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The AL Is Still Beating The NL — But Maybe Not For Long

Tuesday’s MLB All-Star Game is baseball’s annual showcase of the American League’s utter dominance over the National League. (The AL has won 22 of the past 30.) But in recent years, the importance of this game has been sadly watered down by interleague play, which is now baseball’s weekly showcase of the American League’s utter dominance over the National League.

Since interleague play was concocted in 1997, the AL has continually used these regular-season games to tack on extra wins while bludgeoning its senior circuit counterpart. This season is no different. But there are signs that the National League may be narrowing the gap — though not enough to keep it from losing.

By run differential, the AL is putting up its worst performance since 2004, the first year in its current interleague winning streak. But the wins aren’t as evenly distributed between leagues as the runs are — the National League has earned only a .469 winning percentage in these games. (Even that poor performance is the best the NL has put up since 2013.)

But for those who yearn for more balance between leagues, there are promising signs. The American League has been buoyed by a handful of superior teams like the Houston Astros, who racked up a +43 run differential (alongside a 7-0 record) in interleague play so far this year. While the Astros are here to stay, the American League probably can’t count on sustaining their streak year after year if much of their dominance relies on a handful of teams.

Unless that handful of teams is in the American League East, that is. This season lends credence to the theory that much of the junior circuit’s dominance can be credited to the AL East, which has a record of 42-28 in interleague play. Powered by prospects and youngsters, both the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox have worked their way up toward being the best teams in baseball. And the Tampa Bay Rays are just on the outside looking in, with the 11th-best run differential in MLB this season. Without the AL East, the leagues have played to a virtual standstill, with the NL edging ahead at 54-51.

The combination of big budgets and savvy front offices keeps the American League East a powerhouse, both within and between leagues. But much of the rest of the junior circuit is currently fragile or rebuilding, which has allowed the National League to nearly close the distance. Regardless of whether the NL wins the All-Star Game, its improvement over the past two seasons might prove to be the beginning of a new trend of competitive play between the leagues — even if the AL has been the safe All-Star Game pick for as long as anyone can remember.

Rob Arthur is FiveThirtyEight’s baseball columnist and also writes about crime.

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