The MLB Playoffs Home Field Advantage Debate Verdict

Read the opposing arguments from Babe Ruthless and Optimist Prime.

This debate took some crazy twists and turns. I believed I had a good idea of the direction each argument would take, but both writers surprised me.

I was very interested to learn that a smart, professorial type chooses to spend his hard-earned intellect analyzing sports. Dr. Ray Stefani has compiled an impressive study, as Optimist Prime highlights in his article. The study completely breaks down the numerical value of home field in a formula, also providing insight into a fan’s impact on a given game – something we all know makes up a large part of what constitutes home field advantage. Needless to say, it is a good thing Bleacher Fan wasn’t writing in this debate, as I am sure he would have some choice words for Dr. Stefani’s analysis on the value of the fan.

It was interesting to note that home field advantage for Major League Baseball is a factor of only 7.5 percent – by far the lowest of the rated sports. Simply, home field – and by extension the crowd – just does not play a major factor in changing the outcome of a game. Statistically, this is impossible to refute and a blow to the value of the fan overall when it comes to post-season baseball.

But, statistics generally paint with a broad brush and try to define qualitative factors within a mathematical structure. In other words, stats can’t measure passion, and home crowds provide plenty of it. Just ask the Chicago Cubs. The famed “Bartman” incident happened at Wrigley Field, and I’m guessing few of the Cubs’ players at the time saw any advantage in that. But, the interference plays mentioned in Babe Ruthless’ article are not exclusive to the home field, which is really what is being evaluated within the framework of this debate.

For baseball, even the most passionate fans that are incredibly smart and always cheer at the proper moments of a baseball game will inevitably be unable to have any impact on the outcome of the game without violating protocol. Fans are a huge part of the home field advantage equation. But, Babe Ruthless was unable to convince me that fans’ impact is substantial enough, and that home field makes a big difference. Therefore, Optimist Prime wins the argument.

Now, that doesn’t mean Babe Ruthless’ argument isn’t outstanding. He makes one point in particular that nearly swayed me to his side, even in the face of overwhelming statistical evidence offered by Optimist Prime.

Babe is absolutely correct that home field players know every dirt and pebble on the infield and have a feel for exactly how much space separates the warning track from the wall. But in today’s modern era of baseball those nuances are not completely foreign to opposing teams. Within the same league teams get ample opportunity to play one another, so ignorance is no longer an excuse in this case. Interleague play further dilutes any advantage home teams have over the opposition.

Babe’s article is infused with too much conjecture and guess-work to sway me. Sure, a roaring crowd COULD impact the way a player plays, but not necessarily and not every time. Baseball is unique because the player – the batter in particular – has the power to control the crowd by stepping out the batter’s box.

The nuances Babe Ruthless draws attention to are not incorrect, but if they really DID make a significant impact on a home team’s prospects it would show up in the win-loss analysis the good doctor compiled. While it is true that fans can literally reach out and alter a game, they aren’t supposed to and it rarely happens.

I also do not believe that baseball managers would unilaterally declare a desire to play all games at home. I know of many Chicago Cubs managers who lament the unpredictable wind. I also suspect that Florida Marlins’ managers in the past were not wedded to the idea of playing every playoff game in front of a smattering of decidedly unenthusiastic fans (seriously, how do sports survive on South Beach??). Some managers also know that their team plays better with an edge a player can only develop when playing on the road, and will rent out a hotel in the team’s hometown in order to simulate the road experience and create the edginess needed to win the post-season.

I honestly wanted the home field and fan support in baseball to give the players and teams a great advantage. But, all of the factors that define home field – from fan presence to a player sleeping in his own bed the night before a game – do not appear to make any difference with baseball. The game is played the same way regardless of what field it is played on – from MLB parks to urban sandlots. In fact, baseball’s ubiquity is one of its endearing qualities. Anyone at any time is able to play baseball, and the game has been that way for almost 150 years. Maybe the fans and some home cooking don’t make a dramatic impact on the outcome of a game, but the fact that baseball has been played the same way since Abner Doubleday is pretty great. Baseball may not have home field advantage, but it does have history. And it always will.

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