Joey Votto may be the best hitter on the planet. The Nationals' rotation is lethal. Young stars such as Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton, Andrew McCutchen and Buster Posey are as exciting as any player in baseball. Clayton Kershaw, Matt Cain, Brandon Beachy, Lance Lynn, James McDonald ... yes, this is a terrific group of young arms.
But the American League is still better than the National League. Here's a snapshot of a weekend of interleague action:
The first-place Yankees went into D.C. to battle the first-place Nationals and outscored them 16-6, although one victory was a thrilling 14-inning contest. The Nationals' pitching held the Yankees to a .237 average in the three games, but the Nats hit just .207. Having previously swept the Mets and Braves, the Yankees have nine in a row against the NL East.
The Orioles took two of three in Atlanta, throwing consecutive shutouts as Jason Hammel pitched a one-hitter on Saturday and Wei-Yin Chen tossed seven scoreless innings on Sunday. The Orioles have also won three straight series against NL clubs, taking two of three against the Phillies and sweeping the Pirates.
The Blue Jays may have put a death spell on the Phillies' season with a sweep in Toronto even though three-fifths of their rotation landed on the DL during week. Brett Cecil was recalled from the minors to start on Sunday and tossed five solid innings in a 6-2 victory. The Blue Jays won 6-5 in 10 innings on Saturday, tying the game with three runs in the eighth and then beating Joe Savery in the 10th. Charlie Manuel again refused to use Jonathan Papelbon. But Papelbon did pitch an inning in Sunday's loss. Nice job, Charlie, nice job.
The Rays took two of three from the Marlins, tossing two shutouts and striking out 26 Marlins in the two games.
And those were all series involving NL East teams, the strength of the NL. In other series, the Angels blanked the Diamondbacks on Saturday and Sunday; the 29-39 Mariners took two of three from the 37-30 Giants (the Giants have won four of their past six series, winning four against NL clubs, but losing series to Seattle and Texas); the Rangers pounded the in-state "rival" Astros, sweeping three games by a total score of 23-8; the Royals beat the Cardinals in 15 innings on Sunday to win that series.
The AL leads the NL in interleague action this year, 96 wins to 72 wins. It is, yet again, the dominant league. This isn't a biased statement. This is just the facts speaking. The AL has "won" interleague play the past eight seasons. It is well on its to winning for a ninth straight season. Despite all the young talent in the National League, it hasn't quite caught up. Hey, the NL is stronger than a few years ago, when it was jokingly referred to as Quadrulple-A. Back in 2006, the AL won interleague games by a 154-98 margin. In 2006, the AL won 154 to 98. The NL has made some inroads in recent seasons, cutting the deficit to just 10 games in 2011.
(And, no, the fact that the Cardinals and Giants won the past two World Series isn't "proof" of NL superiority or equality; it's proof they won a seven-game series against an AL team, nothing more.)
So why is there still such a spread? A few reasons:
1. Payroll. Five of the top six payroll teams are in the AL: the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels, Tigers and Rangers (the Phillies being the exception). Those five teams are 22 games over .500 in interleague play.
This is no doubt an important factor. The Angels, Tigers and Rangers, for example, signed the three biggest free agents of the offseason in Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and Yu Darvish. The Marlins signed Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell, but they're just 33-33 and 4-8 in interleague. While it's important, it's also not the only reason to explain the AL's dominance. After those top six payrolls, the next four highest and eight of the next 10 belong to NL clubs.
2. The big-market NL teams, umm ... stink (mostly). This actually isn't quite the same excuse as last season, as the Dodgers own the best record in the majors and the Mets are a surprising 35-32. But the Cubs and Astros -- two teams that play in big-market cities -- are a combined 36 games under .500. And the Phillies are 31-37 despite the second-highest payroll in baseball.
3. The NL's big-salaried players, umm ... stink (mostly). Ten of the 25 highest-paid players in baseball are National Leaguers. Those players: Johan Santana, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, Ryan Howard, Carlos Lee, Alfonso Soriano, Carlos Zambrano, Barry Zito, Tim Lincecum and Jason Bay. Ugh. Even the good players on the list haven't been as good as you think: Santana is 20th among NL starters in ERA, Lee is 28th, Zambrano is 36th.
4. The AL has been producing plenty of young talent as well. Mike Trout, Brett Lawrie, Jason Kipnis, Eric Hosmer, Mike Moustakas, Austin Jackson, Elvis Andrus, Desmond Jennings, Alex Avila and Josh Reddick are just some of the 25-and-younger hitters. Pitchers include Chris Sale, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, Derek Holland and Drew Smyly.
5. Deeper lineups. Even when you take away the DH, the depth of the AL lineups shows up in interleague play. There were 11 shutouts this weekend, nine by AL teams. Look at a team like the Reds, 38-27 and leading the NL Central by four games. Their leadoff hitters are batting .198 with a .238 OBP. The Pirates are half-game out of the wild card despite hitting .227 as a team. Look, there's a reason 16 of the 23 starters with an ERA under 3.00 are NL starters; don't misunderstand that as thinking 16 of the 23 best starters are NL starters. Put David Price or Felix Hernandez or CC Sabathia in the NL and I'll predict they'd be posting ERAs under 3.00.
Interleague play continues this week. Is the AL East really this much stronger than the NL East? We'll find out with matchups that include Braves-Yankees, Orioles-Mets, Rays-Nationals, Marlins-Red Sox, Nationals-Orioles, Rays-Phillies, Yankees-Mets, Blue Jays-Marlins and Braves-Red Sox.
Hey, maybe I'm wrong; maybe the NL East will strike back this week with a string of shutouts.
Prove us skeptics wrong, NL.
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