How the National League is taking over baseball
A little confession: I've always been more of an American League guy. The designated hitter doesn't bother me. I grew up in Seattle, watching too many sub-.500 Mariners teams. I moved to Red Sox/Yankees territory during the height of the rivalry in the 2000s and saw the passion up close. I liked George Brett and Kirby Puckett and emulated Cecil Cooper's batting stance while playing whiffle ball (the Brewers were in the AL back then, kids). I was not happy when the National League won the 1979 All-Star Game at the Kingdome, damn you, Lee Mazzilli.
The antipathy between the leagues that existed back in 1979 is no longer near the level that Pete Rose and friends carried it to back in the day. The commissioner's office abolished the league presidencies long ago, so everything is now under one umbrella of authority. Still, even with interleague play, the separation of the leagues provides a structure to how we view things. We have MVP, Cy Young and Rookie of the Year honors for both leagues. We talk about a team being the best in the American League or best in the National League or of a player being the best catcher in the AL or the best second baseman in the NL. Of course, we still have different rules in each league.
That sense of order provides an obvious route of comparison: American League versus National League.
And right now, dear readers, the National League is the better, more entertaining league. It has overtaken the AL in every way. Let me explain.
Head to head
This is the easiest way to compare overall league strength. From 2004 to 2017, the AL won interleague play every season, often by wide margins -- 154-98 in 2006, for example, a .611 winning percentage that would be a 99-win pace over a 162-game season. Even as late as 2015 and 2016, the AL was comfortably ahead (.557 and .550 winning percentages).
I've studied this and it had nothing to do with the DH rule. Take out the Yankees and Red Sox, and the AL still had the superior record. The AL was simply deeper and better for a variety of reasons, including organizations such as Oakland being at the forefront of the sabermetric revolution. Mostly, however, the success of the Yankees and Red Sox pushed the rest of the league to strive higher.
In 2017, the AL's margin was down to 20 games (160-140). Then last season the NL finally caught the AL and edged past it with a 158-142 record. So far in 2019, the NL leads 31-26. Based on what happened last year and the perceived depth in the two leagues, plus the fact that the Orioles, Royals and White Sox have yet to play any interleague games, I would expect the NL to once again come out on top.
The NL has the two breakout superstars
You don't want to overreact to early numbers, but it certainly appears that Cody Bellinger and Christian Yelich have raised their games to a new level. That seems like an odd thing to say about the reigning MVP winner, but Yelich's numbers are spectacular:
2018: .326/.402/.598, 36 HR, 7.6 WAR
2019: .356/.462/.797, 16 HR, 2.4 WAR
He's on pace for 60 home runs and also has seven steals, so he could swipe 30 bags if he keeps running. Yes, he's likely to slow down at some point, but consider that over his past 151 games, he has hit .337/.422/.671 with 49 home runs. The idea of him hitting 50 isn't absurd based on what we've seen since last year's All-Star break.
Then there's Bellinger, the best player in the game so far this year, hitting .394 with 14 home runs, flashing the leather in the outfield, reducing his strikeouts and smashing baseballs all over the place. Considering that he hit 39 home runs as a rookie in 2017, the idea of him hitting 50 home runs isn't absurd either.
Also, it's worth noting that Yelich and Bellinger play on the teams that met in last year's National League Championship Series. Mike Trout, the AL's resident superstar, hasn't sniffed the postseason in recent years and doesn't appear likely to in 2019.
The NL is loaded with young up-and-coming stars
I'm not saying all the shiny new toys are National Leaguers, but consider this list of rookies and second-year players:
• Ronald Acuña Jr., 21: Best player in the game potential.
• Juan Soto, 20: Best hitter in the game potential.
• Fernando Tatis Jr., 20: 30/30 with Gold Glove potential.
• Chris Paddack, 23: The rookie breakout pitcher of 2019 so far.
• Mike Soroka, 21: The other rookie breakout pitcher of 2019.
• Victor Robles, 21: The rookie has six homers and eight steals.
• Pete Alonso, 24: Big-time power for a big-market team.
• Walker Buehler, 24: Coming off an impressive rookie season.
The "It" teams of 2019 are in the NL
Other than the Rays -- and let's be honest, as much as I love the Rays, they're never going to have a big national presence -- the conversation starters are mostly in the NL this season:
• The Phillies with Bryce Harper and all their offseason moves.
• The Padres with Manny Machado plus the two hotshot rookies (and more on the way).
• The Braves with all that young pitching plus Acuña and Ozzie Albies.
• The Brewers looking to repeat as NL Central champions.
• The Cardinals with Paul Goldschmidt looking to get back in the playoffs after a three-year drought.
• The Mets, maybe good, maybe mediocre, but always interesting.
Sure, the Twins are starting to get into the discussion with their hot start and as they keep mashing home runs, but there isn't the same sense of "What is going to happen?" in the American League on a nightly basis that there is in the NL.
The NL's competitive balance
That leads directly to this point: The National League figures to have the more intriguing division races -- or, at the minimum, more teams that should factor into the playoff races. In the AL, it looks like we might already be down to just six teams fighting for five spots -- the Rays, Yankees, Red Sox, Twins, Indians and Astros. Unless one of the other AL West teams starts showing something -- and so far the division's other four clubs all look like .500-type teams at best -- there are just too many games each night on the AL schedule that aren't that interesting.
In the NL, however, with the entire league except the Marlins (and arguably the Giants) "going for it," almost every game every night is worth checking in on.
This isn't to suggest some good things aren't happening in the AL. The AL East race figures to be a terrific three-team battle. It will be interesting to see if the Twins can end the Indians' run in the AL Central. The Mariners were fun for three weeks. The Astros' pursuit of a third straight 100-win season will be intriguing.
For the most part, however, in the early weeks of 2019, I find myself watching more NL action. (Seriously, Chris Paddack: Tune in this guy next time he's pitching.)
That whole pitchers hitting thing, however? Not so interesting.