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March 5, 2003

Let's Play Two!

Are the Cubs at a Daytime Disadvantage?

by Nate Silver

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I am not a morning person. The snooze button on my alarm clock is permanently compressed due to repeated poundings. In college, I refused to consider entire majors because they required me to wake up before noon. I don't have so much flexibility nowadays with my corporate job, but the person sitting at the desk in cubicle 18K3 in the first couple hours of the day is not really me, so much as a conference calling, Powerpoint-creating drone who lives off Twix bars and mocha lattes. So far as I am concerned, there is only one thing worth waking up early for, and I tend to fall right back asleep after that is said and done.

Thus, I am liable to give undue sympathy to the periodic pleadings from Cubs players and management that the team ought to play more of its home games at night. Sammy Sosa is not a morning person, and neither, apparently, is Dusty Baker. Their arguments, of course, are couched in terms of the team's ability to compete--I tell my company that I'd do damned good work at 2 a.m.--but those lines of reasoning are roughly as compelling as blaming the Cubs' long string of failure on a billy goat.

Do day games really set the Cubs up for failure? To answer the question, I consulted the Retrosheet game logs for each game played from 1997 to 2001 (Retrosheet doesn't have the 2002 data ready just yet). The first series of numbers I ran looked at every team except for the Cubs, with data broken down between day and night games, as well as various permutations on what the team's schedule had been like on the previous day (afternoon game on the road, and so forth). In the table below, I've provided the home team's winning percentage based on each condition. Day games are marked with (D), and night games with (N).


        AWAY GAME(D)    AWAY GAME(N)

          G      Pct        G    Pct
------------------------------------
Day      44     .568        4   .500
Night   520     .537      390   .515
------------------------------------
TOTAL   564     .539      394   .515


        HOME GAME(D)    HOME GAME(N)

           G     Pct        G    Pct
------------------------------------
Day      836    .530     2317   .526
Night   1040    .537     4577   .526
------------------------------------
TOTAL   1876    .534     6894   .526


             OFF DAY       ALL GAMES

           G     Pct        G    Pct
------------------------------------
Day      143    .503     3344   .527
Night   1297    .546     7824   .531
------------------------------------
TOTAL   1440    .542    11168   .530

According to the above data, there does not appear to be any systematic advantage from playing more games at night. Over the course of five seasons, the home team put up a record that's about four hundredths of a percentage point better in night games--a difference that is not statistically significant, even with thousands of games in our database.

There are, however, some meaningful numbers in the table. Whether it be due to jet lag or insomnia or a David Wells-style party on the charter plane home, the home field advantage is cut roughly in half following an away game played at night. Unfortunately, the first game of a homestand following a night game on the road is almost always played at night, so there's no convenient way for the home team to improve its schedule to avoid the hangover.

Conversely, the home field advantage is strongest following an off day. That doesn't necessarily mean that advantage is due to a better night's sleep--most teams won't use their fifth starter following an off-day if they can avoid it, and so part of the disparity can be explained based on more favorable pitching matchups. Interestingly, the game played after an off day is the one case in which teams do appear to have a discernable advantage from scheduling their game at night. It may be that teams are best able to leverage the opportunity for rest that a day off provides them by sticking to as normal a schedule as possible on the following day.

And how do the same numbers shake out for the Cubs?


        AWAY GAME(D)    AWAY GAME(N)

          G      Pct      G      Pct
------------------------------------
Day      17     .471      2    1.000
Night     5     .600     10     .500
------------------------------------
TOTAL    22     .500     12     .500


        HOME GAME(D)    HOME GAME(N)

          G      Pct      G      Pct
------------------------------------
Day     194     .526     63     .571
Night    34     .559     17     .529
------------------------------------
TOTAL   228     .531     80     .563


             OFF DAY       ALL GAMES

          G      Pct      G      Pct
------------------------------------
Day      40     .425    316     .522
Night    24     .542     90     .533
------------------------------------
TOTAL    64     .496    406     .525

The Cubs haven't played any better at night. Their home winning percentage has been incrementally higher under moonlight--but take just one of those nighttime wins away from them and the percentages are dead even. Nor does the constant switching between day games and night games appear to hurt the Cubs in the short-run. In fact, they have played quite well in day games following a night game (.571 winning percentage), as well as in night games following a day game (.559 winning percentage).

Another variant of the day game curse suggests that the schedule wears the Cubs down over the course of the season. The 1969 squad--which led the division by five games on the Sept. 3, only to lose 18 of 26 down the stretch and allow New Yorkers to make the spurious claim that G-d had intervened on behalf of Gil Hodges--is usually cited as evidence. Surely just another example of selective memory, right? Here's how the Cubs' performance by month breaks down since 1972, discarding the 1994 season in which, well, nobody won any games in September.


Months                     W       L     Pct
--------------------------------------------
April-August            1871    2008    .482
September-October        392     498    .440

Holy Cow! The application of a fairly simple statistical measure--the chi-squared test--suggests that the chances of such a pattern emerging by luck alone are only about one in fifty.

My colleague Will Carroll, also a long-suffering Cubs fan, suggested that the drop-off might be due in part to the Cubs' frequent use of September call-ups. Makes enough sense; losing is a burden, but it does give a team a pretty good excuse to allow its young players to get their feet wet in the last few weeks of the season. To investigate the possibility, I reran the numbers including only those seasons in which the Cubs were at least a .500 team as of the first of September.


Months                    W       L      Pct
--------------------------------------------
April-August            971     857     .531
September-October       178     234     .432

Girardi! Pico! Villanueva! Even accounting for the fact that picking only the winning seasons is selective sampling at its worst, that's a dive that Greg Louganis would be proud of. To try and look a bit deeper into the abyss, I further broke down the Cubs' troubles between offensive and defensive performance. If the additional fatigue induced by an irregular schedule is the cause of the Cubs' September swoon, it stands to figure that everyday players will be more affected than pitchers, whose schedules are irregular to begin with.


Months           Runs Scored    Runs Allowed
--------------------------------------------
April-August            4.47            4.29
September-October       4.33            4.75

It was a nice theory. But the Cubs' propensity to collapse in September rests largely on the shoulders and elbows of their pitchers. Offense isn't down any more than you'd expect in a month that means playing in lots of chilly Midwestern weather. But the pitchers have allowed nearly 10% more runs.

Maybe the Cubs' problem isn't the day schedule so much as the weather itself. The frequent fluctuations in temperature can make Chicagoans a little bit, um, temperamental. How have the White Sox fared in late-season games over the same period?


Months                     W       L     Pct
--------------------------------------------
April-August            1911    1962    .493
September-October        472     419    .530

The White Sox have routinely saved their best ball for September. Last year was no exception, as the team crawled back to respectability by playing at a .600 clip in the final month.

Thus, we are left in the uncomfortable position of not being able to validate the day game curse, but not being any more able to reject it out of hand. With that in mind, it's important to remember that the effect, if it exists, is minimal. Assuming that the Cubs' September fade is real in the amount that we've estimated it--and that the problem could be solved in its entirety by shifting from 18 to 30 night games, as the Cubs have proposed to do--the effect on the final standings amounts to no more than a single game.

I won't be breaking any ground by suggesting that the real issue at hand isn't wins or losses or Baker's disdain for alarm clocks, but money. It's not clear that the abundance of day games has had a detrimental effect at the box office--the Cubs would sell out a June series against the Cardinals even if the games were played at three in the morning, provided Mayor Daley could be persuaded to grant them an exemption to the city's booze curfew. But a larger slate of night games would make the Cubs' television rights more valuable, and allow them to cater to a higher-revenue demographic.

The issues raised by opponents to the periodic attempts to increase the night game quota are not as trivial as they might seem. Although it's facetious to suggest that Wrigleyville is a quaint, quiet neighborhood--most nights of the spring and summer, it better resembles a sort of upscale fraternity row--night games at Wrigley do create a real strain on the city's traffic patterns, an externality that the Cubs will not bear the cost of.

If there's one thing I hate more than waking up bright and early on Monday morning, it's negotiating the Red Line home from the Loop on the evening of a Cubs game. Unless, of course, I've got a ticket in my hand.

Nate Silver is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Nate's other articles. You can contact Nate by clicking here

Related Content:  Cubs,  Off-day,  September

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