Parity: par–i–ty; noun; equality, as in amount, status, or character.
There are many ways to evaluate the National League versus the American League in Major League Baseball. One can look to individual and/or team statistics, league nuances and styles of play, World Series victories, All-Star game victories, interleague victories, and so on. In terms of specifically evaluating balance among teams in each league, one can look toward statistics, payrolls, and team prominence. It is this last portion – team prominence – that I believe makes a strong argument toward parity, and I believe a good way to evaluate prominence is by looking at post-season appearances. When one evaluates playoff teams over the last decade or so, one discovers that the American League has a tendency to send the same handful of teams to the playoffs each year, whereas the National League has a wider variation of representation in the playoffs. This, I believe, indicates a better general parity – and therefore level of competition – in the National League as opposed to the American League.
Everyone who follows baseball knows of the prominence of the Yankees and Red Sox. Together, these two American League teams (which are both not only in the AL, but also in the same division within the AL) have had 20 post-season appearances in the last 13 seasons (since Major League Baseball went to an 8-team playoff format). Additionally, they have had 11 AL championship appearances, and 8 World Series appearances. That means that the American League pennant has been won 8 out of the last 13 years by either the Yankees or the Red Sox. Add in the Indians, and 10 of the last 13 pennants have been won by only 3 American League teams.
By way of comparison, the two most playoff-bound teams in the National League – the Braves and Cardinals – have had only 18 playoff appearances between them in the last 13 seasons. And while these two teams have had more NL championship appearances between them (12) than the Red Sox and Yankees, they have only 5 World Series appearances combined. To reach 10 pennants (equal with the AL’s Yankees, Red Sox, and Indians), one would have to add together the totals of no less than 6 separate NL teams – twice as many as the AL.
But do parity arguments end with merely the most prominent AL and NL teams?
Not in the least. Consider the following:
In the last 13 seasons, there have been a total of 52 American League playoff berths (4 each year). A total of 11 AL teams (71%) have made it to the playoffs at least once during that stretch. However, nearly 60% of the berths have been filled by just 3 teams. Add appearances by a few additional teams, and only 7 AL teams (exactly half of the total league) have accounted for 85% of playoff appearances in the last 13 years. The Yankees, of course, have been in the playoffs every year during that stretch, accounting for fully one-quarter of all AL playoff appearances.
The NL, on the other hand, has had a total of 13 different teams (81%) in the playoffs over the last 13 seasons. Additionally, the NL’s top three teams have totaled only 46% of all playoff berths (compared to the 60% of the AL’s top three teams). If we add in appearances by a few more NL teams, 7 teams have accounted for only 77% of NL playoff appearances in the last 13 seasons (compared to 85% in for the AL’s top 7). The Braves have appeared 11 times, for a total of 21% of all playoff berths (but none in the last two seasons, and they are under .500 this year).
Appearances in the championship series’ have been slightly closer in parity, with 6 AL teams making up 85% of all ALCS appearances, and 6 NL teams making up 81% of all NLCS appearances. In the AL, the Yankees and Red Sox (and also the Yankees and Indians) have accounted for 11 total appearances (42%), while the Braves and Cardinals have combined for 12 total appearances, or 46%.
In regards to World Series appearances, only 6 American League teams (43%) have made it to the World Series in the last 13 seasons, whereas 9 National League teams (56%) have made it. Only 3 AL teams account for 77% of American League World Series appearances, and nearly half are by the Yankees alone. In the NL, the top 3 teams account for only 54% of NL World Series appearances, and every other NL World Series team has appeared only once. The top NL World Series team – the Braves – has appeared only 3 times, and not at all since 1999.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly in a discussion of baseball parity, there are a number of trends evident when looking at the teams who have appeared in the playoffs in the last 13 seasons. From 1995 to 1999, there were only 6 different AL teams represented in the playoffs, accounting for a total of 20 playoff berths. During the same span, the NL fielded twice as many – 12 different teams. From 2002 to 2005, again the AL only fielded 6 total teams, while the NL fielded 9. From 2002 to 2007, the AL fielded only 8 different teams, while the NL fielded 13 – more than 80% of the total National League.
In 1998 and 1999, the AL fielded the exact same 4 teams in consecutive years. The National League has never done that during this 13-year span. The AL has fielded 3 or more of the same 4 teams in consecutive years 6 different times; by comparison, the NL has done the same thing only twice. Furthermore, the AL has never fielded 4 different teams in consecutive years. The NL accomplished this in 2006 and 2007. Finally, the AL has given us identical championship series’ in consecutive years two different times – Yankees-Mariners in 2000 and 2001, and Yankees-Red Sox in 2003 and 2004 (the Yankees and Red Sox also met in 1999). The NL, however, has done this only once, with the Cardinals and Astros in 2004 and 2005.
All in all, I believe it is clear that an evaluation of playoff appearances indicates a much better parity and competitive balance in the National League than in the American League. Having shown this, I would also suggest that better competitive balance means better competition and better game-by-game enjoyment by the casual fan. For this reason, I prefer to watch the National League, and generally feel the urge to change the channel when yet another Yankees-Red Sox match-up is being shown nationally.