Tuesday, November 9, 2010

No, the American League Just Really Has Been That Much Better

By Bill

The Common Man introduced our Three Questions series yesterday, and I'll pick that up tomorrow or on Thursday.  Today, though, I wanted to address something else.

Keith Law wrote a breakdown of the top 50 free agents over the weekend. It's worth reading on its own (though Insider-only), but several commenters took issue with his rather frequent reminders that the American League is a much better league than the National.  The general idea among these objectors, apparently, is that this myth of AL superiority emanates from a kind of anti-National-League bias, and that any perceived difference in the leagues in interleague play comes from the huge advantage the American League gets in getting to use a designated hitter, like the guy on the right, in its home games.

I assume that to most of us, that sounds silly.  It sure did to me.  That the AL has outclassed the NL for many years now is pretty much common knowledge, and there's just no way at all that the AL's interleague dominance can be explained away by the DH, a player who only plays half the game (which they only get to use at all in half of those games). Still, though, at least a few of the pro-NL-equality commenters wondered aloud (well, on-screen, anyway) what the interleague numbers would look like if you took only the records from National League parks, getting rid of that DH effect.

It seemed easy enough to do, but I couldn't find that information collected anywhere. So I collected it. Took half an hour or so.  Here are my results, if you're interested.  Let's talk it out:

Since interleague play started in 1997, the American League has gone 824-930, a .470 winning percentage, while playing in National League ballparks.  That sounds good for the NL -- they won more than they lost! -- but, of course, you're supposed to win more than you lose at home.  In intraleague AL games since 1997 -- that is, AL teams playing other AL teams -- the road team is 6515-7599, a .462 winning percentage.  So in the entire misguided fourteen-year history of interleague play, the AL has done .008 better against NL teams on the road than it would expect to do on the road against teams of equal strength.  Not a huge difference, certainly, but over samples that large, it may well mean something.  It's a difference of about two and a half games over the course of a 162-game season.

It gets worse for the NL, though.  In 1997, for some reason (the first year for interleague play), the Nationals crushed the Americans in NL ballparks, winning 69 of the 107 games (a .645 winning percentage and a 104-win full-season pace).  I wouldn't want to make a habit of arbitrarily removing years that don't agree with my premise, but 1997 is obviously the least relevant year for our purposes anyway, since each successive year tells us more about who the stronger league has been lately (while becoming a bit less reliable as the sample gets smaller).  So, from 1998-2010, the AL played .477 ball against the NL in NL parks, while playing just .460 ball on the road against itself, more than double what the difference is if we incorporate 1997.

And we'll keep bringing it closer to modern day, and it'll keep getting uglier for the senior circuit.  From 2000-2010, the AL held its interleague road record steady at .477, but played worse against itself on the road (or better against itself at home), bumping the spread to 21 points (.477-.456).  Over only the last five years (2006-2010), the AL has actually played at an incredible .519 level against the NL on the road, while the intraleague road record has dropped to .446.  They've collectively played like an 84-win team in NL parks, but like just a 72-win team in AL parks that aren't theirs, about the same advantage (in wins/162) as the 2010 AL East-leading Rays had over the 2010 Blue Jays.  That's a big difference.

There was a bounce-back in 2010 -- the AL was held to a .457 winning percentage on the road after four straight years of beating up the NL at well over .500 -- but we won't know for at least a couple years now whether that represents an actual leveling of the playing field (though even in 2010, the AL was .009 better vs. the NL on the road than vs. itself) or was just a blip, like the NL's relative success in 2003-2005 apparently was.

There's a lot of year-to-year fluctuation, as you'd expect, but on the whole, and especially in recent years, American League teams have played significantly better in NL parks, without the DH, than we would expect them to play against teams with whom they were equally matched.  And remember, most AL teams will have a non-trivial investment in that DH, an investment which is almost completely useless to them in these games, so we might expect the true difference between the leagues to be even a little larger than those numbers show.

The reason for this should be pretty apparent.  No one position matters all that much over a handful of interleague games, especially a position that only plays half the game.  And that's true even when you're talking about a full-time DH against, say, Aaron Miles or Nick Stavinoha (actual 2010 Cardinal designated hitters).

What does make a difference, though, is money, and the incentive to spend that money.  If you're starting a restaurant in a small town whose only other option is McDonald's, you're probably not going to shoot for top-end, five-star gourmet cuisine.  It's just not the best use of your resources, when just being Applebee's or Denny's would still make you the class of the town.  Meanwhile, if you're moving onto a block in a swanky part of downtown that already has a Morton's Steakhouse and a Ruth's Chris, you might have to step up your game a bit.

So it is with the Yankees and Red Sox.  Teams that want a chance to break out of the AL in any given year don't have to just spend a ton of money (though that helps), but they need to be smarter and less wasteful in how they do spend it just to have a chance to compete with the behemoths.  Just like your perfectly tasty $6.99 steak and eggs dinner special won't really cut it in the downtown theatre or shopping districts, stuff that might work in the NL just doesn't fly in the AL.  The AL teams are better because in order to be competitive (or even just to avoid being a complete embarrassment -- check out what the Royals have done in interleague play vis-a-vis what the Pirates have, for instance), they need to be better than the teams in the NL need to be.

So, no, NL fans with chips on your shoulders for some reason: it's not the DH, it's the fact that your average AL squad has much better baseball players, top-to-bottom, than your average NL squad.  That's just the way it is (for now), and you're going to have to be OK with that (for now).

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Alto said...

Interesting! It's much easier to just say the NL stinks as opposed to doing actual research... so kudos on a good post.

I will say that some AL teams use their DH in the field at NL parks during inter-league games, such as David Ortiz playing first base. I don't think it hurts your argument though, and I'm certainly not going to take the time to come up with that info (AL record in inter-league games on the road where the regular DH is playing a position in the field, then lets divide that (for fun) by the difference in fielding percentage of DH versus regular fielder broken down by park, surface, and time of day of course :) ).


Anonymous said...

Hey Bill, I'm that NL booster who wouldn't shut up from the ESPN comment threads, and I just wanted to say thanks for actually putting your argument forward with some civility. I still disagree on certain points, perhaps as much out of principle as anything given your sound reasoning, but I do appreciate you at least laying your arguments on the table from the outset. Ultimately, it all comes down to the games on the field. Ironically, my argument didn't begin as which league was superior. Merely that some AL fans tended to be remarkably crass about the whole issue. And lo, enter epic troll.

I do, however have one question independent of the actual NL vs. AL debate. By your research, it seems that home-field advantage is becoming more pronounced in the AL, and I was wondering if you had any insight into that.

Bill said...

Alto: thanks! That's a good point about the DH playing the field...but that's not usually a great idea anyway, right, because there's usually a reason he's a DH in the first place. I doubt that makes *that* big of a difference, but, yeah, you could make quite a project out of it. :)

Anon: thanks for the comment. That's a good point about the increasing home field advantage in the AL. It would be interesting (and fairly easy, actually) to do a broader comparison to see if and how HFA has actually changed over the years. I suspect it's mostly just random fluctuation, and that the last 3-4 years have just happened to be on the extreme-homefield side of normal(which would probably mean that the AL hasn't dominated the NL in those years to quite the extent that this piece makes it look like they have, but probably not too far off).

Jay Ess said...

So, what is the payroll difference between the two leagues? Does that explain the disparity?

Kevin S. said...

This might be the first time I've ever seen someone who conclusively won an argument referred to as an "epic troll." The point you seemed to have missed, Anon/Sherwood, is that the reason AL fans sometimes get "crass" about it is because NL fans whine, or come up with flimsy, logically-flawed excuses (as you repeatedly did), for why their teams get repeatedly smashed. There's no moral high ground on either side, but you tried to claim it. Nope.

Anonymous said...

In an attempt to prove that the DH is not a huge advantage you give us the fact that when playing in NL parks the AL and NL are about even. In fact the AL has outperformed the NL when considering the inherent home field advantage that should be helping the NL home teams, to the tune of about 14 wins or 1 win per season.

If we use your numbers and back into the AL win % at AL parks in IL games, we get 984-722 or a .576 % or .038 over their home win % in intraleague games.

So the AL outperforms by 0.008 when in NL parks and 0.038 when in AL parks. This is a very big difference.

I think you made the argument that you intended to disprove.

Eric said...

My take on this has always been that the AL teams need to employ a strong bat (irrelevant glove/arm) to use in the majority of their games where there is no such urgency for NL teams. Why would the Cardinals add a DH to their payroll when he would start 5-8 games a year and get a pinch-hit appearance in the others? Instead, they keep their typical bench players and get them spot-starts like they would otherwise.

G Man said...

There may be something else at work here: the way the teams are structured or designed. In the age of 12 and 13 man pitching staffs, teams are less likely to keep a poor-fielding one dimensional player on the team, unless they are in the American league and can play him at DH. Maybe over time having a David Ortiz or Vlad Guerrero on your roster is more valuable than a second-tier left-handed reliever, even if they are playing poor defense or only being used as a pinch-hitter.

G Man said...

Ha! Eric beat me to the punch!

Jeff said...

Wouldn't another way to go about this use WAR. How many wins does an average AL DH produce, and how many wins would the NL DH (10th man) produce? Does the WAR difference explain the win disparity in AL home games after home field correction?

Anonymous said...

How much of the recent advantage can be attributed to the steroids era, as AL teams traditionally had more HR hitters?

Bill said...

No, Anonymous #2, not at all. My point wasn't that the DH doesn't give the AL an advantage (though I wouldn't have expected it to be as big as those numbers suggest), but to test the notion that the DH accounts for the whole perceived difference in league quality, which it clearly does not. Thanks for pointing that out, though.

Anonymous said...

Clearly the talent level tilts toward the AL in the past few years - just like it used to go the other way in the 80s and 90s.

Still the win % difference when playing in AL parks is MUCH higher than it is when playing in an NL park and so it is just as clear that the DH has more of an impact favoring the AL than does the disparate talent level.

The reason I get annoyed by the Laws and Neyers on this issue is their kneejerk hyperbole on the issue. The NL is called the minor leagues or AAA while the AL is called by equally hyperbolic superlatives. That is wrong.

Additionally, Neyer has made the simply stupid statement that a hitter going to the AL can be expected to decline because of the league being so much better. I understand why a pitcher can be expected to decline facing 9 hitters, one of them usually a player no longer able to play in the field (if he ever was) but how that includes hitters is mind boggling.

Bottom line is that the difference in talent is a cyclical thing and is also in large part a DH thing.

How anyone can think that having different rules in the 2 leagues is totally beyond me.

Why can't it be left to paying fans to vote (on their paid for tickets) for say 2-3 years until today's DH contracts have expired and let that decide whether both will or won't use the DH?

AMusingFool said...

@Anonymous: Players moving between leagues does show the disparity. Those moving from the AL to the NL over the last several years have consistently (not universally, but consistently) improved, while those moving in the other direction have consistently declined.

AMusingFool said...
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AMusingFool said...
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Anonymous said...

not true amusing, or at least not consistently true.

Santana was supposed to come to the weaker league and win Cy after Cy but hasn't really been close, for example.

There are countless examples going both ways that get better or worse, somewhat randomly.

Except of course for pitchers who do indeed have to face 9 hitters and not 8 and a pitcher. For them the change can indeed be pertinent.

Bill said...

With respect to my comments up there about HFA over time, the excellent Cy Morong pointed out to me that he wrote an article that looked at this: http://cyrilmorong.com/HomeRoad.htm

Interesting stuff. Only up through 2002, though, so it would need to be updated to cover the recent uptick in (AL-vs-AL) home records these numbers show.

Anonymous just above--what AMusingFool said IS consistently true. Your one example isn't a great one--I expected Santana to dominate the NL, too, but the 2004-06 Santana *would* have dominated the NL. He already started slipping a bit with the Twins in 2007, and has been hurt, and just isn't anything close to the same pitcher anymore. And it's one example (if there really were "countless" examples going both ways, wouldn't you have named more than the one?), vs. Halladay, Holliday, Burrell, Huff, Vazquez, and so on. The change is "pertinent" for both hitters and pitchers, because on the whole, right now, both the AL hitters and pitchers are better baseball players than their NL counterparts.