In 1901, Ban Johnson reconstituted his fledgling Western League and declared it a major league, much to the consternation of the established National League. Johnson and his league, now called the American League, pilfered talent from the NL, using the promise of higher salaries to lure Cy Young, Nap Lajoie, and Wee Willie Keeler from their teams. Finally, the NL, weakened by the fight, compromised with Johnson. Under the National Agreement signed in 1903, the AL and NL would continue to operate as two distinct, major leagues. The two pennant winners would meet at the end of their respective seasons for a postseason series to determine which league was truly superior — thus, the World Series was born.
Since the American League’s inception, the two leagues have fought to determine which was superior. But in the last decade, the pendulum has shifted towards the so-called senior circuit. The AL had won 11 straight all-star games from 1997 to 2009, and although they lost three in a row from 2010 to 2012, they recovered to win in 2013 (though obviously, one game says very little about the talent of an entire league). More indicatively, the AL has finished with a winning record in interleague play every year since 2004, including a 164-146 advantage in 2013. It’s been rough going in recent times for the National League.
And as anyone who has been paying attention to the free agent market has noticed, the AL’s dominance has extended to the Hot Stove League. This, from Yahoo! Sports’ Jeff Passan:
After I got over how much money both leagues had spent, I got to considering whether this was good news for the AL. My first thought? Of course. But then I began to ask myself; why is this the case? The answer — the AL is getting older. There is a shocking disparity between the amount of young talent in the NL and the relative lack of it in the AL. In the NL, position players 25 and younger received 24052 plate appearances, and accounted for 70.4 fWAR, roughly a quarter of the league’s total. But in the AL, players under 25 tallied only 17768 plate appearances, and accumulated only 43.9 fWAR — only 15% of the league’s total. On the pitching side, the disparity is almost equally as wide — 71.6 fWAR for NL youngsters against 53.5 fWAR for those of the AL.
And it seems many of the brightest young stars reside in the National League. The NL has Paul Goldschmidt, Andrelton Simmons, Yasiel Puig, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Matt Harvey, and Jose Fernandez — all of whom are scarcely old enough to rent a car. The AL, of course, has Mike Trout, Manny Machado, and Chris Sale, all top-flight stars. But beyond those three, there is little else. Behind Trout, Machado, and Sale, the next-best sub-25 position player by fWAR is Salvador Perez, the next-best pitcher Jose Quintana — useful players, but not stars by any definition of the word.
With the relative lack of young stars in their systems, AL teams must chase the more established, more expensive older stars available in free agency. Thus, the AL might have a chance of retaining the last vestiges of their dominance in the near-future. But like in all things, change is inevitable in the world of baseball. And for the National League, the future is looking very bright.