Monday, April 9, 2012

Pujols, Fielder demonstrate AL superiority

The American League is even stronger with Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder crossing over from the National League. But that means, also, that Pujols and Fielder should be weaker for it.

By BILL PETERSON
Big Leagues in LA

It was noted during the offseason that the stronger of the two major leagues, the American League, now was to include the two best hitters from the National League, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder. Among all players, the two who reached base the most often in the last four seasons were Pujols (1,134 times) and Fielder (1,127).

Thus, the stronger league is said to be even stronger yet. Most who have been asked believe at least six of the best seven clubs are in the AL, and some say the AL has the top six. One sports talker proposes that a player moving from the NL West to the AL East is making a similar jump to a player coming to the United States from Japan.

The AL has dominated interleague play, winning the majority of such games for eight straight years. Of the top six payrolls, five belong to AL clubs -- the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Los Angeles Angels, Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers. The one NL club in the list is Philadelphia. The only club widely regarded as a contender that's not on the list is the Tampa Bay Rays, who rank 27th of 32 clubs. That's your best seven clubs across the game. The NL's Miami Marlins, Arizona Diamondbacks and Cincinnati Reds are poised to join the elite list, but they're waiting in line. Big news says the Los Angeles Dodgers are about the get serious. A drumbeat for the Toronto Blue Jays is heard from the AL, but it is muffled. A B-list club in the NL is a playoff favorite because the A-list is so short. A B-List club in the AL is an outlier because the A-List is so deep.

Each giant market with a club in each league is weak in the NL now. The New York Mets are caught up in the Bernie Madoff scandal and their finances are a mess. The new Chicago Cubs ownership has slashed payroll from $146 million to $88 million in two years. The Dodgers should be revived after the present sale process, but we all know how it's been for the last couple years. The next largest market club in the NL, the Houston Astros, are on the rock bottom of rebuilding, clearly the worst club in the major leagues. Just as the NL has no club as good as the AL's best, the AL has no club as poor as the NL's worst.

The National League might make a case for itself, but the case would be weak. It's true, for example, that the AL has won the majority of interleague games in each of the last eight years, but the NL is closing the gap. The AL advantage, which was as wide as 154-98 in 2006 and 149-103 in 2008, was down to 131-121 last year. The NL has two more clubs than the AL. The NL's two worst, the Astros and Cubs, combined to go 9-21 last year in interleague play, more than accounting for the margin.

The NL has won the last two All-Star Games and the last two World Series, and, of course, the two are related because the league that wins the All-Star Game wins home field in the World Series. The St. Louis Cardinals really needed home field last year to overcome the Texas Rangers. Before 2010, though, the NL hadn't won an All-Star Game since 1996. The World Series has been even in the 21st century, with each league winning six times.

But we seldom appeal to the All-Star Game and the World Series for comparing leagues, anymore, because interleague play gives us so much more data involving so many more teams and players. We can size up entire leagues, instead of just the best from both leagues. By the measures of interleague play, the AL is better, year after year. Now, the AL has Pujols and Fielder.

Agreeing that the AL is so much better, it's fair to wonder how Pujols and Fielder will fare now that they are facing such superior competition. It's somewhat as if they are making the jump from the minor leagues to the major leagues. If you really believe that the six best clubs in the major leagues are in the AL -- and that's a reasonable belief -- then Pujols and Fielder have stepped into a much tougher game.

Some will argue that Pujols and Fielder can hit in any league. The science of baseball statistics supports them, as it is widely accepted that minor league statistics combined with park factors broadly predict how players will perform in the major leagues. Thus, the AL performances for Pujols already have been predicted by their NL numbers.

But with interleague play, we don't merely have to predict AL numbers for Pujols and Fielder. We have them ready at hand. And those numbers add one more measurement to the many already listed showing that the AL is a little tougher. The numbers show that Pujols and Fielder have been awesome against AL pitching, but just a little less awesome. Both hitters walk less often and strike out more often against the AL. Fielder is even more of a power hitter against the AL, but he's also an easier out. Pujols is every bit as tough of an out against the AL, but he is slightly less powerful.

Fielder really tore it up in his debut with the Tigers this past weekend. He was five-for-12 with two homers as the Tigers swept three from the Red Sox at Comerica Park. Fielder now is batting .412 in his career against the Red Sox (14-for-34) with four homers. But Fielder's numbers across the AL through his career indicate that he won't be quite the player he has been in the NL. This table shows his career rate stats against each league. The figures are through 2011. Bear in mind that Fielder had 3,177 career at-bats against the NL and only 350 lifetime at-bats against the AL.


Batting pct.On-base pct.Slugging pct.OPSPA per BBAB per SOAB per HR
Fielder vs. NL.284.393.540.9337.274.6415.57
Fielder vs. AL.269.353.560.9139.503.6813.46

Entering 2012, Fielder had a higher batting average and a higher walk rate against the NL. Against the AL, he was an all-or-nothing hitter. His rate of one homer for every 13.46 at-bats in the AL would be fifth on the all-time list. But he also had fewer hits (94) than strikeouts (95) against AL clubs. Fielder has never struck out 140 times in a season. These numbers suggest he now could strike out 160 times -- and hit 45 homers.

Better pitchers, particularly in the AL East, work the strike zone with more consistency and with stuff that can "win in the strike zone," as the saying goes. The numbers suggest that Fielder will have to become much better at controlling the strike zone or he may be an easier out than people expect. It's agreed, concerning this data, that we have ten times as many trials for Fielder against NL pitchers, but 399 lifetime plate appearances against the AL before this year isn't nothing. It's enough to say, "This is what he is!" and then to watch closely to see how much of it is true.

Pujols has fantastic numbers against the AL in his career, but there's one little problem. About 40 percent of his experience (236 of 635 plate appearances) against the AL came against the same club, the Kansas City Royals, one of the worst in the AL throughout his career. Naturally, Pujols made his AL debut with the Angels last weekend against the Royals. It also happens that Pujols hits Kansas City better than he hits any other club in baseball. Just to show what Pujols' record against Kansas City does to his total record against the AL, here is a table, through 2011, showing Pujols' rates against the AL, against Kansas City, and against the AL when Kansas City is subtracted.


Batting pct.On-base pct.Slugging pct.OPSPA per BBAB per SOAB per HR
Pujols vs. AL.348.438.6331.0717.659.0113.87
Pujols vs. KC.379.475.7171.1927.1515.2312.38
Pujols vs. AL minus KC.329.417.6031.0208.007.2914.91

Pujols bats 50 points higher against Kansas City than he bats against the rest of the AL, and his slugging percentage is 114 points higher. Because the Kansas City numbers weigh so heavily on Pujols' overall record against the AL, it might be better to just throw the Royals out. So, here are the rates for Pujols in his career versus NL pitching, along with his career rates against the AL minus Kansas City, through 2011.


Batting pct.On-base pct.Slugging pct.OPSPA per BBAB per SOAB per HR
Pujols vs. NL.326.419.6261.0457.628.9413.68
Pujols vs. AL minus KC .329.417.6031.0208.007.2914.91

Pujols remains an elite producer against AL pitching, but just a little less elite than against NL pitching. Against the AL, we see the same ability to hit for average, but a little less mastery of the strike zone and a little less power. Against the NL, Pujols walks much more often than he strikes out. Against the AL (minus Kansas City!), his walks and strikeouts are about even. That 44-homer season he would produce for St. Louis probably becomes a 40-homer season now. The AL pitchers miss a few more bats, apparently.

Pujols and Fielder join a potent mix of talent among the AL's best clubs. Their individual numbers won't be any better for it. But the competition in the AL will be.

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