One thing that never fails to drive me berserk is when fans of AL teams refer to the NL as “Quadruple-A.” People think that the NL is the AL’s bitch this year for a couple-three reasons: the beating the NL took in inter-league play this year, the dominance of the AL in the last 10 years’ worth of World Series and All-Star Games, and, anecdotally, the success of mediocre AL pitchers on moving to the National League (Pedro Martinez in 2005; Kyle Lohse, Bronson Arroyo and Francisco Cordero in 2006, just off the top of my head.)
Granted, the AL beat up on the NL this year in inter-league play, winning 154 games and losing just 98; 155 if you count the All-Star Game. In 2005 the AL beat the NL 136 to 116, and won that All-Star Game as well. In fact, the AL has won every All-Star Game since the start of inter-league play, with the exception of the Glorious Tie of ’02. Is this just luck? Or is the AL in fact a better league?
Take a look at this handy chart of how each league has done in the 10 years of inter-league action:
The AL has won the season tally in inter-league games six times, to the NL’s four. And over the 10 years of inter-league play, the AL has won 51% of the games, to the NL’s 49%. That, um, seems pretty even to me. But don’t take my word for it. What do I know? Read this very interesting series of articles by MGL at the Hardball Times.
OK, done? I’m not going to re-do all of his analysis (mainly because I can’t, because I’m not that good at math) but his basic gist is that yes, the AL really is better than the NL right now, but not by as much as this year’s lopsided inter-league record would make you think. Basically, he thinks that the pitching is about the same level in each league, but that AL hitters are about half a run better per game than NL hitters (even after taking into account the DH in the AL and pitchers batting for themselves in the NL). According to MGL, that half-run advantage works out to be worth about .050 of winning percentage – in a given number of contests, we’d expect the AL to play .550 ball, and the NL .450. Or, if the NL played the AL in 100 games, we’d expect the AL to win 55 and lose 45.
But why? Well, take a look at this bad boy right here:
That’s the payroll for all MLB teams. You might notice that four of the top five payrolls are in the AL. In fact, the AL actually spends about $10.6 million more on salary than the NL, despite the presence of two more teams in the NL. The AL is outspending the NL by more than $11 million per team. So it isn’t that the AL is a better league – it’s just richer.
The fact that the AL is better than the NL in hitting, but not pitching, also supports this. Hitting performances can be predicted fairly accurately, so the edge in spending is likely to pay dividends on the hitting side of the equation; with pitching there’s no guarantee that you’ll get what you pay for. Just look at the number of big-money free-agent pitchers who sign with a new team and immediately stink – Yankees, I’m looking at you.