Column: NL reigns supreme

Chicago Cubs' Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo talk during spring training baseball practice, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2016, in Mesa, Ariz. (AP Photo/Matt York)

As I sit down to begin writing this article, I am currently doing two things: eating a salad and watching a Periscope stream of a New York Mets intra-squad game on my phone.

Yup, it’s baseball season again.

Spring training has begun, and countless baseball fans rejoice as their favorite teams trot out onto the field once again, gloves in hand and sunglasses on. Each fan base believes that this year is their year, no matter what the expectations: the season has yet to begin, and anything is possible.

Sort of.

The beauty of baseball sometimes lies in the fact that teams can go from struggling to stay relevant to World Series favorites in a matter of seasons. This is the case for both the Mets and the Chicago Cubs—two teams that were the laughing stock of baseball only a few years ago.

Of course, this also works in the reverse. The Detroit Tigers made the postseason four straight years from 2011-14 and, with an invincible Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander, failed to take home a World Series trophy. Now, according to FanGraphs, they’re projected to finish the 2016 season 81-81, and will probably fail to capitalize on a relatively weak division. 

To get to the point, I was talking with my friend the other day, and he posed this simple question to me: Who is winning the World Series?

I thought about it for a while, trying to push my Mets bias aside and look at it objectively. Cubs, Mets, Dodgers, Giants, Cardinals—all worthy choices.

The more I pondered, the more I realized something: all of the teams I was picking were NL teams. I barely even touched upon an AL team as a possible contender: the Blue Jays. It had suddenly occurred to me that the NL was so far ahead of the AL at this point that it wasn’t even close.

It’s here where my argument lies. It seems arbitrary that National League teams seem to be surging while American League teams are declining, but it’s no fluke. The NL has emerged as the clear cut dominant league, and it’s not even close.

Unfortunately, I’m not very sabr-savvy, so trying to run some kind of detailed analysis on why this might be is not within the realm of my ability. I can, however, try to analyze it by simply looking at the game on the field.

There isn’t a big difference between the AL and the NL outside of the designated hitter. Could the DH factor actually be affecting the disparity between the two leagues?

In some cases, it might be. When AL teams travel to NL ballparks in interleague play, the NL is at a clear cut advantage in the sense that their pitcher already has extensive batting practice as a part of their training routine, whereas an AL pitcher does not.

New York Mets pitcher Noah Syndergaard throws a bullpen session during spring training baseball practice Saturday, Feb. 20, 2016, in Port St. Lucie, Fla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Take, for example, game three of last year’s World Series. The turning point of that game, while ultimately worthless in terms of crowing a champion, was an R.B.I. single from starter Noah Syndergaard.

How, though, does this affect regular season play? How does it contribute to the overall success of a team?

Well, a DH is there purely for hitting purposes, but in this era, the power of the DH is declining. The two most impactful DHs—Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion—are on the Blue Jays, who I already said are the probable AL pennant winners.

Only one of the next 10 highest ranked DHs is a consistent hitter, and that’s Nelson Cruz of the Mariners. Even with his incredible 2015 (44 home runs, 93 R.B.I., .302 average), the Mariners still finished the season 10 games under .500.

There are some household names on the DH list—David Ortiz, Alex Rodriguez—but both of them are far past their prime and on the brink of retirement. The DH class is far from where it was a few years ago. Since his dominant season in 2012, Billy Butler has dropped 62 points in his batting average. Chris Davis hasn’t had the same impact for the Orioles since his league-best 53 HRs and 138 R.B.I.’s 2013 season.

The entire league has made a sudden shift from offensively dominant to defensively dominant. Again, take the 2015 World Series as an example. A huge reason for the Mets’ loss was the fault in their pitching and their late inning defense. Both teams averaged around 4.5 runs per game, so it wasn’t like one offense was better than the other—it was a fairly even matchup in that regard.

But nowadays, there is more emphasis on versatile players, rather than those who are pure hitters. The league favors players like Ben Zobrist who can play a variety of positions and put up consistent plate appearances.

This isn’t the steroid era of the 90s: pitching is dominating the game, and more often than not, good pitching beats good hitting (add on the fact that good hitting is hard to come by, too). It’s very clear that the Mets have the deepest rotation in the entire league, and it’s that rotation alone that carried them into the 2015 World Series, and will most likely carry them to the 2016 World Series too.

So how does that explain teams like the Cubs and Cardinals, who are going to rely on offense to carry them deep into the postseason?

That’s simple: their lineups are loaded one through eight with consistent hitters, and consistency is not the name of the game in the AL.

The Cubs have an unfathomable amount of offensive depth, and the Cardinals have devil magic that allow them to somehow surpass 95 wins every season. This depth is something that, for some reason, many AL lineups lack.

The Yankees, for example, are on the rise from where they have been since 2009, and are building that depth back. But before this year, they really only had Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira (when healthy, of course) carrying them. The Blue Jays have a killer three-four-five, but lack much else outside of that. The Mariners have a stud in Cruz, but nobody else.

The Royals lost Zobrist this offseason, but retained most of their 2015 offense, including Lorenzo Cain, Alex Gordon, and Salvador Perez. However, the reason I don’t see them as a repeat contender is the simple fact that they lack pitching depth, and pitching trumps all.

Interestingly enough, the Red Sox are projected to finish first in the AL East. This is largely due to their rising stars in Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley Jr, as well as the addition of David Price and Craig Kimbrel to their growing pitching arsenal.

While I don’t believe that they’ll prevail over the Jays, it’s clear that they are one of the few AL teams on the rise because of the depth that they are building, especially in their defense and pitching. Betts is an insane fielder and has already made his fair share of incredible defensive plays in 2015.

Ultimately, the greater depth of the National League is just too much for the American League to overcome right now. Without pitching depth, AL teams will get absolutely smacked by the Cubs. Without lineup depth, they’ll look like little leaguers against the Mets’ rotation.

Baseball is making a transition from hitter-centric to pitcher and defender-centric, and NL teams are leading the pack. The only way to overcome this deficit is with lineup depth. This is something that some AL teams are doing, but are still too early in the transition stage to pose a threat to NL teams who have been grooming their young players for years now.

It might be a while before we hear about a hard fought, tooth-and-nail World Series again. For now, we’ll just have to stay entertained by watching the Cubs and Mets duke it out in the NLCS—again. 


Stephanie Sheehan is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at stephanie.sheehan@uconn.edu. She tweets @steph_sheehan.