NL May Be Out of Its League

By Thomas Boswell
Friday, June 30, 2006

Most of the big stories in baseball at the moment are really just different manifestations of one large trend. The American League is kicking the living daylights out of the National League like no league has ever dominated the other.

Baseball has never seen a slaughter like this. With interleague play mercifully ending on Sunday, the AL entered yesterday's games with a stupendous 127-75 advantage, the kind of .629 winning percentage that we associate with a 102-win champion. This season, a typical interleague game has been a travesty of a mismatch -- the equivalent of a World Series contender playing a cellar-dweller. Or -- and this is a painful thought for baseball -- a big league team playing a bush league bunch. Is the NL now the new Class AAA?

On the surface, we see teams that have suddenly gotten scalding hot as the summer arrives while other clubs seem to have simultaneously fallen apart. The stunning hot streaks of the Tigers, Twins, White Sox and Red Sox compete for our daily attention with the collapses of supposed contenders like the Braves and Phillies and the slump of the Cards. Close to home, the Nats are on the verge of folding like the Pirates and Cubs while the Orioles show signs of life. However, in every case, the truth serum of interleague play has brought each team's strengths or weaknesses into the spotlight.

What is at work, under the surface, is complete hegemony by the AL. The NL hasn't won an all-star game since 1996, and has lost the past eight World Series games. In interleague play, the Red Sox (13-1), Tigers (13-2), Twins (13-2), White Sox (13-2) and Mariners (12-2) are a ridiculous combined 64-9. Meanwhile, Arizona (1-10), Pittsburgh (1-10), Philadelphia (3-11), Atlanta (3-9), the Cubs (3-9) and Cards (4-8) get clubbed night after night -- 15-57 in all.

This phenomenon is completely new. Since interleague play began in '97, the two leagues have been nearly identical with the NL holding a slim 1,104-1,095 lead. Neither league has ever had truly dramatic superiority, even for one season -- until now, unless the NL does a dazzling turnabout by Sunday to restore some of its dignity. Day after day, the lopsided results roll in. Even Pedro Martinez returned to Fenway Park this week as a Met and was crushed for eight runs in three innings.

To some degree, this disparity must be an exaggeration. The law of averages, as well as common sense, almost demands it. But, just as surely, such a stark record must contain considerable truth.

The reason for this disparity is staring us in the face, so big we seldom notice it, the elephant in the room. Within the last few years, the AL has unveiled a whole generation of young pitchers, most of them still under 25 and many of them physically imposing. Inspect every starter and important reliever in the two leagues. The conclusion is inescapable. The huge preponderance of gifted 25-and-under pitchers call the American League home.

The proof is in the numbers. The American League, despite having the DH, almost has as low an ERA as the NL -- 4.56 to 4.51. That never happens. Take the pathetic Royals (5.87) out of the AL and its ERA would be 4.47.

"The American League is full of big arms," said Phillies Manager Charlie Manuel, who spent years in the AL Central watching big-body power pitchers developed by the White Sox, Tigers and Indians.

The Tigers, with the game's best record and its lowest ERA, are the most obvious example. Many fans are just learning the particulars of Justin Verlander (10-3) and Jeremy Bonderman (7-3), both 23. Zach Miner (4-1, 2.59 ERA) and reliever Joel Zumaya, 24 and 21, play key roles. Even the "old" Tiger pitchers are under 30 -- Mike Maroth, Nate Robertson and closer Fernando Rodney. What do they throw? Start with "smoke" -- usually 95 and sometimes close to 100 mph.

"When Bonderman lost [19] games [in '03], I said, 'This kid has a big future,' " Manuel said. "They stayed with him and he got better. The Tigers let their guys get beaten up. They put them out there, let them learn mental toughness and grow into it."

Plenty of attention has already fallen to the Twins' Francisco Liriano (8-1) and Tampa Bay's Scott Kazmir (9-5) -- both 22-year-old lefties, as well as Boston's imposing Jonathan Papelbon (23 saves) and Seattle southpaw Felix Hernandez, barely 21, who has 88 strikeouts in 90 innings. In the AL, even pitchers who seem like veterans are actually 25 or younger, like first-place Oakland's Danny Haren, Joe Blanton, Rich Harden and Brad Halsey, while the A's lights-out closer, Huston Street, is 22.

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