Posted: Friday May 21, 2010 12:15PM ; Updated: Friday May 21, 2010 12:15PM
Tom Verducci
Tom Verducci>THREE STRIKES

Why this could be the year the NL finally beats the AL in interleague

Story Highlights

The National League has closed the talent gap on the American League

The AL has more lousy teams than usual and more teams struggling to score

The decline of DHs like Travis Hafner and Eric Chavez has also hurt the AL

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Derek Jeter
Derek Jeter is all that remains from the golden era of power-hitting AL shortstops, and their disapperance is hurting offenses throughout the league.
Anthony J. Causi/Icon SMI

Interleague play for American League teams typically is what a reachable par 5 is for PGA pros: par is a bad score. It's the perfect opportunity to pad your score. Indeed, AL playoff berths have been won by beating up National League teams. Last year the four AL playoff teams (Yankees, Red Sox, Twins, Angels) played .581 baseball against AL teams but .653 baseball against NL teams.

The AL's ownership of the NL has been going on for years. The AL has a winning record in interleague play six consecutive years and nine out of 13 overall. Line up the best all-time interleague records and you have to go through seven AL teams (Yankees, Twins, White Sox, Angels, Athletics, Red Sox and Mariners) before you get to one NL team (Marlins).

Over the past six years the AL is 839-671 vs. the NL -- which translates into winning 56 percent of the games, or the equivalent of the average AL team playing like a 90-win club when it plays against NL teams.

But get this: AL superiority is about to be diminished, or even wiped out altogether. The NL has closed the talent gap on the AL and actually has a shot at winning interleague play, which begins tonight, for first time since 2003. Don't believe it? Guess which league has averaged more runs per game one-quarter of the way through this season? That's right, the league without the DH, the NL. The on-base and slugging percentages are nearly identical.

What's going on? To start with, there are twice as many teams in the AL averaging fewer than four runs per game in the AL (Mariners, Orioles, Indians and Athletics) than in the NL (Pirates and Astros). And that doesn't include the Royals and White Sox, who are abysmal in their own ways. So the AL is saddled with more lousy teams than usual.

In the NL, poor teams of recent years have shown significant improvement this year, especially the Nationals, Padres and Pirates.

Two other factors stand out: the declines of the DH and shortstop positions in the AL. DH production has been trending downward for five years. The league is littered with aging DHs who carry a below-average slugging percentage: Travis Hafner, Nick Johnson, Hideki Matsui, Eric Chavez, Pat Burrell (since cut from Tampa Bay) and Ken Griffey. The overall OPS out of the DH spot (.726) is below league average (.733). Think about that for a minute: the league gets to use an extra hitter who doesn't have to play defense, and it fills the spot with below-average hitting.

At shortstop, the Golden Era in the AL is long over, with Nomar Garciaparra retired and Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada and Michael Young all having moved to third base (leaving Derek Jeter as the last shortstop standing). How bad is the shortstop position in the AL? Its .666 OPS is by far the worst of the 17 non-pitcher positions in the major leagues. Thirteen of the 14 AL clubs have no more than four home runs out of the shortstop position this year. (Alex Gonzalez of Toronto is the lone power threat.)

So go ahead with the usual jokes about the AL being the varsity and the NL being the junior varsity, or the NL teams being the homecoming teams on the AL schedules. But this year interleague play just might be more competitive.

The rising value of David Price

David Price turns 25 years old this summer. The Tampa Bay Rays left-hander is older than young guns such as Felix Hernandez, Yovani Gallardo, Clayton Kershaw, Jair Jurrjens and Phil Hughes. But Price has turned a corner this season -- we're talking two-wheels-off-the-ground, pulling-serious-Gs kind of turning the corner.

Gone is the nibbler from last year (not to mention the 4.42 ERA), replaced by a strike-throwing, aggressive machine. Price has lowered his rate of pitches per inning from 17.8 to 15.6, allowing him to pitch deeper into games while posting a 1.81 ERA.

"Confidence," Price said when asked to explain his growth. "Last year, man, it wasn't a good year. Now I'm pitching the way I did at Vanderbilt."

"Except the fact," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said with a wry smile, "at Vanderbilt he didn't have a two-seamer, curveball and changeup. You know what? His pitches per inning should be even lower, and it will be. He's just scratching the surface and learning what to do with his pitches. In fact, that two-seamer has been so good for him that he probably throws it a little too much."

Indeed, Price really has grown into a very different pitcher from the kid who closed out 2008 ALCS Game 7 and threw 128 1/3 innings last year. The four-seam fastball/slider power pitcher has grown into a true four-pitch craftsman.

After lasting seven innings only six times in his first 24 big-league starts, Price has given the Rays at least seven innings four times in eight starts this year -- and only once was he gone from a start before completing six.

"I'm putting pressure on the hitter by being aggressive, rather than putting pressure on myself to make a pitch when I have to when I'm behind on the count," Price said. "They don't want to get down 0-and-1, 0-and-2. So it's about putting the pressure on the hitter."

One problem for Yanks: one-run games

Here's one of the more wacky stats of the first quarter of the season: the Yankees have played 41 games and have yet to win a game by one run. Just how weird is that? They had 22 one-run wins last year (not to mention untold crates of whipped cream).

But it gets weirder: the all-time record for fewest one-run wins in a season is seven, and as you would expect, you have to be pretty bad and pretty unlucky to post only seven one-run wins. The 1935 Boston Braves qualified on both counts. They went 7-31 in one-run games, and 38-115 overall.

The Yankees are 0-4 in one-run games so far, inexplicably putting them on the heels of the 115-loss Braves of 75 years ago. So hold the whipped cream. It's a statistical aberration, of course, which is bound not to hold up -- right?

 
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