Home field in the World Series ain't so great

Rob Neyer


Rob Neyer

In all the discussion about the first batter of the 85th All-Star Game, it seems there’s been one salient fact that’s not mentioned nearly often enough. Wait. Strike that. Two salient facts aren’t mentioned nearly often enough.

First, the home-field advantage in baseball is relatively unimportant. I think that the ascendance of football and basketball. in America might have fooled millions of people into thinking that baseball is just like those other sports.

It’s not.

To be sure, the home field is important in a single game. MLB.com’s Phil Rogers ran some math:

Over the past decade, Major League teams have produced a .542 winning percentage playing at home. That translates to a swing of 14 victories over 162 games, suggesting that the chance to bat last and enjoy home cooking impacts the result roughly once every 11 to 12 games.

From 2004-13, home teams were 183-142 in postseason games. That's a .563 winning percentage, which over 162 games projects to a 91-71 record, a 20-win gain. This suggests that home field impacts roughly one of every eight postseason games.

Let’s split the difference and say it’s .550 in postseason games, after accounting for regression to the mean (plus the fact that until the World Series, the home team usually is the better team). That’s significant and meaningful, statistically speaking.

The fact that teams with home-field advantages have won eight of the last 10 World Series, on the other hand, doesn’t really mean anything at all. I’ll explain why in a moment.

But the edge is even bigger in football and basketball. In the NFL, home teams win 57 percent of their regular-season games; in the NBA, it’s just north of 60 percent. Meanwhile, the home-field edge has been even larger in the NFL playoffs, with the home teams winning more than two-thirds of the time. This makes zero sense to me – after all, the teams should be more evenly matched in the playoffs – but the numbers are right here. I haven’t found comprehensive data for NBA playoffs, but apparently there’s a pronounced effect tied to crowd size, which would of course tend to favor the home team in the playoffs even more than usual.

My point, again, is that baseball isn’t football.

My second point is that we’re not talking about all the playoffs. We’re talking about just the World Series. If you have the best record in your league, you’re the home team in the Division Series and, if you win that one, the League Championship Series. So we’re talking about the World Series, and the World Series alone.

Remember when I said the home teams have won eight of the last 10 World Series?

That’s true. But I don’t think it has anything at all to do with who had the home-field “advantage.” Do you remember how many of those World Series went the distance, seven games? One of them: 2011, when the Cardinals won Game 6 miraculously, then cruised in Game 7.

Did playing Game 6 at home help the Cardinals win Game 6? Quite probably! But how is that relevant? To that point, the Cardinals and Rangers had enjoyed exactly the same advantages, because of course both teams had played three home games. Even Steven.

Game 7, though? OK. The Cardinals won 6-2, but ... you know, OK. You never know what might make the difference in a baseball game, even a four-run game. So there’s a small probability that being at home did matter.

The great majority of World Series don’t last seven games. Of the last 20 Seriouses, four have gone the distance. Granted, the home teams did win all four of those: The Cardinals in ’11, the Angels in ’02, the Diamondbacks in ’01, and the Marlins in 1997. The two earlier Games 7 were both very close affairs, ending with Series-winning singles in the bottom of the last innings.

Based purely on the last 20 World Series, you might argue that every decade or so, a World Series will hinge on the home-field advantage. We’re talking about a fairly small sample size but ... that doesn’t seem crazy, does it? Based on the overall postseason numbers? I think it seems perfectly sane.

Here’s a third thing, though, that people seem to forget: Somebody has to be the home team. Adam Wainwright’s hit-me fastball might well have cost the Nationals or the Dodgers or some other fine club a Game 7 at home ... but if this time it counts had never sprung from Commissioner Bud’s ever-furrowed brow, the American League would still have been home for Game 7 – I mean, on the off-chance there actually is a Game 7 – anyway, because it would be the American League’s turn.

Yes, I suppose it’s possible that without this time it counts, by now MLB would have changed the old alternating-years system for designating the home team. But that strikes me as highly doubtful. Yes, some people think the team with the best regular-season record should get the edge. I think it should go to the league with the better interleague record. But either way, you would have to get a big majority of the franchises to agree on the change. And I don’t think they would have.

My point? It was essentially arbitrary before. Just the luck of the year. And now it’s actually less arbitrary. The pennant winner of the better league is likely to be the better team, and the better league is likely to win the All-Star Game. Sure, the connection is tenuous ... but how often does the All-Star Game turn on the glorification of a retiring icon? Maybe once, ever? Assuming that Wainwright would have made better pitches to Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera?

I just can’t get worked up over something that a) does make the All-Star Game just slightly more interesting, and b) isn’t any more arbitrary, and might be less so, than what came before.

Bud Selig has committed any number of petty crimes against fans over the years. But this is not one of them. And while I would prefer every pitcher to try his hardest whilst on a big stage, it’s probably OK to ease up on Wainwright some, too.

Unless you’re a Nationals or Dodgers fan. In which case you’re allowed to boo him next time you see him.