It hasn’t happened since 1974, a year in which Yogi Berra was the Mets’ manager, George Steinbrenner was in his first full year as the Yankees’ owner and Bartolo Colon had his first birthday.
It was the last year in which National League teams averaged more runs than their American League counterparts.
That’s why it was eye-opening to those who keep their eyes on such things that the NL opened a big lead over the AL in runs per game in the early part of this season.
The NL, remember, is the league that does not use the designated hitter except in interleague games in AL parks. The lack of a DH has kept the Senior Circuit behind its junior counterpart in runs per game in every season since 1974, which was the second year the AL used the DH. NL teams averaged 4.15 runs in 1974, the AL 4.10.
This April, NL teams averaged 4.49 runs and AL teams were at 3.96. The gap has closed considerably in May; the NL’s lead had narrowed to 4.34-4.30 going into Friday’s games and might be gone entirely by the time you read this.
But why did it happen in the first place? It can’t all be because of Colon’s first career home run May 7 in San Diego or the pair of homers Noah Syndergaard hit at Dodger Stadium four nights later.
As a group, NL pitchers still stink as hitters. They went into Friday batting a collective .140 with seven homers in 1,151 at-bats. But AL designated hitters were batting only .237 with 97 homers in 2,107 at-bats. Five AL teams had their DHs — players who are in the lineup only to hit the ball — batting under .200.
That could be one reason why the AL had only one team in the top five in runs per game: Boston, which was first at 5.85. The next four were the Cubs (5.67), Cardinals (5.56), Rockies (5.05) and Pirates (5.00).
Zachary D. Rymer, MLB lead writer for the website Bleacher Report, wrote about the NL’s surprising early-season mashing on May 4 in an article entitled “What Is Behind NL’s Offensive Leap in 2016’s First Month?”
We asked Rymer to update his analysis this week as the AL closed the gap.
“I do still think there’s a possibility of the NL outscoring the AL in the long run,” Rymer wrote. “The lineup creativity (i.e. more pitchers batting eighth and unusual suspects in the No. 2 hole) that’s become popular among NL managers will help, but what really counts are two much bigger advantages.
“One is the number of bad teams for NL hitters to feast on . . . Whereas the AL is relatively short on punching bags, the NL has plenty of ’em.
“The NL’s other big advantage is its sheer wealth of young hitting talent. The NL is still getting more play and better production out of 25-and-under hitters than the AL is, and it’s not a fluke.”
We also asked Sam Miller, the editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, if he had any thoughts on why this was happening.
“I don’t think it is happening,” he wrote Tuesday. “April was an oddity, but in May the AL has outscored the NL, 4.83 runs per game (and .755 OPS) to 4.19 runs per game (and .710 OPS). Which is more or less exactly normal.
“Ben Lindbergh and I do a podcast episode every year midway through April where we look at strange leaguewide trends early in the season — home runs way up, or wild pitches way down, or whatever — and we often find seemingly large shifts that turn out (in time) to be small-sample flukes signifying nothing. It’s hard to think of hundreds of games as a small sample, but it really can be. So I think this weird blip happened, in April, but it’s not anymore — and barring any real mechanism by which the NL would suddenly, and with no other changes, start outscoring the AL, the simplest answer is just that it was random fluctuation.’’
Oh, well. But wasn’t it fun while it lasted?