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The American League Superiority Myth

By Mike Silva ~ July 6th, 2011. Filed under: Mike Silva.

I always hate hearing the old saying that a certain pitcher is more of a National League vs. American League hurler. It comes across arrogant, as if the National League isn’t Major League Baseball.

Yes, there is a clear advantage to pitching against eight hitters versus a nine man lineup that includes the DH. But if you look at the league averages over the years there isn’t much of a statistical difference between the two. A quick glance makes it so insignificant that it’s clear the pitcher versus the designated hitter is where the offensive superiority lies.

Are star National League hitters worse than star American League hitters? By all accounts Albert Pujols is the best hitter in baseball and resides in the National League. I believe he would not miss a beat in the AL. Roy Halladay was equally as good in the National League as the American League. Cliff Lee, up until June, was actually a worse NL pitcher this year than AL. It’s just a perception based on the fact there are a few teams over the years (Yankees and Red Sox) that have used a payroll advantage to build lineups that go nine deep.

I started watching baseball in the mid-eighties. Dave Stewart was a pedestrian NL reliever that went to the American League and won 20 games four years in a row for Oakland. Bob Welch was an equally good pitcher with the Dodgers and Oakland when in his prime. Rick Aguilera went from an afterthought on a strong Mets staff to a top closer in Minnesota. Dennis Eckersley dominated the American League as a closer after leaving the Cubs in 1987. David Cone had no issues with his NL to AL transition. The old adage was that moving from one league to another would shift the ERA about a half a run. Again, this is due to facing a pitcher, not because of the caliber of play.

So when did this so called “superiority” start? I don’t remember it until about five years ago. The American League has historically beaten the National League in Interleague play, but that is more of a team thing than an indictment on difficulty of league. The last two years have seen the Mets roll through Cleveland, Baltimore, Texas, and Detroit during Interleague play. I long have stated that the gap between the top AL teams is wider than what we have seen in the National League. The Phillies, this year, might be the exception. If you remember, the Seattle Mariners scored less runs last year than any National League team.

There never has been a superiority factor in the World Series. Since 2001, the World Series has been split 50/50 between the two leagues. The Yankees dynasty is what shifted the balance of power in the nineties. You could argue the Braves were an overall better team that decade, but just didn’t have enough bullpen to navigate a short series.

The superiority might come not only from the extra hitter, but from smaller ballparks. American League hitters get to play in Yankee Stadium, Camden Yards, Fenway Park, and the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington. National League teams have to contend with Petco Park, Citi Field, Dodger Stadium, and AT&T Park in San Francisco. Most National League ballparks seem to play fair. As a matter of fact, ESPN MLB Park Factors had six of the top ten offensive ballparks in the American League last year. Sure, there are bandboxes in the NL (see Citizens Bank Park, Great American Ball Park, and Chase Field), but the focus on pitching and defense- an NL staple for years- negates some of the handicaps created by the ballpark.

Bottom line: to say the American League brand of ball is superior to the National League is arrogant, foolish, and incorrect. Players switch leagues all the time. Some are successful; some aren’t. Good pitchers will succeed in either League. Bad pitchers will flounder against tough lineups.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Mike Silva is a freelance writer and radio host since March of 2007. This website is his own personal "digest" of New York Baseball He's also hosts NYBD Radio on Blog Talk Radio and 1240 AM WGBB. Check out his sports media commentary at www.sportsmediawatchdog.com. Check out his official website, www.mikesilvamedia.com
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1 Response to The American League Superiority Myth

  1. MikeD

    Mike, I started watching baseball in the mid-70s, and everything you hear now about AL superiority was flipped. It was all about NL superiority, and looking back at it, the NL was the stronger of the two leagues There was parity by the 1980s, although the reports of NL superiority (usually from NL fans and NL beat writers) continued during the 1980s, even after it ended.

    The AL did seem to move ahead in the 1990s, and pretty has remained the stronger of the two leagues for the past twenty years. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the arrogance you mentioned comes from AL fans who remembered when they were on the wrong side of the discussion, so they’re just having fun with the shoe now on the other foot. If history tells us anything, we’ll soon have parity again, and perhaps the fact that some of the more interesting stars coming into the game today, such as Harper and Strasburg, are in the NL means maybe the NL will soon once again have the upper hand.

    No matter. The differences aren’t, and won’t be, that great. It all makes for nice copy!

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