Monday, July 12, 2010

Why does the AL always win?

I've got some more Trek geek trivia for you, which compares to the National League's current plight. I noticed a long time ago, and it's probably noted on several Trekker blogs and message boards, that during the entire seven-year run of Next Generation, Geordi LaForge was the only regular who never won a poker game. Seven years without winning once - that sounds familiar...

Ah, the age-old question.

It may seem strange to categorize the question as age-old considering that the NL dominated the Midsummer Classic for the majority of its history. But I think the adjective fits in my case, since the AL turned the tables in 1988 when I was only six years old. In that time, the AL has gone 18-3-1 in the All-Star Game and is presently maintaining a 12-game winning streak (excluding the 7-7 tie in 2002).

I’m on a fool’s errand to try and find an answer to the AL’s success, but that has never stopped any of my previous endeavors. In my research I used a combination of my own observations and expounded upon the opinions I heard and read from various sources. As always, it’s up to my audience to decide whether or not my findings carry any weight.

The first thing I did was to limit my research to the past seven All-Star Games, since the ridiculous decision was made that the winner of the mid-July showcase would be rewarded home-field advantage in the World Series (a decision that hasn’t really hurt NL teams, which have won three of the last seven Fall Classics without home-field advantage). The All-Star Game shouldn’t affect anything during the regular season or playoffs, but it’s good to study the games that have actually mattered. Steroid use has also been on the decline since 2003.

With the parameters set up, I started searching for a pattern of dominance. I knew this would be no easy task, given the inherent randomness of one baseball game, let alone seven. There was also the fact that the AL had won each of the last four All-Star Games by just one run.

Luckily, I happened to catch an interview Bob Costas conducted with Jimmy Rollins and Ryan Howard. He asked them why they thought the AL kept winning, and they said the designated hitter gave the Junior Circuit all the advantage. That argument seemed pretty weak, but Costas led me down a more concrete path of reasoning when he pointed out that the Phillies offense struggled mightily against New York Yankee pitchers in the World Series. Howard particularly looked bad against a continuous string of breaking balls low and away.

It then dawned on me; why don’t NL pitchers throw Howard more off-speed junk? I’ve also read that AL pitchers in general throw more breaking balls, maybe because they don’t have to worry as much about small ball with the designated hitter. When you’re not throwing to poor-hitting pitchers or worrying as much about the bunt or hit-and-run, you don’t rely as much on the fastball. All major league hitters are looking for the fastball, so could the AL just be getting better pitches to hit from NL flame-throwers?

A general look at total baserunners and strikeouts over the last seven years turned up no patterns. The AL didn’t dominate either category.

As I continued my search, I read a theory online (with no numbers to back it up) that said the American League had better relief pitching in the All-Star Game. I immediately tracked down those numbers and on the surface, they appeared to support the claim.

In the past seven All-Star Games, AL relievers have posted a 3.91 ERA, compared to the NL’s 5.49. The disparity grows even more in the four one-run contests, three of which were decided in the last two innings. Since 2006, AL relievers have allowed just two earned runs in 15 innings, while striking out 16. In that same stretch, NL relievers have surrendered eight earned runs on 16 hits with just eight strikeouts.

This might explain the NL’s tendency to lean on starters much later in the game. The AL always seems to come up with the big hit off the guys whose job it is to shut down late rallies.

However, this explanation is hurt quite a bit by the fact that AL relievers have also walked eight batters in the past seven Midsummer Classics, compared to just three by the NL. The last thing you want to see late in a tight contest is a bunch of free passes. The AL is simply picking up the key outs, while the NL keeps getting hit.

In the end, this all seems to come down to a lot of luck. The AL stars keep calling heads and at the end of each game, George Washington’s profile continues to shine up at them.

The American League does have one clear advantage in relief pitching, though. Of the eight saves it has recorded since 1997, Mariano Rivera has four of them. Arguably the best relief pitcher in baseball history, Rivera has yet to allow an earned run in the All-Star Game.

The NL won’t have to worry about Rivera tomorrow due to his opting out, but his mentioning leads very well into my only other explanation: the AL always wins because the Yankees and the Red Sox are the two best teams in baseball. No other teams have enjoyed such a prominent presence in the Midsummer Classic. Since 2000, no fewer than a combined seven players from the two squads have been selected as representatives of the AL elite, and the pair also made up more than half of the starting lineups in ’02, ’05 and ’08.

Not only did New York and Boston feature some of the best pitchers of the last decade, but their hitters are notorious for working the count and getting on base. Stability breeds success and with so many Yankees and Red Sox taking the field every year, not to mention the pesky Ichiro cementing himself at the top of the lineup, it’s a winning formula. Aside from Albert Pujols, the NL can’t maintain that kind of consistency.

Whatever help the NL needs to break the pattern, it won’t get it from second-year manager Charlie Manuel. The Phillies skipper, in his infinite wisdom, decided to fill his roster with Atlanta utility infielder Omar Infante and Houston Astros centerfielder Michael Bourn (.255 batting average, 66 strikeouts and .661 OPS). Manuel apparently doesn’t pay attention to anyone in his league outside of former Phillies and players from his own division. Two guys who have no business making an All-Star Team, and probably never will again, were chosen outright, while the Reds’ Joey Votto – the best hitter in the NL right now – needed to squeeze in with the fans’ final vote. Votto is a guy who could easily come up with a couple of big hits, and he might not even leave the dugout.

This isn’t the first time NL managers have made poor decisions in the All-Star Game. King Albert Pujols was kept away from his batting box throne in the ’07 Classic by his own manager, while the vastly inferior Aaron Rowand (even in his career year with the Phillies) was given a second at-bat and flew out with the bases loaded to end the game.

The odds don’t seem to be in the NL’s favor with all of these mitigating factors, but if the closeness of the past four games is any indicator, the coin could still fall the Senior Circuit’s way by the time the last out is made tomorrow in Anaheim.

Unfortunately, I see the gap widening and Washington’s face shining brighter than ever. The AL will take this one by a final of 6-3.

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