MLB

Does the AL or NL Have the Stronger World Series Contenders?

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistSeptember 19, 2013

As the National League has developed more potent starting pitching over the last few years, the one-time gulf that separated it from the American League looks more like a valley for the first time in at least a decade. 

But when it comes to World Series contenders, which league is stronger?

Examining all 30 teams, I don't think many people would argue for the NL being the more dominant league. Even with the Astros moving to the junior circuit, the AL still sports a 151-141 mark against the senior circuit in 2013. 

That mark encompasses everything. Since only 10 teams (five in each league) will be competing for a World Series, it doesn't make sense to just say the AL is better without a proper examination, because that might not be the case. 

So here is our breakdown in a series of categories that will provide a clearer picture of which league boasts the deeper field of title contenders. 

(Note: We are only looking at contending teams in the playoffs or teams less than one game away from a playoff spot.)

 

Strength of Schedule

What immediately jumps out about the strength of schedule is the Boston and Tampa Bay slot. We know that the American League East is the deepest division in baseball, so it would make sense that the two playoff teams from there be at or near the top in this category. 

Yet here we see that the Red Sox and Rays are closer to the bottom. Some of that can be attributed to the fact that their individual records won't factor into a strength of schedule rating, thereby depriving them of 92 and 83 wins, respectively. 

But it also speaks to the level of parity in baseball right now. If I would have told you that the Indians had a harder overall strength of schedule than the AL East teams and were just one-half game behind the Rangers in the wild-card race, you would have laughed in my face. 

The interleague series that teams played also have to be factored in. Since the AL and NL played year round, it increased or decreased the strength of schedule depending on the division you were scheduled against. 

For instance, Texas, the top team on the list, plays in the AL West directly against one of the best teams in baseball (Oakland) and the National League Central with three playoff teams at the top. 

Even with the Cubs and Brewers at the bottom of the Central, it is hard to completely even out a division with three teams more than 20 games over .500. 

While not a perfect way to examine how well a good team has played, it does provide an overall perspective of what teams have gone up against since the start of the year, and not just in games that will garner all the attention. 

 

Record vs. Winning Teams

Now we get into the nitty gritty. When teams get into the postseason, those cupcakes like the Astros, White Sox, Twins and Cubs aren't around for them to pad a win total. October is when teams have to be on top of their games in order to win a World Series. 

Unlike the strength of schedule, which likely left a lot more questions than answers, the order of this particular list makes a lot more sense based on what we expect to happen when the postseason starts. 

The top four teams, and five of the first six, are all division leaders. Given that the Red Sox have the best record in baseball, it should not be a surprise that they have the second-best record against playoff contenders. 

I want to talk about the bottom of the list because it also fascinates me. The Indians having the worst record against winning teams and potential playoff teams seems to fall in line with what we expected from them this year considering their level of talent. 

But what you may not realize is the only reason Cleveland is contending right now is because of the Chicago White Sox. The Indians are currently 12 games over .500—but if you took the White Sox off the schedule, they would be one game under .500. 

With two games still to play against Chicago, the Tribe has put up a 15-2 record and outscored the White Sox 106-51. They are 10-26 against division leaders. 

The other team at the bottom of the standings, Tampa Bay, is also a surprise—but in a completely different way. If you look at the records of the best teams the Rays have played (Red Sox and Dodgers) they are 7-15. Against everyone else over .500, they are a respectable 33-33 and 13-11 versus potential playoff teams. 

A lot of things can play into that, like we see with the Indians, where you can just dominate a single opponent (or vice versa) and the starting pitchers on a given day. The player on the mound in Game 2 of a playoff series won't always be the same as the player starting in a mid-June game. 

So while there is certainly some value in looking at how teams fared against direct playoff competition, it doesn't tell you anything definitive about who will go to the World Series. 

 

The Stats

Finally, we get into the numbers. There are literally hundreds of stats to be examined in baseball—they can make your head spin. So we are going to keep things relatively simple here by looking at a split of offensive, pitching and defensive numbers. 

This is also where I think we start to see the separation between the two leagues. Not to take away from what the NL teams have put together (because do you really want to face Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke in a short series?), but when you start to see the production from teams like the Red Sox, Tigers, Athletics and Rays, it's obvious that they are doing more than any team in the NL. 

It should be easier to rack up strikeouts in the NL because you have the pitcher hitting, yet three of the top four strikeout teams in baseball reside in the AL with the Rays and Rangers tied for fifth. 

Offense is always going to be better in the AL because of the DH, so having five AL teams that rank top 10 in runs scored isn't a shock. 

One NL lineup that can compete with any AL team without question is St. Louis. The Cardinals get talked about constantly—to the point where some might be sick of them—but every word that gets uttered is more than deserved because they have figured out how to bring AL hitting depth to the NL. 

What's so unique about the Cardinals is they aren't a big power team. They have some power hitters, like Matt Holliday and Carlos Beltran, but their biggest strength is being loaded with high-contact hitters who can hit a lot of doubles, like Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina. 

It also helps that the Cardinals own one of the deepest pitching staffs and a solid defense (though the overall defensive runs saved numbers don't support that this year). 

The other NL teams have one fatal flaw that can destroy them in October. Even the Dodgers, with all their money spent, have had issues scoring runs—though that was more in the first half than at any point during this incredible second-half push. 

 

Conclusion

The bottom of the AL playoff barrel (Cleveland, specifically) can even a lot of things out between the leagues. But going over the numbers and overall quality of talent, it is still difficult to say the NL looks as good or better. 

I can make a case that the Cardinals are the best team overall. But since this is an examination of overall depth, the AL still comes out on top when you get into the meat of playoff teams. 

Of course, that's part of the beauty of October. We can go over numbers and rosters, but still have no idea what's going to happen once the games start. 

 

If you want to talk baseball, feel free to hit me up on Twitter with questions or comments. 

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