Homefield in baseball causes perhaps the largest rule change in any of the four major sports. The fact that the home team will always know that they have the last chance to score allows for certain strategies to be implemented. It’s a common tactic in the sport that home teams “play for the tie” and away teams “play for the lead.” Because baseball is the only one of the four major sports to play without a clock, the last “possession to score” is guaranteed to the home team, even in rain-shortened games.
I have planned to write this article since before this season started. I was prepared to fuel my argument on the ridiculous premise of determining homefield advantage for the championship of the sport based on the outcome of the All-Star game, an exhibition unrelated to the sport’s actual season. My initial brainstorm assumed that due to baseball having such a distinct advantage for the home team, the resulting advantage to win percentage must be obvious in the results when compared to other sports. The hypothesis seemed irrefutable – until I compiled the numbers. For this analysis, I kept sample size small due to the recent advances in sabermetrics. I compiled data from the last three years (including this current baseball season) in all four sports to determine how the home teams fared.
*2015 MLB results through 7/7*
Well then, I stand corrected. The home winning percentage of MLB’s last three years’ are the lowest of any of the other sports. It is also compelling that hockey has the second lowest average win percentage, as the home ice advantage of choosing their line last is arguably one of the most significant advantages offered among the four major sports. Football has no tangible homefield rule advantage, unless you count (not) choosing the coin toss. Yes, the Seahawks are notorious for providing a large advantage with their noise, but it’s difficult to determine a defined advantage that it provides. Win percentage data from the NBA has shown the largest home advantage in the last three seasons, but it has been decreasing each year. I wrote an article in January about the diminishing advantage and the differences between the professional and college versions of the sport. While many of the reasons for basketball’s homecourt edge are arguable, there should be a bigger advantage for baseball. Why isn’t that the case?
If you’re an NBA follower, you already know that one of the roundtable discussions is the concept of “tanking”- purposely trying to avoid the playoffs for a better draft pick. The Philadelphia 76ers have made this a common term in the lexicon when talking about team’s strategies to rebuilding. The NBA has a unique format in that they throw all non-playoff teams in a draft lottery, so each of those teams at least have a chance at the #1 pick. With this format, teams have incentive to NOT making the playoffs. This creates a spectrum of win results all over the board. Teams that know they have no chance of winning it all don’t bother with attempting to get in the playoffs, as a better draft pick is more beneficial to the franchise in the long-term.
One draft pick can quickly turn around an NBA or NFL team; a good draft pick has often had less of an impact in the NHL or MLB. The NBA has their franchise players and the NFL has their franchise quarterbacks. Both of these sports have a significant edge to “tank” their season. If they have a poor start with few wins, accumulating wins isn’t always the best long-term strategy. For these reasons, it has become apparent that these sports have a larger gap between the winners and losers.
To illustrate this point, here is the same table as above, but this time I added a “parity” metric (calculated by the standard deviation of all teams’ winning percentages). Lower numbers indicate less variation amongst the sport’s winning percentages – or less parity in the league.
*2015 MLB results through 7/7*
Here we go – there is a high correlation to home team’s winning percentage increasing as the parity increases. The NBA and NFL have very good teams and very poor teams. It’s more likely for the good teams to defeat the poor teams, no matter the setting. The poor teams have such a small chance of road upsets that it increases the overall home team’s winning percentage. Even though the MLB has fewer playoff teams than the other three sports, they have a history of teams with the best regular season record not performing well in the postseason. Last year, the league saw a significant lowering of parity – ending in a World Series between two wildcard teams. This year, very few teams can consider themselves out of the playoff picture and, as you can see above, the parity is almost as low as it was last year.
Coming back to the main argument, there is another facet to the World Series that is completely changed based on the results of the All-Star game. Baseball possesses an oddity that no other major sport must contend with – the American league and National league have different rules. The basic essentials to how the game is played vary depending on which team is home. This isn’t an argument as to whether or not the leagues should make their rules the same, but, rather, an argument that such a large rule change to a sport’s championship series should not be based on results of one random game, let alone an exhibition game in which the players are voted on by the fans.
Two decades ago, the World Series was the only time when American League teams had to have their pitchers hit. These days, with regular interleague play, there are results available to show trends of how the AL performs with a pitcher hitting and how the NL succeeds in searching their bench depth for a DH.
Through 7/7/15, the American League is 96-79 (54.86%) in interleague play. The American League has, in fact, won the league battle 11 years in a row (interestingly enough, the NL has still won six of the last eleven World Series). So far this year, the AL has improved on that winning percentage when they have been at home, winning 53 of 89 for a 59.55%. The NL hasn’t shown the same home success – 41 of 84 (48.81%). Last year’s results were similar – AL won 62.67% of home games, with the DH, while NL won 52.67% with pitchers batting. While these numbers may begin an argument on a league-wide DH rule, they also show a big advantage based on which team gets Game 1 at their home ballpark. The fact that Jonathan Papelbon of the 29-61 Phillies (no offense to Jonathan, who could perhaps be traded to a potential World Series team this month) may control the results of which team will have that distinctive homefield advantage is preposterous.
What else should, or can, the league do? The NBA and NHL use best overall record to decide home advantage in their championship series. Even when there are some seasons where the discrepancy between the leagues is large (see this past year’s NBA, where the West was clearly superior to the East), this set-up makes the most sense. It puts the most emphasis on each and every game; while all sports have very lengthy seasons, game one is just as important as the final game in the big picture. This remains the simplest alternative to the All-Star game nonsense. The regular amount of interleague play avoids the argument that says records shouldn’t be pit head-to-head due to an inferior league pumping up a team’s results.
The NFL famously uses a neutral location, determined many years in advance, for the Super Bowl. While there would be certain changes to swallow, this would make a lot of sense for the World Series. I have already written about how baseball isn’t meant to be played in the cold. With the World Series being pushed into November these days, a championship played in Minnesota would include a chance of snow flurries. The idea of being able to use retractable domes in Arizona or Houston for every game is too good to pass up. The teams will lose their full advantage of sleeping in their own beds and their home clubhouse, but the teams would still be able to rotate who gets the neutral stadium’s home clubhouse and could still alternate their league’s rules.
Either of the above options would be much better than the current set-up. As for the All-Star game? The actual game interests me more than the other sports’ versions and I enjoy watching each year. I think it may be time for a “refreshing,” which was Selig’s idea when he made his ridiculous rule. I absolutely love Ed Overend’s idea of USA vs The World as an exhibition game. An exhibition should be exactly that – a set-up to bring in the most eyes and try something out-of-the-box. The attempts at updating the Home Run Derby are creative and the same effort should be given to the actual game. Whichever moves they make, there is one move that is mandatory – this exhibition should definitely not impact the results of the sport’s championship.