AL Vs. NL: On The Offensive

Throughout my fantasy career, it has always been my practice to select as many American League players for my offense as I could possibly get my hands on. Conversely, I would always lean toward obtaining an almost National League-exclusive pitching roster. The logic is pretty simple: the AL has a reputation of possessing better hitters, not to mention the presence of the Designated Hitter and lack of a pitcher in the lineup - at least when an AL team isn’t playing in an NL park that is.

What’s interesting about this theory is that it has always remained just that: a theory, without any statistical verification. I’ve never looked up any numbers, nor performed any analysis and certainly never bothered to see if my yearly practice was fool’s gold.

Until now!

And after some research, the bottom line is that the difference between the two leagues isn’t as drastic as I’d imagined. Before we go too far down the commentary road, let’s take a look at some of the 2012 numbers. In the interest of keeping the numbers in context, I’ll be using team averages. There were also more teams in the NL than AL, so the totals essentially become irrelevant.
Runs: AL – 720.5 vs. NL – 683
Hits: AL – 1412 vs. NL – 1392
AVG: AL – .255 vs. NL – .254
HR: AL – 178.5 vs. NL – 152
RBI: AL – 688 vs. NL – 648
BB: AL – 492 vs. AL – 488
SB: AL – 107 vs. NL – 108
OPS: AL – .731 vs. NL – .718
So, while the AL does have an advantage in most of the significant offensive statistics, in most cases the difference is basically negligible. The HR totals are one of the more glaring disparities, but either a guy can hit homers or he can’t. If you’re looking for power, focus on the player’s abilities (and maybe ballpark) rather than the league they play in. The RBI number comes into play more because you would want a guy to be on a team that is collectively producing a lot of runs – runs he can score and runs he can drive in.

Out of curiosity, I decided to check out how a few teams performed offensively against their own league, as opposed to during interleague play. At random, I looked up the run production for the Yankees, Rangers, White Sox, Reds, Brewers and Braves. Of these squads, only the Reds were able to remain consistent when playing the AL and the NL, putting up 4.13 and 4.11 runs on those opponents respectively. The other 5 teams had a harder time putting up runs on the opposing league’s teams. This makes a little sense when you consider the AL teams are forced to have inexperienced pitchers facing other big-league pitchers. Where it gets interesting though, is looking at the Brewers and Braves who went from 4.86 to 4.22 and 4.44 to 3.33 respectively when transitioning to games against the AL. I suspect a lack of familiarity with opposing pitching is the leading culprit for this statistical quirk, and we do have to remember that this is during a small sample so there could be statistical variance. While this may not help determine whom you should draft, it may help you set your lineup this season as we transition to the unbalanced schedule, where interleague play is happening every week.

The sweeping generalization I have been making with regards to offensive production over the last few years appears to have been an unfounded assumption. I think when it comes to offensive output, it is more important to look at the historical output of certain teams, and not what leagues those teams play in.

Can the same be said of pitching?

One might be tempted to think the NL has the advantage of pitching in a league where they are always facing opposing pitchers once every few innings. Let’s take a look at some historical rankings for Major Leage Baseball…

2012: 

  • NL with 6 teams in the top-10 in ERA
  • NL with 5 teams in the bottom-10 in ERA

2011:

  • NL with 7 teams in the top-10 in ERA
  • NL with 4 teams in the bottom-10 in ERA

2010: 

  • NL with 6 teams in the top-10 in ERA
  • NL with 4 teams in the bottom-10 in ERA

What’s interesting about those numbers is that of the 19 different NL teams appearing in the top-10, 10 different franchises are represented. In contrast, the AL only has 6 franchises that make an appearance in the top-10 in the last three years. It becomes harder to make a case that a team is the determining factor in pitching success and easier to lean toward the idea that it depends more on the league affiliation. So, while there are certainly a few NL clubs you may want to avoid in terms of pitching personnel (the Cubs and Rockies fall in that category), it is a safer play to lean toward an NL pitcher when in doubt on who to select in your draft.

While your draft is likely still several weeks away, try to remember what you’ve learned here. Whether on offense or defense, any fantasy player’s past and outlook are certainly the most important factors in determining the best selection. After that, it should depend on what you need; if it’s offense, I would take good hard look at what team the guy plays for and how they’ve produced in recent years. If all things are still close, it may behoove you to pick the AL batter. If it’s pitching you need, start your focus on the NL pitchers and select a historically good pitching team from that lot. It may not always work, but at least it shifts the odds in your favor a little bit. Plus, if you are able to establish any kind of AL batters-to-NL pitchers balance, it will reduce all those awkward moments when your pitcher is facing your batter, leaving you wondering who or what to root for. Woo-hoo!

Greg Ward is a new contributor to RotoAnalysis. Follow his work all season long on RotoAnalysis.com and follow him on Twitter @GWard1202!

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3 Responses to AL Vs. NL: On The Offensive

  1. Greg Ward January 21, 2013 at 21:12 #

    Bill – thank for reading and leaving your comments. The numbers are swayed in those categories, probably as you suspected. Only 2 AL clubs cracked the top-9 in last year’s WHIP rankings, when only taking starters into account. Similarly, only 3 AL teams were in the top-11 in ERA for starters. Things even out a bit when looking at reliever-only numbers: AL has 6 of top 11 in WHIP and 4 of top 11 (2-6) in ERA.

    • Bill January 23, 2013 at 22:41 #

      Thanks for the follow up. Keep up the good work!

  2. Bill January 21, 2013 at 16:20 #

    Interesting overview. I normally slant towards having NL pitchers, but don’t feel the need to stay away from NL hitters.

    Most of the differences in the batting numbers (gaps in R/HR/RBI) seem to show what the average DH would do in place of pitcher and bench ABs the NL gets.

    I would be more interested to see what the difference in WHIP and K/9 is between SPs in each league.

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