Four. It’s the number of World Series the American League has won in the last decade. It’s hardly a number that symbolizes a National League dominance overall in those 10 years (and how could it since the AL All-Stars have beaten the NL seven out of the last 10 years?), but it does suggest there’s a difference in the last bits of the season. It represents the National League pumping out powerhouse ball clubs not in the last 10 years, but in the last handful of seasons. The eye-catching teams now mostly reign in the league of the eagle with the bat.
2012 was an eye opening season for the National League. Not only did they boast better statistics than the American League last year, but the NL conquered the World Series for the third year in a row (and easily won two of the last three Fall Classics). The most telling Major League Baseball statistics from 2012, though, concern the difference between the 10 playoff teams. Of course the National League would post better offensive numbers and weaker pitching data in the 2012 regular season – two more teams does that to you. But compared to the NL division winners, the only team in the AL with a better 2012 record was the New York Yankees. The top two records in all of baseball? Nope, not the Detroit Tigers and the Minnesota Twins. Not the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Texas Rangers. It wasn’t even the Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. It was a team that never posted a winning season before 2012 (Washington Nationals) and a club that has only had two plus-.500 records in their last 12 seasons (Cincinnati Reds). The first Wild Card team, the Atlanta Braves, was only surpassed by the Yankees in terms of record in the American League. On the flip side, the 2012 AL Central victor (Tigers) tied the St. Louis Cardinals for the worst regular season mark of all the 10 playoff clubs in MLB. Three Wild Card teams, the perennial designation of you’re-not-the-best, possessed better records coming into 2012 postseason than the division winner Tigers.
The evidence of the NL’s greatness was apparent just by the AL’s failures last year. Most of the American League’s playoff teams were second-class compared to the National League’s. The AL delivered two thrilling Divisional Series, but only the Tigers were truly overwhelming. Starting pitching, offense, bullpen – Detroit had it all last year; the other AL teams were just trying to catch up. The Rangers lacked the form to make it far in the 2012 postseason, and were a shade of the best-of-the-AL team they were for two straight years; the Orioles and Yanks battled in an exhilarating yawn Division Series that showed that neither would have been up to the task of facing the Tigers, as the Yankees failed to muster a single win against Detroit in the AL Championship Series (Honestly, how much better would the team that lost to the dreadful Yankees’ offense have done against the World Series runner-ups?). The Oakland Athletics were the next-best team in the AL playoff bracket, but Justin Verlander was the difference between them being a powerhouse club. As fascinating as the Athletics’ young starting pitching was, it was not one of the three best in the American League, not a dominating rotation that could have led them to a World Series.
But on the NL side in 2012, though, every single postseason team was stacked. Any one of them could have made the World Series. Any one of them could have beaten the other. Any one of them could have dismantled every American League side not named the Tigers. The Braves had a balanced combination of starting pitching, lights out bullpen, and offense, but were in a division with too powerful a team (Washington) to overcome in the standings to avoid a do-or-die-and-make-no-mistake game. Thus, a highly talented club that would have made noise in the Divisional Round, had to play in the NL Wild Card Game, just falling to St. Louis, killing a potential run. The Nats went toe-to-toe for five games with the best offense in the National League, and if Washington had a tighter bullpen they would have advanced. The Reds had a powerful offense, a palpable rotation, and a strong bullpen that nearly defeated the eventual-World Series champs (San Francisco Giants). And well, when you win the World Series two times out of three years, with an even better team, then you’re a powerhouse.
The gap in the canyon ripped open even further in the winter. While the National League made a slew of big moves (the Los Angeles Dodgers signed Zack Greinke; the Braves got the Upton brothers; the Nationals obtained Dan Haren; etc.) the American League didn’t catch up. Two AL behemoths fell while only one rose: the Yankees’ age has caught up with them and finally made it obvious to everyone that they can’t rely on only homeruns in the postseason; the Rangers lost another superstar to the Angels; and the Toronto Blue Jays established themselves as one of the premier teams in the American League. Detroit was already packed with talent, and will remain a force in 2013, and the Angels played addition by subtraction to make themselves the best team in the AL West, buying Texas’s stars. Other than that, though, it hasn’t been an earsplitting league. Only three teams stand out: Detroit, Toronto, and the Angels. Of Texas, Oakland, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, and the Yankees, five playoff contenders last year, not a single of them has the firepower right now to win a pennant. Texas’s pitching has weakened and is injured often, the Rays and Yankees lack the offense, and the Orioles can’t sustain winning a million one-run games in the postseason (or in the regular season, either). Of the five clubs, Oakland’s strong pitching, bullpen, and second-half offense probably is the safest bet, but they’ve never made it to the World Series under Billy Beane, and would have to take down the AL monsters of East, Central, and West to get there.
The National League, though, has at least five teams that can make it to the World Series – Washington, Atlanta, Cincinnati, St. Louis, and San Francisco – and two more that stick out (Los Angeles Dodgers and Philadelphia). Seven powerhouse teams against only three in the American League. Makes you wonder if the NL is going to ask Bud Selig if it can have some of the AL’s wild card spots.
While the Dodgers’ slew of questions in their rotation, and the Phillies’ hitting and age woes, make them both unlikely to make the 2013 postseason, the five other behemoth NL clubs can battle the Tigers, Angels, and Blue Jays to a tee. This may not automatically predict where an autumn parade will be held, but the depth of the NL’s postseason contenders provides evidence why the National League has been so dominating in the World Series two of the last three years. The Giants pitched their way to a title in 2010, even in the Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, and were almost unstoppable in the 2012 Fall Classic. They, the National League’s best, battled the deepest rotation and offense in baseball, and made them look silly, beating the Tigers at their own games. This is the National League. This is their best. Not every single one of them may be better than the best of the American League, but the disproportion is evident: the National League isn’t limited to only one super powered team per division. Three versus seven. It’s a numbers game.