Throw It Like a Ballplayer

providing baseball commentary and ponderings since April 2010

League Dominance

Posted by dannmckeegan on June 22, 2010

The days of “AL Dominance” are quite possibly over.  Judging by the All Star Game streak and overall interleague records, the American League has the reputation of being the tougher league.  While there certainly is some truth to the history, there also is quite a bit of smoke and mirrors that has gone into this.

We have to remember that the interleague era more or less corresponds to the steroid era, thus making the disparity between the designated hitter and pitcher’s spot even more pronounced.  However in 2010, only 6 players have made more than 50 game appearances at DH.  These are Jose Guillen, Hideki Matsui, David Ortiz, Travis Hafner, Adam Lind and Vladimir Guerrero.  Twenty-one additional players, however, have made at least 10 game appearances at the non-position.  Three Orioles; two Red Sox; five White Sox, two Indians; four Tigers; one Royal;  one Angel; four Twins; six Yankees; three Athletics; three Mariners; three Rays; two Rangers; and two Blue Jays have made five or more appearances as a designated hitter.  So many teams have found themselves using the position now to protect aging players, be they once-elite position players like Vladdy or simply washed-up role players like Andruw Jones and Mark Kotsay.

So the idea of great production from the DH spot in the batting order is more of a luxury than a major team goal.  This has accompanied the overall decline in offensive production and created a situation where the AL’s haves and have nots have a very noticeable split in the quality of the #9 batting order spot.

The New York Yankees have used OF Brett Gardner 26 times in the 9th spot (as well as twice leadoff and 17 in the second spot).  Gardner is 23 for 27 stealing bases and has a .324/.404/.428 slash line (built heavily on a .367 BABIP).  Few teams would be unhappy with that kind of production from a leadoff hitter.

In 26 games, Boston has used injury-replacement OF Darnell McDonald in the 9th spot, receiving .270/.329/.378 from his efforts.  Despite losing Ellsbury, Cameron and Hermida for significant numbers of games, the Red Sox’s system has given the team a .700+ OPS from essentially a 5th outfielder.  Similarly, Tampa Bay’s use of utility men Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez in the nine hole have provided solid production for a higher spot, say 7th in the order.

Baltimore, meanwhile, has stuck with SS Cesar Izturis in 51 games as their 9th hitter.  His .220/.272/.241 slash line and 4 extra-base-hits in over 200 plate appearances this season are maybe comparable to what an average NL team might expect out of 2 plate appearances by a starting pitcher an 1 pinch hitter plate appearance per game.  Catcher Lou Marson and infamous infielder Jason Donald have each had just over 20 starts in the 9th spot of Cleveland’s batting order.  Donald’s .245/.280/.392 looks absolutely stellar compared to Izturis, let alone Marson’s .191/.268/.262.  A .530 OPS is decidedly pitcher-esque.  No wonder Carlos Santana has arrived at Lake Erie’s shore.

This one look-in at a changing landscape in American League baseball lets us see that, Yankees excluded, the American and National Leagues are largely putting the same kind of teams on the field.  While the perception of AL superiority still persists, it’s hard to see it as a reality.  For the most part, American League lineups are no better than those of National League teams.  The AL has a .741 OPS in 2010, while the NL – including pitchers – has a .730 OPS; the AL has a team-game average of 4.56 runs per game, compared to 4.40 in the NL.  The AL and NL has seen the same strikeout-to-walk ratio, and actual game scores of many interleague games helps us see that the AL’s overall 494-481 record wasn’t achieved with 7-2 routs.  It was achieved with mediocre White Sox winning 2-1 games against the mediocre Nationals.

With June coming to an end, another aspect of AL vs. NL comparisons is the potential makeup of the All Star teams.  We know who will be voted in, but merit is another matter.  It might be worth looking at Jorge Posada’s popularity versus Miguel Olivo’s production.

But that’s for another day.

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