26 August 2016

The NL Needs A Handicap For Interleague Play

Tom Boswell of the Washington Post wrote the other day that the Nationals were a superior team to the Orioles despite the fact that the Orioles annually spank the Nationals in interleague play. As anyone that is familiar with Boswell's work could surmise, his argument was pretty simple. Over the past seven seasons, the Nationals have won more games every year except for 2014 when they tied. In addition, Boswell also noted that the Nationals have a larger average attendance than the Orioles --- unsurprising given that D.C. is twice the size of Baltimore.

Boswell’s metric of using overall wins is reasonable on the face. After all, we use total wins and record to decide which clubs go to the playoffs. However, it isn’t clear that total wins can be used to compare clubs in the National and American Leagues. Teams play most of their games against teams in their own league, so if the NL is far inferior to the AL in a given season, then total record would tell me little. After all, we wouldn’t say that the Tides are better than the Nationals if the Tides had a better winning percentage in a given year.

The way to test this is by seeing how the two leagues do in interleague play. When we do that comparison, it becomes pretty clear that total wins isn’t the best parameter to compare clubs in different leagues for at least 2016. Through 8/24, 266 interleague games were played. In those games, the AL held a 146-120 advantage. This is good for a 54.9% winning percentage and would put a random team in the AL on pace to win 89 games against a team in the NL. The average AL team would be a wildcard contender if they could just play against NL teams.

Of the 15 teams in the AL, only 5 are below .500 against opponents in their league. These five clubs have gone just 38-51 against the NL, resulting in a 42.7% win percentage. Against the AL, these five clubs have gone 232-308 resulting in a 42.96% win percentage. It appears clear that the bad teams in the AL haven’t improved their record by playing against teams in the NL. However, the ten teams in the AL that are above .500 have gone 580-504 against other teams in the AL for a 53.5% win percentage. They’ve also gone 108-69 against teams in the NL for a 61% win percentage. This puts top teams on pace to win 98.85 games against the NL. This indicates that pretty much any of the top teams in the AL would have the best record in the majors if they could just play against NL clubs. Unfortunately for them, that’s not an option.

In contrast, 8 out of 15 teams in the NL are below .500 against other NL teams. These teams have a 41.4% winning percentage against the AL and a 44.2% winning percentage against the NL. This is what you’d expect to see if the AL is stronger than the NL. In addition, the 7 teams above .500 in the NL have a 56.7% winning percentage against the NL and a 49.2% winning percentage against the NL. Basically, the story that this data is telling is that even the best teams in the NL are only as good as the average AL club. And these top seven NL clubs are largely padding their record by beating up on teams like the Braves, Phillies and the Reds. It’s probably no coincidence that Jimenez had an excellent outing last night because he played against an NL team. This chart shows the data above.

Meanwhile, while the NL is largely getting dominated by the AL, the AL East has shown itself to be the strongest division in the pack. At 278-263 against other AL teams, the AL East is the sole division with a winning record against the AL. This means that while the Orioles play most of its games against the strongest competition, the NL plays most of its games against weak competition.

The Nationals, in a division devoid of any quality competition, have staked themselves to a seven and a half game lead. They’re almost a lock to make it to the playoffs. To a certain extent, it doesn’t really matter. Each team in the division plays roughly the same schedule, so each team has a fair chance of winning their division. However, it does suggest that the Orioles would have a higher winning percentage than they do if they were able to play AAAA teams like the Nationals. Obviously, this suggests that Boswell’s argument is flawed. The AL is simply far better than the AL and therefore you can’t compare win percentage between two teams in different leagues. It probably means you can’t compare runs scored and allowed without controlling for the better quality in the AL either.

Per Wikipedia, a golf handicap is a numerical measure of a golfer's lack of ability. In match play, bad golfers are given a handicap so that they have a chance to compete with good golfers. Perhaps MLB should consider the same concept for inter-league play. They could spot NL teams a one run lead, or perhaps give them an extra out every third inning. Because it sure doesn't seem that NL teams can compete against good AL teams without some kind of help.


James Jones said...

Does anyone know the exact affect of the Nationals on the O's team coffers? Their affect on ticket sales at Camden Yards presumably cost the team some payroll but that loss should have been covered ten times over by the team's income from MASN. Had the Expos landed elsewhere, would the O's payroll in 2016 have been larger or smaller?

Matt P said...

The Orioles had Deloitte do an analysis back in roughly 2005 or so. Deloitte found that the Nationals coming to DC would cost the Orioles I believe between 25 and 33% of its revenue and $50 million per year. I'd have to reread the report to be certain.

To the best of my knowledge, MLB didn't take issue with these numbers or commission a different firm to do an analysis in response. The actual amount would presumably have grown since then even if the percentages remained stable.

Obviously, the amount that the Orioles receive in profit from MASN, even if MASNs profit margins are ultimately accepted, wouldn't come close to making up the damage that the creation of the Nationals inflicted on the Orioles. It also isn't clear that MASN is more profitable because the Nationals exist. Therefore, there's no question the Os payroll in 2016 would be higher if the Nationals weren't in DC.

Roger said...

OK, Matt P, nice article and good O's-based analysis. What happens if you control for the DH? Granted, that the AL team is weakened playing in the NL park but only brought down to the same level as the NL team. NL teams don't keep DHs on the bench so they do not get as much boost in the AL park. The difference between having Papi and Pedro A/Trumbo and EE is pretty big compared to some of the all-field, no-hit guys NL teams keep on the bench for late innings. Plus AL teams likely have a deeper bullpen because there are fewer opportunities to PH for the pitcher and use more bullpen arms. Not sure you have an apples-to-apples comparison here yet.

James Jones said...

Let's look at attendance first. According to Baseball Almanac, the O's annual attendance peaked in '97 at just over 3.71M and it began to slide down every year thereafter until 2004 when it crept back up to 2.74M. The drop from '04 to '05 was negligible, so the Nats' arrival didn't seem to affect it too much out of the box. Perhaps fans had already paid their O's partial plans. The big drop began the next season, 2006, when the O's welcomed only 2.15M, or almost 500K paying customers less than 2004. That seems to have established the new level of fan base for Camden Yards as no year since has seen a drop anywhere near comparable.

The average ticket price in 2006 was $22.53, so the lost gate revenue is somewhere near $11M, and since that drop was never matched let's use it as our basis for ticket buyers lost to the Nats. Fair?

Compare that to the team payroll. According to Stevetheump.com (OK, a questionable source I grant you), the O's team salary increased by almost 50% from '04 to '05 ($51M to $74M) and another 20% from '06 to '07 ($72M to 93M). It bounced up and down around that '07 level for another SEVEN YEARS until '14 when the team finally saw another big jump ($90M to $107M). Is it reasonable to assume that the MASN influx is responsible for these increases?

But the MASN Agreement stipulated that the O's would receive $25M per year starting in 2007 and increasing to $29M in 2001. So why didn't the O's salary increase accordingly?!? OK, stevetheump could be wrong but probably not by that much!

I don't think you can say with any certainty that the arrival of the Nats cost the O's in the pocketbook. In the stands? Sure, to the tune of about 500K a year, but that lost revenue– even if we double it to $22M– would be more than covered by the MASN payment.

It's a shame that the actual numbers are unavailable. It would be nice to know if Angelos is being screwed or is doing the screwing.

Jon Shepherd said...

the real issue is not fan base, but corporation base.

Matt Perez said...

The DH probably plays a role in AL superiority. Although, AL teams are 78-58 against NL teams on the road where there is no DH. But still, if AL teams are able to crush NL teams due to better rules that help them evolve (the DH), wouldn't that still mean they're better? Does AL superiority have to be innate or can evolution play a role?

But I agree that it may be impossible to compare AL teams to NL teams based solely on winning percentage. Or maybe it means that NL teams should invest in a DH.

Matt Perez said...

James - Deloitte projected a loss of about 800k fans due to the Nationals coming to DC. That's reasonably close to your estimate, and they know where their fans actually bought tickets from before coming to town.

But those 800k were likely richer than the fans coming from Baltimore. DC is richer than Baltimore after all. And while Baltimore is below average, DC is comparably rich. So, DC fans are willing to pay high prices while Baltimore fans pay low prices. That's why the Nationals charge more than the Orioles. It's also why Deloitte projected a $20M loss in attendance due to the Nationals coming to town rather than your $10M. Deloitte projected a $25M loss not $50M. My fault.

As for payroll, there are a number of factors leading into that decision. Having a winning team in 2012 helped the Os decide to add payroll in 2013 at the middle of the season.

Os were receiving $20M in tv revenue before 2007. It's not a huge jump between $20M and $29M. You won't see that. The real question about MASN is profits.

Anonymous said...

The AL has the better record because they have a huge advantage by having a DH on their roster. When interleague play is in an AL park the AL teams have players like David Ortiz batting in the middle of the order and the NL teams DH is someone who is on the team because of his versatility and usually bats 8th or 9th. Like someone else said; apples and oranges. Ridiculous to compare the two.

Matt P said...

A few things. The NL doesn't have a DH on its roster, but a DH costs cash. NL teams should be able to use those resources more effectively to make up for the lack of a DH. And if that's impossible, then it's more likely that no DH allows them to use worse players than in the AL. You don't get a free out in the AL, so your starting pitchers need to be better.

Also, the AL is beating the NL pretty badly even when the games are at NL parks. But yeah, I was arguing that you can't compare NL wins to AL wins.