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Pitchers Who Pitched Better in the NL vs. the AL
by Asher B. Chancey, BaseballEvolution.com
November 4, 2009
I accurately predicted the difficulty Brad Penny and John Smoltz would have moving from Dodger Stadium and Turner Field, respectively, to Fenway Park for the 2009 season. It was actually a no-brainer – both of these guys have spent their entire careers pitching in pitcher's parks, so moving to Fenway was bound to be a rude awakening. I had no idea how rude, however – Penny mustered a horrendous 5.61 ERA in 24 starts for the Red Sox before they traded him, and Smoltz eight starts were so bad that the Red Sox waived him.
But it was only after Smoltz’s successful first start after being picked up by the St. Louis Cardinals that I considered the possibility that it wasn’t purely a ballpark issue. Naturally, we can intuit a few things from Smoltz’s transformation. First, pitching in Fenway Park is murder. Second, pitching with the Cardinals defense behind you is sublime. Third, Dave Duncan is, once again, a masterful tactician. Stopping right there, those three things are givens. No real insight there. But perhaps a fourth lesson from Smoltz’s return can be learned, and it is one that I haven’t paid a whole lot of attention to in the past.
Pitching in the American League is more difficult than pitching in the National League, and the difference is substantial.
When I compare players, whether they pitched in the National League or in the American League really isn’t something I pay a whole lot of attention to, but I am beginning to think it should be. We all know that, since 1973 American League pitchers have had to face one additional legitimate major league hitter each go around, but it wouldn’t seem to make that big of a difference, would it?
Based purely on the list of pitchers whose numbers were significantly better pitching in the National League than in the American League, the answer is an unqualified yes. The list of pitchers for whom this is true is so extensive that the evidence, though circumstantial and anecdotal, is overwhelming.
Exceptions to the Rule?
There are, of course, some pitchers who performed better in the American League than they did in the National League, but that list truly falls into the “exceptions to any rule” departmentt. With one notable exception that I will save for now – the same way you save the best looking bite of steak and mashed potatoes for the end to ensure yourself a delicious last bite - the guys who pitched better in the AL than in the NL are pretty much limited and easily explainable.
Without having reviewed every pitcher to pitch in the majors since 1973, the most prominent members of the “better in the AL” group is composed of Jamie Moyer, Vida Blue, Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Paul Byrd, Eric Milton, Kevin Tapani, and Bret Saberhagen. And that ain’t a prominent group.
Jamie Moyer is one of the unique pitchers in baseball history, having pitched very poorly through the age of 30, then learning how to pitch and succeeding from then on. He spent the first ten years of his career lousing it up for the Cubs, Texas, and St. Louis, before pitching well for Baltimore and Seattle for fourteen years, most of which came in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. He has spent the last three years in a hitter-friendly NL park pitching past his prime and getting lit up.
Vida Blue was a phenomenon on the excellent Oakland team in the 1970s, and then moved to the National League with the Giants after his prime. His success was fleeting, and his dominance was over before he left Oakland.
Tim Hudson and Barry Zito also pitched for an excellent Oakland team and were breakout stars with the A’s as part of the Big Three with Mark Mulder. Each of them spent their best years in the AL and have struggled since leaving Oakland. In Zito’s case, he was already a different pitcher than the dominant version of himself before leaving Oakland.
Paul Byrd is similar to Jamie Moyer in that he spent several years early in his career as a lousy National League pitcher before learning to pitch and resurrecting his career.
Eric Milton was a lousy homerun pitcher in Minnesota, but when he came to the National League he joined up with two teams who play in homerun friendly parks, Philadelphia and Cincinnati. His lousiness was truly exploited in those environments.
If anyone actually did represent “an exception to the rule,” it would be Kevin Tapani who stands for the proposition that “any pitcher who spends his prime in an AL park and then spends his mid-to-late 30s in Wrigley Field is going to have a better ERA in the AL.” See also, Ken Holtzman.
Bret Saberhagen doesn’t even really belong in this group. First of all, his NL ERA is only 0.06 higher than his AL ERA (3.39 vs. 3.33). Second, he spent only four of 16 seasons in the NL, part of which came with the Rockies – if not for the 30 earned runs he gave up in 43.0 innings in Colorado, his NL ERA tops his AL ERA, 3.15 vs. 3.33. And third, even though he was so amazing with Kansas City, even his success was inconsistent, which is just further evidence of how hard it is to be great in the AL. In eight seasons with the Royals, his ERA never increased or decreased in consecutive seasons.
There are other potential explanations for this trend.
First, it is notable that many of the pitchers on the attached list have pitched for the Yankees in the past ten years – guys like Esteban Loaiza, Kevin Brown, Randy Johnson, Jaret Wright, Jeff Weaver, Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte, C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett. The Yankees have been comically ineffective when it comes to defense for the past ten years or so, and that combined with their insistence on acquiring every free agent pitcher in baseball after any semblance of success elsewhere makes them especially prone to poor pitching performances.
Second, it is also notable that Fenway Park is in the American League, and the Red Sox have also been players in the free agent market for the last twenty years or so. Fenway is a notoriously bad place to pitch, and even good pitchers are going to be better away from Fenway – Josh Beckett, Clemens, Bronson Arroyo.
Third, five of the most pitcher-friendly parks of the last 15 years, Pac Bell Park, Turner Field, Dodger Stadium, Shea Stadium, and Dolphin Stadium, are in the National League, as is today’s most pitcher friendly stadium, Petco Park, while the American League is laden with pitcher traps, including Fenway, the Ballpark in Arlington, and the Metrodome.
These factors, while relevant, don’t explain away he importance of having a ninth hitter in the lineup. At best, these factors contribute to the disparity between the leagues. Plus, they aren’t really supportable even on their face.
First of all, while the list of unsuccessful Yankees pitchers is impressive, Yankees are not the only players on the list.
Second of all, while Fenway and the Ballpark in Arlington hurt pitchers, the AL is also home to several pitcher-friendly parks, namely Anaheim Stadium, Safeco Field, Comerica Park, and the Oakland Alameda Coliseum. And as bad as Fenway and the Ballpark are, they don’t really compare to Wrigley Field and Coors Field, where pitching effective for a sustained period of time has been virtually proven impossible, to say nothing Chase Field in Arizona.
So, what do we learn from all of this?
Several things, actually:
1. We may be overvaluing the Big Three Braves pitchers
The names that immediately come to mind are Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. These are guys who enjoyed their best seasons dominating the National League during the expansion era. Would they have been as successful in the American League? Hard to say. But these guys spent their entire careers in the NL only, while their contemporaries who bounced between leagues could not match their NL success in the AL
2. We may also be overvaluing other players who succeeded only in the NL
Kevin Brown could only dominate in the National League while with the Padres, Marlins, and Dodgers, and was merely above average with the Rangers (we’ll ignore his time with the Yankees). Curt Schilling was excellent with the Phillies and dominant with the Diamondbacks, but watched his ERA balloon up in Boston. Dennis Martinez wasn’t even worth talking about until he went to Montreal. Put Chris Carpenter, Chris Young, Jake Peavy, Roy Oswalt or Brandon Webb in the American League and show me how good they are.
3. We are undervaluing a generation of pitchers
The list of undervalued American League pitchers is extensive. Dave Stieb, Mark Langston, Ron Guidry, Jack Morris, Jimmy Key, Dave Cone, Kevin Appier, Aaron Sele, Chuck Finley, Bartolo Colon, Mark Buehrle, David Wells, and Dave Stewart all come to mind, though in Stewart’s case the fact that his career was resurrected only after joining the A’s and Dave Duncan may be a wash. It would have been neat to see Bret Saberhagen pitch for the Mets during his prime years, or to see Ron Guidry spend the 1980s in the National League. Gosh, I hate to say it, but what if Andy Pettitte spent this last decade pitching for the Braves, Dodgers or Cardinals?
4. We are significantly undervaluing a handful of pitchers
In retrospect, the careers of Roy Halladay and Johan Santana have been nothing short of phenomenal. Both Halladay and Santana have done in the American League what guys like Randy Johnson, Kevin Brown, and Curt Schilling never managed to do there.
5. Roger Clemens
This is a down time for the reputation of Roger Clemens, so perhaps this analysis can pump some life back into what was once arguably the greatest pitching career of all time. From the age of 41-43, Clemens gave us a taste of what could have been if he’d spent a career in the National League, and it was elite. Can you imagine Clemens in his prime in the National League, pitching against the same opponents that the likes of Dwight Gooden, Fernando Valenzuela, Mike Scott, Scott Garrelts, Greg Maddux, Randy Johnson, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine were dominating? Not enough has been said about who Roger Clemens would have been if he’d been pitching for the Dodgers or the Mets or the Braves instead of the Red Sox and the Yankees. True, his ERA+ takes that into account by adjusting for ballpark and for league, but what about the ten seasons with 17 or more wins? Or the six ERA crowns? Or the six seasons leading the league in shutouts? How dominant a pitcher does he become in the National League?
6. Pedro Martinez
Questions? Concerns? Comments? Asher lives in Philadelphia, PA, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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