The National League has come here to chew bubblegum and score runs. And it’s all out of bubblegum.

The first month of 2016 has indeed been a rowdy one for Senior Circuit offenses. As their American League counterparts have averaged just 3.96 runs per game, National League offenses are sitting pretty at 4.49 runs per game. That’s way up from last year’s average of 4.11, and it puts the NL on track for its best run-scoring season since 2008.

Because the National League still doesn’t have the designated hitter, this role reversal doesn’t have an obvious explanation. But it’s not happening by accident, and the stars are aligned in such a way that it could actually be an all-year thing rather than just a one-month thing.


The NL’s Perfect Run-Scoring Blitzkrieg

The National League isn’t getting more runs than the American League despite doing the same quality of work. With their .736 OPS, NL offenses are putting the AL’s .710 OPS to shame.

The best way to boost an OPS is to draw walks (BB%), put the ball in play (K%), find the holes in the defense (BABIP) and rack up extra-base hits (ISO). Lo and behold, the National League is beating the American League in each of these departments:

The NL’s advantage in batting average on balls in play is par for the course. Since pitching became all the rage back in 2010, the NL has posted a higher BABIP than the AL in every season except 2013.

But everything else is about as ordinary as a 100 mph drive off the bat of Bartolo Colon. This is the first time since 2010 that NL offenses have walked at a higher rate, struck out at a lower rate and hit for more power than AL clubs. When you do these things, you are inevitably going to score runs.

Of course, hitting with runners in scoring position also helps. The NL is absolutely killing the AL there, too:

  • NL w/ RISP: .759 OPS
  • AL w/ RISP: .696 OPS

The NL has therefore been better both at the roots and at being clutch, too. Ergo, a perfect storm.

This takes care of the how for the National League’s early offensive bonanza. As for the why, it must first be acknowledged that there’s a bit of Darwinism at play.


The NL Is Home to Some Bad Pitching and Defense

With the exception of the upstart Philadelphia Phillies, the National League is pretty much what everyone expected it to be: a league of haves and have-nots.

This leads us to’s David Schoenfield, who proposed the following for a cause of the NL’s offensive outburst: “That is understandable: There are a lot of bad teams with bad pitching in the NL.”

Sure enough, the numbers bear this out. The NL’s 4.18 ERA is higher than the AL’s 3.76 ERA, and the NL also rates worse than the AL in fielding independent pitching (4.01 to 3.94).

The latter helps explain where the NL’s walk and strikeout advantages on offense are coming from. Senior Circuit clubs own seven of the league’s 10 highest walk rates. And though both leagues’ pitchers own a 21.4 K%, nine of the league’s 15 lowest strikeout rates belong to NL clubs.

Those two lists mostly consist of NL teams you’d expect to see struggling to throw strikes and miss bats. The Cincinnati Reds, Milwaukee Brewers, Atlanta Braves, San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies are rebuilders with lousy pitching staffs. The Miami Marlins and Arizona Diamondbacks aren’t quite rebuilders, but their own staffs may be too top-heavy for them to fully escape pitching mediocrity.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t help that NL teams have also struggled to field the ball. According to Baseball Prospectus and FanGraphs, they’re rating worse than AL clubs in defensive efficiency, defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating:

Defensive efficiency is the most straightforward of these metrics, as it only measures the rate at which batted balls are converted into outs. And in this case, it helps explain the BABIP that NL offenses are enjoying while also drawing a believable picture of the league’s defensive landscape.

In the bottom half of MLB in defensive efficiency are the Braves, Marlins, Padres, Rockies and Brewers. Also down there are the Diamondbacks, who are missing stud center fielder A.J. Pollock, the San Francisco Giants, whose outfield defense is not good, and the New York Mets, whose lineup was not built to be a defensive powerhouse.

The bottom line is that the National League is not constructed as well as the American League for run prevention. That’s a good environment for hitters, and NL hitters obviously spend more time in it.

Still, the National League’s offensive surge isn’t all due to these circumstances. There’s also the reality that…


Different Strategies Are Paying Off

The National League can’t be accused of having much parity in 2016, but it also can’t be accused of being stuck in its ways. 

The biggest change involves teams slotting pitchers in the No. 8 spot rather than at the bottom of the order. As Schoenfield noted, NL pitchers have gone from logging 11.3 percent of their plate appearances in the No. 8 spot in 2015 to closer to 20 percent in 2016.

In a possibly related story, NL pitchers have a .351 OPS that’s on track to be their best since 2011. Giants pitchers have contributed to this with a .481 OPS that they’ve mostly accumulated out of the No. 8 spot, so it’s no wonder that Bruce Bochy is pleasantly surprised.

“Overall, I think it’s worked out a little better than I expected,” the Giants manager said, per John Shea of the San Francisco Chronicle. “There have been moments in the game where it’s come up and you say, ‘Well, we would have been better served with the pitcher batting ninth,’ which is going to happen. Overall, it’s gone well. If it hadn’t, I would switch.”

With more pitchers batting in the No. 8 spot, NL teams are giving more No. 9 at-bats to actual hitters. Not so coincidentally, the No. 9 spot in NL lineups is on track for its best OPS (.561) ever. That serves the higher purpose of giving hitters at the top of the order more chances to do damage, which is especially advantageous this year. The No. 1 and No. 2 spots in NL lineups are also undergoing renaissance seasons with OPS averages in the high .700s.

With the No. 2 spot in particular, that doesn’t look like a fluke. It’s traditionally been a spot for good situational hitters, but NL managers seem to be latching on to the more recent conventional wisdom that the No. 2 hole is a good place for good hitters, period. Among the top non-traditional No. 2 hitters in the NL are Andrew McCutchen, Trevor Story, David Wright, Eugenio Suarez, Stephen Piscotty and Wil Myers.

And as NL managers try out new habits, they continue to kill an old one. Over the last few years, the NL’s use of the sacrifice bunt has been going the way of the bullpen car: 

  • 2011: 0.44 per game
  • 2012: 0.40 per game
  • 2013: 0.38 per game
  • 2014: 0.36 per game
  • 2015: 0.31 per game
  • 2016: 0.29 per game

This is to say that National League offenses are pretty much done giving away outs. If nothing else, this and everything above may explain the league’s dominance with runners in scoring position.

There’s one last advantage that NL teams have over AL teams, and it might be the biggest.


The NL’s Young Hitters Have the Power

A few years after it welcomed Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado in 2012, the league welcomed a whole new crop of talented rookie hitters last season. As a result, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs pointed out that 2015 was the best year for hitters age 25 and younger in decades.

Rather than regress, they’ve only gotten better in 2016. This is in part because the OPS for 25-and-under hitters has risen from .717 to .737—a pretty substantial jump for one year.

And the National League is mainly responsible for it. It has not only gotten more production from its 25-and-under hitters than the American League, but better production, too:

The AL’s 25-and-under hitters may be hitting for a higher batting average, but the NL’s 25-and-under hitters have racked up a superior OPS in over 1,600 additional plate appearances.

And from a big-picture perspective, you can’t overlook their edge in isolated power. That advantage isn’t there when comparing the leagues’ 26-and-over hitters, as the AL (.153 ISO) has actually gotten more power out of them than the NL (.150 ISO). So without its young hitters, the NL wouldn’t have its overall power advantage.

Any surprise over this goes away as soon as you see the names responsible. Harper is still under 25, and fellow established stars Nolan Arenado, Kris Bryant, Michael Conforto, Randal Grichuk and Piscotty are all 25 or younger. And this year, rookie sensations Story and Aledmys Diaz have joined them.

Even if these guys regress—and it’s only fair to expect they will—the sheer quantity of them should help keep the National League ahead of the American League in the young-hitters arms race. Between that, weak competition and more optimized lineups, the NL’s run-scoring advantage looks legit.

So as jarring as it is, you should get used to the NL’s new offensive bag. It’s been around for a month already, and it could be sticking around for another five.


Stats courtesy of and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. All stats are current through play on Monday, May 2.

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