NL lineups aren't as deep

There are a few factors that might help explain the American League's recent dominance over the National League.

Originally Published: July 11, 2006
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

There are lots of surer bets than the American League beating the National League in a head-to-head matchup.

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Try Phil Mickelson out-finessing Charles Barkley in a closest-to-the-pin contest. Or Takeru Kobayashi downing more all-beef wieners than Calista Flockhart. Or George Will besting Charlie Manuel in a Winston Churchill-quoting competition.

But the gap is significant enough that Tommy Lasorda -- bless his Senior Circuit loving heart -- was forced to go to great lengths to defend the honor of his favorite league Monday. The last time Lasorda spewed this much saliva to make a point, a radio reporter was asking his "opinion" of Dave Kingman's performance.

In Pittsburgh, site of the 2006 All-Star Game, AL dominance is the hot topic du jour. During Monday's player press sessions, American Leaguers tried to be diplomatic, their NL counterparts observed that things really aren't that bad, and everyone was pleased to talk about something other than steroids.

Sort of.

White Sox celebration
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesThe White Sox won the World Series last year and have shown no signs of slowing down.
"The fact is, we're not being given much of a chance in this," said Padres closer Trevor Hoffman. "It's a bit frustrating that this is already being written up as a win for the American League."

Recent events don't inspire much confidence in the Nationals. As you're probably aware by now, the American League is 8-0-1 in the last nine All-Star Games, swept the last two World Series, and waxed the Nationals in interleague play with a 154-98 record this season.

The imbalance has inspired lots of jokes and digs at the National League's expense. It's fashionable to refer to the NL as the "junior varsity" these days, and ESPN.com columnist Jim Caple recently observed that American League clubs now have a new term to describe interleague play: vacation.

Finding an explanation isn't as complex as dissecting the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, but everyone we asked could only guess at the disparity. Here are a few factors that might help explain why the late NL president Warren Giles is now spinning in his grave.

Resource envy

Check out the 2006 Opening Day payrolls, and four American League clubs -- the Yankees, Red Sox, Angels and White Sox -- rank 1-4 in payroll. After that, baseball's seven biggest spenders all come from the National League.

One prominent theory is that American League clubs are forced to spend money -- or at the very least, be extremely creative -- to keep pace with Boston and New York.

That's true in such places as Oakland and Cleveland, where Billy Beane and Mark Shapiro are always willing to embrace new ideas, and in Minnesota, where Terry Ryan and scouting director Mike Radcliff have been successful with a more tools-based methodology.

Then there's White Sox GM Kenny Williams, who always flies below the headlines, then does something dramatic to rock everybody's world.

Increased spending on free agents has produced mixed results in Detroit, Seattle and Toronto. In Detroit, the news is all good. In Seattle, they're still waiting for that $114-million investment in Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre to pan out. And in Toronto, the Blue Jays are trying their hardest to crack the New York-Boston axis.

"If you want to compete, you have to try and invest in the top players out there," said Jays manager John Gibbons. "We spent a lot and we're still in third place. We're just closer to it now."

In the meantime, some National League mainstays are paying the price for cutting corners. The Braves haven't been able to build a bullpen on the cheap this year, and St. Louis took some knocks for holding the line on payroll while moving into a new park. Atlanta is pretty much out of the playoff hunt, and the Cardinals will have to work to win the NL Central.

Pitching galore

Dodgers assistant GM Roy Smith, in Pittsburgh for the All-Star Game, doesn't buy the proposition that money inevitably trumps all.

"Good pitching beats money," Smith said.

That was certainly true in the World Series with the Curt Schilling-Randy Johnson Diamondbacks, Josh Beckett and the 2003 Marlins, the 2004 Red Sox and last year's White Sox.

Good pitching was particularly telling in interleague play this year, as the loaded American League Central posted a 45-9 mark against National League clubs. That accounted for a big share of the AL's dominance.

A beleaguered AL Central hitter might encounter Johan Santana, Francisco Liriano, Jose Contreras, Mark Buehrle, Freddy Garcia, C.C. Sabathia, Jeremy Bonderman, Justin Verlander, Kenny Rogers and Nate Robertson, among others, in the span of a couple of weeks.

"When do you get the average guy who throws 85 [mph], where you try and get two hits?" said White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski."You're struggling to get one hit a game. It's a tribute to the general managers and the development of pitching in this division."

The designated hitter

The DH has been around since 1973 and it helped propel Paul Molitor into the Hall of Fame, so it's not exactly a novel topic of discussion. But designated hitters are playing an especially prominent role this season.

David Ortiz, Jim Thome and Travis Hafner rank 1-2-3 in the AL in RBI and 1-2-4 in home runs. And the edge they give their clubs in interleague games at home more than compensates for the dropoff that results from them having to sit or actually don gloves in games on the road.

"It's not every year you look up and the head of the class in home runs and RBI is so demonstrative at one position," said Texas assistant GM Thad Levine.

Bronson Arroyo, who's 9-6 and an All-Star four months after leaving Boston by trade, immediately took note of the "tremendous difference" between leagues upon arrival in Cincinnati.

"The lineups just aren't as deep here, especially compared to what I saw in the AL East," Arroyo said. "I've found myself pitching a little easier, especially to the back end of lineups."

Style of play

When the National League routinely whipped up on the AL in the 1960s and '70s, it was hailed for being more forward-looking, embracing integration more quickly, and adopting an aggressive, speed-oriented brand of play that frazzled the competition.

Now the differences between leagues aren't quite as distinct. Umpires float freely between leagues, and the old artificial-turf, Vince-Coleman-and-Willie-McGee Cardinals are but a memory.

"I think the American League is probably a little bit less about the three-run home run than it used to be, but it's not quite the sacrifice-bunt, move-guys-over league that the National League is," said Mets starter Tom Glavine.

For sure. Colorado outfielder Cory Sullivan has 15 sacrifice bunts this season. That's more than the entire 25-man rosters in Oakland, Cleveland, Texas, Boston and Toronto.

"I think American League teams are becoming more like National League teams. There's a focus on pitching and defense. Teams still have the big bombers, like we do with [David] Ortiz and [Manny Ramirez]. But we also have an element of speed. Small ball is a little more in vogue."
Red Sox 2B Mark Loretta

Still, the 2006 Boston team is different in some ways from your father's Red Sox. A reconstructed infield has helped the Sox commit a major-league low 30 errors. And Oakland ranks second in the big leagues in fielding percentage. Who said the number crunchers couldn't quantify defense?

"I think American League teams are becoming more like National League teams," said Boston second baseman Mark Loretta. "There's a focus on pitching and defense. Teams still have the big bombers, like we do with Ortiz and [Manny Ramirez]. But we also have an element of speed. Small ball is a little more in vogue."

Mix the two -- awesome power and a greater focus on the little things -- and it makes for some awfully formidable AL clubs.

Trade imbalance

We don't have time or space to break down every transaction between leagues in recent years, but two particularly lopsided deals spring to mind.

In 2002, then-Montreal general manager Omar Minaya sent Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips to Cleveland for Bartolo Colon. Sizemore is now a rising star, and Lee won 32 games for the Indians over the past two seasons.

As for Colon, he spent one season in Montreal, then returned to the AL and won a Cy Young Award for the Angels.

In what might go down as one of the worst deals in history, San Francisco GM Brian Sabean sent Joe Nathan, Francisco Liriano and Boof Bonser to Minnesota for Pierzynski. A year later, Pierzynski was back in the AL winning a World Series ring with the White Sox.

"It's great for me," Pierzynski said. "I can always look back on my career and say I was traded for Nathan, who has like 400 saves the last two years, and Liriano, who's probably had one of the best rookie years of all time."

Joe Mauer
AP Photo/Ann HeisenfeltJoe Mauer leads the majors in hitting with a .381 batting average.
It's not Terry Ryan's only successful foray into the opposing league. In 1999, the Twins acquired a young Johan Santana from Florida in a trade for pitcher Jared Camp.

In 2001, the Twins selected Joe Mauer with the first overall pick in the draft and the Cubs chose Mark Prior No. 2. Lots of people wondered if the Twins hadn't missed an opportunity to acquire the next Tom Seaver. But with Prior still bothered by the obligatory arm trouble and Mauer hitting .378, it's another net victory for the AL.

It's cyclical, stupid

As bad as things might seem on the surface, it could turn around in a hurry.

By acclamation, the Arizona Diamondbacks and Los Angeles Dodgers have two of the strongest farm systems in baseball, and the Colorado Rockies have upgraded theirs significantly. Give Stephen Drew, Justin Upton, Troy Tulowitzki, Chad Billingsley and some of the NL West kids time to mature, and the balance of power could shift.

Milwaukee's Mark Attanasio and Cincinnati's Robert Castellini are activist owners who won't settle for mediocrity. They've raised the hopes of fans in those markets.

And the instant snapshot obscures some gray areas. Yes, the White Sox swept Houston in the World Series last year -- by an aggregate score of 20-14. Yes, the American League has cleaned up in interleague play the past two seasons. But the leagues played to a virtual draw in 2004, and the National League held a 137-115 edge in 2003. That's not exactly the Paleolithic era.

As grim as things appear today, Dontrelle Willis, Miguel Cabrera, Carlos Zambrano, David Wright, Jose Reyes, Prince Fielder and Rickie Weeks are among the 25-and-under Nationals who give the league reason to hope.

Then again, Sizemore, Liriano, Verlander, Joel Zumaya, Carl Crawford, Jonathan Papelbon, Robinson Cano, Mauer and the American League's 25-and-unders might have something to say about it.

Scott Kazmir, too. Two years ago, the Mets sent him to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays for Victor Zambrano in a trade that New York management still regrets.

Just call it another gift -- from one league to another.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer