MLB All-Star Game Preview: AL Vs. NL
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By: Zach Finkelstein
Don’t let anyone fool you: Home-field advantage in baseball does matter.
Baseball players are human. Just like you, they work better in familiar environments. As most fans know, the All-Star Game has determined home-field advantage in the World Series since 2003. In those nine years, the league that won the Midsummer Classic also went on to triumph in two-thirds of the Fall Classics.
So in a season with two extra playoff teams and a great deal of parity, virtually every franchise has hope heading into the season’s second half. That’s why you should care about Tuesday’s Midsummer Classic. The game could affect your team. And we all care about things that affect us, right? So, which league has the edge? Let’s take a look.
AL Catchers: Mike Napoli, TEX; Matt Wieters, BAL; Joe Mauer, MIN.
NL Catchers: Buster Posey, SF; Yadier Molina, STL; Carlos Ruiz, PHI.
The Phillies’ Ruiz might be the best backstop at the All-Star Game, and he isn’t even starting. The AL is not bringing its three top catchers, having selected Mauer over the more productive A.J. Pierzynski. The NL also has the best defensive catcher (Molina) while the AL will be starting a subpar defender in Napoli. The 2012 season has been the year of the pitcher, which makes defense matter that much more: NL 1, AL 0.
AL First Baseman: Prince Fielder, DET; Paul Konerko, CHW.
NL First Baseman: Joey Votto, CIN; Bryan LaHair, CHC.
If the season ended today, Votto could be your NL MVP. LaHair has been a nice story, but he has struggled of late. Tony La Russa, the NL’s All-Star skipper, will likely play Votto for much of the game. Konerko is hitting just .245 since June 1 with nine RBIs, so the AL doesn’t exactly have the best first-base depth, either. Here’s thinking Votto makes a big difference in the game’s outcome, his balky knee notwithstanding: NL 2, AL 0.
AL Second Baseman : Robinson Cano, NYY; Ian Kinsler, TEX.
NL Second Baseman : Dan Uggla, ATL; Jose Altuve, HOU.
Don’t cha know that Cano has been virtually unstoppable since June 1? The Yanks’ keystone man has triple-slashed .349/.417/.690 in that span. Conversely, Uggla is batting a paltry .140/.303/.290 since the start of June, and many have questioned his credentials to start the game: NL 2, AL 1.
AL Third Baseman : Adrian Beltre, TEX; Miguel Cabrera, DET.
NL Third Baseman : Pablo Sandoval, SF; David Wright, NYM.
The Rangers’ Beltre (.328) and the Tigers’ Cabrera (.324) both have high batting averages and power. On the other hand, the NL’s top hot-corner man – David Wright – will be starting the game on the bench. Can San Francisco’s Sandoval (a solid .299/.349/.464 since coming off the DL on June 9) play with the big boys of the American League? Doubtful: NL 2, AL 2.
AL Shortstops: Derek Jeter, NYY; Elvis Andrus, TEX; Asdrubal Cabrera, CLE.
NL Shortstops : Rafael Furcal, STL; Starlin Castro, CHC.
The NL lost a big piece when the Nationals’ Ian Desmond pulled out of the game with an abdominal strain, and the Senior Circuit’s remaining two shortstops have been sputtering. Furcal has been terrible since the start of June, hitting .190/.258/.226. Castro is also in a funk (.207/.258/.310 in July).
The Yankees’ Jeter, conversely, heads into his 13th All-Star Game with a great deal of momentum. A 13-time All-Star, Jeter has shaken off a rough June (.232 average) with a .378 clip so far this month. Strong July starts have escaped Andrus (.160) and Cabrera (.222), however. Anything can happen in one game, but the shortstop position appears unlikely to make a major positive impact in this year’s Midsummer Classic. Jeter is an All-Star Game MVP, so let’s give the nod to the Junior Circuit: AL 3, NL 2.
AL Outfielders: Josh Hamilton, TEX; Curtis Granderson, NYY; Jose Bautista, TOR; Adam Jones, BAL; Mike Trout, LAA, Mark Trumbo, LAA.
NL Outfielders: Melky Cabrera, SF; Carlos Beltran, STL; Jay Bruce, CIN; Ryan Braun, MIL; Carlos Gonzalez, COL; Andrew McCutchen, PIT; Matt Holliday, STL; Michael Bourn, ATL; Bryce Harper, WSH.
The NL’s squad has been set back by outfield injuries. The Dodgers’ Matt Kemp was elected to start, but spent a big chunk of the first half on the disabled list. Additionally, Miami’s Giancarlo Stanton will miss the game — and the next 4-6 weeks — because of midseason knee surgery. The NL’s remaining players are no slouches, however. Pittsburgh’s McCutchen has had a first half to remember, batting an incredible .359/.411/.605 with 14 stolen bases. Bryce Harper, the youngest position player to ever make an All-Star team, will be one of the exhibition’s most-exciting stars – he always plays the game at full speed. But before we give the nod to the NL’s outfield group, consider this: Since June 1, Bautista (15) and Trumbo (11) both rank in the top-5 in MLB’s homer department. And for whom do they play? The American League. In a game that may very well be decided by one swing of the bat, power potential is key: AL 4, NL 2.
AL Designated Hitters: David Ortiz, BOS; Billy Butler, KC; Adam Dunn, CHW.
NL Designated Hitters: TBD
DH is a tough category to discuss because the National League has its pitchers hit. In all likelihood, the Senior Circuit will fill this slot with a few outfielders. Neither team gets a point due to the uncertainty: AL 4, NL 2.
AL Starters: Yu Darvish, TEX; Matt Harrison, TEX; Felix Hernandez, SEA; David Price, TB; Chris Sale, CWS; Justin Verlander, DET; Jered Weaver, LAA; Jake Peavy, CWS (Injured: CC Sabathia, NYY; C.J. Wilson, LAA).
AL Relievers: Ryan Cook, OAK; Jim Johnson, BAL; Joe Nathan, TEX; Chris Perez, CLE; Fernando Rodney, TB.
NL Starters: Matt Cain, SF; R.A. Dickey, NYM; Gio Gonzalez, WAS; Cole Hamels, PHI; Clayton Kershaw, LAD; Lance Lynn, STL; Wade Miley, ARI; Stephen Strasburg, WAS.
NL Relievers: Aroldis Chapman, CIN; Joel Hanrahan, PIT; Craig Kimbrel, ATL; Jonathan Papelbon, PHI; Huston Street, SD.
There were five no-hitters – including two perfect games – during a first half described by many as the “Year of the Pitcher.” Two of the hurlers – Cain (perfect game vs. the Astros) and Weaver (no-hitter vs. the Twins) – will take the mound Tuesday. Cain also tossed a one-hitter, and the Mets’ Dickey threw two. The AL’s staff also has a one-hitter, from Verlander.
The game’s most unhittable pitcher, however, is the Nationals’ Strasburg. Washington’s flame-throwing phenom is fanning an MLB-best 11.64 hitters per nine innings and may end up starting for the Senior Circuit. Strasburg’s teammate Gonzalez (third in MLB, 10.45 K/9), the Mets’ Dickey (9.23 K/9, seventh), the Cardinals’ Lynn (9.17 K/9, ninth) and the Phillies’ Hamels (9.00, 12th) have also been tough for hitters to touch. And face it: Less can go wrong when hitters can’t put the bat on the ball. The AL’s staff has two starters with tough-to-hit stuff in Darvish (10.26 K/9, fourth) and Hernandez (9.47 K/9, sixth).
In terms of bullpen dominance, Oakland’s Cook – a rookie – has held opponents to an MLB-low .105 batting average (not a typo). The Braves’ Kimbrel (.116), the Reds’ Chapman (.125) and the Braves’ Kimbrel (.125) rank second through fourth on that list, however, giving the NL a plethora of dominant late-inning pitchers. All things considered, the NL’s staff is a bit better. Due to the importance of pitching, two points will be awarded for this category victory: NL 4, AL 4.
Sorry to disappoint those clamoring for a declared winner. Both leagues are extremely strong and evenly matched. But the final score is fitting, as seven of the past nine Midsummer Classics dating back to 2003 – since the game started to count — have been decided by one or two runs. This year should be no different.
Zachary Finkelstein is a contributing writer to CBS Local Digital Media and a graduate of Northeastern University.