By Ross Benes
Given that the American League features both the DH and the Yankees, it makes sense that the AL tends to outspend the National League in free agency. But recently Andrew Beaton noted in the Wall Street Journal something peculiar. For the first time in years, the NL has been outspending the AL in free agency. This made us wonder if NL teams were actually getting more player value for doling out all that cash.
When Beaton looked into this topic a few weeks ago, the NL was outspending the AL by $254 million. Since then, the NL surplus in total spending has grown to $335.2 million, according to FanGraphs' data. On a per-year basis, NL ballclubs will pay their new free agents about $50 million more next season, as it stands now. Most of the NL's splurge comes in later years, as huge contracts like Jason Heyward's are paid out over several seasons.
To see if this spending relates to actual production, we looked at data using FanGraphs' free agent tracker to determine which league is signing the better players. We grouped players according to the league of their new team, and we looked at 2015 WAR, 2016 projected WAR, current salaries and projected salaries.
We found that the NL isn't just wasting money, and it looks like the league is getting better players by splurging. Free agents who were signed by NL teams this offseason put up 4.6 more WAR last year than free agents signed by AL clubs. In 2016, it's projected that these NL-signed free agents will post 6.6 more WAR than their AL counterparts. This table shows how free agents in each league stack up in terms of WAR and salaries (listed in millions).
Given that the AL has won Interleague Play for 12 straight seasons and 15 of the last 20 All-Star Games, the recent surge in NL free-agent spending could be a welcome sign of more competitive balance in baseball. However, Yoenis Cespedes, Chris Davis, Justin Upton and several others are still on the market, and with just a few big signings, the AL could catch up and even surpass the NL to continue its streak of spending superiority.
But that all remains uncertain. What is certain at this moment is that for the first time in a while, the NL is paying bigger bucks and collecting more talent in the offseason.