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Home field advantage: Not all it's cracked up to be in baseball's early rounds

Updated on October 13, 2012

So much for the home field advantage.

Home field advantage was a hot topic of discussion a week ago. The extra Wild Card playoff games, added after the schedule had been set, meant that the traditional 2-2-1 (best team starts at home for two, then on the road for two and back home for one, if necessary) wouldn’t work. There was no time for the extra travel day. So that meant the teams with the best records would start on the road for two games and then finish with three at home, if necessary.

While the best team still got more games at home, they wouldn’t earn their home field advantage until they had possibly already lost two games on the road. People were concerned.

So what happened? Even with the home win by New York Friday night, home teams had a losing record, 9-13.

Not unusual for early round games

The most obvious deviation from the home field advantage came in the National League. In the series between Cincinnati and San Francisco neither team managed to win a single home game. In the other series, Washington lost two of its three homes games and the Cardinals split. The American League was a little more friendly to the home folks. Detroit won two games at home and then the A’s won two at home, before the Tigers finally won the whole thing at Oakland. The Orioles split at home, while New York went 2-1. And, of course, in the Wild Card playoff both visiting teams won.

While this is unusual for the post-season overall, it isn’t as odd for the early round games. In the past five seasons (2007-11), overall the home teams are 90-70, a .563 winning percentage. That includes the odd 2010 post-season when the home teams managed a meager 13-19 (.406) mark.

But the early round games are a different story. Overall during those five years the home teams are one game below .500 at 37-38. In fairness, that includes the bizarre 2010 season when the home teams won only four of 15 early-round games. Still, in last year’s first-round games home teams went 10-9, 7-6 in 2009 and 8-7 in 2008.

Later rounds more home friendly

Obviously, that means in later rounds the home field advantage becomes more apparent. Last year it was a 13-6 advantage after the first round. It was 12-5 in ’09, 10-7 in ’08 and 9-6 in ’07. Even in 2010, after the first round home teams went 9-8 after the opening rounds.

World Series winning teams tend to play well at home throughout the post-season and slightly above .500 on the road (by necessity, they will have an overall winning record but could theoretically have a losing record at home if they won all of their road contests).

The past five World Series winners and their home and road records are St. Louis (6-3 home, 5-4 road); San Francisco (5-2, 6-2); New York (7-1, 4-3); Philadelphia (7-0, 4-3); and Boston (7-1, 4-2).

As it stands now, the Tigers are 2-0 at home, the Yankees 2-1, the Cards 1-1 and the Giants 0-2. At this rate, the outlook for a World Series involving San Francisco looks bleak.

Home field never a huge advantage in baseball

Home field has never been as big of an advantage in baseball as it is in other sports. In other sports, home teams win at least 60 percent of the time, with some of them around two-thirds of the time. The advantage in baseball is a few points over 50 percent – they win roughly 11 out of 20 times at home, although pennant winners obviously do much better than that. In 2012, for example, the home teams in the AL were 605-529 (.534) and the NL 690-606 (.532), or overall 1,295-1,135 (.533).

This seems the reverse of what you’d expect. Other sports have uniform playing fields – every basketball court is the same length, every football field 100 yards. Baseball has a uniform infield but everything else varies widely from stadium to stadium – varied lengths to the outfield fence, different amounts of foul territory, odd angles and crevices. Even the infields vary in length of grass and hardness of the dirt. This would seem to give the home team a great advantage, but often it doesn’t matter.

Officiating biggest reason for home field advantage

The book Scorecasting examines a lot of theories and myths about sports (such as debunking the idea that punting on fourth down is a good move). One of their examinations involves the home field advantage. The researchers looked at thousands of games in baseball, football, basketball, hockey and European soccer. They found that a home field advantage does exist and it does make a certain amount of sense in some cases. In basketball, for example, grueling travel schedules affect some teams on the road.

But in most cases, the home field advantage is the result of the officiating. That is the case in baseball, where all variables tend to cancel each other out except for the umpires’ calls, particularly involving balls and strikes. Through their research they found that in late innings the home team receives more favorable calls.

Umps may not realize their own bias

Umpires will deny this and the odd thing is that they wouldn’t be lying; that is, they honestly would believe that they are not making biased calls. But the authors of Scorecasting say that our desire to avoid controversy is so ingrained in our psychology that the umpires are unconsciously trying to avoid angering the home crowd by altering their calls.

Apparently this isn’t as big a deal in baseball since the advantage for the home team is small. This may be because baseball fans in general aren’t quite as rabid as fans in football or basketball, and usually farther away. The booing of fans in the upper deck in right field probably doesn’t affect the home plate ump’s psyche too much.

Probably other factors in baseball's post-season

My guess, though, is that there are some other factors at play in baseball’s post-season. After a long season, it has to feel better to play at home than on the road. The stadiums are usually filled to capacity so noise becomes more of a factor. And the teams in the post-season are already really good in their home parks.

While home field hasn’t been much of an advantage so far, it does look like it’ll become more important from this point on. That bodes well for the Yankees and Giants with the home field advantage in the divisional championships, and for the National League team in the World Series since they will be at home for four of the games.

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