Road Warriors: How Important and How They’re Made

ALCS - Baltimore Orioles v Kansas City Royals - Game Three

By Mike McCollum

While driving into work one morning last week, one of the local sports talk radio shows mentioned how poor the Astros’ road record is this season.  To summarize their discussion, it was said the Astros would need to correct this issue if they were serious about not only making the playoffs, but making a deep run as well.

So this got me thinking, exactly how important is your road record?  Obviously it’s hard to have a good overall record if you’re bad on the road, and most teams usually perform better at home than they do as the away team, hence the term “home field advantage”.  So far this year 22 teams have better records at home than on the road, and that is consistent throughout the entire standings.  Does it signify anything else though?  It doesn’t take a math major to understand a strong road record helps you reach the postseason, but does it mean you’re more likely to win in the postseason?

Through August 14th there are 9 teams who have at least a .500 record away from home, five in the AL and four in the NL.  Only three of the six division leaders have a winning road record and if the playoffs started today, only half of the postseason participants would have a winning road record (5/10).

This is quite different from what we’ve seen in years past.  There have been 34 teams from 2012-2014 to play .500 on the road; 24 of them (71%) made the postseason.  During that same timeframe, 25 of the 30 teams to make the postseason had a winning record on the road.  Furthermore, that held true for 9/12 that advanced to the LCS and also for five of the six World Series participants.  Finally, the past three world champions all had winning road records.

So we were correct when saying a strong road record helps teams reach the playoffs, but it also helps to advance further through them too.

We all could’ve probably guessed that and felt pretty safe about it, but is there any trait or tendency a team has that helps them to win on the road?  Obviously a team who wins more games than they lose does things well (groundbreaking, right?).  Generally speaking you would expect them to rank at least in the top half of most statistical categories in offense, pitching,  and defense, if not some combination of all three.  Saying that, is there any one stat or category that jumps out more than the rest?  Is there some trait, minor or major, that answers “why” they perform well on the road more than others?

I spent some time looking at those 34 teams who were .500 on the road these past three seasons and where they ranked against the rest of the MLB in different categories, for that particular season.

The offensive stats I looked at were BA, OBP, OPS, ISO, BB%, and K% with the average team ranking anywhere from 11-14, just inside the top-half of the entire league.  No one category stood out more than any other and was mostly pretty random from year-to-year.

To make the defensive review simple, just Def (credit to Fangraphs) was used.  To quote their definition, it’s “Fielding Runs Above Average + positional adjustment”.  Translating English to English, it’s the total numbers of runs saved above the average MLB team.  It adjusts for positions too (e.g. shortstop earning more value than left-field) to make it more of a “true” runs-saved number.  The teams sampled ranked an average of 12th in the MLB so overall they were slightly above-average defensively.  Not a big surprise.

On the pitching side K/9, BB/9, HR/9, and K%-BB% were reviewed with the first three all averaging 10-12 in the league rankings.  However, this is where we find the one stat that stands slightly above the rest.  K%-BB% is the only category that the average ranking for those 34 teams was inside the top 10.  In case you don’t know, K%-BB% is exactly what it looks like.  You simply subtract the pitching staff’s walk rate from their strikeout rate, with the difference being the rate and larger being better.  It’s a quick snapshot of how well a staff strikes hitters without sacrificing walks and in a nutshell is just a different take on a K/BB ratio.

So while the K%-BB% rankings aren’t high-enough to definitively say it’s the key to winning on the road, there is enough there to say it does carry some value.  Teams striking more players out while walking fewer, in essence, control the game more so than others.  If your K to BB differential is high enough you take some chance for bad luck to occur out of the game.  It’s hard to lose a game because of “bad breaks” when you strike more out and issue fewer free passes.

Is that the answer?  Not the full one, but it does help give some indication on what it takes to be successful away from your home ballpark.

Mike McCollum is a Featured Writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find him on Twitter @mikeyballTX, or join in the conversation @CTBPod, in the comment section below or on our Facebook Page.