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Wild Card: Imbalance of power
As of this morning, exactly half of this year's interleague games have been played and, for the third year in a row, the American League is dominating the competition. The AL has a .563 winning percentage this year, and over the past three seasons has posted a .573 winning percentage. Over the 10 1/2-year history of interleague play, the AL has a 1321-1257 (.512) advantage. The AL has also won the past nine All-Star games that actually had a winner and, thanks in large part to the late-90s Yankees, 10 of the past 15 World Series.
One would certainly believe that the AL has dominated major league baseball for the past decade or so. A closer look at the history of interleague play, however, challenges that belief. The National League was actually the dominant league in the initial season of interleague play, posting a .547 winning percentage in 1997. After a fairly even 1998 (114-110 AL), the senior circuit dominated again in 1999, posting a .538 winning percentage and running its three-year mark to .525. The AL took the upper hand in 2000 and 2001 and, after the first half-decade of interleague, the two leagues were essentially dead even, with the NL holding a two-game advantage, 597-595. That volley continued over the next four seasons, the NL taking the overall series in 2002 and 2003 and the AL eking out a two-game advantage in 2004 before beginning their current run of dominance in 2005.
Over these past three seasons, however, the imbalance of power has become real and meaningful. Last year, the AL wiped the floor with the NL to the tune of a .611 winning percentage, a higher winning percentage over 252 games than any single team in either league was able to post over 162 games during the season. Baseball Prospectus estimated that the difference between the two leagues last year was equivalent to 25 points of OPS or ERA for an individual player. In other words, simply switching leagues would cause the average player to lose or gain 25 points of OPS or a quarter of a run of ERA due to the relative level of competition in the two leagues (in both cases a move from the more difficult AL to the "easy" NL would improve the player's numbers). That's a staggering discrepancy in the level of play in the two leagues, and one that appears to have persisted this year judging by the early returns from interleague. The AL's .563 mark half-way through this year's interleague action may be considerably lower than its .611 winning percentage of a year ago, but, if it holds up, it would stand as the second highest winning percentage by either league in interleague’s eleven-year history.
Why the discrepancy? That's a difficult question to answer, but we can get some hints by following the money. The average Opening Day payroll in the AL this year was $92,840,401.21, while in the NL it was $73,701,648.13. That's a difference of more than $19 million. Even if you remove the Yankees and Red Sox, the other 12 teams in the AL still had an average Opening Day payroll nearly $7 million higher than the average NL team this year. Despite having two fewer teams, the AL has five clubs that had an Opening Day payroll of $100 million or more while the NL has just two. On the flip side, the AL has just one team that had an Opening Day payroll below $60 million this year, while the NL has a whopping six.
Last year, when the AL was even more dominant in interleague play, the payroll discrepancy was far less. In fact, if one were to eliminate the extreme outliers in the Bronx and Miami, the average NL team actually outspent its AL counterpart in 2006. In 2005, when the AL's current streak of dominance began, there was even less discrepancy between the average payrolls in the two leagues.
What this tells us is that the AL isn't better because its teams are spending more money, but rather its teams are spending more money because they're better. It's not as if the AL has been importing the NL's biggest stars. Outside of Andy Pettitte, J. D. Drew, and Roger Clemens, the last of whom wasn't even on anyone's Opening Day payroll this year, no other major stars left the easy league for the tough one over the winter, while Barry Zito and Randy Johnson headed in the opposite direction. Reaching back a bit further, for every Vlad Guerrero or Jim Thome that's headed to the AL in recent years, there's been a Carlos Beltran or Carlos Delgado that's headed to the NL. Instead, it seems that the increasing AL salaries have more to do with the rising cost of maturing in-house talent (think Vernon Wells, Johan Santana, Carl Crawford, Mark Teixiera, Jeremy Bonderman, John Garland, and the contracts the Indians have given Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez, Travis Hafner, and C.C. Sabathia among others) than the cost of importing talent from the rival league.
On the flip side of the coin, the Marlins, Diamondbacks, Brewers, and Rockies have a combined .448 winning percentage in interleague play this year (a close match with the NL's overall .437 mark), but all four are young teams that could see a considerable increase in both cost and quality in the coming seasons given the players already on hand an in their sytems. As is always the case in baseball, things will even out in time, but for now the American League is enjoying the most dominant stretch in the decade-long history of interleague play, even if that stretch isn't as long as some might think.
Labels: Wild Card
posted by SI.com | View comments |
Good article. Perhaps is shows the long term advantage of the DL where run production is emphasized by AL teams. The AL has learned relatively quickly how to play NL ball with 1) bunting skills practiced and emphasized, and 2) the effective use of pinch hitters in NL parks. It seems the AL has "learned" more quickly how to win the AL-NL in-season match-ups with wins coming in recent years after a more even record in earlier play.
Its so suprising to see the A's and Twins near the middle of the pack when it comes to payroll. The A's have 13 teams spending less than they are and the twins have 12 teams spending fewer dollers.
I'm shocked to see that Cleveland has the 2nd lowest payroll in the AL. They are very good this year.
Its a fluke when you take a few short series and try to say which league is better. Alot of players have switched leagues over the last few years. Are these players better or worse in one league versus the other? The payroll thing certainly does not hurt the AL. When top AL teams are pitted against lower NL teams, or the NL teams go into interleague play during losing streaks rather than winning streaks moreso than the AL it can affect things. Lets not forget an NL team beat a favored Al team in the WS last year. Does that make the NL better? Nope.
I don't think you can underestimate the importance of the DH in this. The DH allows an already superior team in terms of finances stockpile another bat in its lineup with no consequence in terms of defense or bench. Just imagine if all the DHs were forced to play the field or were distributed to other teams at those positions. One player may not make that big a difference, but if the DH were abolished (which it should be) the overall shift in offensive talent would be substantial.
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Wild Card (Friday)