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Home Field Advantage and the 2012 MLB Playoffs

In Baseball on October 10, 2012 at 12:56 pm

For the 2012 League Division Series, teams with home field advantage start with two games on the road. Here’s why you should care.

The Oakland Athletics won 94 games this season. They won 10 of their last 14 games, capped off by a three-game sweep of the Texas Rangers in Oakland, to claim the American League West division crown by a single game. A team that was 13 games behind the then-division leading Rangers on June 30 put together one of the greatest second-half runs in baseball history to make the playoffs for the first time since 2006. Their reward? Home field advantage — by starting the American League Division Series on the road for two games against the Detroit Tigers.

The St. Louis Cardinals won 88 games this season. They underperformed their Pythagorean win-loss projection by five games. They claimed the second National League wild card by a single game. The Cardinals began the National League Division Series against the NL East champion Washington Nationals with two games in St. Louis. Confused yet?

It is a fact universally acknowledged in baseball that it’s easier to win at home than on the road, and why wouldn’t it be? Teams play 81 games in a single stadium. They learn its intricacies: its power alleys, the speed of its infield grass, and just how many strides an outfielder can take before he crashes into the wall. And then the team hits the road to play — at most — nine games in another team’s ballpark during the season. But home field advantage isn’t entirely anecdotal — the games prove it. From 1901-2009, the home team won 54.07 percent of regular season games played. It’s not a tremendous figure, but playing at a team’s home field is a clear and definite advantage.

That’s what makes Major League Baseball’s 2012 playoff scheduling so baffling — positively Seligian. MLB added a second wild card in each league, with the two teams squaring off in a single elimination game for a ticket to the LDS. But rather than extending the playoffs by calendar days, MLB changed the LDS scheduling from a 2-2-1 format to a 2-3 format. Under the previous system, the team with home field advantage began the LDS at home for two games, with a potential Game 5 also at home. Under the new system, the team with home field advantage plays Games 1 and 2 on the road, with potential Games 4 and 5 at home. That might not be a concern if the series goes to five games, as the higher-seeded team would still have three home games. But the series has to reach five games for the higher-seeded team to have an actual advantage. Otherwise, the lower-seeded team would have de facto home field advantage.

At first glance, that might not appear to be that large of an obstacle. Teams regularly win on the road — 45.93 percent of the time, in fact. One could also argue (poorly) that a truly great team would be able to win regardless of the field. But if you look at the numbers, home field advantage can be instrumental to a team’s success in the playoffs.

The 1995-1997 playoffs are a good example. The first three MLB postseasons of the wild card era used a 2-3 format, with the higher-seeded team in either matchup receiving home field advantage. However, home field advantage rotated among the three division winners, and the wild card team, as the automatic fourth seed, never had home field advantage. Just as in 2012, this format allowed the lower-seeded team to begin the series with two games at home. Of 44 total Division Series games from 1995-1997, the home team won 24 times, for a winning percentage of 54.54. And of the 12 Division Series from 1995-1997, the team that played the first two games at home won seven times — and only two of those series reached a deciding Game 5 for the higher-seeded team.

Beginning in 1998, MLB abandoned the 2-3 LDS schedule in favor of a 2-2-1 format, with the higher-seeded team playing the first two games at home. Playoff seeding would be determined by the regular season records of the division-winning teams, while the wild card team would remain the automatic fourth seed. Even with the changed format, teams playing at home retained an advantage over teams playing on the road. From 1998-2011, the home team won 113 of 210 total Division Series games, for a winning percentage of 51.83. Furthermore, the team with home field advantage — who now started the series with two games at home — won 29 of 56 Division Series, including five that were decided by Game 5 home victories.

But the LDS is only the first round of the playoffs. How does home field advantage affect the League Championship Series and, eventually, the World Series? Surprisingly, the answer is not uniform. Since the beginning of the wild card era, the home team has won 104 of 196 LCS games, a winning percentage of 53.06 percent. However, teams with home field advantage in the LCS actually lost more series than they won — 16 wins to 18 losses, or 47.06 percent. Teams are still more likely to win while playing at home during the LCS, but the lower-seeded team might actually have the greater advantage by playing three-straight games at home.

The importance of home field advantage has been most pronounced in World Series matchups. Since the first World Series in 1903, the home team has won 344 of 622 games for a winning percentage of 55.31. But the 2-3-2 format in use today was not introduced into the World Series until 1924. Prior formats were inconsistent from year to year, including several best-of-nine series. The introduction of the 2-3-2 format in the World Series placed the greatest importance on home field advantage. From 1924-2011, the team with home field advantage won 51 of 85 World Series for a winning percentage of 60. But even that format has changed in recent years. Prior to 2003, home field advantage in the World Series alternated between the NL and the AL. Beginning with 2003, MLB (well, really just Bud Selig) decided to award home field advantage in the Fall Classic to the league that won the All-Star Game. In the nine subsequent World Series, the team with home field advantage has won six times.[1]

Despite the importance of home field advantage in the playoffs, compared to the other major American sports, baseball’s home field advantage is relatively small. From 2002-2010, the home team won 61.3 percent of all NFL playoff games, a significant increase over the 53.81 home team winning percentage in baseball. It is basketball, however, that has the most pronounced reliance on the home team advantage. From the 1998-99 season through the 2007-08 season, the home team won 64.9 percent of all playoff games, including an astounding 72.2 percent of all Game 7s. Furthermore, the team with home field advantage won the series nearly three out of four times, including eight of 10 NBA finals. Baseball’s away teams might be at a disadvantage on the road, but at least they don’t have the echoes of Staples Center — or worse, Steelers fans — rattling them for 27 outs.

The A’s lost their first two games against Detroit. They could go on a roll and win their next three games and advance to the next round — last night was a good start. In fact, the numbers say they should be favored in each of those individual games. But their odds of winning the series don’t look good. Earl Weaver once said, “Momentum is the next day’s starting pitcher.” Oakland had better hope he’s right.

[1] Only one of those series went to seven games: the 2011 World Series between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Texas Rangers. After a walk-off victory in Game 6, St. Louis won its 11th championship in the decisive Game 7 in St. Louis. Does David Freese become a household name if either of those games are played in Texas?

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