, Josh Johnson, Brett Myers, Greg Maddux, Derek Lowe, Scott Olsen, Zach Duke, Andy PettitteTim Hudson, Mark Prior
Here is where it becomes clear. A list of the 5 best pitchers in baseball, now and for the foreseeable future, would probably be a list of 5 AL pitchers, depending on how you like Ben Sheets or Jake Peavy. The AL stands dominant, especially with the youth of their pitchers. The AL has seen the debut of a historic number of ace rookie pitchers in recent years, while the NL has seen a relative trickle. There are some prospects to watch in the NL, and guys like Willis and Webb are still young yet, but there is simply nothing to match Santana, Liriano, and King Felix. Nothing.
Relief Pitchers
AL: Mariano Rivera, Joe Nathan, Jonothan Papelbon, B.J. Ryan, Francisco Rodriguez, Joel Zumaya, Bobby Jenks, J.J. Putz, Akinori Otsuka, Huston Street, Chris Ray
NL: Trevor Hoffman, Tom Gordon, Billy Wagner, Eric Gagne (?), Takashi Saito, Chad Cordero, Brad Lidge, Mike Gonzalez
ADVANTAGE: AL by a mile
With the fall of Gagne to injuries and Lidge to . . . something, the AL proved its dominance in closers and relievers. Rivera and Nathan are the two best in the game, and Ryan and Papelbon aren't far behind. All four probably rank ahead of any of the NL closers. Not only that, but the AL has a great depth of good closers and relievers, whereas the NL simply does not. Heavy advantage AL.
Conclusion? While you could quibble about the position players, it seems that the AL enjoys the advantage, particularly at catcher and shortstop. However, the AL pitching roster truly overwhelms that of the NL, making it even more understandable how they became the superior league. My little position-by-position examination only reinforces my hypothesis, although I never realized the true supremacy in pitching.
But what are the larger reasons for this? How and why did the AL ascend to a higher level of competition than the NL? I don't know for sure (no one really does), but here are a few ideas:
  • Buying power. The two biggest payrolls in baseball are in the AL: Boston and New York. Last year, the average AL payroll was about $75.2 million. The average NL payroll was about $70.9 million. It may not sound like a whole lot, but when the whole AL averages $5 million more on payroll, that tells you something. And the averages above don't reflect the statistical outliers; The Yankees' $208 million payroll was about 69% higher than the second-highest Boston Red Sox ($123.5 mil.) and more than twice as much as any NL team (the Mets were tops at $101 million). So while the NL might enjoy a certain equality among teams in their own league, they can't compete with the AL, especially for free agents.
  • Developing Talent. You really can't judge the relative skills of each league's player development by making a short list of players. While names like Felix Hernandez, Francisco Liriano, Johan Santana and Travis Hafner all jump out at you, so does the name Albert Pujols, the best player in baseball. It also must be said that both Santana and Liriano were originally signed by National League teams. It's beyond my power to do a comprehensive team-by-team study of farm system output. However, the anecdotal evidence is very strong; looking at Rookie of the Year voting and generally gauging the young talent in the game would make you suspect that the AL is lapping the field in that regard.
  • Smarts. This may be more speculative, but I don't think it's a coincidence that the two teams to most heartily embrace statistical analysis are both in the AL. In addition to the A's and Red Sox, there is also the Toronto Blue Jays, although their statistical outlook didn't help them nearly as much in the won-loss column. But with the exception of Paul DePodesta's abortive stint in Los Angeles, the NL doesn't have any one team that has whole-heartedly embraced the use of stats. All teams use stats, of course, to some degree, especially in recent years, and it must be said that teams like the Cardinals have given stats room in their front office.
    But looking just beyond stats, it would seem that the AL has incorporated "new baseball knowledge," of stats and more, much more quickly than the NL. Not only do you have trailblazers like the A's and Red Sox, you also have the less-successful Blue Jays and the hybrid Indians, a success in their own right. There is no comparable team in the National League that has embraced this "new knowledge," and I stress again that this isn't limited to sabermetrics or statistics but just the revolution in thought that has taken place in the game for years now. This could have the cumulative effect of increasing the dispartiy between leagues in a slower and more subtle way, through canny drafting and scouting as opposed to flashy free agent signings.
  • Style of play. This is, again, speculative on my part. But I wonder if the presence of the Designated Hitter, which forces teams to abandon most "smallball" tactics, makes the American League superior. Statisticians have acknowledged for half a century that "smallball" tactics are indeed small and while valuable, are often grossly overused by managers. Could it be that the DH, which features more of a "homer-and-walk" Earl Weaver offense, is inherently superior to the "smallball" tactics used more often in the NL, the league of pinch-hitting and sacrifice bunting? Could it be that, unconsciously, AL managers use strategies which fit their league and their extra hitter, whereas NL managers, stuck in the 1890s, waste outs to such an extent that it makes the AL a superior league? I think I'm onto something here, and I think this may be a tangible difference between leagues. I don't know that it would be a very significant factor, but then you never know -- the ascension of the American League more or less coincides with the return of baseball to an offensive era. And in an era of high offense, smallball tactics, which give up a base for an out, are harmful when overused. The DH has unconsciously forced the AL to adopt a superior in-game management strategy, which has grown to benefit them over the years, particularly in the current era.

These are just thoughts; take them for what you will. But think about it in October, when one or maybe two AL teams with 90 wins sit at home, while three 80-win teams stumble into October in the National League.

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