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Why the NL Must Adopt the DH -- For Its Own Good


Mr. Selig, Tear Down this (DH) Wall


Warm Up Tosses:  I hadn’t written anything during June because my path to publication has taken another highly unusual and improbable turn.  On July 1, I’m relocating to Las Vegas for the remainder of the baseball season.  I spoke about this development during an hour-long appearance on The Damon Bruce Show, on the Bay Area Sports Leader, KNBR 1050, this past Wednesday.  You can listen to the interview here where I am featured during Hour 3 on June 27th:  (Note that I often have to refresh my browser a couple of times to get the imbedded podcast audio player to appear and list the available shows.)

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Consider this fact-based quandary faced by Investor B:  A spacious, 1,200-square foot, one-bedroom apartment in a Manhattan condominium comes up for sale.  The condo’s charter allows for the renting of units so two real estate investors decide to bid for the unit with plans to rent it out to tenants.  The New York City real estate market allows for pretty transparent price discovery for fair market rents and both investors have access to the same rate of financing.  Therefore, except for an assumption about the direction and magnitude of change future rents will take, it’s fairly easy to accurately determine the exact value of the property, from a rental real estate perspective.

However, to the chagrin of Investor B, there is one other factor which will inhibit her ability to outbid Investor A.  Investor A already owns a similarly designed 1,200-square foot, one bedroom apartment next to the one currently up for sale.  Thanks to a recent trend of families with two children remaining in Manhattan and eschewing a move to the suburbs, a huge premium exists in the rental market for two bedroom apartments.  For a fraction of the purchase price, Investor A can knock down a wall and convert the two units into one 2,400-square foot, two or three bedroom apartment, and receive more rent for the combined units than if each unit were rented separately.

As a result, Investor B knows she is going to lose the auction and worse, she can’t blame irrational bidding or deeper pockets of Investor A.  The property for sale simply has more utility to Investor A than Investor B.

That’s capitalism at work and, on the surface, there is nothing unfair about it.  But I’d ask San Francisco Giants fans this question:  What if the property in question isn’t a Manhattan condominium but instead a catcher named Buster Posey?

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I don’t think I’m going out on a limb when I say that when faced with evaluating two teams, the ideal way to determine which is the better team is to compare their records when they play each other.  The number of observations matters of course, and there are other factors that could be considered, but head-to-head results would have to be a heavily weighted factor.  If the Giants and Dodgers were to play all 162 games against each other and one team won 90 of those games, the other team’s fans would have a hard time disputing the superiority of the opponent.

Since interleague play began in 1997, through last season 2,712 regular season games were played between AL and NL teams.  Here are the results by league, 1997 through 2011: 

American League record:        1,939 – 1,773              .522

National League record:         1,773 – 1,939              .478

This is fairly compelling evidence that the teams in the American League, over the last 14 years have, on balance, been better than the teams in the National League.  That’s the common refrain that baseball fans have heard from commentators for more than a decade.  These results have certainly contributed to the narrative that propels that belief.

Therefore, I think I am going out on a limb when I say the American Leagues has been a little bit better than the National League since the advent of interleague play but the margin has been slim enough that it’s possible the difference in results is simple due to randomness.

Why the seeming divergence between the data and my conclusion?  For the same reason you wouldn’t say Investor A is superior to Investor B – they’re not competing on a level playing field.

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One of the more amazing constants in baseball is the value of home field advantage.  Across the last 100 years, home field advantage has unwaveringly been worth a 4% boost in win expectancy for the home team.  Only one decade in the last 100 years, the 1930s when home teams won 55.3% of the time, has home field advantage deviated from 4% by more than one-half percent.  This doesn’t mean that every single team will win 54% of its home games over time, but it does mean that no matter the overall level of talent on a team, over time, its home winning percentage should exceed its away winning percentage by 8%.  (Away teams, on average, win 46% of the time, or 8% less than home teams.)  It also means that when two evenly matched teams play, in the long run the home team will win 54% of the time.

Viewed through that prism, let’s take a look at the results of interleague play broken out by home and away games, 1997-2011.

AL record, away games:         871 – 985                    .469

NL record, home games:         985 – 871                    .531

Surprised?  National League teams have won just over 53% of their home games in interleague play.  Since the win percentage is below 54%, this suggests the American League, collectively, has been a little better over the last 15 season than the National League, but the results are possibly within randomness of the 54% level at which we’d conclude the leagues are evenly matched.  This would seem to contradict the narrative that the AL is vastly superior.  So where are the results that drive that narrative?

Here are the results of games played in American League ballparks. 

AL record, home games:         1,068 – 788                 .575

NL record, away games:         788 – 1,068                 .425

Looking at the results in this subset apparently leaves no doubt:  The American League is much better than the National League.  But I completely dismiss these results as irrelevant.  Why?  Because these games are played with a Designated Hitter and all the results prove is that the designated hitter used by American League teams is vastly superior to the marginal batter inserted in the line up nine times a year by National League teams.  The reason for this is simple:  National League teams have no economic incentive to pay for that ninth bat while American League teams do.  Why do AL teams, collectively, pay more for hitters? Because, like Investor A in the apartment illustration above, hitters have more utility for AL teams.

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Conveniently for those that like round numbers, according to Baseball Prospectus (via Cot’s Contracts, the on-line authority for MLB contracts) the 30 MLB teams will spend $3 billion on player salaries in 2012, for a nice round average of $100 million per team.  However, when separated by leagues the salary data yields some interesting tidbits:  Both leagues spend about $1.5 billion on salaries but, of course, there are 16 teams in the NL and only 14 in the AL.  Here’s the average team payroll by league:

AL:      $107.0 million

NL:      $94.4   million

AL teams spend 13.4% more per team than their NL counterparts.  The Yankees are the biggest spending team in baseball with a 2012 payroll of $209.6 million.  What if we calculate the league payrolls, ex-the highest spending teams?

AL:      $99.2  million  (ex-Yankees)

NL:      $89.2  million  (ex-Phillies)

The Yankees skew the data a little but ex-the highest spending outlier in each league, the AL still spends, on average, 11.1% more on payroll than the NL does.

I’d argue the difference in payroll isn’t because the AL has free-spending, irresponsible owners, or that the teams have a deeper revenue base to drawl from.  No, like Investor A, I’d argue that AL teams are simply being rational because the DH rule in the American League creates greater utility and therefore greater value for offensive players.

Taking a look at the biggest contracts in the history of baseball, you have to go all the way down to the 18th biggest contract to find a NL team that outbid an American League team for the services of a free-agent position player.  Given that the 18th biggest contract was the $136 million the Chicago Cubs committed to Alfonso Soriano for eight years of services tells you all you need to know:  If a National League teams outbids an American League team in an auction for a position player, it’s the very definition of winner’s curse.  

This is what should scare Giants fans.  In the coming years, Buster Posey is going to be free agent eligible and he will be more valuable to American League teams than he is to the Giants.  Look at the way the Twins, Indians, and Rangers utilize Joe Mauer, Carlos Santana, and Mike Napoli respectively.  Those “catchers” appear in more games and amass more plate appearances than their National League counterparts because they can be the designated hitter on days that they need a break from the rigors of catching.  (It’s also worth asking, would any National League team have traded a pitcher with the ability of Michael Pineda for catcher Jesus Montero?  The Yankees off-season trade of Montero was another form of auction.)  National League teams don’t have the opportunity to utilize those valuable bats on off-days except in pinch-hitting roles.  (Yes, the Giants have used Posey at first base this year, but all that does is block Brandon Belt from getting in the lineup.  Don’t get me started on that topic – see this Giants’ preseason preview: In essence, the Giants are just trading one underutilized asset for another.  That wouldn’t happen in the American League.)

Simply put, this isn’t fair.  No National League franchise should be put in the same position as Investor B.  All MLB players, (i.e. the assets on which teams competitively bid) should have the same value from a utilization standpoint for all teams.  Otherwise, Mark Texeria, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and the NL free agents of the future are all going to end up in the AL.

Since any change in the designated hitter rule requires acceptance from the players’ union, and because we see what the existence of the designated hitter does to total team salaries, it isn’t remotely possible to remove the designated hitter from the American League.  Therefore there is only one way to rectify the utility imbalance that currently exists: The National League must adopt the designated hitter.

*     *     * 

Postscript:  I started this article after the first round of interleague play when I realized that the quality of National League designated hitters was so bad.  After digging through the numbers above, I concluded the AL wasn’t nearly as superior in prior years as was assumed.  However, that isn’t the case in 2012.  Perhaps it has to do with the off-season talent transfer of Pujols and Fielder plus the addition of Yu Darvish to the American League but this year there is little doubt that the National League is collectively inferior to the American League.  NL teams won just 42.9% (and just 45.5% overall) of interleague home games this year, the lowest percentage since the adoption of interleague play.  To the extent the Pujols and Fielder defections played a role in that imbalance (the Tigers and Angels went 23-13 in interleague play while the Brewers and Cardinals went 14-16) can be attributed to the difference in league rules.

Mop Up Duty:

Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to Trading Bases, A Story about Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball*  (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release.

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Reader Comments (3)


Great post Joe but believe it or not I think it’s possible NL teams have an advantage over AL teams because of the DH rule. You make some good points about the advantages the AL has over the NL because of the DH in regular season games but I believe having a DH could actually put AL teams at an overall competitive disadvantage in terms of winning the World Series.

One area where not having a DH is an advantage for NL teams is in terms of managers and in-game strategy. Managers of NL teams are used to employing the necessary strategy when managing a game not involving a DH (double switches, pinch hitters, defensive replacements, sacrifice bunts, suicide squeezes, proper bullpen management, etc). When facing off in a World Series game in an NL stadium the NL manager will have an advantage over the AL manager who has little experience managing his team under NL rules. The AL manager of course will be familiar with the rules but he is at a disadvantage not only because he has very little experience with the rules but also because he won't know how his personnel react to certain situations created by the rules. For example an NL manager would know not to put Player X in left field as a late inning defensive replacement because he isn't at his best defensively when inserted cold off the bench. The same NL manager would know to use Player Y as a pinch hitter in situations when the team just needs to get a guy on base but not when they need a hr. The NL manager would also know not to use Player Z as a pinch hitter at all because not playing the in the field throws him off his rhythm. Managers that spend years using their players in certain situations will have a better understanding of how they will perform. The list could go on and on and these are just a few examples off the top of my head.

Baseball is a numbers game and I am a strong believer in sabermetrics but at the same time there are also intangibles that play a role in determining outcomes of games that can't easily be quantified. An AL manager in a pressure packed World Series game managing his club under rules he has little experience with is probably a disadvantage. Baseball players and managers rely heavily on routine and this can be thrown off when an AL team plays in an NL park. The advantages an NL team has in World Series home games likely outweighs the advantages that AL teams have due to their ‘superior’ roster. PLUS NL teams have the advantage in obtaining home field advantage for the World Series (discussed below).

Since 2000 the AL and NL have each won 6 World Series (Yankees included). Factoring out the Yankees (by far the highest spending team in all of baseball) since the introduction of the DH in 1973 the NL has won 17 World Series and the AL has won 14. I believe managers have more of an influence on World Series games than they do on random interleague games in June. When the stakes are higher they tend to 'manage' the game more.

NL teams are at a disadvantage during the regular season against AL teams but since all NL teams play interleague schedules no team is put at a disadvantage because of this in terms of reaching the playoffs and World Series. Also, now that home field advantage in the World Series is no longer determined by best overall season record you could argue that the NL really isn’t at any disadvantage by having to play (and lose the majority of) regular season games vs AL teams. Home field advantage in the World Series is now determined by the winner of the All Star Game. Theoretically if the All Star Game is played in an NL stadium the NL would have the same advantage because the AL manager has to manage without a DH. The unique roster situation of All Star games (roster full of super stars) would mean that the NL would not be at its usual disadvantage of not having a quality/expensive bat to use as DH when the All Star game is played in an AL stadium.

Love the site and looking forward to your next post.

June 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavis

Nice post Joe - interesting stuff as always.

I also listened to your appearance on the Damon Bruce show and the segment on your forthcoming initiative in Vegas. From time to time I have played with creating my own win % and betting the value, however on a much much smaller scale (both in terms of stakes and sophistication). With a full-time job and two kids I simply haven't had the time to develop anything further, which is really what would be needed. I'm also not sure that I have the intelligence :). I hope you keep this blog updated. If so I shall be watching with interest and I really wish you the best of luck.

I have a question. I'm from the UK and worked for a large sportsbook for 10 years. Consistent winners were always restricted. Players who had an edge were gradually squeezed in terms of stakes and eventually prevented from betting at all. This was more straightforward to do online however was also the case in land based sportsbooks, where default stake limts can be utilised and inidividuals became recognised.

Do you have such a concern? It sounds as though your stakes will be significant. I'm interested as to whether you have a strategy to deal with this, if you do see a risk (of course I wouldn't expect yoy to share said strategy...).

July 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVrev

Easy Home Noida

December 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEasy Home Noida

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