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Leagues Apart
September 14, 2009
The best way to rule the NL? Start signing AL players
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September 14, 2009

Leagues Apart

The best way to rule the NL? Start signing AL players

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

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

People around baseball have been arguing for more than 100 years about which league is better. This used to be an argument worth having, even if there was no definitive conclusion. Players from the American League and National League wouldn'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's interleague play, and players routinely jump from one league to the other, and there is not much mystery left. These days the American League is the real senior 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 since 2004.

Take the Royals. They have been the worst team in the AL for some time now. They are on pace to lose 100 games for the fifth time this decade, a feat so ludicrous that no AL team 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 five years the Royals have lost more games than any team in baseball, but their record against the NL in that period is 50--40. That's .556 baseball—good for 90 wins if you stretch it out over a full season.

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

But it's the anecdotal stuff that really makes the NL look bad. Raul Ibañez had been a solid hitter for years in the AL; after joining the Phillies this year he turned into Willie 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 to Oakland last November. There he plodded along for 400 plate appearances. He was traded back to the National League, to the Cardinals, in July, and he promptly regained his superpowers. At last check he was hitting .378 for St. Louis.

Cliff Lee was traded from Cleveland to Philadelphia, and he won his first five games and allowed just three earned runs in the process. Mike MacDougal was released by the White Sox, and he became Washington's surprisingly effective closer. Ryan Franklin was 27--49 as a starter in the AL; he's now the all-but-unhittable closer in St. Louis. Even AL castoffs like John Smoltz, Brad Penny, Julio Lugo and, most recently, Jose Contreras (he allowed one run in 6 2/3 innings in his debut with the Rockies last Saturday, after going 5--13 with a 5.42 ERA with the White Sox) have come into the NL and, at least for a while, regained their youth 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 League waiver wire this month.

For years the NL was 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 League style of play.

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