Does Recent History Prove Top NL Pitchers Cannot Successfully Move to AL?
As soon as Ryan Dempster was traded to the Texas Rangers last week, the questions began.
How would a career National League pitcher fare in the American League with its stronger lineups and designated hitters? For that matter, how would Dempster handle pitching at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, one of the best hitters ballparks in the majors, according to park factors?
Dempster did nothing to quiet those concerns in his first start for the Rangers on Aug. 2. Facing the Los Angeles, an AL West division rival, he allowed eight runs and nine hits in less than five innings. Dempster also served up two home runs in his new home launching pad.
The next night, Anibal Sanchez made his AL debut for the Detroit Tigers. Unfortunately for him, it came against the Toronto Blue Jays, one of the highest-scoring lineups in baseball. The Blue Jays welcomed Sanchez to the AL with five runs and eight hits—three of them home runs—in six innings of work.
Didn't the Rangers and Tigers get the memo on NL pitchers transitioning to the AL? It doesn't go well.
But is this really true or simply a perception that's grown over time into an assumption? Do National League pitchers get crushed when they come over to the American League? Does it happen to every one of them or have a few found success?
Let's take a look at some recent cases and see if we can draw any conclusions.
Jason Hammel, Baltimore Orioles
National League pitchers get shelled when they move to the American League? Someone forgot to tell Jason Hammel. Here's one pitcher who definitely dispels that theory.
Getting traded from the Colorado Rockies to the Baltimore Orioles has been the best thing that's ever happened to Hammel's career.
Hammel didn't just move to the AL either. He moved to the AL East, home of the strongest lineups in baseball. Yankees! Red Sox! Blue Jays! Even Hammel's Orioles are a tough draw for an opposing pitcher.
Sure, Hammel got away from Coors Field, which would help any pitcher. But Camden Yards isn't exactly a sanctuary for pitchers. It's one of the least pitcher-friendly ballparks in the big leagues, according to park factors.
Yet Hammel's ERA has gone down by more than a run, from 4.76 to 3.54. He's allowing fewer hits (9.2 to 8.0) per nine innings and his strikeout rate (5.0 to 8.7 per nine) has gone way up. Reducing his fly ball rate (35 percent to 29 percent) surely hasn't hurt.
Hiroki Kuroda, New York Yankees
Going from Dodger Stadium to Yankee Stadium didn't look like a promising career move for Hiroki Kuroda. The Dodgers' home ballpark is in the upper-third of baseball's pitcher-friendly ballparks. Yet despite its reputation as a bandbox, as shown by park factors, Yankee Stadium plays fairly neutral.
Still, Kuroda's previous reluctance to waive his no-trade clause to an AL team like the Yankees, Red Sox or Rangers seemed to be an indication that he believed what the rest of us believed. He might get pounded by AL hitters.
But in his first season with the Yankees since signing with them as a free agent, Kuroda has been the team's second-best starting pitcher. In fact, if you look at his numbers, Kuroda has been remarkably consistent. He's the same pitcher with the Yankees that he was with the Dodgers.
However, one part of his game that's changed since last season is his ground-ball rate. Fifty percent of Kuroda's batted balls are on the ground, as opposed to 30 percent in the air. But that's not unprecedented for Kuroda. He's been that kind of pitcher for most of his career.
Mark Melancon, Boston Red Sox
Here's what we're talking about.
Mark Melancon put up good numbers with the Houston Astros last season, looking like a capable major league closer. He saved 20 games and compiled an ERA of 2.78 in 71 appearances.
The Boston Red Sox needed bullpen help after deciding to move Daniel Bard to the starting rotation, and Melancon looked like a possible closer. Though it looked more likely that he would be a setup reliever as the Red Sox wanted to get a top-tier closer. They got one, except Andrew Bailey was eventually knocked out with a thumb injury.
That put Melancon in the closer's role, which was absolutely disastrous. After his first four appearances of the season, Melancon's ERA was 49.50 and he was sent to the minors. Since returning the majors in mid-June, Melancon has been better (how could he be worse?) but is still prone to the four-run meltdown on occasion.
Please get Melancon back to the NL next season. Preferably the San Diego Padres, where he can pitch at Petco Park.
Roy Oswalt, Texas Rangers
To be fair, pitching in the AL for the first time in his 12-year career might be too simple an explanation for what troubles Roy Oswalt this season.
At 34 years old, he doesn't appear to be the pitcher he once was. Not starting his season until late June probably set him back as well. Oswalt didn't go through a regular offseason workout program or spring training while he decided whether or not he wanted to play, and that surely threw off his routine.
Regardless, the other AL teams that were reportedly interested in Oswalt—the Red Sox and Tigers—have to be wiping sweat off their brows and sighing with relief. Better to see the Texas Rangers be the test subject for Oswalt's AL debut.
Oswalt was demoted to the bullpen after getting pounded for eight runs and 11 hits by the Angels on July 30. He's made two relief appearances since then, which is apparently all he cares to make.
On Sunday (Aug. 5), Oswalt pitched two scoreless innings of relief then told Rangers manager Ron Washington he couldn't go anymore. Maybe pitching twice in four days wore him out. Oswalt is used to pitching every five days as a starter.
But as the Dallas Morning News' Evan Grant reported, the suspicion is that Oswalt is unhappy with being in the bullpen and wants out. Maybe Oswalt wants to get back to the NL, preferably the St. Louis Cardinals, with whom he almost signed back in January.
Mike Adams, Texas Rangers
Mike Adams hasn't had a bad transition from the NL to the AL, certainly not as bad as Roy Oswalt's. He's still one of the better setup men in baseball, but he isn't the lights-out reliever he was with the San Diego Padres.
Last season, Adams' ERA went up almost a full run (1.13 to 2.10) in going from the Padres to the Texas Rangers. This season, his 3.06 ERA is the highest it's been in seven seasons.
Of course, Petco Park is a pitcher's sanctuary. A pitcher is unlikely to leave San Diego and pitch better elsewhere. But Adams' strikeout rate shouldn't be affected by moving from Petco Park to Rangers Ballpark in Arlington.
Yet he's striking out two fewer batters per nine innings (10.0 to 8.0) since making the move. His rate of 7.4 Ks per nine this season is the lowest of his career. Opposing batters are hitting .257 against Adams, his highest in six seasons. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .318 is also the highest it's been in seven years.
Has facing AL hitters made that much of a difference? The numbers seem to say so.
Max Scherzer, Detroit Tigers
Max Scherzer was a still-developing 25-year-old when traded from the Arizona Diamondbacks to the Detroit Tigers. He had only pitched one full major league season. So it may not be completely fair to look at his statistics and say he was affected by moving to the AL.
As it stands, pitching in the AL doesn't appear to have hurt Scherzer's game. In 2010, his first season with the Tigers, Scherzer's ERA went from 4.12 to 3.50 despite pitching 25 more innings. His hits and home runs per nine innings also decreased.
The next season, Scherzer had a slight dip in strikeouts, going from 184 to 174. His Ks per nine innings dropped slightly from 8.5 to 8.0. His opponents batting average went from .244 to .272, while his BABIP increased from .297 to .314.
But what are we then to make of Scherzer's performance this season? As of Aug. 6, Scherzer leads the American League with 160 strikeouts and 11.3 Ks per nine innings. Yet opposing batters are hitting .270 against him, and his BABIP is .353, the highest mark of his career.
Scherzer is almost literally a hit-or-miss pitcher.
Moving from Chase Field to Comerica Park has surely been a benefit for a fly ball pitcher like Scherzer. Yet his home run rate has steadily increased (from 0.9 to 1.4 per nine innings). Perhaps that's where the explanation ultimately lies with him.
Jose Valverde, Detroit Tigers
With seven seasons in the NL prior to signing with the Tigers as a free agent, Jose Valverde would seem to be a good test case for the NL-to-AL transition.
Yet Valverde has had three successful—or relatively successful, including this year—seasons in the AL. In three years with the Tigers, his ERA is 2.97 compared to a 3.17 mark in the NL. (He's pitched twice as many games in the NL, however.)
One notable difference in Valverde's game since joining the Tigers is that his strikeout rate has decreased (from 9.3 to 6.8 per nine innings) while his walk rate has gone up. In his first AL season, Valverde's walks per nine went from 3.5 to 4.6. He's decreased that slightly, posting a 4.1 rate this year.
Valverde's hits and home run rates have also gone down while he's been with the Tigers. In addition, his opponents batting average and BABIP numbers have decreased. That could be explained in part by pitching in Comerica Park as opposed to Chase Field.
But in between, Valverde pitched two seasons in Minute Maid Park. Despite its reputation, the Astros' home ballpark plays relatively neutral, according to park factors.
Valverde has pitched rather consistently during his 10-year big league career. While parts of his game may have suffered in the AL compared to the NL, he's improved in other areas. So has the move really made any sort of difference for him?
Francisco Cordero, Houston Astros
At first glance, Francisco Cordero appears to be a pitcher that was victimized in going from the NL to the AL.
In 2011, his last season with the Cincinnati Reds, Cordero compiled a 2.45 ERA—one of the lowest of his career—and 37 saves in 68 appearances. But in 41 games with the Toronto Blue Jays this season, Cordero was lit up. Pitching in AL East competition obviously didn't suit him.
Cordero posted a 5.77 ERA with his hits per nine innings soaring from 6.3 to 12.6. His opponents' batting average went from .198 to .340, and his BABIP increased from .214 to .394. And this happened despite Cordero leaving Great American Ball Park, one of the most hitter-friendly stadiums in the majors.
Yet his home run and walk rates each went down, while his strikeout rate increased. (You can view his statistics here.)
So going back to the NL when Cordero was traded to the Astros would surely revitalize his game, right? Well, not so much. We only have six games to go on, but Cordero has allowed 11 runs and 13 hits in five innings thus far.
This might really be a case where Cordero is done at the age of 37, with 14 seasons and more than 800 innings on his resume.
Javier Vazquez, Florida Marlins
Javier Vazquez hasn't pitched this season, deciding to retire after finishing 2011 with the then-Florida Marlins. But he's often held up as a prototypical example of a pitcher who had success in the NL but struggled in the AL.
In his prime with the Montreal Expos from 2001-03, Vazquez had a 3.52 ERA with a strikeout rate of 8.3 per nine innings. One red flag for any AL team interested in acquiring him, however, should have been the number of hits he was allowing.
Vazquez was giving up 8.4 hits per nine innings. In 2002, he led the NL in hits allowed with 243. The Yankees surely considered that when trading for him, but the chance to add a 27-year-old starter with a track record of success was too tempting to turn down.
In 2004, Vazquez made 32 starts for the Yankees, more than anyone else in their rotation. But a 14-10 record and 4.91 ERA wasn't the ace-type of performance expected from him. However, Vazquez was enough of a trade chip when the Yankees decided to upgrade with Randy Johnson.
Vazquez returned to the AL for three seasons with the Chicago White Sox from 2006-08, compiling a 38-36 record and 4.40 ERA. But as with the Yankees, he never became a top two or three pitcher in the White Sox rotation.
In his one season with the Atlanta Braves, Vazquez confirmed the NL was better suited for him. In 32 starts, he finished with a 15-10 record and 2.87 ERA. He struck out 238 batters in 219.1 innings (9.8 per nine) and a walk rate of 1.8 per nine, the best marks of his career.
As a reward for that performance, Vazquez was traded back to the Yankees where he went 10-10 with a 5.32 ERA. His hits, home runs and walks per nine innings all went up, while his strikeout rate decreased.
After a successful season with a 13-11 record and 3.69 ERA, Vazquez retired. Maybe he was worried the Marlins would trade him back to the AL.
Brad Penny, San Francisco Giants
The past five years of Brad Penny's career provide another example of a pitcher who's had success in the NL but couldn't pitch at the same level in the AL.
In 2008, Penny struggled with a shoulder injury and was limited to only 17 starts with the Los Angeles Dodgers, during which he compiled a 6.27 ERA. Going from the pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium to Fenway Park, one of the top hitters ballparks in the majors, just wasn't going to work out well.
Yet the Boston Red Sox signed Penny, ignoring what should have been obvious. Penny was awful in Boston, racking up a 5.61 ERA in 24 starts with 160 hits allowed in 131.2 innings. The Red Sox released him before he could cause even further damage.
Penny then signed with the San Francisco Giants—who play in AT&T Park, the best pitchers' ballpark in the majors—and to no surprise, he turned himself around drastically. Penny pitched in only six games but compiled a 2.59 ERA and allowed 31 hits in 41.2 innings.
The next season, Penny signed with the St. Louis Cardinals, where pitching coach Dave Duncan overhauled him into a ground-ball pitcher. Before succumbing to an oblique injury, Penny had a ground-ball rate of 53 percent, easily the highest of his career. Despite allowing 63 hits in 55.2 innings, his ERA was 3.23.
Giving up that many hits didn't translate well to the AL, however. Penny signed with the Tigers as an innings-eating fifth starter but allowed 222 hits in 181.1 innings. He finished with a 10-10 record and 5.30 ERA. As expected, he was not re-signed by the Tigers.
Penny decided to give Japanese baseball a try when no major league team showed much interest. But that excursion was finished before it even started and Penny returned to the majors. Smartly, he went back to the NL, signing again with the Giants.
But after 12 games as a reliever, Penny has a 5.40 ERA, so maybe it no longer matters which league he pitches in. Still, if he's going to make it anywhere, it will be in San Francisco.
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