September 27, 2000
The Daily Prospectus
Home Sweet Home?
OK, so maybe I'm just cranky this week about second-basemen-turned-ESPN-announcers. Last night, during the Mets/Braves game, Joe Morgan was insistent that the Braves should go all out for the home-field advantage in the postseason as opposed to resting their starters. The discussion was spurred by the possibility that Greg Maddux would skip his last start Thursday if the game had no meaning (which it won't).
Frankly, if Maddux wants to skip his start, there's no reason to argue with him. He's one of the ten best pitchers in baseball history; I'm comfortable with the idea that he knows best how to get ready for his first postseason start. If anything, it's quite a selfless move: by passing on the opportunity for a 20th win, he may damage, however slightly, his shot at a fifth Cy Young Award.
More annoying was Morgan's claim that home-field advantage was a significant factor in the postseason, which is demonstrably false. In other sports, home field (or court, or ice) is the Holy Grail, the whole reason NBA teams play 82 games. But in baseball, it just isn't all that important.
Since 1998, postseason home-field advantage in baseball has been determined by regular-season record, so data from that point forward will be skewed. Better teams will have HFA, so you would expect home teams to win more series; that's a function of team quality, not of any inherent HFA.
In the past two seasons, under those rules, home teams are 13-10 in LCS play and 4-4 in the World Series, winning four of the six series played.
The three seasons prior to 1998 also used the three-division, wild-card setup, but home field in the playoffs was assigned randomly (although the wild-card could never have HFA). From 1995 to 1997, home teams were just 17-17 in LCS play and 9-11 in the World Series. They did win all three World Series in that span, but it would be hard to argue that it was because they had the home-field advantage.
(You'll note that I'm not including Division Series play here. Because the matchups are set so that the best team plays the worst--the wild card--and gets home-field advantage, the data would be skewed towards home teams.)
The chase for the best record in the league makes for an interesting highlight-show graphic and may create the illusion that the remaining games have meaning, but it really isn't important. Of the many, many factors that go into winning in the postseason, it's a tertiary one, and certainly not worth a manager going to the whip on a tired team.
P.S. You'll notice that there's no Transaction Analysis today. Well, there's a good reason: no transactions.
Joe Sheehan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.