In a rec softball league this past Sunday, I hit a liner in the gap in the first inning and never made it out of the batter’s box. Somewhere between swinging and pivoting toward first base, I dislocated my right kneecap. As I lay in the dirt surrounded by gawkers and well-wishers, my patella sticking out the right side of my leg, I imagine some outfielder threw the ball to an infielder, who moseyed over to first base to end the inning, just to make it official. When that happened, my season ended, my batting average probably in the .700 range, my slugging percentage maybe dipping below 2.000 with one last unsuccessful at-bat.
I bring this up not to brag about my stats or my injury (although as the days pass and I learn to walk with crutches, the story does seem to get cooler), but to try to explain the difference between the American and National leagues.
The NL won the All-Star game last night, 3-1, breaking a humiliating 14-year winless streak. While I do think there’s a lot of young talent in the National League that will help tip the scales in the years to come, the NL didn’t beat the AL because it’s all of a sudden the stronger league. In major league baseball, an inferior team will beat a superior team somewhere between 40 and 49% of the time, Last night, a few balls fell in the NL’s favor. Over the previous 13 years, a lot of balls fell the AL’s way. Such is life.
In message boards on blogs similar to this one (though well above replacement level), I’ve read over and over that the NL is as good as, or better than, the AL this season because of all the standout performances. Ubaldo Jimenez is 15-1 and recently saw his ERA pass 2.00 for the first time all year. Josh Johnson has been even more dominant, carrying a 1.70 ERA and an 0.96 WHIP into the break. Ryan Howard hit 198 home runs between 2006 and 2009. Albert Pujols has had a weighted on base average over .400 every season of his career.
These are all remarkable achievements by remarkable athletes, but the fact that no American Leaguer has put up the same numbers does not mean there isn’t a pitcher of Jimenez’s or Johnson’s caliber in the AL. The NL doesn’t have better hitting because Pujols gets on base more than anyone in the AL and Howard hits more home runs. If anything, the opposite is true. It’s easier to dominate a weaker league.
I hit a home run in nearly every coed softball game I played in this season. I was never out more than once in a game. Does the fact that my softball league has a .700 hitter (and probably 5-10 more) make it better than the Pacific Coast League? If I played recreational fast pitch, I might hit .350. In a women’s college league, I might hit .135. On a minor league baseball team, I might get one hit in a season. Again, it’s easier to dominate a weaker league.
The difference between the American League and the National League is nothing like the difference between the PCL and my slow pitch, coed softball league, but there is still a difference, and it’s important to consider the extreme numbers of NL stars in context.
How do we know the American League is still better? World Series results mean little to nothing, as four-to-seven games a year are subject to the vagaries of chance and don’t tell us any more about which team was better than a midseason series in which the Orioles take two of three from the Twins. Players like CC Sabathia and Matt Holliday, who change leagues and dominate the NL much more thoroughly than the AL may tell us something, but there are cases in which players put up similar numbers in both leagues, and any such case is obscured by aging patterns, injuries, and small sample sizes (Holliday may have found his stride with more time in Oakland; Sabathia may have leveled off in Milwaukee).
The only real barometer of the American League’s superiority is interleague results. Since 2005, AL teams have an 848-664 record against the National League. That makes the average AL team 91-71 in a season full of interleague games. 91 wins would have won the AL Central by 6 games last year. Just this season, the AL won 53.1% of interleague games. That extrapolates to 86 wins.
It’s possible that the National League in 2014, when Jimenez, Johnson, Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward, Troy Tulowitzki, and Joey Votto reach their primes together, will be the better league. It’s also possible that Pujols, Chase Utley, Hanley Ramirez, David Wright, and Ryan Braun, as raw statistics might tell you, are the best players at their positions in either league. But it’s also possible that they’re just walloping the slow pitch league.