From 1963 to 1982, the National League won all but one All-Star Game. As a kid from an American League city, the irritating aspect about this was the National Leaguers were so arrogant and cocky about it, and Pete Rose was the ringleader. It was a stone-cold fluke to win 19 of 20 games, but to the National League this was all the proof it needed of its superiority.
Truth is, the NL was the superior league. It won 12 of 20 World Series in that span, but more importantly it was viewed as the more exciting, hip league. It was the league of Koufax and Drysdale, Mays and Aaron, Bench and Morgan, Garvey and Parker. Other than Reggie, these were the biggest names of the era. Going back to the 1950s, the NL had integrated quicker than the AL. Teams such as the Giants and Pirates invested early in Latin America. NL cities such as Cincinnati and Philadelphia and Pittsburgh built shiny new multi-purpose stadiums (hey, they were cool at the time), while many of the AL teams were playing in old, decaying parks. In 1972, only three AL teams drew at least a million fans -- Detroit, Boston and Chicago. Nine NL teams drew more than a million.
The National League hasn’t crowed in a long time. For the most part, everyone agrees: the American League is the stronger league. Since 2006, the AL is 762-582 in interleague play entering Monday, including 50-34 in 2011.
The question: Why is the American League better? Let’s examine some of the possible reasons.
The DH rule gives the AL a big advantage.
This is a popular argument. AL teams get to run out sluggers such as David Ortiz or Victor Martinez or Vladimir Guerrero, while NL teams are stuck with backup outfielders and reserve infielders. Sure enough, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, in interleague play since 2006 AL teams are 414-255 at home (a .619 winning percentage) and 348-327 on the road (a .516 winning percentage). There you go, right?
Except … home teams have a natural home-field advantage anyway. In all games in 2010, home teams had a .559 winning percentage, road teams a .441 winning percentage. Do the math and you discover AL teams are playing 60 percentage points better at home compared to the 2010 overall percentage, but 75 percentage points better on the road.
Cross off the DH theory.
The Yankees and Red Sox give the AL a big advantage, otherwise the leagues are even.
Ahh, yes, the whole “the Yankees and Red Sox outspend everybody to buy their success” theory. Well, it’s true, the Yankees and Red Sox are 122-70 in interleague play since 2006. That still means the rest of the AL is 640-512 since 2006. (And the Phillies have a larger payroll than Boston this season anyway, and the Cubs and Mets spent more than the Red Sox in 2009, and the Mets and Tigers spent more in 2008, but don’t let facts get in the way).
Still, maybe the AL outspends the NL, right?
2011 $100 million-plus payrolls: AL 6, NL 6.
2010 $100 million-plus payrolls: AL 5, NL 3.
2009 $100 million-plus payrolls: NL 5, AL 4.
2008 $100 million payrolls: AL 6, NL 4.
2007 $100 million payrolls: AL 5, NL 2.
2006 $100 million payrolls: AL 5, NL 1.
So, yes, the AL has had more $100 million payrolls. But what if we look at the number of teams in the top half of all payroll:
2011: 8 NL, AL 7.
2010: 8 NL, AL 7.
2009 8 NL, AL 7.
2008: NL 8, AL 7.
2007: NL 8, AL 7.
2006: NL 8, AL 7.
Still convinced that the AL is better merely because it spends more?
The AL has drafted better.
I looked at all the first-round picks from 1998 through 2007 (first 30 picks only) and added up their collective wins above replacement (WAR) from Baseball-Reference.com. Now, all this value wasn’t necessarily accrued by the drafting team, but it’s a quick gauge to assess if the AL has gained an advantage through the draft.
This turns out not be the case, at least in terms of first-rounders. NL picks have collected about 646 wins above replacment (not including those who created negative value) and AL picks have collected about 592 wins above replacement.
Now, WAR isn’t the best method for comparing leagues since, for example, NL right fielders are being valued in comparison to other NL right fielders, AL right fielders to AL right fielders, and so on. Still, it’s difficult to say AL teams have been scooping up more first-round talent.
The AL signs all the big free agents.
I checked out the top 50 players in WAR since 2009. Only six of those players were signed by their current teams as free agents -- three American Leaguers (Mark Teixeira, Alex Rodriguez and CC Sabathia) and three National Leaguers (Cliff Lee, Matt Holliday and Jayson Werth).
Of the top 25 highest-paid players in 2011, 12 are American Leaguers. A one-year aberration? In 2010, 11 of the top 25 were ALers; in 2009, 10 of 25; in 2008, 13 of 25; in 2007, 13 of 25; in 2006, 14 of 25.
I don’t see evidence that the AL is buying up all the best free agents.
As far as cross-league trades, five American Leaguers did come from the NL via trade: Miguel Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez, Ben Zobrist, Dan Haren and Yunel Escobar; three National Leaguers came from the AL via trade: Roy Halladay, Zack Greinke and Hanley Ramirez. Jose Bautista did come to the Blue Jays after being waived by the Pirates.
Still, I don’t see enough evidence that the AL is acquiring more star players that NL teams can’t afford.
So, the AL is better because …
Three main reasons:
1. Better players.
OK, that’s obvious. But I think there’s a reason for this. The success of the Yankees and Red Sox pushes the rest of the American League to perform better and make smarter front-office moves. If you go into a season knowing it’s going to take 95 wins just to compete for the wild card, you have to make the right moves. Maybe that means signing a good setup guy or a good backup outfielder -- not the big-money free agent signings, but the cumulative effect of having better players in roster spots 20 through 25. In the NL, if 90 wins is enough to keep you in the playoff race, there is less incentive to improve that fifth starter spot or upgrade a weak spot in the lineup.
2. Bad front offices in the “rich” NL teams.
Who has spent the most in the NL in the past six years? The Mets, Cubs and Dodgers (and now the Phillies). Those first three have been three of the worst-run franchises of the decade. Omar Minaya kept his job with Mets way too long. Jim Hendry has kept his job way too long. Frank McCourt would rather spend money on houses and personal hairdressers than ballplayers. Throw in the Astros, another of the NL’s big spenders, and four of the five big-market franchises have essentially been disasters or become one. Meanwhile, the “rich” AL teams -- New York, Boston, the Angels, the White Sox -- have been consistently smart and successful. Throw in that some of the smaller payroll AL teams such as Tampa Bay and Minnesota have been smarter and more creative than their NL counterparts such as Pittsburgh and the front-office disparity increases.
3. Competition breeds talent.
If you play against better players, you tend to get better, correct? This is one issue that I’m not sure the NL can correct except with time and better player development. Playing the Astros and Cubs and Padres 30 games a year isn’t going to prepare you for the Red Sox, Yankees and Rays.
So the AL remains the superior league. Just don’t blame the DH anymore. It’s just too bad there isn’t a modern-day Pete Rose to rub in the NL’s faces a little bit.
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