A League of Her Own

League Supremacy: Is the AL Better, and Why?

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Which league is better? It's time for the AL and the NL to throw down once and for all. Or at least once and for now.

The end is near. Last Week, the Chicago Tribune reported that Bud Selig rebuffed the advances of several owners who wanted him to stay on as commissioner of Major League Baseball beyond his planned retirement date of 2012. Forgive me if I don't brace myself for the end of the world. 

But it will be the end of the most dynamic era in baseball history. Not since Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers has there been this much change to the league--and although the changes haven't been nearly as important on a social scale, the face of the game itself has undergone more reconstruction than Lara Flynn Boyle's

I don't want to focus on Selig's legacy, though he is the unquestionable author of the competitive imbalance I do want to discuss--not small market vs. Yankees, but rather National League vs. American League.

First of all, there's the bar/blog argument: which league is better? Lately it hasn't been much of a discussion. In the past five seasons of interleague play, the AL has slaughtered the NL to the tune of a 713-546 record and a .570 win percentage. The NL hasn't won an All-Star Game since 1996, salvaging a mere tie in 2001, the year that made the argument of league superiority (or at least ASG performance) much more relevant.

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Bud Selig considers answering reporters' questions but thinks better of it. 

Since Bud Selig was manhandled into ensuring decided to ensure that the atrocity of an exhibition game tie would never again haunt Major League Baseball, the All-Star Game has mattered in that its victor would determine home-field advantage in the World Series, a distinction that had previously been arbitrary (and probably equally ridiculous). So the "Which league is better?" question is no longer strictly theoretical. But for all the advantages bestowed upon the AL World Series teams over the past 8 years, the World Series hasn't been extremely lopsided (AL 5-NL 3). And home-field advantage has come into play in only one series, 2002, and that year was scheduled to be an AL-advantage year anyway. In effect, the All-Star Game has yet to truly matter at all.

The more important issues, as I see them, are establishing for certain that the AL is better (and in what sense) and trying to determine why that advantage exists. Looking at the stats, it sure seems like Bud Selig has had a lot to do with the difference.

For the sake of argument (and I mean that genuinely here), the introduction of interleague play is the single most important change Selig has made. It has made meaningful discussion of league superiority somewhat possible. That's because the designated hitter has separated the AL and the NL into two different games. The NL plays real baseball, and the AL employs the minor league system where pitchers don't have to hit if they don't feel like it. I'm not taking sides on the issue. But without interleague games, the comparison of each league's stats is useless.

For the sake of argument (and I mean that in the casual throwaway sense now), I'll use OPS as the default statistic in the discussion. I looked at everything I could glean from baseballreference.com and processed it all, but none of the other stats diverge all that much from the changes in OPS. The one major exception is that NL pitchers issue far more walks (in and out of interleague play). The discussion goes beyond the stats, but I'll cover that later. For now, numbers.

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AL OPS minus NL OPS from 1981-2009


This chart shows the overall OPS margin of the AL over the NL every year since 1981. Of course when pitchers are replaced with players who can do nothing but hit, the AL should always have a better OPS--and they have. From 1981 to 1996, their advantage danced erratically back and forth across the +.030 line or so. Since then, the mean difference has been cut in half, dipping to about a +.015 difference. That shift could be attributed somewhat to the fact that AL pitchers had to hit in about 125 games or so beginning in 1997 while NL got to try out the DH for as many games. Outside of interleague, though, this stat is still a bit meaningless. I bring it up to illustrate the difficulty of comparing stats between leagues. Thank Bud for interleague play.

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Interleague OPS since IL play began in 1997. AL OPS (red) vs. NL OPS (blue)


The interleague stats tell a far more interesting story. When IL games first began, the NL and AL OPS numbers were quite close, remaining within .024 of each other and trading offensive superiority. Then in 2004, the AL's edge turned into a cliff. Based on the IL numbers (and that's all we really have) AL hitters are much better against NL pitchers than NL hitters are against AL pitchers. So whose pitchers are better?

I mentioned the high NL walk totals, which should give you a hint. We can't dismiss the difference to the NL tendency to walk 8th place hitters in front of pitchers, either. So I've compared AL hitters' performance in IL games to their overall OPS and did the same for NL hitters. The following chart shows full season OPS - IL OPS for both leagues. If the pitching quality between the leagues were equal, you would expect a positive number for the AL (better season OPS) and a corresponding negative number in the NL (better IL OPS) to account for the DH or lack thereof employed during IL games. An NL line above the zero line (or the AL line below it) would indicate superior NL pitching.

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AL Interleague OPS - AL Full Season OPS (red) vs. NL Interleague OPS - NL Full Season OPS (blue); A positive number indicates better OPS against opposing league pitchers and thus better pitching performance for your own league.


As you can see, NL pitching appears to have been better through 2002. 2003 is somewhat of an aberration, as both leagues hit quite a bit better against the opposing league's pitchers than against their own. It was also the last year the NL won the IL battle (137-115). Since then, the AL has dominated with better hitting and better pitching, and it's been a dramatically lopsided shift.

So why did the AL start dominating so heavily in 2004? What happened in 2004? For starters, that's when Selig first implemented drug testing on a full-scale basis in the major leagues. Is it possible that steroids favored NL hitters and pitchers that significantly? That seems unlikely, although it didn't help the NL's offensive numbers when Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa slumped despondently into the sunset. I don't see how steroids (or the testing thereof) could affect one league that much differently. (If you have a theory, I'd love to hear it.)

I suspect AL dominance is more of a cultural development than a medicinal one. There's just something about the imbalance in the number of teams in each league. There are 16 teams in the NL, 14 in the AL. NL Central teams face a six-team divisional struggle while the AL West compete in a 4-way race. To me, it's this nonsense that contributes to the competitive imbalance.

One of Selig's other major changes was ushering in 4 expansion teams, beginning with the Marlins and Rockies in 1993 (a year after Selig became commish). For five seasons, the NL and the AL each had 14 teams. This paved the way for a wild-card playoff system in 1994, which stalled due to the teams deciding not to play games anymore. Yay. But balance isn't something MLB really enjoys, so in 1998 they added two more expansion teams (the Diamondbacks and Devil Rays) into the mix and promoted the Brewers into the Senior Circuit.

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I can't find balance that way. Not with them, not with Allie . . . not with Bud.

If you're keeping track, the NL got three expansion teams and the Brewers, while the AL got the Rays and lost the Brewers. Advantage AL. Of course, it's really tough to accuse the expansion teams themselves from bringing down either league when all four have reached the World Series and two have won it (the Marlins twice). And while there's universal agreement that expansion has watered down the Major League talent level, those teams have drawn from the talent pools of both teams. Advantage push.

But I think the quantity of teams in each league eventually has had an adverse effect on the quality of the league itself. With the DH, the AL attracts hitters with limited defensive skills--big deal, you say, the Cubs do that too! On the flip side, the NL has a lot more part-time positions to fill. They need more pinch hitters, defensive substitutions, and guys who can be scrappy. The stats back this up, too. Since 1998, the NL employs an average of 191 hitters more than the AL does--almost 12 per team. That can't be explained away to pitchers only, because a handful of pitchers per AL team get ABs during IL games.

Each NL team has a bigger need for position players with part-time skills and one fewer spot available for a player looking for a full-time gig. When the AL had more teams, I think that imbalanced market evened out. But with a surplus of NL teams, the market has shifted. I just think it took about five years for the change to take hold.

For pitchers, it's harder to figure. In theory, an AL team can get away with carrying more pitchers on their roster because the need for position players available for substitution is lessened. But there's not a noticeable difference in the number of pitchers used per team. So why has the pitching improved? I'd say it's just a matter of demand. NL teams can get away with using inferior pitchers as the offensive talent pool has dwindled.

I admit, this is pretty speculative. What's more concrete is that Bud Selig has changed the game in ways even he doesn't understand. I'd say he's responsible for the competitive imbalance, and I fear by the time he leaves his post it will have reached critical mass. AL teams will have to spend more to compete, and they'll continue to attract the premier players. The NL will only get worse. I think the best team in the league will still be able to compete come World Series time, but the overall gap won't turn around any time soon.

Back when Mark Cuban looked like a frontrunner as the next Cubs owner, someone asked him if he could compete with the Red Sox and Yankees. His response, essentially, was: Why would I be stupid enough to compete with the Red Sox and Yankees? All I have to do is compete with teams in my own division and then hope that's enough to survive the crapshoot that is the postseason. That, I suspect, will be the formula for all NL teams. And it makes sense.

One other side note: the All-Star Game. With the let's-be-fair-to-everybody rule, the NL has two more requisite roster spots for teams who may or may not deserve an all-star. If the fate of the World Series is riding on that (it's not, but humor me) that injustice needs to go bye-bye.

It's the commissioner's job to fix that. I'd propose MLB rectify the 16-14 imbalance. There's no reason they can't have 15 teams in each league and spread interleague games over the course of a full season instead of the midsummer novelty they use now. It might not fix all the inequalities between the leagues, but at least it would provide the framework. Do that and ban the DH, and we've got ourselves something resembling a level playing field. Right now, the AL and NL are playing different sports in different markets.

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63 Comments

AndCounting said:

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The numbers would be more convincing if they were legible. Oh well, at least we can smile at the pretty little line drawings.

JulieDiCaro said:

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quiet, you. you did a great job. all people have to do is click on the image to enlarge it.

Doc said:

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agreed. Nice job! Now if only more of you slackers would get on the ball and do stuff like this!

Carl Heartscubs Gierhan said:

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But is that a right or a left click? I'm so confused.

AndCounting said:

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Well thanks.

Carl Heartscubs Gierhan said:

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Seriously, good work. I haven't written that many words in the entire history of the blog.

Doc said:

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Forget all the analysis...

The AL is better because they don't have the Cubs. Plain and simple.

flyball said:

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the NL is better, and the games are better, I really don't like the DH

Doc said:

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But the Cubs suckiness more than counters all the positives the NL brings to the table.

JulieDiCaro said:

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adam, this analysis would have saved you a lot of time and effort.

AndCounting said:

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True, although that's pretty much where I started anyway. The AL has the Yankees, so it's better. The AL also has the DH, so it sucks. That's when I started to dig deeper.

Doc said:

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It's kinda funny...

I've been preparing a post at C.D.E. on scheduling and balancing the leagues out.

Really, that is a significant problem. Really, if I had my way, I'd want to add to new teams to the AL, switch to 8 divisions with four teams in each and eliminate the wild card...

It would solve a ton of problems including unbalanced schedules within each division.

The same think could be achieved by moving one team to the AL as well (the brewers?)

flyball said:

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you mean moving 1 team back

Doc said:

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Well, yes.

AndCounting said:

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Personally, I'd like to see divisions eliminated. 15 teams in each league, play 22 interleague games and 10 apiece against all the teams in your league. Top 4 records in each league advance to the playoffs. To me, divisional play makes sense only in leagues where the number of games limits the accuracy of the W/L records. When you play 162 games, you should be able to play everyone and determine pretty well who is the best.

berselius said:

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You can't have an odd number of teams in each league - it would be a scheduling nightmare even if doable. Every day would have an interleague matchup

AndCounting said:

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It's not really any more nightmarish than it currently is. They already schedule enough interleague games to spread out over the course of a whole season. It wouldn't be an issue in the NFL because they don't make such a huge production out of AFC/NFC matchups. If they stopped looking at IL like such a novelty, it wouldn't matter.

berselius said:

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I guess it would just be tough to balance in general. This is a simplistic way of looking at it, but since there are 162 games and there has to be one interleague series going on at a time, there must be 54 3-game interleague series going on during the season. If each team plays 3 interleague series, then that's 45 games. What do you do with the other 9 series though? It works in the NFL because everyone plays the same number of conference games, but would not work in the NFL

berselius said:

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I guess you could just add the extra 6 series into it and it could still work out. Then each team plays 4 interleague series. Maybe just home-and-away series with two teams *shrug*

AndCounting said:

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I get what you're saying though. At any time, there would have to be an odd number of interleague games to leave an even number of remaining teams in each league. I think it would work, but without actually mapping out a schedule or using scheduling software, I don't know for sure.

Doc said:

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162 can actually work out well for some of the stuff that has been proposed...I figured

54 series (3 games a series)

in 8 divisions of 4 teams...

4 series against an interleague division
24 series against all the other teams in your league outside your division
24 series against all the teams in your division
you are left with 2 series for possible rivalry series (this is not balanced...but consistent with how MLB likes to do things now)

In a 6 divisions of 5 teams thing...
5 series versus an interleague division
20 series versus all other teams in your league outside your division
28 series versus teams in your division.

It's actually makes the schedule easier if they did a re-alignment.

Doc said:

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my math went bad there...

the second scenario, from my research was 10 interleague series (home and away for each team in one division)
20 non division intra league series
and 24 division series.

Doc said:

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What's wrong with there being one interleague matchup happening all the time?

JulieDiCaro said:

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I stand fully behind this idea.

Or at least, I stand behind it until someone comes along and gives me a reason not to.

berselius said:

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New York State Legislature FAIL

JulieDiCaro said:

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did it not pass?

JulieDiCaro said:

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Jerks. I think their civil rights should also be up for a vote.

punkvoter said:

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There's an error in the 4th paragraph. The tied all star game was 2002 not 2001.

Doc said:

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Details! lol

AndCounting said:

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You're right, thanks. But I'm sure you missed some others.

JulieDiCaro said:

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i'm the only person who LIKES the ASG determining HFA. i think it's fun. the all-star game sucked when no one cared about it.

millertime said:

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THE NL IS BEST CAUSE PHILLIES WS CHAMPS FOR EVER!!!!1

JulieDiCaro said:

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ha--i bet that guy is still passed out somewhere.

AndCounting said:

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Ghetto is the new fisted.

millertime said:

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No, but seriously, I like the NL better. I think the DH is outdated. I thought it was originally put in during the dead ball era to create more offense. Seems like the NL is entertaining enough, the DH has outlived its purpose.

Carl Heartscubs Gierhan said:

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I agree! Euthanize all DHs.

Doc said:

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Would that include Milton Bradley since he would be a DH if he was playing in the AL?

flyball said:

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AL fans that I know cannot imagine life without the DH, trying to explain that the pitcher sometimes actually does hit the ball is like saying there are lollipops on the moon, and thats before you try to tell them about how it affects pinch hitters, and if a pitcher is taken out

Doc said:

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That's because AL fans are dumb.

Doc said:

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But the NL has the Cubs.

flyball said:

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but the AL has Yankee fans

Doc said:

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But the NL has the Cubs AND St. Louis fans.

flyball said:

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but the AL has Red Sox fans (post a couple of World Series)

Doc said:

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But the NL has Dusty Baker.

berselius said:

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I'm on team DH. Aside from a few guys like Carlos Zambrano, watching pitchers hit is not entertainment at all.

flyball said:

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its not just about pitchers hitting, it does change the strategy, sometimes only a bit, sometimes more, but I like that part of the game

berselius said:

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Well, the game is more strategic having the pitchers hit. But that's like saying there's more strategy to fighing someone with one arm tied around your back.

flyball said:

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when I moved to AL land I thought I would like the DH, for all the reasons it was first created, but after the first few games I went to I realized that it bored me

we'll just have to agree to disagree

AndCounting said:

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I don't know, the DH is like fighting with two guys on each side, a lefty and a righty. Or one guy to take the punches and the other guy to do the punching.

I'd be curious to know which disparity affects the game more: the dropoff from a typical DH to a pitcher at the plate or the defensive liability the average DH would be in the field--or the improvement that could be made if you could field an entire defense of designated fielders. Because that's the basic argument, right? It makes for a better sport if you specialize to use the players with the best skills according to the situation.

I would actually love to see that in a minor league situation or winter ball or something. Having Jake Fox hit 6th only to send Andres Blanco out to 2nd base? I could live with that.

JulieDiCaro said:

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Watching Roger Clemens hit was entertaining.

JulieDiCaro said:

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I have 7 Google Wave invites, email me if you want one.

gravedigger said:

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And I have 8 if you run out.

gravedigger said:

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Holy jesus, did you write that, or did you pay someone? I know you don't have that kind of attention span.

gravedigger said:

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obviously im not paying attention. i thought julie posted that.

JulieDiCaro said:

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shah. as if.

millertime said:

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Sometimes I think Julie creates fake people with fake profiles so that it looks like more people agree with her.

JulieDiCaro said:

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mwah-ah-ah-ah-aaaaahhhhhh

JulieDiCaro said:

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what, you don't think "iheartjulie4ever" is a real person?

millertime said:

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WI JUST BEAT DUKE!!!!

berselius said:

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Woooooo! One of the rare nights I still wish I had cable

FrankS said:

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Illinois came back from 23 down to beat Clemson. Did the Big 11 win the ACC challenge?

millertime said:

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Sure did!

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