One of the most controversial things about the World Series is how home field is determined. Unlike other sports, which either use a neutral field or assign home field to the team with the better regular season record, baseball has decided to link the extra home game in the Fall Classic to the outcome of the Midseason Classic. To some, this connection borders on the absurd, but does home field in the World Series really matter?
Several studies have been done on this topic, and most, like this one, have concluded that there really is no advantage to home field in the baseball postseason. However, analyses that focus on series outcomes, instead of individual games, can be misleading. After all, if the home team wins four of the first games in a best of seven series, the team without the advantage would emerge victorious.
Not including last night’s opener in St. Louis, the home team has won 339 of 614 World Series games, or just over 55%. In essence, during the Fall Classic, there is a 17-win difference between home and road teams (based on a 162-game season), so where each game is played seems to have a significant impact. Although some might question the sample size, the 55% win rate for the home team is not only in line with the percentage in the entire post season, but also closely mirrors the outcomes of every regular season game played since 1919.
The team with home field advantage has won the World Series 58 of 102 times (excluding four World Series that featured eight games), a percentage that is in line with the 55% per game win rate cited above. However, because the “road team” in a seven game series is the first to host three games (thanks to the 2-3-2 format), conventional wisdom has suggested that only in a deciding game seven does the ballpark really matter. And yet, a closer look into the actual results tells a different story.
There have been 35 winner-take-all game 7s in World Series play, and the road team has won 18 of them. However, actually getting to the seventh game hasn’t been as easy. In games 1, 2, and 6, the home team not only enjoys a significant advantage, but it is also much greater than the one exhibited in games 3, 4, and 5. Apparently, in order for a team without home field advantage to win the Fall Classic, survival is the key (over 45% of World Series won by teams without home field came down to a winner-take-all game). Then again, the last eight game 7s have all been won by the home team (the 1979 Pirates are the last team to win a double elimination game as a visitor), so even this one refuge for the road team has been taken away.
Because baseball has used a random method of assigning home field for most of its history, it’s hard to explain why there hasn’t been much of an advantage in the middle three games. Perhaps it’s because those games are more likely to feature second tier starters, which mitigates the advantage? Or, maybe the momentum (which for many sabermetricians is a dreaded concept) of early success carries over to the rest of the series? Regardless of the reason, it seems clear that home field advantage not only impacts the number of games a team has in its own ballpark, but how well they perform in front of the hometown crowd.
A breakdown of World Series results by decade reveals significant fluctuations in the impact of home field advantage, which shouldn’t be surprising when you consider the random manner in which it was determined for almost 100 years. Nonetheless, it’s interesting to note that in the 1940s, when the road team won 53% of all Fall Classic Series games, the team with home field advantage won 90% of the World Series. Then, in the 1950s, the opposite happened. That decade, home teams won 61% of all games, but 70% of the World Series were won by the team starting off on the road.
Although there seem to be so many conflicts and counterintuitive aspects of the data, we can definitively say that home field advantage in the World Series matters. After all, 23 of the last 30 Fall Classics have been won by the team that hosted game one. Of course, that brings us back to the question of whether such a meaningful reward should be granted based on the outcome of the All Star Game. I would argue yes, but it’s easy to see why others might disagree. Regardless of one’s position, however, what seems clear is that fans, players, and teams should probably starting take the midseason classic a little more seriously because, nowadays, it really does count.