With the regular season six weeks from completion, the Yankees and Red Sox are already assured of October play, but that won’t prevent the two AL East titans from making headlines a few more times down the stretch. But Selig can talk about parity and competitive balance until he’s blue in the face, but regardless of how often new contenders arise in other divisions, these two teams print money, and the potential for an American League Championship Series between Boston and New York will always have many salivating.
Although both teams will make the playoffs, only one can win the division, and if 2010 is any indication, this race might last until the final weekend of the season. Last year, the Yankees entered September with a one-game lead over the Rays and 29 games to play. By the time the season ended, the Yankees had posted the worst September/October winning percentage in the division (at .433) while the Rays had limped their way (.500) to their second division crown in three years. (You may have remembered this, but Buck Showalter’s Orioles won 56.7 percent percent of those games.) The division crown was not awarded until the final afternoon of the season, when the Yankees lost (although the Rays would wind up winning their game in extra innings).
The seemingly inevitable Tampa Bay-New York ALCS never materialized because the Rangers had other plans, but if it had—and if Boston and New York can reach the second round this season—then odds are that the home-field advantage won by the Rays would have become a talking point, particularly if the teams went to seven games and the Rays wound up winning. In that case, every pundit in sight would have asserted that the Yankees should have tried harder to win the division.
The baseball postseason is merely a highly entertaining roll of the dice. Being the best team over 162 games makes you just 8 percent more likely than the other guys are to get through to the World Series. Having home-field edge doesn't confer much advantage. Even if a series comes down to one game, where that game is played doesn't seem to matter. This is why two teams in the same division who have already locked up postseason berths do not go all out for the higher seed in the waning days of the season, preferring to ensure that their players are healthy, rested and ready to go when the postseason begins.
For many of those same reasons, Jay Jaffe arrived at the conclusion that the performance of a team over its final few weeks doesn’t make much difference in the postseason, so don’t read too much into it if Boston or New York stumbles into October. Here is a fun thought, though: What if the loser of the division could stand to benefit from home-field advantage more?
The playoff formats have two variations. In the first round, the Division Series, each team hosts two home games before heading back to the setting of the first two for the decisive game five. In the Championship and World Series rounds, the format still gives the higher seed two pairs of home games, but it also gives the lower seed three straight home games in the middle of the series. Let’s diagram this from the lower seed’s perspective:
Divisional round: AAHHA
League round: AAHHHAA
Championship round: AAHHHAA
The lower seed can never host more games in the Division round, but it can host an equal total, and if the series in the final two rounds goes six games or fewer, then the lower seed will host more or as many games. This isn’t a loophole, per se, because no team actively attempts to take advantage of it—ideally, you don’t even want the series going five games—but it does become a reality more often than you might think. Here is a color-coded look at how long the series have gone since 1995 and how the length of those series relates to home-field advantage:
The lower seed has hosted at least as many home games in 60 of the 112 playoff series since 1995 (53.6 percent). The percentage rises in the final two rounds, where the lower seed has hosted at least as many home games in 37 of the 48 series (77 percent). When it comes right down to it, the lower seed tends to host more games in a series (about 29.2 percent of the time) than the higher seed (23 percent), which is the opposite of what the home-field advantage label implies.
What home-field advantage really seems to mean is that the higher seed will have the opportunity to host more games should the series reach the most unlikely game of the bunch. Admittedly, this is a logistical problem more than a plot against higher seeds. Baseball could adopt the basketball scheduling format—2-2-1-1-1—but that would require more days off for travel, and giving more time to the final two rounds is not an appealing option.
There are some other aspects of the division crown to consider, such as the business side of things. The Red Sox and Yankees (and perhaps the Phillies) stand to gain the least from winning the division, since consecutive playoff appearances bring diminishing monetary returns. Those teams’ fan bases will respond to a World Series victory, but they’re less likely to buy divisional title gear or season tickets because of a mere playoff appearance. What it may come down to is whether the teams involved believe in the power of post-season home-field advantage—and even then, they may want to consider the wild card.