How the NL won baseball's star wars

ByJayson Stark ESPN logo
Tuesday, July 12, 2016

On the second Tuesday of July, the stars will sparkle in the San Diego sky. But enough about astronomy. It's the stars sparkling below, on the glimmering grass of Petco Park, that we're here to talk about.

If the All-Star Game is a time to celebrate star power, let's just come out and say it. You know where you find the brightest stars and the most star-studded franchises in baseball at the moment?

In the National League, ladies and gentlemen. The NL has finally won baseball's star wars.

Think about it. All of a sudden, it's the NL that's the league of marquee franchises and must-see rivalries. It's the league of fire-breathing aces. It's the league of Buster Posey and Bryce Harper, Kris Bryant and Andrew McCutchen, Clayton Kershaw and Madison Bumgarner.

It's true -- 100 percent true. And we'll begin proving it in a moment. But first, ask yourself this: When was the last time you could say that?

Not 10 years ago. Not 20 years ago. Not 30 years ago. We're talking the 1970s, friends. The days of Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Joe Morgan in Cincinnati. Of Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton and Greg Luzinski in Philly. Of Willie Stargell and Dave Parker in Pittsburgh. Of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey and Davey Lopes in L.A.

And how long ago was that? Jimmy Carter was president. The Village People had just released "Y.M.C.A." And CC Sabathia and Kim Kardashian had yet to make their debuts on planet Earth. So we're talking about 97 lifetimes ago.

Then, of course, the American League took over. From 1983 to 2013, the AL won 21 of 30 All-Star Games (not counting that infamous tie in Milwaukee) and 18 of 30 World Series. Curses were shattered in Boston and on the South Side of Chicago. And the Yankees spent about $4 billion to buy every star who changed planes at LaGuardia.

But however long the AL's reign of stars lasted, can we agree that it's over? At least for now?

"I'm an American League guy at heart," said one longtime executive who has worked in both leagues. "But the National League has the better teams right now. And I don't think I'm going out on a limb to say the better players are in the National League right now."

So how do we measure star power? Don't bother looking at wins above replacement or expected fielding-independent pitching (xFIP). The metrics that tell us most about this shift in the balance of star power are fascinating little trends like this:

Jersey sales: Of MLB's top 10 most popular jerseys during the first half of this season, eight belonged to NL players. The only exceptions: Mike Trout and David Ortiz. That's not a fluke.

Attendance: Want to look at road attendance? Six of the top seven attractions, as measured by average per game, are NL teams. (The only exception? Those Boston Red Sox.) Want to look at home attendance? Three teams in baseball average 40,000 or more per game. They're all NL teams (Los Angeles Dodgers, St. Louis Cardinals, San Francisco Giants). Only three average under 20,000. They're all AL teams (Cleveland Indians, Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland Athletics).

TV attractions: Our friends in sports marketing tell us there is no better measure of star power than which teams are shown on national TV the most. So what does it say that, on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball -- the one true national game of the week -- the past 10 weeks in a row have featured NL matchups? And in the first half, there were more than twice as many appearances by NL teams (23, by 10 different teams) as by AL teams (11, by five different clubs)? Sounds like a trend!

Head-to-head: New York, Chicago, the Bay Area and greater Los Angeles are the only four metropolitan areas in which you can find NL teams and AL teams playing in the same market. In all four of those markets, it's the NL team that is now dominating TVs. And yes, that means even in New York. As of mid-June, the Mets were out-rating the Yankees by 33 percent, according to the New York Daily News. Amazin'.

I could keep beating on this timpani, but you get the idea. The balance of star power in this sport has shifted. Dramatically.

"Just about all the young stars in major markets are in the National League," said Bill Sutton, one of America's pre-eminent sports-marketing minds, and the director of the Sports and Entertainment Management MBA program at the University of South Florida. "L.A., Chicago, New York. The young stars on those teams are fun to watch, fun to watch interview and fun to watch make commercials. What young stars do the Yankees have? Who do the White Sox have? Who do the Angels have except Mike Trout? They don't have nearly the young stars that the Mets, Cubs and Dodgers have."

So what are the forces at work that have led to this fascinating new installment in the Baseball Star Wars saga? Let's take a look.

Mound control

Here's a homework assignment for you. Make a quick list of the 10 most dominating, charismatic, must-see starting pitchers in baseball. How many of them currently work in the NL? Seven? Eight? Nine? Sadly, way too many of those guys -- Kershaw, MadBum,Noah Syndergaard, Stephen Strasburg -- won't be able to pitch in this All-Star Game. Nevertheless, it's not even worth debating which league has cornered the aces market.

"We were talking the other day," said another exec who has worked in both leagues, "about the difference between playing in the one-game [wild-card] playoff in the American League this year versus the National League. Take all the teams in the playoff race in the National League. They all have that guy you'd never want to face in a one-game playoff: [Jake] Arrieta, Bumgarner, [Max] Scherzer, Kershaw, Jose Fernandez, Carlos Martinez, Syndergaard, Gerrit Cole.

"Every single team has that kind of guy, who might throw a shutout in that game. Then think about the American League. Outside of [Corey] Kluber when he's on, [Chris] Sale might come the closest. But none of the other teams has a guy like that. It's incredible the difference."

And if you're going to corner the market on stars at one position, isn't starting pitcher that position? On the night these aces pitch, they're the closest thing that baseball has to a Steph Curry, a LeBron James, a Tom Brady or an Aaron Rodgers. They hold the game in their hands. The outcome revolves around them. And when they're great, they're the biggest story in their sport for those three hours.

It's something to think about as you watch the All-Star Game. Has the difference in ace star power ever been larger?

The color of money

My dad always told me that the way to answer just about every question is this: Follow the money. And once again, it's excellent advice for charting the shift in this tide.

"For most of those years [of AL domination], it seemed like the American League pretty much inflicted its will monetarily," said one of the execs quoted earlier. "The Yankees and Red Sox were like behemoths with money. And the American League became the league of the big, big spenders and the highest payrolls."

You won't be shocked to learn that the Yankees had the highest payroll in baseball for 16 consecutive seasons, from 1998 through 2013. From 2001 to 2010, the Yankees and Red Sox ranked 1-2 seven times in 10 years. As recently as 2006, only one NL team (the Mets, at $101 million) had a payroll higher than $98 million -- at a time when the Yankees were at $195 million and the Red Sox were at $120 million.

"But now, as you look at the economics," said Atlanta Braves president of baseball operations John Hart, "the game is a lot different. More clubs have more money, more access to big television deals, more dollars from new stadiums. So more clubs have more access to the [free-agent] market. They see the right guy out there at the right time, and boom, they go get him.

"I think we're seeing a combination of factors that weren't there in the '90s and the early 2000s," Hart continued. "But there's been a change in the financial giants of our game. I'm not saying the Yankees are not still one of them. They're still formidable. And obviously, the Red Sox are still formidable. But more clubs can do it. The mindset has changed. When a big free agent hits the market, does he expect the Yankees to be the only player or the biggest player? I don't think so."

Feel a draft?

So what do the Nationals, Cubs and Giants -- the NL's three first-place teams at the break -- have in common? One of the executives quoted above thinks you can sum it up in two words: the draft.

"The Nationals were really bad for a while, and now they're good," the exec said. "The Cubs were really bad for a while, and now they're good. The Giants were bad for a few years, and now they're good. I don't think you see those swoons in the American League. You see more rebuilds in the National League."

And as ugly as those rebuilds can get while they're unfolding, the rewards are obvious. The Nationals got to pick first in back-to-back drafts, in 2009 and 2010, and how'd that work out? Well, their timing was excellent -- they now have Strasburg and Harper to show for it (plus Anthony Rendon, who was the sixth pick in 2011).

The Cubs never got bad enough to scarf up the No. 1 pick. But how about this four-year run: Javier Baez at No. 9 in 2011, Albert Almora at No. 6 in 2012, Kris Bryant at No. 2 in 2013 and Kyle Schwarber at No. 4 in 2014? That'll work.

The Giants didn't fall as far as those two teams. But do you think it's safe to say they did OK with Bumgarner as the 10th pick in 2007 and Posey as the fifth pick in 2008? Uhhh, yep!

Then there are the Pirates, who hit on Pedro Alvarez at No. 2 in 2008, Jameson Taillon at No. 2 in 2010 and Cole at No. 1 in 2011. Not to mention Neil Walker and McCutchen, both at No. 11, in 2004 and 2005, respectively.

"That's really when this started to change, is four, five, six years ago, when you look at the drafts that some of these teams had," Hart said. "The National League has really had its share of clubs that drafted extremely well and hit on the right players. And now, with this new system, it's not just that you pick in the top three or four. You're also going to have the money that goes with those picks."

It's safe to say the Braves, Reds, Phillies, Brewers and Padres have noticed, since they're now in the major rebuild phase themselves. High picks and more dollars: It's a formula that works. And the NL has the glamour teams -- and the stars -- to prove it.

Market watch

We live in an age when the star-making machinery no longer consists of bats, baseballs and a ballgame on TV. More than ever, stars aren't just made on the field. They're also manufactured off the field, with commercials, with appearances, with social media, with marketing. And at the moment, NL teams seem to be winning that game, too.

"In the front offices of the National League, I would definitely tell you that they have understood the marketability of star players," said Sutton, whose life revolves around studying these trends. "And done it. And maximized it. And created personas. ... It's almost NBA-like."

He salutes the Giants, who "have done it longer and better than anybody." And these days, he especially admires the Mets, who have seized on the opportunity to turn their young starting pitchers into superheroes at every turn.

"You've got teams that are really doing smart things," Sutton said. "I'm watching Syndergaard in New York. And I'm watching Coca Cola. And I'm watching Muscle Milk. And I'm watching all these people saying, 'Hey, this is the guy. Let's get behind this guy.' Have you seen him walking the streets of New York dressed up like Thor? I mean, they're just really playing this stuff to the max. It's incredible."

Now, none of this means the National League is about to go on a run and win eight of the next 10 World Series, or 15 of the next 20 All-Star Games. But remember, we live in an age in which star power has never meant more than it does right now. So get used to seeing these guys -- Syndergaard and Kershaw, Harper and Posey, McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton -- everywhere you look. They're not going away.

"I think this is the way it's going to be," Sutton said. "Because of fantasy. Because of video games. Because of coverage, and the emphasis on superstars and stars, people are going to be more star-driven than they've ever been. You're still going to love your team. But you're going to make room in your heart for superstars on other teams, who you root for and admire. Because you've seen them and read about them, and we soundbite you to death and video-bite you to death, we make it easier for stars to emerge."

So when the spotlights gleam down on the stars who take the field at Petco Park on this magical Tuesday night, take note of which of those magnetic players you're drawn to -- and think about which league they play for. It shouldn't be long before it's totally clear which league has taken control of baseball's star wars.

"I'm not saying the American League doesn't have great players," said Hart. "Just, the balance has swung. Look at the clubs with the most impactful kind of players. It's swung to the National League."