Will NL turn it around in interleague play?
Is the American League still the superior circuit? One way or another, the next round of interleague play will give us our best answer to this question.
First, yes, the AL is better. The obvious retort is that the NL won last year's World Series and All-Star Game, but that's a perfect example of the small sample size at work. For a much larger, much more meaningful data sample, consider what interleague play has yielded since the 2005 season, when the AL truly began lording over its older brother (in 2004, the AL went 126-125 against the NL).
The AL's overall record over this span is 847-664, which comes to a winning percentage of .561, which, over 162 games, would come to a record of 91-71. That's how much better the AL has been over the past six seasons. As well, since 2005, just the Rockies, Marlins (one game over .500) and Cardinals (two games over .500), among NL squads, have winning records in interleague play. Conversely, over in the AL, just the Rays (two games below .500), Orioles, A's, Indians and Jays have losing records against the senior circuit. To put a finer point on it, even the Royals, lowly and miserable though they were, have posted a 58-50 record against the NL since '05. And all this is not because of any sort of structural advantage related to the DH rule: As the Platoon Advantage has noted, AL teams have enjoyed an inordinate amount of success on the road during interleague play.
So with the 15th installment of interleague play in the offing, the question isn't whether the AL is better. It demonstrably is. The question is this: Why is the AL better than the NL? Like most questions of such a broad nature, this one defies a tidy answer. However, two factors probably play a greater role than any other. Those are: a) the amount of money spent by AL teams, not only on payroll but also on player development; and b) the front-office "talent gap" between the two leagues.
On the money front, the payroll disparities are obvious. Four of the top five payrolls belong to AL clubs, and even after you remove the outlying Yankees from the calculus, the AL still has a higher average payroll (albeit by a small margin). Things might actually get worse in the near-term. The Mets, Dodgers and Cubs — three teams that occupy what should be the NL's signature markets — are all financially stricken (Dodgers), ineptly run (Cubs) or both (Mets). All three franchises embody lost opportunity on the part of the National League.
Moreover, there's more than "mere" payroll disparity at work. As Matt Swartz of Baseball Prospectus has demonstrated, AL teams in recent years have spent more on draft signing bonuses than NL teams have. This despite picking fewer players overall (16 teams in the NL, 14 in the AL) and generally picking lower in the draft (because of free-agent compensation and the prevailing drift of ranked free agents from NL to AL teams). By extension, AL teams spend more per pick than NL teams do, and this has yielded, at least in recent years, better young talent in the AL.
Perhaps the main driver, however, is that the AL has better front offices in place. That's a subjective thing, and as such it's impossible to quantify. But consider what the AL has going for it: The very successful "team of rivals" approach in the Bronx, Theo Epstein and his many-tentacled staff in Boston, Jon Daniels and Nolan Ryan in Texas, the former Wall Street guys in Tampa (baseball's top front office), Billy Beane in Oakland, the resourceful Alex Anthopoulos in Toronto, the scouting-centric outfits in Anaheim and Minnesota, the bold Kenny Williams on the South Side of Chicago, Dave Dombrowski in Detroit, and so forth.
The NL, to be sure, has a few skilled operators. Larry Beinfest in Florida is among the best around, as is Walt Jocketty in Cincy. Kevin Towers in Arizona, Jed Hoyer in San Diego, Sandy Alderson in Queens — all are highly capable execs. But there's no question that the field of GMs/decision-makers is deeper in the American League. To state the obvious, that leads to better results on the field.
With all that said, are things finally about to change? Has the NL made up some ground, both on the field and in the executive suite? It's too soon to say, but the upcoming round of interleague play will provide us with some early returns.