For the past eight seasons, the American League has won more than its share of interleague games, and it hasn’t been particularly close. The AL has gone 1106-910, good for a .549 winning percentage, which equates to an 89-73 regular season. In other words, interleague play turns every AL team into the 2011 Braves and every NL team into the 2011 Rockies.
Since losing over 59% of interleague games in 2008, the NL seemed to have closed the gap, winning more games in each successive year through 2011. They developed a string of great young starting pitchers, including Clayton Kershaw, Stephen Strasburg, Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, and Daniel Hudson, and traded for/acquired Zack Greinke, Cliff Lee, Gio Gonzalez, and Ian Kennedy. With rookies Bryce Harper like Zack Cozart on the rise, there was reason to believe the gap might close even further in ’12.
When the junior circuit won 11 of 14 interleague matchups on Father’s Day, they expanded their 2012 edge to 96-72, or better than 57%. The average AL team is playing like a 93-win team against the NL. The inimitable Dave Cameron ruminated on this today, concluding, sagely, that the ongoing disparity is due primarily a preponderance of talent in the AL, both among the richest teams and the league’s bottom-feeders.
One notion that impressed upon me in Cameron’s analysis was that the designated hitter allows AL teams to take a chance on a slugger like Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder without worrying that his defense might be unplayable in his old age. On the surface, Pujols and Fielder themselves don’t deserve much credit for the AL’s interleague dominance in 2012. Pujols, after a dismal April and early May, has started hitting, but not enough to accumulate a single win above replacement on the season, per fangraphs. Fielder, meanwhile, has hit more than Pujols (40% better than league-average, in fact), but his defense has been predictably dismal, one contributing factor to the Tigers’ inability to climb above .500.
As one commenter on Cameron’s piece noted, players who have served as designated hitters for National League teams in 2012 have a 126 wRC+ this season, while AL DHs have compiled just a 116 wRC+ on the season. Certainly, the presence of a DH alone hasn’t made the AL the better league. In fact, the necessity of the DH on rosters forces AL teams to allocate other resources differently, often resulting in lineups full of holes in NL parks. Red Sox fans who watched Mike Aviles hit fifth against the Cubs last night know all too well what playing without a DH does to an otherwise-dominant lineup. And while it is indeed a luxury that the Angels can employ Pujols and Murk Trumbo and Kendrys Morales at the same time, and the Tigers can have Fielder, Miguel Cabrera, and Victor Martinez, both teams have to sacrifice enough defense to get those guys on the field at once that they might be better off with a Rafael Furcal or a Rickie Weeks than another slugger.
Is there reason to believe the American League will continue to dominate at this level in the future? I don’t think there is. As Cameron mentions, three of the wealthiest teams in the NL- the Mets, Cubs, and Dodgers- have been mismanaged for years, but each may have turned a corner with new ownership/management. The Phillies have taken a few steps backward with some questionable personnel decisions of their own, but the Nationals seem poised to take their torch. The AL Central is loaded with NL-caliber talent, and the Astros are ticketed for the AL West next year.
While the AL will always have the Yankees and their absurd payroll advantage, and while five of the six highest payrolls in MLB are AL teams, the Phillies spend more than anyone outside of New York, and payrolls seven through ten are all in the senior circuit. Troy Tulowitzki, perhaps the game’s best all-around player, and Joey Votto, almost certainly its best hitter, play in the NL, along with Matt Kemp, Justin Upton, and Giancarlo Stanton, each of whom is younger than 28 and will still be playing in All-Star games when my toddlers are taking calculus.
At the moment, lineups in Arlington, Boston, and New York are deeper than anything the NL can throw out. Rotations in Arlington, Anaheim, and the South Side of Chicago are devastating, and the Royals, Rangers, Yankees, and Orioles may have the four best bullpens in baseball.
But the Cardinals can hit too, with Allen Craig yet to break out. The Nationals probably have the game’s best rotation and their best players were born in the Bush administration. And RA Dickey has struck out 42 batters (against players in both leagues) since he last gave up an earned run. There’s enough of a talent gap right now that the junior circuit is likely to win the series in 2013 as well. But by the time Strasburg and Harper are Kershaw and Kemp, and Kershaw and Kemp are Marichal and Mays, the two leagues may competitive again.
Of course, Evan Longoria and Mike Trout may take issue. But that’s why we watch the games.