The American League’s Still the Superior League

As I see it, there are three ways to determine which is better, between the American League and the National League. Those ways:

  • The hard way
  • The easy way
  • The easiest way

The easiest way is to just pick one and stand by it. Think the National League’s better? Declare as much and refuse to give any ground, no matter the evidence. You have made your determination!

That leaves two ways to do this with actual math. The more complicated way is to look at the performances of players who’ve switched leagues, and compare those performances to expected performances. That’ll get you somewhere, but that’ll also cost you a good amount of time, most probably. Thankfully, there’s an easier way that works just fine. Want to know which league is better? Look at how each league has performed against the other league! This is the 18th year of interleague play. It’s as old as Brady Aiken. It’s not new anymore — it’s old enough to join the army — and we can make use of the data it provides.

Of course, the season isn’t over. Of course, not every team in each league plays every team in the other league. So of course, any information you get out of this is going to come with its attendant uncertainties, but when life provides an easy way to get at the answer to a question, you seize it without looking back. In 2014, we’re 190 games into the slate of interleague play. AL teams have won 102 games and lost 88. They’ve outscored NL teams 845 – 799. The AL leads in OPS differential by 14 points. Based on the evidence we have, the AL is the superior league, and I think many of us have gotten used to this.

The NL hasn’t won half the games since 2003. The NL hasn’t outscored the AL since 2003. The NL hasn’t had an advantage in OPS differential since 2002. Below, you can look at a couple charts, showing the history of the three statistics.



I should note that I used OPS instead of wOBA out of convenience — data’s been pulled from Baseball-Reference, and Baseball-Reference uses OPS instead of wOBA. I can’t imagine wOBA would tell a meaningfully different story, as OPS gets the job done, as strange as it is to consider.

Depending on the stat, you can spot some different eras. By winning percentage, the AL’s had a pretty firm lead for a decade. By run differential per game, things have calmed down since an AL peak between 2005 – 2009. By OPS differential, it’s been a more recent calming effect, really kicking in last season. Not coincidentally, last season, the Astros moved from the NL to the AL, and while the Astros have lately gotten a bit better, they were terrible in 2012, they were terrible in 2013, and they were terrible to start 2014. Leagues are massive entities, but the Astros evened the field a little bit. Moving a team was long overdue, and the Astros weren’t going to be terrible forever.

It used to be, when people would talk about the AL’s advantage, they’d make sure to point to payroll inequality as a factor. For years, the average AL payroll was higher than the average NL payroll, and spending, of course, correlates to success. But this year, the average NL team is outspending the average AL team by about three million dollars or so. So a leg or two has been kicked out from under that argument, but of course, this could be more detailed — what we’re lacking is comprehensive service-time information. Not every player’s in position to make free-agent money, and so this might still be a meaningful point.

Besides the Astros point, and the payroll point, how might the NL be making up some ground? Perhaps the NL is now the better defensive league. According to UZR, since the start of 2013, the NL has been better defensively by almost 130 runs. And according to Defensive Runs Saved, since the start of 2013, the NL has been better defensively by almost 800 runs. I don’t know how to explain so big a difference — it probably has something to do with how shifts are treated — but we can at least say that the NL is better in the field, and it might be way better. This would be one reason the difference between the leagues has settled down.

There’s also the Dodgers factor. And there’s the declining-Yankees factor. Baseball isn’t controlled by the Boston/New York rivalry the way it seemed to be several years ago, and that’s helped to even the playing field, even though the situation is still slightly tilted in the AL’s favor. An explanation for the continued superiority could come down to front-office superiority, but that’s a difficult thing to prove. Anecdotally, one of the leagues has Billy Beane and one of the leagues has Ruben Amaro, but that’s not very scientific.

The long and short of it: for another season, it would appear that the American League is stronger than the National League. This is a trend that’s kept up for years, but to the NL’s credit, the two leagues aren’t as different as they were a few years back, and it seems like things might be balancing out some. This season there’s no AL payroll advantage, and it stands to reason this ought to be pretty cyclical. Within recorded history, the NL has won the majority of interleague contests in a year. That’s probably not going to happen in 2014, but maybe next year or the year after that. So, something to look forward to, fans of the National League. I don’t know why there would be fans of leagues, but I don’t know why there would be fans of American Authors so I’ll just assume some are out there and leave it at that.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

53 Responses to “The American League’s Still the Superior League”

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  1. Yirmiyahu says:

    I would assume a lot of the difference in defense lies with the DH rule. AL teams don’t really carry just one DH who never plays the field; they sign DH-types knowing they can fit him in somewhere, and most teams rotate the DH spot. And with pitchers hitting in the NL, runs are at more of a premium and there’s a lot of pitcher bunting, both of which are incentives to focus on defense.

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  2. SEC fan says:

    Being a fan of an entire league is just silly.

    +25 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Umpire Weekend says:

    You can NEVER go wrong saying “The American _____’s Still the Superior ______”!!!

    +14 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Beer? Wine?
      Soccer team?
      Healthcare system?
      Math and science skills?
      Income equality?
      High-speed rail system?

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      • Raws says:

        It’s an emotional truth, not an appeal to the intellect.

        +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • 'Murica! says:

        Yep…yep, we win all those.

        Old Milwaukee? Check.

        Boone’s Farm? Check.

        Houston Dynamo? Best team on the planet, would have easily taken the world cup. Germany? Feh.

        Go get my blood pressure checked at CVS? Check.

        The maths? Check. All of them. Even the ones with them fancy imaginary numbers.

        Science? God put them dinosaur bones there to mess with us!

        Income equality? Check. Bill Gates’s annual income EQUALS that of Togo. And Warren Buffett’s EQUALS that of our poorest 60% of citizens, give or take. How’s that for some equality chief.

        High-speed rail? Check, I can hop that train in Spokane and take it clear across to East Spokane.

        +5 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • pitnick says:

        The American Beer’s still the Superior Wine?

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      • olethros says:

        American beer is actually among the best in the world. You just have to not drink the mass produced weasel piss you see on TV.

        +17 Vote -1 Vote +1

        • Iron says:

          It would be cool if a site like this would evaluate such beers, sort of a ‘beergraphs’.

          +9 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Ron Swanson says:

      History was made in 1776. Everything before then was a mistake.

      +15 Vote -1 Vote +1

  4. mgoetze says:

    I think you missed the most obvious way to tell that the AL is superior to the NL… watch the home run derby. :P

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  5. Hingle McCringleberry says:

    Top ten players in RBI? All American League. QED.

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  6. John says:

    Well, the NL has more grit than the AL so they must be better.

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  7. channelclemente says:

    I think that interval of increased OPS is based on the effect of watching PEDs wash out of the player population, combined with the better pitching in the nl.

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  8. Dheueh says:

    Just because al teams could sign star hitters. Dh spot is big insurance

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    • P Goldschmidt, A McCutchen, Y Puig, R Braun, J Votto, et al says:

      It’s true. There are no star hitters in the National League.

      +9 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • Dheueh says:

        They are so exceptionally good at fielding that they could gloving in their 40. Except Puig

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      • arc says:

        *Sign* star hitters, he said. None of those players were signed to anything but extensions.

        I’m not saying he’s right, but you aren’t engaging his argument.

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    • BenRevereDoesSteroids says:

      So the DH allows the AL some flexibility in the type of players they sign, so they can field better teams. That does not change the fact that the AL fields better teams, hence AL > NL.

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  9. Hank G. says:

    What about the All-Star game? The American League had an early advantage, but the National League utterly dominated from the 50s through the early 80s. The American League started a similar, but lesser period of domination starting in the late 80s through 2009.

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    • Anon21 says:

      Don’t know that there’s much there there; it’s one game per year, and the substitutions and selection process often means it’s not even the best group of players from each league. I think the best way to view the All Star streaks is as the product of chance.

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      • Hank G. says:

        Even with the substitutions, you are dealing with most of the best players in each league.

        Back in the 60s, before the game counted, the superstars played a lot longer. In the first 1961 game, Mays and Clemente played all 10 innings.

        From 1960 through 1982, the National League won 23 out of 26 games (with one tie). It strains the imagination to consider that to be merely chance.

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      • Baltar says:

        I have to disagree, Anon.
        1. Some years in the 60′s had 2 All Star games.
        2. The NL, during that win streak, clearly had better players by any measure due to having accepted a lot more Black and Latin players.

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    • atoms says:

      What does that have to do with which league is superior? First of all, it’s a very small proportion of players participating, which isn’t representative of the entire league, and secondly it’s just 1 exhibition game, played with its own traditions of rotating players in just for the sake of getting them in the game, and lastly it’s 1 game per year with is the smallest sample imaginable. So no, I don’t think it’s meaningful.

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      • Hank G. says:

        It’s the best players though. When comparing which league is better, most people look at the superstars, not the average players.

        I agree, one game is not meaningful. An 90% winning percentage in 26 games over two decades is more than sheer chance, IMO.

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  10. Callandor says:

    Seems like looking at the league adjusted stats of players changing leagues might be a better measure than total runs scored

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  11. Hurtlocker says:

    The NL doesn’t have the DH, which makes it far superior.

    +12 Vote -1 Vote +1

  12. CFIC says:

    the AL is disqualified, however, due to the use of the DH

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  13. Joe says:

    As some people mentioned above, I think the DH rule favors the AL in head to head play. When the NL plays in an AL park they have to start a bench player whereas when the AL plays in an NL park they just have to bench (and probably pinch hit) a regular.

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  14. Bruce Chen says:

    Is the pitching really better in the NL, or is the batting just so much worse that it confuses the two…

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  15. TKDC says:

    The American League is not better. Mike Trout is better. It’s like saying the high school conference where LeBron James plays is better than the one next to it.
    /kind of

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  16. Chris from Bothell says:

    Um. List of 2014 DH performance for AL teams as of the ASB:

    How is the DH having such a massive skewing effect when, so far in 2014, 7 of 15 teams are actually getting negative WAR from their DHs, and at the All Star Break only 3 teams have more than 2 WAR from their DHs?

    Or put another way, by wRC+, 6 AL teams are getting 88 or lower from their DH.

    Or yet another way, to use old-school stats and be of the mindset that DH lets you add a slugger who can’t field: 8 of 15 AL teams have gotten a .401 SLG or less from their DHs.

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    • Shao says:

      Negative WAR in DH doesn’t mean AL has disadvantage. You are not comparing anyone to replacement level, you are comparing AL and NL.

      A better way is to compare DH’s runs create to NL pitcher’s runs created (or wOBA to wOBA, whichever non-normalized stats you like)

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  17. Shao says:

    I think DH by nature gives AL advantages. Division of labor and specialization overall generates better outcome. If you have a league (set roster limitation aside) like NFL which has defense team and offense team, I bet in the long run it will outperform others.

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  18. Andrew says:

    The AL has won only 4 of the past 10 World Series, but to be fair, they have been runners up 6 times. They’re definitely better at that

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  19. bmarkham says:

    Funny timing for this article. Just yesterday I noticed on the playoff odds most the AL teams are favored pretty heavily should they make the World Series. For instance the A’s are given a 25.4% chance of winning the ALCS and 15.1% of winning the World Series, implying that if they make it to the WS, without knowing the NL team they have 59% chance of winning the World Series. The Tigers and Angels would also be heavily favored with the Jays and Orioloes at a slight disadvantage. On the NL side, only the Nationals would be favored in the World Series without knowing the AL opponent and it’s by a very microscopic margin (29.3 for winning NLCS, 14.7 for winning WS). The Dodgers are unfavored, and the Giants, Cardinals, and Braves would be very heavily unfavored. The Cardinals for instance are given 9.2% chance to reach the WS but a 3.5% chance to win it, giving them just a 38% chance of winning the WS should they reach it. The Brewers, Reds, and Pirates have lower chances in both rounds but have similar ratios, and are given similar overall chances to win the WS as the Mariners and Indians (all 5 of those teams are between 1.3% and 2%).

    Adding up the numbers which are rounded to one decimal, the AL is given 55.8% chance to win it compared to 44.1% for the NL.

    One wonders, would the NL adding a DH resolve this? I think over time it would, given that there are not spending differences anymore.

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  20. Jon L. says:

    Deficitball: The Art of Losing an Unfair Game. The Ruben Amaro Story.

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