I'm taking a little break from teaching topics to dissect something I have been wanting to look at for some time. This being summer time and with the NFL and NBA locked out and the 2011 All Star Game upon us, I turn my attention to baseball. There are several prominent journalist types who have a high opinion of the American League. Among those I pay attention to, Bill Simmons (JackO in tow) and John Gruber come to mind. All are fans of AL teams, so naturally, you want to know that you're rooting for a quality product and your writing will reinforce that. As I'm a fan of the Houston Astros, that's tough to do these days. So I dug through some numbers to see if I could understand why there's not a lot of love for the NL and see if the AL as a league really should be considered superior.
I will examine Inter-league play and the resulting All Star Game and World Series winner, World Series winners since 1995, and spend some time ruminating on the signature AL franchise, the New York Yankees.
It's really easy to see how the public could see the AL as a dominant force. If you look at the performance of each league during Inter-league Play, it's pretty clear the addition has worked out in favor of the AL. Just for grins, I took a given years Inter-league record and noted who won the All Star Game and the World Series that year. Now, using the All Star Game as a metric is a little silly. It's exhibition, and the recently added gimmick of awarding home field for the World Series to the winner hasn't had much of an impact. But, it's nationally televised and a lot of fans enjoy seeing all the top talent compete against one another. And up until last year, the American League was merciless in its domination of this event. So if you're a casual fan and pay a little attention, it would seem that Inter-league play and the All Star Game clearly say Advantage: AL. However, the resulting World Series winner raises an interesting point of contention.
Going forward, nearly all of my data is from 1995-2010, when baseball adopted its current division alignment and playoff system. Using earlier data skews the message as the odds of making the playoffs and World Series were much different over time as the league expanded, and the goal of this task is to examine recent feelings of AL dominance, not historical. Though I will address some history in a minute.
The World Series has lost some of its glitter in recent years. The rise of the NFL's popularity and the increase in TV options has been keeping people away from the Fall Classic. But, the last 15 years have been some of marked parity in baseball, a point of pride for MLB. While the NBA crowned 8 champions in 15 years (12 of those shared by 3 teams), baseball has seen 10 champions in the same time period. And a further interesting note is that the NL and AL are nearly even, 7 titles to 9, respectively. Baseball should be patting the National League on the back, the parity they pride themselves on is clearly evident when you break down NL winners since 1995. The AL...doesn't share the wealth. And that's where my main point begins. The AL seems dominant not because it's a superior league, but because two teams in particular capture most of the attention and success, and therefore, the most hearts and minds. Casual fans like winners, just ask kids. They're the best at frontrunning.
The Yankees have had a lot of success since 1995. Some fans enjoy lauding the fact that they have the most championships of any American professional team, at 27. While I respect that it is tough to be that successful year after year, the Yankees and their fans get to gloat because a few things work in their favor. First, the Yankees have been around since 1901 and MLB is ok equating the game of 100 years ago with the version played today despite many new teams, rule changes, and an influx of pharmacy visits. A World Series title from 1922 is given the same weight of one won today. This is silly. The Yankees have won a lot of championships because they have been around forever, and for a long period of time, their odds of appearing in the World Series were nearly double what they are today. For 60 years the AL only had 8 teams, and there was no ALCS, the team with the best record went to the World Series. Rather than championships, they should be congratulated on taking advantage of good odds. Of the 27 championships, 18 were won from 1901-1960. So unless you're a Yankee fan in their 60s or 70s, claiming greatness for dozens of titles that were earned long before you were born is a little shady.
I have broken down Yankees' World Series wins and appearances by different eras. I determined eras by when teams were added to the American League. Since there was no expansion for 60 years followed by three instances in short bursts, I made a second chart comparing wins and appearances in two eras, 1901-1961 and the Expansion Era that started in 1962 lasting until present day to let the bars represent more similar periods of time. Categorizing 1961 is odd because there were 9 teams in the AL but a 10th was added in 1962. And it cannot be ignored because the Yankees won the World Series in 1961.
Pointing to the banner that says "27 World Championships" does not properly tell the story. They have won 9 since baseball started looking like it does today. Though 9 is still a lot more than others. And my next point shows why with more evidence of a lopsided league.
The Yankees like to celebrate championships. Any season without a World Series title is a failed season. They think its cute when your mid-market club of choice raises a division title flag. And given the number of chances the Yankees have had at the World Series, you could understand that point of view. AL clubs have to make the most of it when the Yankees let someone else play. I tallied up playoff appearances for all 30 teams since 1995 and some interesting stuff jumps out. First, the AL East and NL East seem downright unfair. Second, anyone in the AL West or NL West always has a fighting chance. Third, sucks to be Toronto, Kansas City, Washington, and Pittsburgh.
The Marlins always win the World Series when they make the playoffs, by the way.
So in the American League you have two teams you can always count on to be in the playoffs (you're this close Cleveland). In fact, the playoffs have included Boston or New York every year since 1995. Boston and New York happen to be two of the biggest markets in baseball, so guess whose playoff games always get the best time slots of FOX? Guess how many people have seen those combined 24 playoff appearances in 16 years? Guess how many pink hats that sells?
While over, it should be observed that Atlanta enjoyed quite the golden age in this time period. Sadly, they only managed 1 World Series win.
Alright, last observation. Those of you who are not fans of the AL probably scream "of course they always win, they spend the most money!" In a couple cases, yes. Overall? Wild spending in baseball is really quite even. Here is a comparison of total payroll and average team payroll between the two leagues from 1995-2010. The NL has plenty of big spenders. They just need better scouts. It's very interesting that as a league, the NL almost always spends more than the AL. But back to parity, if you look at the averages, it's a case of more NL teams willing to spend a similar amount of money while the AL has more teams willing to way out spend their fellow members.
These numbers are not adjusted for inflation. The focus is not the amounts, but the delta between the amounts spent in a given year.
So, does spending the most money guarantee success? Can you buy a championship? Atlanta and St. Louis have the most playoff appearances in the NL. And while both spent above the NL average every year, there is a sign of a little (with Albert Pujols expecting to get a $300 million contract, emphasis on a little) fiscal responsibility. Atlanta is even trending back below average and made the playoffs last year and is poised to do so again this year. The American League story is so very different. Boston and New York have the most playoff appearances and on paper, seem to have bought their way there. But that correlation does not mean causation. Both teams seem to know who has the talent without a care in regards to the cost. Notice both of those teams are trending up far away from their league members. The Yankees have spent the most every year except one, when Toronto was feeling lucky. The rest of the league has convince players it should be about the love of the game. Right, Tampa Bay?
Again, no adjustment for inflation, the point is to see the delta, not worry about the numbers. You can fill volumes on the validity of the amount of money being thrown around here.
In conclusion, the data points out some really interesting things. The NL allows any given team a chance to make the World Series and the NL, as a whole, can hang with the AL when something of value is on the line. The AL? Well, let's just hope you wound up in the right division. As to AL dominance: it's not a better league, but it does have a couple bullies.
And from time to time, it seems other AL teams are very aware of their hard lot in life. Tonight Orioles pitcher Kevin Gregg and Boston DH David Ortiz got in a little tiff. Gregg had this to say afterward (from ESPN):
"I think you show them that we're not backing down. We're not scared of them -- them and their $180 million payroll," said Gregg, who angered Ortiz with back-to-back inside pitches. "We don't care. We're here to play the game. We have just as much right to play the game here and we're going to do everything we can to win."