The American League’s hitting superiority over the National League was essentially etched in stone when the designated hitter was introduced in 1973. When it came to leaguewide numbers, baseball’s Senior Circuit had no chance of competing with its counterpart because the NL was constantly being weighted down by its weak-hitting pitchers who got a regular turn in the lineup.
That is, until this season, apparently.
Entering play on Tuesday, the National League hitters — including the pitchers — had a .739 on-base plus slugging percentage compared with .735 for the American League. This is remarkable considering the NL’s OPS includes 1,590 plate appearances by pitchers whereas AL pitchers have batted just 125 times. Only once in history has the NL outhit the AL across a full season, in 1976 — and that year it was a virtual dead heat (.6812 OPS to .6809). The average advantage for the AL has been 22 OPS points, with a high of 57 in 1996. And the push for hitting equality appears to be the trend as the NL finished last year just 10 points worse in OPS than the AL, the sixth-smallest differential over a full season in the designated hitter era.
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This is not the result of pitchers hitting better, either. In fact, pitchers are particularly terrible this season at the plate, with a .324 OPS in the first two months. The culprit is more likely located in left field.
Gone are the behemoth sluggers who were planted in that corner of the outfield to graze between at-bats. American League left-fielders are instead doing their best impressions of 1980s shortstops this season: athletic players who can handle a glove but seem lost at the plate. Entering play on Tuesday their collective .713 on-base plus slugging percentage (OPS) is 48 points (6.3 percent) worse than their average in the designated hitter era. And only catchers hit worse in the American League, according to Baseball-Reference. AL left fielders have hit worse than presently just twice in the DH era (.704 in 2011, .710 in 1976).
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The National League hasn’t gotten the memo that today’s left fielders are now punchless at the plate. The ones in the NL have a .777 OPS, the third-best position behind only first base (.889) and right field (.787).
The NL has left-field boppers such as Michael Conforto (1.108 OPS as a left fielder this year), Matt Kemp (.959), Marcell Ozuna (.954), Ryan Braun (.926) and four other qualifiers over .800. By comparison, the American League counters with pop-gun hitters Norichika Aoki (.592), Guillermo Heredia (.660) and others. It doesn’t help that formerly competent batsmen such as Alex Gordon (.523) and Melky Cabrera (.717) have slumped mightily.
The DHs, meanwhile, aren’t really carrying their weight. Their .750 OPS is well below last year’s .780 and the high of .840 in 1999. A theory that teams are not dedicating a hitter to the position and instead rotating players there to give fielders extra rest, thereby sacrificing offense, doesn’t hold up: 12 of the 15 American League teams have one hitter with at least 119 DH plate appearances.
The simplest explanation may be the most accurate one in this case: The pitching is better in the American League. Through Monday, AL hitters have significantly outperformed their NL counterparts in interleague play — .770 OPS to .719. As a result of this, the AL has a 54-39 record when facing NL teams. That .581 win percentage is third-best mark since the leagues began playing one another in 1997.
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