AL Baseball Is Better
by Glenn Dickey
Apr 11, 2006

SPORTS ILLUSTRATED did an article last week on the obvious superiority of the American League but didn’t make another obvious statement: that American League ball is more entertaining.

The AL reputation is for power, but it’s actually a much more balanced game. Good pitching can still dominate: The Oakland A’s came within an inning and a third of throwing three straight shutouts in Seattle last week, and a superb pitching staff is the main reason the Chicago White Sox are reigning World Champions. But if you trot an inferior pitcher out there, he’ll get lit up in a hurry in the American League – which is as it should be.

The most boring baseball season I’ve watched was 1968, when pitchers totally dominated. It wasn’t just Bob Gibson with his unreal 1.12 ERA for the season; Gibson was a great pitcher who was at his peak. But quite ordinary pitchers were pitching shutouts. There were back-to-back no-hitters at Candlestick. The first was thrown by Gaylord Perry, who was in the early stages of a Hall of Fame carreer. But the second was thrown by Ray Washburn, who won only 72 games in his career, 14 of them that season.

After that season, owners tried to restore some balance to the game, lowering the pitching mound. That was the beginning of changes meant to bolster the offensive part of the game. The Designated Hitter was adopted by the American League in 1973; it’s now also used in the minors and collegiate ball but still resisted by the National League. A much livelier ball was put into play for the 1993 season, which inflated power numbers, probably more than the steroid use which many people see as the main reason for the higher home run totals.

The SI article noted that AL general managers like Cleveland’s Mark Shapiro, Oakland’s Billy Beane, New York’s Brian Cashman and Boston’s Theo Epstein have been quicker to grasp the importance of power than their NL counterparts, because they’re using statistical analysis more frequently. That nalysis has shown that baseball is getting fewer of the great athletes, many of them going to other sports, so concentrating on getting more power makes sense.

Even the champion White Sox, who played more “little ball” last year than most AL teams, have powered up this year, trading for Jim Thome, who has already hit four home runs in the first week of the season. That was part of an overall power shift from National to American with Lyle Overbay, Troy Glaus and Milton Bradley going from National League clubs to American.

The National League still plays for one run, the style that purists love, because of their clubs relative lack of power – and the lack of a DH. At PacBell on Sunday, when Atlanta outfielder Ryan Langerhaus came up with two outs in the second inning, he was intentionally walked. Langerhaus was hitting in the eighth slot for a good reason: He’s not a very good hitter. He hit .267 in his first full season with the Braves last year, after hitting .265 in his minor league career. But he was batting in front of John Smoltz, who is, like most pitchers, a weak hitter. Smoltz made the final out of the inning.

That’s often what happens in the National League, without the DH. That can’t happen in the American League, where even the ninth place hitter can be decent. Pitchers don’t get a breather at any spot.

Of course, there is one advantage for NL fans: If they need to take a bathroom break or to hit the concession stands, they can do it when the bottom third of the lineup comes up because they won’t miss anything. AL fans can’t count on that.

NATIONAL LEAGUE fans like to say that the game is played as it should be in their league, as it has been since the start. Of course, in the early days of baseball, gloves were the size of driving gloves and the ball was as lively as a pumpkin. Sometimes, with their resistance to change, I think NL fans would like to see those conditions return.

Sports evolve over time, and fans generally embrace that change. In football, the ball itself was changed in the ‘20s, making it easier to throw. Many rules have been introduced to promote offense in the NFL. That makes it impossible to compare statistics from the different eras – was Jerry Rice really better than Don Hutson? – but that doesn’t bother fans, who like the excitement of the more offensive game.

Similarly, in basketball, the center jump was eliminated after every basket. Teams once utilized set patterns ending with two-handed set shots. Who would want to go back to those days?

American League fans have embraced the DH because they like the fact that it brings more offense to the game – and that it enables a manager to make his pitching decisions based strictly on pitching. He doesn’t have to take out an effective starter because he wants to pinch-hit for him.

Whenever I hear a fan who thinks the DH is the worst thing to happen to the game, I know it’s somebody who has most likely never even been to an American League game. (Often expressed as, “I wouldn’t be caught dead at an American League game.”)

So, the National League goes on its way playing for one run, bunting as early as the second inning, utilizing the famed double-switch when a pitcher comes out of the game. NL fans call this strategy. I call it boring.

There are exceptions, of course, and the Giants’ have the biggest one: Barry Bonds. What do you think is more exciting: A run produced by a walk, a bunt and a grounder through the right side, or a Bonds’ blast into the bay? The Giants fans vote with their feet. When they think Bonds has taken his last swing, there’s a mass exodus from PacBell Park.

WITH ITS emphasis on power, the American League is taking a leaf from its history book, going back to the Yankees in the ‘20s.

It was in that period, after the Yankees had traded for Babe Ruth, that the “big inning” theory was first used: that in most games, the winning team will score more runs in one inning than the losing one will in the whole game.

So, while the National League plays for one run, power reigns in the American League. That’s why I prefer American League baseball.

LETTERS; I’ll be updating this with new e-mails later today.

What do YOU think? Let me know!

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