National League up in arms

The National League has been called the Senior Circuit for many years—I’m no historian so I won’t attempt to gather exactly how long. The American League has been the Junior Circuit for just as long, having been elevated to major league status in 1901, 25 years after the NL. These things tend to be cyclical, but currently the description doesn’t exactly fit. But the NL, though probably not consciously, is attempting to make strides to close that gap, and it’s with top-heavy pitching that it’s making that progress.

Let’s start in 2007 (salary numbers in 000s).

According to Baseball-reference (B-R), NL pitching was worth 156.3 wins above replacement (WAR) in 2007 while teams spent $534,052 on their arms. The AL spent less at $509,353 and finished with 199.6 WAR. Keeping in mind that the AL has two fewer teams (14 to the NL’s 16) is important, because they out-WARed the NL despite that. On a per team basis, the AL was worth 14.26 WAR per team and spent $36,382 per staff. The NL was worth just 9.77 WAR per staff at the cost of $33,378. The delta in WAR was about 4.49 wins per team, meaning the AL pitchers were worth, on average, four and a half more wins the each NL teams’ staff.

In 2008, it got a bit worse.

The NL was worth 152.7 WAR (9.54 per team) while spending $592,426 ($37,026 per team). The AL was worth 201.6 WAR (14.40 per team) while spending $507,727 ($36,266 per team). At a WAR delta of 4.86 per team, each AL pitching staff was now worth closer to a whopping five more wins above replacement than the average NL team.

The gap decreased in 2009.

The NL was worth 150.5 WAR (9.41 per team) while spending $629,191 ($39,324 per team). The AL was worth 172.4 WAR (12.31 per team) while spending f $521,720 ($37,266 per team). The WAR delta was trimmed to 2.91 wins, but the change was due largely to the AL pitching being worse as a whole, as opposed to better NL pitching.

Last winter Roy Halladay was traded from the AL to the NL when Toronto sent him to Philadelphia for a package that, unfortunately for Canadian baseball fans, left something to be desired. I won’t say one man can have a significant impact on the quality of pitching for an entire league, but if any man could, it’d be he.

In 2010, the delta increased slightly from of 2.91 more wins per AL team to 3.23 wins, but the NL saw its average pitching WAR per team jump from the previous year of 9.41 to 11.20 WAR.

The below table shows the NL pitching WAR by team in 2010.
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 3/7/2011.

Meanwhile, the AL saw its pitching WAR jump too, back to the mid-14s it had seen in 2007 and 2008, going to 14.43 wins per AL team.

The below table shows the AL pitching WAR by team in 2010.
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 3/7/2011.

If anything, though, the fact that the delta hovered around three as it had the year prior showed some evidence that 2009 wasn’t a fluke and the Senior Circuit’s pitching was actually improving.

The below table shows the pitching WAR and salary in each league from 2007-2010, as well as those figures on a per team basis.

Then came the winter of 2010. The Yankees were favorites to land the hotly sought arm of Cliff Lee, but a National League “mystery team” stunned the baseball world. The Phillies, who’d regretfully shipped Lee to Seattle in the winter of 2009 amidst their acquisition of Halladay, swept in to bring back their exiled left-handed ace. Lee liked his time in Philiadelphia—apparently his wife did too, possibly in part to the simple fact she wasn’t spat upon there—and probably blushed when he contemplated his new rotation on paper.

After that, the Royals moved their ace, and 2009 AL Cy Young award winner, Zack Greinke. Greinke was another prized arm that many clubs had their eyes on, considering the Kansas City Royals weren’t expected to contend for at least the next season (or ever, if we’re being honest), and Greinke’s contract was due to expire shortly. The Brewers, with an already depleted farm system, cleaned out about everything they had left and put together a package of enough quality to acquire the quirky righthander. They saw a window in a somewhat weak NL Central and decided to take a real shot at 2011. Each and every shot at postseason shouldn’t be taken lightly for a major league club, and with Prince Fielder likely walking after 2011, the Brewers astutely struck when the iron was seemingly hot.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

A couple weeks earlier, Milwaukee had landed another quality arm from the American League,sending sent second base prospect Brett Lawrie to the Blue Jays for Shaun Marcum. The Brewers had offense and sorely lacked pitching. In a span of two weeks, they got just that. They planned to lock up their second baseman Rickie Weeks (and later did), so the trade of fellow second baseman Lawrie made sense.

Suddenly, the top four of their rotation, consisting of Greinke, Marcum, Yovani Gallardo, and Randy Wolf, looked awfully formidable, able to compete with the Reds and Cardinals. And it only looks more impressive after Adam Wainwright’s unfortunate date with Tommy John surgery.

The Rays had a surplus of arms in their rotation and no luxury to hoard them given the financial constraints their market and ownership place on them. With Jeremy Hellickson likely slated to join the Tampa rotation—as he should—Andrew Friedman moved another quality arm over the NL. The Cubs were the beneficiary but sent a quality package (ESPN Insider) for Matt Garza’s services, the core of which was a promising shortstop by the name of Hak-Ju Lee.

Other arms swapped leagues too, I’m sure, but we would expect the change in wins to be considerably less without the “name brand’s” that Greinke and Lee bring. One example would be another pitcher who came back to the NL: Javier Vazquez. He had a monster 2009 but didn’t pitch nearly as well in New York after being traded to the Yankees last offseason. He returns to the NL East in 2011, though this time he’ll be with the Marlins instead of the Braves. Again, other arms almost certainly made the switch, but we’ll assume a ceteris paribus (or one to one change) for the purposes of this piece.

According to baseball-reference, Lee was worth 4.3 wins, Marcum 3.8, Greinke 2.4 and Garza 2.0. That’s a change of 12.5 wins going from the AL to the NL. Ceteris paribus, that makes the NL now worth 191.7 wins (11.98 per team) and the AL worth 189.5 wins (13.54 per team). It doesn’t change the balance of power completely, but it certainly puts a dent in what the AL once had in pitching superiority.

What’s more, there’s reason to believe the 2010 WARs of both Lee and Greinke (and Garza and Marcum for that matter) will be improved in 2011. The obvious reason is that we’ve seen recent examples of pitchers faring better when switching from the AL to the NL. We saw it with Brad Penny in 2009, going to the Giants. We also have seen it go the other way; a good example would be Vasquez’s troubles last season after being a Cy Young candidate in 2009 while in the National League. Also, these four will no longer face a DH. Instead, they’ll face a near automatic-out pitcher.

And that’s not all. Lee probably didn’t have the best of luck in 2010. The disparity in his Baseball Reference WAR—which is run-based—and FanGraphs WAR – which is fielding-independent pitching (FIP) based—would indicate as much. His 4.3 WAR according to B-R was dwarfed by the 7.1 WAR FanGraphs gave him credit for, down just 0.1 wins from his 7.2 WAR (also according to FanGraphs) that earned him a Cy Young award while pitching for the Indians in 2008.

And there’s indication that Greinke was just bored in 2010; that in addition to going to a weaker hitting league that doesn’t require facing a DH every nine batters, he’ll improve by simply getting the chance to compete in something he never has: A pennant race.

Or maybe it’s just easier to put it this way: In the span of two offseasons, the NL has added the 2003 AL Cy Young award winner in Roy Halladay—he of course already won the NL award in 2010—the 2008 AL Cy Young award winner in Cliff Lee, and the 2009 AL Cy Young award winner in Zack Greinke. And they added Garza and Marcum for good measure.

Allow me, for my final act—perhaps for dramatic effect—to throw out a list of aces in each league off of the top of my head.

National League: Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Josh Johnson, Ubaldo Jimenez, Mat Latos, Clayton Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Cole Hamels, Roy Oswalt, Adam Wainwright, Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke, Chris Carpenter, Johan Santana, Wandy Rodriguez

American League: Justin Verlander, Jon Lester, David Price, Felix Hernandez, CC Sabathia, Jered Weaver, John Danks, Francisco Liriano, Josh Beckett, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Dan Haren

The AL list appears slightly shorter and, in aggregate, of slightly less quality, but that’s just me. Also, the field of NL aces has nine Cy Young awards among them, the AL just two. Were we to have included Brandon Webb and Jake Peavy—each of whom has since gone to the AL—that total would go to four. But, each essentially has a broken wing until he proves otherwise. These awards certainly don’t mean everything, but they mean something. And if you were looking for the top fantasy starting pitchers in baseball, I suspect the list would have more NL starters.

Yes, I do believe the National League has drastically changed its position in terms of pitching inferiority, if it has not razed the previously notable gap between the two leagues completely. The change has been drastic, and it’s happened in short order. Impressive.

As for the hitters, let’s just say it’s still a work in progress. And, I should add, if Albert Pujols should find his way over to the American League after 2011, that work will become much more daunting. As with Halladay, if one man can make a significant impact, it is he. After all, the AL’s edge with the bats is well-documented and, unlike with the pitching to this point, not diminishing.

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Eric R
13 years ago

“The National League has been called the Senior Circuit for many years—I’m no historian so I won’t attempt to gather exactly how long. “

Well the first mention of the phrase “Senior Circuit” in a baseball related article from the New York Times archives was on 12/2/1917, and 12/13/1918 for “Junior Circuit”.

Rory / Paapfly
13 years ago

Awesome, thanks!

Rory / Paapfly
13 years ago

Well, if you’re going to told where you went wrong by someone…

Thanks for commenting, MGL. Love your work. Ok, so I went about testing this thesis in the wrong way. But, I’m curious, would you say the NL is improving in this area, relative to the AL?

Julian Levine
13 years ago

Nice write-up, Rory. Wainwright’s injury will probably counteract one of the addition of one of the NL’s new aces, though. Nevertheless, things are moving in the right direction. I’d love to see more competitive pitching in the NL.

I’ll add that the NL has the best two rotations in baseball, hands-down.

13 years ago

I’m not exactly sure how B-R distinguishes WAR between the leagues, but wouldn’t a Little League with around 15 teams also have around 200 WAR among their pitchers?  Would that make them equivalent in talent to the MLB?

In other words, unless B-R is adjusting their pitching WAR to account for the difference in pitching talent between the two leagues, and I am not sure how they would know the difference in talent, using WAR cannot possibly tell you anything about the relative quality between the two leagues, as my Little League example illustrates.

Now, how much each league spends on pitching would help, but that is a rough approximation.  I would certainly adjust for protected (pre-FA) player salaries before I drew any conclusions about relative quality based on salaries.  And even then, there could be more efficient (in terms of paying for WAR) teams in one league than the other.

And then be careful about cherry picking a few players that go from one league to the other in the off-season.  It is true that that is part of the shift of balance, but so is the quality of the players who retire or are cut from each league, the new players in each league (prospects being called up), existing players that either get less or more playing time, and unforeseen injuries before and during the season (like losing Wainwright).

For what it is worth, here is what I got doing extensive research on change in pitching talent from year to year in each league:

07 to 08

NL pitching got a little better, AL got a little worse.

08 to 09

NL pitching got a lot better, AL a little better.

09 to 10

NL pitching got a little better, AL a lot better.

10 to 11

I don’t know yet. It is a lot harder to say before the season starts.

13 years ago

Rory, thanks.  See my numbers above.  As far as this year, I am not sure. I have not looked at the projected playing time for players in both leagues for 2011.  That might give you some idea as to any transfer of talent this year.

“Ok, so I went about testing this thesis in the wrong way.”

I’m not really sure.  It depends on how B-R computes WAR for each league.