Why the American League Is Better than the National League?

The are several projection systems available to determine if AL and NL teams played each other who would win by looking at each player’s projections stats. I am going to keep it a little simpler than that here. USA Today has the team payrolls for the 2010 now available. Here is the average payroll for all the American and National League teams:

American League: $95.8 million
National League: $86.0 million

About $10 million extra dollars on the free agent market will get an AL team on average +2.5 WAR to be spread to its players.

Now what happens to the averages when the Yankees and their $206 million payroll are removed from the equation.

American League: $87.3 million
National League: $86.0 million

If the Yankees were to be removed from baseball completely, the two leagues would be more evenly matched up, at least with the amount of dollars spent on players in the major leagues.

There may be other reasons for some of the disparity – better General Managers and young talent in the AL – but again when the discussion gets around to winning in baseball, the Yankees are right in the middle of it.




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Jeff writes for FanGraphs, The Hardball Times and Royals Review, as well as his own website, Baseball Heat Maps with his brother Darrell. In tandem with Bill Petti, he won the 2013 SABR Analytics Research Award for Contemporary Analysis. Follow him on Twitter @jeffwzimmerman.

42 Responses to “Why the American League Is Better than the National League?”

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  1. rickie weeks says:

    There was an article on BP a while back that argued in addition to payroll differences, the NL having 2 more teams likely contributes to the talent disparity between leagues. Pretty sure the jist was more teams = less dense talent pool.

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    • rickie weeks says:

      Don’t remember the author…

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    • Matt says:

      I am not sure that I understand that argument, because a team in the National League is competing with all 29 other teams for talent, not just National League teams, and the same is true for American League teams.

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      • rickie weeks says:

        Yea, the way I phrased it doesn’t make much sense. The author had sound logic (and data) behind the theory, and it was an interesting read. I’ll have to find the article…

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      • Tom B says:

        If it was the Al with the extra teams, then there would be a shortage of DH type players. Find that article if you can, because it makes no sense.

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      • rickie weeks says:

        Article by Shawn Hoffman, title starts “Relative League Quality…” from this past October.

        Basically, his argument that during the two periods of extended inequality (in number of teams) between leagues, the r-squared between league quality and number of teams is higher than the r-squared between quality and spending. He notes that since data is limited to two time periods it could be a massive coincidence, but concludes:

        “all other things being equal, the league that has to employ more players should inevitably have a longer tail of talent. No matter how you look at it, it’s harder to field sixteen teams than fourteen. Add in that the American League teams have access to a slightly better talent pool (thanks to greater financial resources), and it actually makes a lot of sense that the AL has been so dominant.”

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      • Jason B says:

        I’m like Matt, I’m just not sure I understand that argument. Teams are competing with all the other 29 ML teams for the same talent pool. Does it really matter if the teams are divided 15/15, 16/14, 20/10?

        Now if the total number of teams were changing, that’s an argument I could see – it IS harder to field 30 teams with true major league talent than it is 20 or 25. But Boston isn’t competing with AL teams only for free agents and talent in the draft, they’re competing with the Mets, Phils, Cards, and Dodgers as well.

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  2. Mike D says:

    Keep in mind AL teams also spend on DH’s.

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    • Temo says:

      Which means they enjoy additional homefield advantage, since they have true DHs that they paid for while the NL teams do not.

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    • scatterbrian says:

      You make it sound like AL teams have a 26-man roster, as if they get an extra player. In reality, pitchers make up half a team’s payroll, and NL teams generally carry an extra pitcher in lieu of a DH.

      And it’s not as though every AL team has a shiny DH who slots into the middle of the lineup. Take out DHs, and the AL average drops from $95.8M to $89.1M. Keep in mind when you do this, you’re including guys like Carlos Guillen ($13M) and Jose Guillen ($12M) who were not signed as DHs in the first place.

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      • Bronnt says:

        Doesn’t the see the disparity in value between having a mop-up reliever and a DH on the roster?

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      • Tom B says:

        Bonnt – it’s the difference between having a paid DH player on your roster, or using your first bench batter during an AL series. Does that outweigh the paid extra RP that the NL teams have for NL series? I don’t know but someone here can probably figure that out.

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      • Bronnt says:

        I suspect that a lot of the disparity in records has to do with the AL have an extra home team advantage from the DH they carry. I expected to find that the NL teams are winning something like 53-55% of their home games (the league’s normal home team advantage) and the AL is winning disproportinately large.

        I couldn’t find the data anywhere, so I roughly pulled to the 2009 results out from baseball reference.com box scores.

        In 2009, the NL went 61-65 at home. The AL went 73-53.

        While it’s telling that AL teams are winning most of the games even without home team advantage, they’re really killing NL teams in their home park, which you might expect as a result of the DH on the roster.

        Anyone know where I might find an easier way to get the home/away splits for interleague, so we can look at this over multiple seasons?

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      • scatterbrian says:

        If NL teams don’t have to pay for a DH, that means they can spend more on other areas of their team. It doesn’t mean they simply pocket the extra DH money and pick up some cheap mop-up reliever.

        Also, when NL teams use a DH in interleague games, they don’t just pick a bench guy and slot him in at DH. More often they DH one of their position players and use a bench guy on the defensive end. This should improve their team offensively and defensively, and yet the AL still wins more games.

        Blaming the DH for the NL’s struggles against the AL is a tired argument. The real reason is because the richest AL teams (Yankees and Boston) have been great for the last decade while the NL’s rich teams (Mets, Cubs, Dodgers) have been on a roller coaster.

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  3. giveml says:

    The real difference seems to be in how much better run the large market teams are in the AL than the NL. Compare the Mets to the Yankees, the Cubs to the White Sox, the Angels to the Dodgers, etc. Houston is a huge market with an awful owner and a whole bunch of football fans. Philly is probably the only large market NL team that is well run and that is a relatively recent development.

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    • dutchbrowncoat says:

      good call. for comparisons sake though i would also want to investigate the difference between the lower end teams. while we are at it, separate each league into three tiers and run some comparisons.

      i am not sure i like the teams you compare though. i would ignore the case of the yankees and then compare the al/nl teams down the list from there. red sox to cubs, phillies to tigers, mets to white sox. those comparisons aren’t as bad from the NL perspective.

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  4. don says:

    The AL minus the Yankees still beats the tar out of the NL in interleague play, though as pointed out above the DH helps the AL to some extent in their home games.

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  5. dutchbrowncoat says:

    good post, but i would love to see more discussion on this

    - including the 2 extra team point, does this payroll difference correlate well with a measure of the team’s talent, measured by WAR or interleague play totals? (basically what i mean is does that extra 10 mil / 2.5 war theory relate to reality?)

    - you mention the case once the yankees are removed. that also prompts me to think of the case without boston, but then i get to thinking of the mets/cubs/phils being comparable in the national league. alternately, while the AL has the yankees / red sox swinging the average high, the NL has the marlins and padres swinging the league average low. maybe take a look / offer analysis for the case where you remove the best and/or worst 1-2 teams from each league

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  6. Jayson says:

    There was an article, I believe by Joe Sheehan, that looked at interleague win percentages. The difference is less AL vs. NL but AL East vs. Everybody Else. The AL East is so loaded in money, talent, and front office ability that it skews the entire AL. I think the AL excluding the AL East is marginally better than the NL, but not by a heck of a lot.

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    • The Hit Dog says:

      Okay, but excluding the AL East is excluding more than 1/3 of the teams in the AL. You can’t exclude almost half the data set as “outliers.” You can exclude the Yankees as an outlier because the team spends $50MM or whatever more than the 2nd highest-spending team.

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    • Seideberg says:

      For what it’s worth, and I know this is just one year, so may not be representative of the entire history of Interleague play, but the only teams in the AL with a losing record against the NL in 2009 were:

      Cleveland (5-13)
      Kansas City (8-10)
      Oakland (5-13)
      Toronto (7-11)

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      • 3rd Period Points says:

        From the perspective of a Royals fan, 2009 was somewhat abnormal. From ’05 through ’08 the Royals were 42-30 (.583) vs. the NL while going 220-356 (.382) vs. the AL. We look forward to playing the NL every year, even with the guaranteed home/away series vs. the Cards.

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  7. schmenkman says:

    In the first 9 years of interleague play (1997-2005), the two leagues played to a draw: NL .502, AL .498.

    It would be interesting to see what the salary difference was over this period.

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  8. DavidCEisen says:

    Is the title supposed to be a question or a statement?

    If it is a question, and thus aimed at getting reader input, it should be “Why is the AL better than the NL?”

    If it is a statement, and the article meant to explain why the AL is better than the NL, it should be “Why the AL is Better than the NL.”

    The article doesn’t really clear this up either, because no good reason is given for AL supremacy, nor does the author ask for any reader input.

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    • Steven Ellingson says:

      No good reason?

      “About $10 million extra dollars on the free agent market will get an AL team on average +2.5 WAR to be spread to its players.”

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  9. RiversQ says:

    I would like to know how much disparity there is between the leagues in other types of player development spending. It seems to me that total baseball related expenditure probably tracks better with overall performance.

    If the theory is that the AL also has better young talent, then the AL clubs are probably paying for it somehow. Do the AL clubs spend more money in Latin America? What about signing bonuses? Are they more likely to spend at the draft? How much of this information is readily available?

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  10. Scott says:

    The DH is an abomination of how baseball is supposed to be played. The AL will never be superior to the NL so long as they aren’t playing real baseball.

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    • Seideberg says:

      Yes, and pitchers flailing wildly at fastballs like middle school girls is how baseball is “supposed” to be played. Am I supposed to get excited because a pitcher actually makes contact and manages to pop out to second base?

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    • Steve says:

      One of the huge points of drama is having to decide whether to leave a pitcher in because he’s pitching well or to try and cash in the runs.

      That said the NL should either adopt this weak rule (if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em) or completely separate themselves from MLB — no Interleague play, no World Series.

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      • scatterbrian says:

        That “dramatic” scenario doesn’t come up quite as often as DH-haters think. Pitchers cannot hit, and making them do so does nothing positive for the game.

        Baseball was also supposed to be played during the day on fields with no fences by white guys who shared crappy gloves. Tradition isn’t always something that needs to remain intact. Things change. Get used to it.

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      • quincy0191 says:

        @scatterbrian:

        Steve is right on here. Having to account for the pitcher in a lineup completely changes the game, and for the better. With the DH, the entire lineup basically becomes:

        “How do you manage to do so well offensively?”
        “Well, I see ball, then I smash ball with bat. Ball fly far. We get runs. Everyone smash ball. Lots of runs.”

        instead of:

        “Well, depending on the situation, I’ll do different things. If I’m hitting sixth or seventh and the bases are loaded with no one out, I know I’ve to make something happen, because we’ve got the pitcher coming up soon and we can’t afford outs with this opportunity. So I’ll get a little more aggressive. But when I’m hitting second, I’ll be more patient, try to get a walk and get on base for the guys after me.”

        The DH removes a crucial element of strategy: how to get around the pitcher (for the offensive side) or how to get to the pitcher (for the defensive side). Pinch-hitting, bunting, intentional walks, etc. are all made more common once you have that weak spot, and deciding whether to pinch-hit for your ace during a close game, or walk the 8th place hitter in a tight spot is potentially a game-changing decision. With the DH, you really don’t have to make that kind of choice; even the eighth and ninth place hitters are better bets than the pitcher. Personally, I prefer an element of strategy; it allows the smarter teams to gain some ground, and I think we should reward smart baseball. And it’s not just me; I’ve never met any NL fan who likes the DH, and about half the AL fans don’t like it.

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      • Jason B says:

        DH doesn’t make baseball better or worse, just different. I love these proposed solutions though to this supposed “abomination” – separate from MLB entirely and boycott interleague play. “Hey doc, I have a hangnail, so I lopped off my entire arm!”

        /trys to talk the hysterics off the ledge/

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  11. Charles says:

    Here’s a theory:

    NL has 16 teams while AL has 14 teams. The difference is between the ALWest and the NLCentral. 4 teams duking it out for one playoff spot rather than 6 teams. When you have more teams gunning for one playoff spot, more teams are likely to call it a “rebuilding” year because the chances of winning decrease that much more. That’s perhaps why the AL West teams almost always seem to stay in the playoff mix whereas the NL Central teams, except the Cards, always suck it up.

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  12. Phylan says:

    Could you guys proofread a bit more? That first sentence is a disaster.

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  13. Icrywolf says:

    I wrote a long article on this a few years ago, but essentially, I think it comes down to the DH and free agency. Simply, hitters are safer bets than pitchers. AL teams devote more of their high-dollar signings to hitters, because they can field a DH — who tends to be an older, safer, more known quantity … or at the very least, someone whose defense is ignorable. In the NL, you don’t want to spend too much money on superfluous hitters on the high end (unless you want an outfield like the Dodgers had until recently). Thus, NL teams tend to allocate more high-dollar contract resources to pitchers, usually starters. Hitting is easier to predict than pitching. A fluke injury to a hitter usually derails a few months. The same issue with a pitcher can derail an entire promising career. Because NL teams are spending money on riskier free agents, their payrolls are less efficient, and they have to rely more on groomed talent and savvy trades for pre-free agency youngsters. This leads to (what I argue) is a product with more parity. Since all anyone ever measures the leagues by is their interleague records (lame) and the All-Star Game results (double lame), the W-L disparity makes the AL look awesome. It isn’t. I’d rather be a Padres fan than a Blue Jays fan right now, because at least there’s hope that San Diego can climb to the top of the NL West, even with all those big market payrolls to compete with.

    The NL is better than the AL, and it has nothing to do with pitchers flouncing about at the plate or whether or not the Yankees exist. I do believe that the DH sucks some of the strategy and drama out of the game, but I believe even more fiercely that it gives AL teams with big payrolls an unfair advantage in the free agency market.

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    • Steven Ellingson says:

      There is absolutely no way that the DHs alone account for this huge disparity.

      Also, the “pitchers are riskier” is overblown. When projections are made, risk is taken into account. Generally, free agents are signed based on projections. So, they aren’t making riskier investments.

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  14. Dann M. says:

    Icrywolf’s point about hitters being safer bets hits the nail on the head. Both National League and American League teams are gambling more or less equally on individual amateur, foreign, and free agent pitchers. Pitchers are, more or less, an equal risk in either league.

    American League teams have a decided advantage, however, in the pursuit of non-pitchers. A non-pitcher is less of a risk in the American League because of the DH rule. Furthermore, there is an additional position for a high-level hitter to play in the AL, whereas the National League merely can offer the 25th spot on the bench of a 14th position player, rather than a 12th pitcher. Elite hitters (historically post-injury Harold Baines, Edgar Martinez or Paul Molitor) are able to be everyday players in the American League, whereas they’d be forced to retire or, at best, be Matt Stairs clones in a world without a DH.

    Scatterbrian’s point about Carlos Guillen and Jose Guillen elucidates part of the point, as well. Neither Guillen was signed to be a DH. Carlos was a shortstop, moved to 3rd, then to LF, and is now a DH. Likewise, Jose’s defensive skills have eroded so badly that he is too much of a liability to play the field. In the NL, the step after defensive viability is bench player/pinch hitter. In the AL, it’s 600 plate appearances.

    National League teams have to consider age, health, and overall defensive abilities more so than their AL counterparts. They can offer fewer years and less money to such players than the AL teams can because defensive regression of a highly paid player in the NL can be absolutely crippling to a franchise. Can Alfonso Soriano and his $96 million/5 years remaining be a 130 game/6 innings-per-game player? In San Diego, all near-300 pounds of Kyle Blanks is traipsing around the PetCo outfield until either he or Adrian Gonzalez leaves town. In the AL, Kyle could be a pure masher.

    The DH rule allows AL teams to hedge their bets on risky signings, especially of veteran players who want a multi-year contract. The salary of an individual DH vs. that of a 12th pitcher is largely irrelevant. The comparison that needs to be made is the actual real-world value of a given non-pitcher in the AL vs. in the NL. Each and every non-pitcher with a good stick is worth more (perhaps as much as 0.5 wins/$1.5-$2 million more per year) to an AL franchise because they can slide him to DH, at least part time, as age and health diminish his defensive value.

    Let’s look at Joe Mauer’s contract. Mauer has a few more years as an elite catcher, most likely. But few guys have the longevity of Jason Kendall or Gary Carter. It is highly likely that, as time passes, he will spend more and more time taking a “day off” at DH. Or he might move to first base with Justin Morneau sliding to DH and displacing Jason Kubel. If Mauer had signed with an NL team for the same terms, his playing time would likely decrease from year to year. If he needed to shift to first base, then he would be displacing the first baseman, who then would need to be traded or benched.

    We all understand the fungibility of the bottom half of a given bullpen and the Andres Blanco-type defensive replacements on a bench. The Cubs aren’t winning or losing many games based on the presence of Justin Berg vs. the presence of farmhand Jeff Stevens in the 7th seat of the pen. But the National League does win and lose games to the American League based on the presence of Justin Berg in the 7th seat of the pen versus Jose Guillen batting 5th at home and pinch hitting in a clutch situation on the road. Professional hitters – whether they were signed as such or transitioned to the role – are far more valuable than borderline, replacement-level mop-up men. Outside of the dead weight contracts that are more likely to harm an NL team than AL team, money isn’t necessarily that much of an issue.

    Carlos Guillen as a pinch hitter in a 3-game series in an NL park is still worth far more to his team than a 12th pitcher/last fielder, such as Esmil Rogers of Colorado or Augie Ojeda of Arizona, is to the NL host. And the NL team visiting an AL park, generally, has poor DH options. The Cubs have Nady or Soriano; Colorado has Spilborghs or Giambi. But even Philly letting Stairs go is a deal because they now can choose from Gload or the Ibanez/Francisco split. NL teams, even contenders, aren’t able to budget roster or payroll space for players that can only pinch hit for 85% of the regular season in hopes of having a WS trump card.

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    • Icrywolf says:

      This is spot on. And I only want to take the point one step further and ask, does all this make the AL better? Even setting aside the “purist” reasons for disliking the DH, does the availability of a big money slot on the roster for a hit-only player make the AL more or less competitive? Let’s ignore the AL’s merits vs. the NL for a second and think about why AL big market teams seem to have such a wider advantage than NL big market teams. Couldn’t it be, at least partially, because AL GMs can simply spend their way to a better DH? Throw money and high-dollar years at the back end on contracts to enough veteran players, and you’ll be able to stock up a 1-9 order that has both mashing power and drawing power. Don’t forget, some DHs aren’t Carlos Guillens. Some are legitimate stars and fan favorites who bring butts to the ballpark long after their star-like qualities have started to fade (see: David Ortiz). Sellouts = interest = media contracts = payroll. The AL can use the DH to milk this revenue machine, while the NL, as Dann points out, faces a dilemma when its star players age.

      Does this make the AL better? It’s a legitimate question. Fans have favorites for a reason. And I suppose it’s pretty cool that aging stars get to hang around and play a few years more … so long as your team is one of the lucky ones that can afford aging stars. People like to see the DH. People argue long and hard that the best baseball is played in the AL. I just think, Pittsburgh Pirates aside, that the DH rule is contributing to a caste system in the AL that’s more iron clad than in the NL. Make CC Sabathia wave a stick around every few innings, and maybe those Yankee lineups won’t be so impossible for the Orioles and Blue Jays to crack.

      Everyone focuses on whether the DH is a good idea in terms of how the game is played on the field. I worry a lot more about its effect on how the game is played as a business. The NBA has a notorious disparity between the Eastern and Western Conferences. Imagine how much worse that disparity would get if the Western Conference adopted designated free throw shooters…

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  15. Josh says:

    The DH really does make the difference here. Suppose, for arguments sake, that the NL adopted the DH rule. The Nationals would (hopefully) choose to stick Adam Dunn at DH. Whoever they put at first would almost certainly be 1) a defensive upgrade over Dunn and 2) an offensive upgrade over the pitcher (who’s spot in the lineup he’d be taking, since Dunn would have been in the lineup regardless). The DH allows a team to be better both offensively and defensively. And like Dann M. said, Carlos Guillen is far more valuable as a pinch hitter than anyone most NL teams can throw out there.

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  16. ms says:

    The AL seems like a 3 team oligarchy with the Yanks, Sox and Angels ruling and making the playoffs every year. If these 3 teams were removed, is the AL more or less equal to the NL? I suspect it’s much more fun to be a fan of an NL team (minus being a fan of the 3 aforementioned teams) because it has not been ruled by 3 franchises for a decade. I’ve thought, rightly or wrongly, that the AL dominance of recent years could mostly be ascribed to the big 3 teams and that the other 27 teams are “in the same league”.

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  17. Steven Ellingson says:

    Jeff,

    Do you have the home/road records for interleague play? It would be interesting to see how the AL has played in the NL parks.

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  18. JL says:

    Good thing you took this down when you did because the AL hasn’t done sh*t against the NL the last two years.

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