Historical home-field advantage in the postseason

In my two previous posts on home-field advantage, I noted how, over baseball’s history (since the first decade of the 20th century), the home team wins about 54% of the time.  That got me thinking: with all the arbitrary home-field designations in MLB’s postseason history, is that pretty accurate?  Is it significantly better?  Worse, even?

Given any potentially significant advantage it provides, should it really be assigned based on something as arbitrary as whether it’s an even- or odd-numbered year or the All-Star Game result?  I understand that they try to decide this months in advance so that travel plans and ticket sales are more readily accommodated.  As to the former (and I’m pretty sure they do this already anyway), the league can reserve blocks of rooms in hotels in any potential city; as to the latter, it wouldn’t be that much more inconvenient to sell World Series tickets for all seven games in a single ballpark, and simply refund those that aren’t played there (same as if a team doesn’t advance).

In my estimation, we have three different eras to consider when looking at the World Series and, more specifically, the home-field advantage thereof:

  1. 1924 – 1968 | MLB first standardized the 2-3-2 format in ’24.  Prior to that season, the New York Yankees and Giants contested the three previous World Series, with the home team alternating from one game to the next.  On other occasions in the World Series’ first two decades, baseball employed the 3-4, 2-3-2-1-1 (best of nine), and 2-2-1-2 (in which three of the first five games are played at the the “other” ballpark, but games 6 and 7 are reserved for the team with home-field advantage).  I use ’68 as the demarcation, as 1969 added two franchises in each league; with it came two divisions in each league, which resulted in a league championship series on each side, thereby enabling a team other than the one with the best record in each league to make the World Series for the first time.  Two exceptions to the otherwise hard and fast 2-3-2 / alternating home-field advantage:
    1. The Detroit Tigers wound up with home-field in both ’34 (in which they lost to the Cardinals in 7) and ’35 (beat the Cubs in 6), with the NL representative claiming the benefit in ’33 and ’36 (NL teams hosted in even-numbered years until the strike in ’94, and the Braves hosted game 1 in ’95).
    2. During World War II, due to travel restrictions, baseball adopted a 3-4 format in 1943 and ’45.  This is noteworthy for two reasons: (a) the 1944 Streetcar Series between the St. Louis Browns and Cardinals, in which all games were played at Sportsman’s Park, and (b) despite playing game 1 at home both years, the AL representative would have wound up actually playing fewer games in both series at home, meaning that the NL actually held home-field advantage between 1942 and 1946.  Strangely enough, the AL teams won in those two odd-numbered years anyway.
  2. 1969 – 2002 | The latter year was the last in which home-field advantage in the World Series alternated between the National League representative and that of the American League.
  3. 2003 – present | 2003 was the first year in which the outcome of the All-Star Game determined home-field in the World Series, wherein the league champion whose side won the Midsummer Classic receives home-field advantage in the World Series.  In theory, this should give the advantage to the better side (while simultaneously making the All-Star Game more intriguing by giving fans and talking heads something to bemoan every July and October), because if the best team from the better league makes it, then they deserve it.  I’m still not buying it, Bud.

Here’s what I learned.

  • Between 1924-1968, the home team in any given game was far less likely to win than since 1969 (.523 vs. .619 for the “middle ages” and .587 for the present format)
  • Since 1924, the World Series has been clinched at home 43 times; the winner actually wrapped up the title on the road 47 times.
    • 2003 – present: Five at home vs. seven on the road
    • 1969 – 2002: 19 vs. 14 (only 33 World Series contested, not 34, due to the strike in 1994)
    • 1924 – 68: 19 vs. 26
  • The team in possession of home-field advantage won the World Series 54 of 90 times over the period in question
    • 2003 – present: 8-4 (which doesn’t bode well for the Mets this year, unless you consider their opponent became the fourth such loser a year ago)
    • 1969 – 2002: 21-12
    • 1924 – 68: 25-20 (I’m including the aforementioned 1943 and ’45 seasons, in which the Yankees and Tigers, respectively, *had* home-field advantage, but would have wound up playing fewer games at home in a seven game series, which actually was the case for Detroit.  Fortunately, they faced the ever-inept Cubbies); or 23-20 if you don’t count those two wartime series
  • Overall, 44 of the 90 World Series contested since 1924 were won by the team with the inferior regular season record
    • 1924 – ’68: the better regular season team won 25 of 45
    • 1969 – 2002: the lesser team actually won 18 of 33
    • 2003 – present: each “group” has won six apiece
  • There was a bizarre stretch from 1955-58 in which all four series went a full 7 games; even more Twilight Zone-y was the fact that the visiting team won each of these decisive games
  • The only possible way for all games in a series, regardless of length, to go the way of the home team, is in a seven-game set (a six game series in the 2-3-2 format yields 3 home games apiece and, therefore, a 3-3 tie; a five game series has the non-home-field team up 3-2; a four game sweep, necessarily, has the home team winning two and losing two).  This has only occurred three times in the ninety Fall Classics I surveyed:
    • 1987: Twins over Cardinals
    • 1991: Twins (!) over Braves
    • 2001: Diamondbacks over Yankees
  • Never (at least since ’24) has a World Series been contested in which the road team won all seven games; as with the scenario above, it’s impossible for a 1-6 record by the road team.  The worst performance by the home team in a given series was in 1996, when the Yankees famously dug themselves an 0-2 hole at home, then won three in a row in Atlanta before finishing the Braves off at Yankee Stadium in game 6 for an overall 1-5 record by the home team.
  • Conversely, on four occasions between 1955 and 1971 did the home team lose a single game in a series that went the distance.  The only way this could play out is for the home team to win the first six–so, a 3-3 tie heading in to game 7–only to have their visitors “steal” game 7.  The Yankees and Dodgers did precisely that to one another in ’55 and ’56.
  • Speaking of the Yankees and Dodgers, they’ve played one another a lot.  Eight times from ’24 until the expansion in ’69, and three times since, mostly recently in ’81.

Maybe I’m crazy, but the 46-32 record (.590) of teams holding home-field advantage from 1924-2002 was absurdly high considering the team receiving this benefit did no more to obtain it than effectively win a coin toss.  Over that same period, the home team in all World Series contests went 258-200, a .563 winning percentage.  And while we don’t have anywhere near as large a sample size for the “this one counts” era, the team holding home-field advantage has won two-thirds of the titles contested, while the home team is 37-26 (.587) over the same span.

Given the apparent impact that playing at home in the postseason has had, even compared to the regular season (.566 vs about .540), it’s good that baseball moved away from the rotating system they employed prior to 2003.  But I’m not so certain that using the All-Star Game as a reward is the best option, either.  I’m sure things would have shaken out a little differently over the past 90 years if the team with the better regular season record hosted the first two and last two games of the World Series.  And with the expansion of the postseason to include a greater number of teams with inferior records, MLB may want to take a second look at the way blitzing through the regular season has practically lost its incentive.

all stats courtesy of baseball-reference.com

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