With Brad Penny’s outstanding performance Wednesday night for the San Francisco Giants, questions have yet again risen this season about the competition level in the National League.
Penny, through 24 starts with the Boston Red Sox compiled a 7-8 record with a 5.61 ERA. Batters had hit .299 on the former Dodgers ace, and at the end of his tenure he was struggling to pitch out of the sixth inning.
This of course shocked most of the sports-viewing world last night when Penny went 8 strong innings last night against the defending World Champion Philadelphia Phillies. The righty allowed five hits, no runs, and only one walk.
Could it be that an American League team’s trash really is a National League team’s treasure?
This of course is the second instance this season alone where a Red Sox starting pitcher was cut from Bean Town only to resurface in the National League as a game-changing contributor.
On August 6th future hall-of-famer John Smotlz got tattooed by the New York Yankees for eight earned in only 3.1 innings. The next day he was cut. Seventeen days after being released, Smoltz resurfaced in San Diego, this time with a Cardinals jersey on his back. He looked like a new man, or at least the same man that once dominated the National League for 20 years before his 2009 experiment with the Red Sox.
Smoltz struck out nine batters in five shutout innings for his new club, setting a St. Louis franchise record by recording seven consecutive strikeouts. In his next start against the Washington Nationals he appeared equally as nasty as the start before. The righty struck out six and allowed only four hits and one earned run through six innings.
This apparent phenomenon of mediocrity in the American League turned stardom in the National League isn’t limited to the mound either.
On July 24th the Cardinals made another move, attaining outfielder Matt Holliday from the Oakland Athletics. From 2006-2008 Holliday was perennially one of the top hitters in the National League. Playing for the Rockies in that time period, Holliday averaged a .329 batting average with 32 homers a year. The left-fielder was shipped to Oakland this offseason and through 93 games in the Bay Area he hit a disappointing .286/.378/.454 with 11 homers and 54 RBI in 93 games. Since being traded back to the National League he has hit .375/.437/.691 with nine homers and 36 RBI in only 36 games.
Could it be that the American League is just that much more difficult than the National League? And if in fact it were true the implications of this fact would be astounding.
Would Albert Pujols still be the best player in baseball if he were in the American League? What about Hanley Ramirez? Apart from steroids, would Barry Bonds home run records be even more tainted? Are the Nationals THAT much worse than we thought because they play in the inferior league?
I don’t believe any of the above are true, nor could I imagine that the American League is anywhere near as superior as some give it credit. Consider these before you jump to that conclusion yourself.
The three aforementioned former All-Star’s all played their entire careers in the National League before moving to the American League in 2009. The amount of time players, especially players at the top of the league, put into scouting and video preparation can’t be understated.
There is no question that after 20 years John Smoltz has a pretty good grasp on how to approach hitters in his prospective league. He has spent countless hours studying all the best, and even the worst hitters in the National League. Not only has he studied the hitters, Smoltz has gone tow to tow with the hitters, and learned something about how to face them each and every time they have taken the plate.
Clearly neither him, Penny, nor Holliday could pick up this experience immediately in a whole new league. Hitters usually take one full year to adapt to a new league, while pitchers can often take a year and a half to two.
In Colorado, Holliday was hitting in arguably the best hitters park ever. He was batting in a line up stocked with great talent, including one of the best hitters of the decade, Todd Helton.
In Oakland, Holliday moved to a pitchers park that not only made it hard to hit for power, but hard to hit at all as the cavernous foul territory turned many potential foul balls into outs. Holliday also was the only threat in a weak, last place line up. Moving to St. Louis, Holliday had the benefit of hitting in a neutral park, but more importantly he hit in front of the great Albert Pujols. It’s no coincidence that he has almost surpassed his Oakland numbers in only 36 games in his new situation.
Smoltz joined the Red Sox mid-season after recovering from surgery on his torn labrum in the offseason. Even for a veteran, it is hard to join a team in the middle of the season, especially when one is in a pennant race. While Smotlz’s stuff was still there, he was clearly not yet comfortable on the mound. He simply wasn’t put in a position to succeed. In St. Louis he has been put in a situation where he is pitching against players he has faced in the past, and now he is finally comfortable being on the mound again. Clearly it shows.
Penny had spent most of his successful career on the west coast pitching for the Dodgers. As Manny Ramirez will tell you, they’re very very different places. While both clubs compete for the division title every year, it’s clear Boston fans are far more in your face and far more involved. The pressure between pitching in the two cities is not even close. Boston demands success immediately, where Dodgers fans don’t even get to the ball park until the 4rth inning.
These answers are much more logical than the assumption that the American League is simply better than the National League. While so far this year National League team’s have lucked out finding gems in discarded American League talent, it has little to do with the difference in competition level.