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Is the National League Really That Easy?

For years it's been said that National League hitting is inferior to that of the American League but in the past few weeks it seems like pitchers who have recently left the AL for the NL are having their way with the senior circuit.

The most recent example is Boston Red Sox castoff Brad Penny. Last night Penny made his first start as a Giant since the team signed him after he cleared waivers and blanked the NL's best hitting team, the Philadelphia Phillies, over eight innings. Penny allowed just five hits en route to his eighth overall win of the season.

In 24 starts with the Red Sox, Penny never made it through the seventh inning and gave up at least two earned runs in all but three starts. It is worth noting that prior to this season, Penny had spent his entire career in the NL with the Florida Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers. Also, Penny has a pretty good record against Phillies, as he's 8-4 with a 3.72 ERA all-time against Philadelphia. But it does seem pretty surprising to see a guy turn it around so quickly after no team wanted to claim him off the waiver wire.

Imagine what the Red Sox would have if Penny pitched this way all season and they had the NL version of John Smoltz.

Smoltz also started his season in Boston after a long and successful career in the National League. Smoltz was coming back from arm surgery so when the Red Sox outright released the Hall of Fame-bound right-hander it wasn't hard to imagine this being the last we'd see of Smoltz.

However, the St. Louis Cardinals picked up the 42-year-old, and in two starts back in the NL cocoon, he has gone 1-0, with a 0.82 ERA in 11 innings pitched. Granted, Smoltz's two starts have come against the lowly San Diego Padres and Washington Nationals but he had gotten torched by the Nats in his first start of the year (five runs, five innings, five strikeouts, one loss).

In fact, Smoltz (who is a combined 3-5 with a 6.71 ERA in 10 starts) has only faced two teams that have winning records this season, the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees, yet still compiled an AL-only ERA of 8.32.

While Smoltz and Penny have seen their season quickly turn around after jettisoning a designated hitter, Cliff Lee has dominated throughout.

Lee, the reigning AL Cy Young award winner, had been putting up great numbers (7-9, 3.14 ERA, 107 strikeouts, three complete games) while taking the ball every fifth day for a dreadful Cleveland Indians team.

Since being traded to the Phillies at the trade deadline, Lee has been absolutely phenomenal, going 5-1 with a 1.80 ERA with two complete games in six starts. Lee's performance has been reminiscent of his former Indians teammate, CC Sabathia who last year was traded to the Brewers and went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA in 17 starts or Milwaukee.

The National League averages for batting average, on-base percentage and slugging are .260/.331/.411 compared to the American League's .266/.335/.430, which is obviously better but not ridiculously so and could certainly be attributed to the presence of the DH.

So maybe Brad Penny just needed to be familiar with his opponents. John Smoltz claims to have made a mechanical change since joining the Cardinals and may have been tipping his pitches in Boston. And maybe Cliff Lee and, previously, CC Sabathia are just that damn good.

Guess we won't know which league has the better team until the World Series. I'm sure the defending world champion Phillies would love to defend their title and NL pennant.

By CJ Holley  |  September 3, 2009; 1:05 PM ET
Categories:  Brewers , Cardinals , Giants , Indians , Phillies , Red Sox  | Tags: boston red sox, cleveland indians, milwaukee brewers, philadelphia phillies, san francisco giants, st. louis cardinals  
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Comments

A glaring piece missing from your argument - the All Star Game. How many in a row is it now for the AL? 13?

Yet the NL still manages to produce World Series winners. 3 out of the last six.

Posted by: PhilliesPhan | September 3, 2009 7:33 PM | Report abuse

the All-Star game results aren't the best indicator. the AL has beaten the NL for many years, yes, but if you look at the actual game scores and situations, it's been pretty dang close for the last several years. two of the losses have come on blown saves in very recent years.

as for pitchers having success when they move to the NL, a lot of it could have something to do with feeling a need to prove yourself again and focusing more or maybe it is making a change in mechanics like smoltz says. but brad penny had a decent may and a really good june in the AL with ERAs of 4.17 and 3.18, respectively.

a lot of penny's dismal season could be pointed to BABIP. it's around .340 against him this year. the other two years he had bad BABIP were 2006 and 2002, the two years he had two of his highest ERAs in his career. so maybe what we're seeing is actually a regression to the mean.

smoltz is in the same boat. his BABIP is around .375 this year, which is insane. his K and BB rates are still good, but the ball is leaving the yard at a higher rate than usual. looking at fangraphs you can also see that his problem this year is his slider and change. smoltz's slider is not biting very hard, nor is his changeup moving much. add in the fact he's throwing his changeup 16% of the time as compared to his career rate of 12%.

so i wouldn't say it's the NL. i'd say it's a regression to the mean with a potential for a change in mechanics.

Posted by: adampschroeder | September 3, 2009 7:58 PM | Report abuse

The Nats record may be lowely but their offense isn't. Well at least it wasn't until the past week.

Posted by: smirkman | September 4, 2009 6:56 AM | Report abuse

What the heck is BABIP???

I would chalk up Penny and Smoltz to both being familiar and more comfortable in the NL. How about proving themselves to a new team in the heat of a pennant race? What about knowing the hitters? Just being able to relax. It goes a long way for a pitcher.

In regards to Lee mowing down the NL, look at the team he was on in the AL. The Tribe didn't provide the guy with any run support. Its a lot easier to pitch knowing you have an all star team backing you up in the field and a modern day murderers row for a lineup.

So, no, I don't think the AL is that much better. This is all circumstantial. When the Phillies repeat this year, you will be reminded that the AL is not entirely dominant :)

Posted by: PhilliesPhan | September 4, 2009 10:04 AM | Report abuse

B(atting)A(average)B(alls)I(n)P(lay)

usually it's around .300 for pitchers. so if a BABIP is significantly higher than that you can expect a regression to the mean and vice versa.

Posted by: adampschroeder | September 6, 2009 12:40 AM | Report abuse

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