It might not be quite so traumatic as having to learn how drive on the other side of the road after years driving on the right, or injuring your arm and then trying to do everything with the opposite hand.
But for players who’ve come over the from the American League to the National — and the Phillies have a bunch of them — there’s a lot more to it than the fact the AL has the designated hitter and the NL doesn’t. There’s having to familiarize yourself with the hitters — or pitchers. There are new ballparks and travel routines, especially if you’re playing out West after years being in the East.
More than that, there’s simply an entirely different mindset.
“When I went back to the A’s after spending a year with the Padres, I realized it’s a different game,” said Phils’ reliever Pat Neshek, who’s criss-crossed leagues throughout his 11 year career between the Twins (four years), Padres (one), A’s (two), Cardinals (one) and Astros (two) before coming here. “I love it in the National League, because there’s more strategy involved. You really need to know guys on the other team’s bench, because you’re probably going to face one of them, where as in the AL you get the nine guys and most nights they don’t pinch hit.”
That creates a different dilemma for those not in the starting lineup.
“If you don’t start in the AL there’s a pretty good chance you’re not going to get in,” conceded Daniel Nava, who’s made the switch after six seasons with the Red Sox, Rays, Angels and Royals. “In certain situations, guys have to get hurt for you to get a chance and you don’t want that to happen, so it can be harder to concentrate. You have to pay more attention in the NL. Even if you’re not going to get in the game, you still have to prepare as if you are. In the AL it’s a lot different.”
Another difference is facing pitchers you don’t know. No matter how much video you watch or who you talk to, it’s just not the same as stepping into the box to face them.
“You don’t know what their pitches do; they want to attack you,” said struggling outfielder Michael Saunders, who spent six years in Seattle and two in Toronto before this. “What’s their go-to pitch in crunch situations? I was in the AL for eight years. You get to a point more where you’re more comfortable when you face a guy; knowing what pitches he likes to throw in what counts and that sort of thing. “
For pitchers like Jeremy Hellickson it’s just the opposite. Now in his third season in the NL after four-plus in Tampa, the 2011 Rookie of the Year hates when he’s lifted early in games depending on the score.
“The big thing is you can be in the sixth inning and thrown just 70 pitches and get pinch hit for because you’re down,” said the 30-year-old Hellickson. “That’s one thing that sucks about the NL. It’s nothing you can control. You just accept you’re not going to get the innings you want.”
Of course it’s different for a reliever like Neshek or Joaquin Benoit, who discovered the biggest adjustment when he came to the Padres after 11 years with the Rangers (seven), Rays (one) and Tigers (three) was the travel routine.
“Going to the NL West, the travel is a little different,” said the 39-year-old Benoit. “It takes on a toll on you because flights are longer and I was probably the oldest one on the team. But the game has changed so much from early in my career. It was easier then. Nowadays with all the technology and the strike zone being different makes it harder.”
Perhaps, but for all of them — Benoit, Hellickson, Nava, Neshek, Saunders, Howie Kendrick and Andres Blanco — who’ve gotten their full of the Junior Circuit, the National League is the place to be.
“I found myself checking out of the game in Houston last year,” admitted the Phil’s likeliest all-star Neshek, who’s never had a major league at bat. “So the focus level in NL for me keeps me watching the game.”
“I like how it keeps you on edge, ready to go,” added the 34-year-old Nava who homered his first NL at bat this season in Cincinnati, after hitting a grand slam — against the Phillies—his first major league at bat in 2010. “You don’t sit out 2-3-4 days without getting an at-bat. Bottom line, switching leagues may take a bit of an adjustment at first. But it won’t be long before you get the hang of it.”
Now who wants to try driving on the left?