No place like home

Unless we have a pretty severe shakeup, it looks like the last races — for the American League West, the National League Central and the last AL wild card spot — are winding down. But this year, I think, there’s a whole other race worth watching in baseball: The race for home-field advantage.

Baseball has always treated the whole concept of home-field advantage pretty cavalierly. We all know that home-field advantage in the World Series — meaning where the first two games and a potential Game 7 are played — is given to the league that wins the All-Star Game. This is pure silliness, of course: The All-Star Game is not really a game, it’s a relic of the past, a formless parade of stars and guys having good first halves doing one- or two-inning curtain calls.

Don’t get me wrong: I love the All-Star Game. It’s just … random. Using the All-Star Game to determine home-field advantage for the World Series is as silly as, I don’t know, alternating home-field advantage to each league every other year in some sort of “He loves me, he loves me not” method or … oh, wait, that’s how they used to do it. They used to alternate the leagues. So, yeah, compared to that the All-Star system is reasonable.

Anyway, MLB can play around with all this because there’s a sense around baseball that home-field advantage, while nice to have, isn’t that big a deal. You hear so much more about home-field when talking with people in the NFL, in the NBA, in the NHL, in the English Premier League. And, yes, the numbers do suggest that home-field advantage is more important in those other sports:

Home winning percentages:

NHL (2014-15): .600

NBA (2014-15): .579

EPL (2014-2015): .575*

NFL (2014): .568

MLB (2015): .541

* In the English football, many teams famously treat their visitors with disdain, shoving them into cramped locker rooms with low ceilings and questionable showering facilities. On several occasions when being shown around various grounds, I’ve had tour guides explain that while they would like to spruce up other parts of the grounds, they want to leave the visitor’s locker room as grimy as possible. “We don’t want the visitors feeling too much at home,” they say. So I was interested in seeing if the home-field advantage in the Premier League was substantially different from, say, American sports, where some visiting locker rooms are like penthouse apartments. As you can see, it is not.

MORE: Breaking down the race for the second AL Wild Card

Across the other leagues, teams do win at home more than baseball teams do. And perhaps more significantly, the BEST teams dominate at home in the other sports in a way that it would be impossible for a baseball team to dominate over a 162-game season:

Best home records:

NHL: Tampa Bay, .792 winning percentage (32-8-1)

NBA: Golden State, .951 (39-2)

EPL: Chelsea, .895 (15-4-0 — EPL puts draws second)

NFL: Green Bay and Denver, 1.000 (8-0)

MLB: St. Louis, .679 (55-26)

Home-field advantage come playoff time obviously plays a huge role in the other sports. Look at the above teams: Tampa Bay went to the Stanley Cup Final (though home-ice advantage sort of went out the window in the playoffs). Golden State won the NBA Finals, going 9-2 in front of its home crowd in the playoffs. And while Denver wilted late in the year and lost at home to Indianapolis, the single most significant factor in the NFC playoffs might have been that Green Bay had to go to Seattle rather than the other way around. Both teams were almost unbeatable at home, both teams finished the season 12-4. Seattle got home-field advantage because of a better conference record. In the playoff game, Seattle won a crazy comeback game in overtime. It might have been very different in Green Bay.

In baseball? Eh. People don’t think too much about it. Nobody would tell you it’s meaningless, but at the same time, nobody would tell you it means all that much. It’s baseball, right? All those things that matter so much in other sports — crowd noise, momentum, the various comforts of home — don’t seem to play as big a role in baseball.

We can talk about numbers. From the end of World War II to 1980, there were 18 Game 7s played in the World Series. Of those 18, believe it or not, 13 were won by the road team. Between 1952-58 alone, the Yankees twice won World Series Game 7 at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn, while the Dodgers once won it at Yankee Stadium. The Milwaukee Braves also won a Game 7 at Yankee Stadium while the Yankees won a Game 7 in Milwaukee. Later, the Red Sox lost World Series Game 7s at Fenway Park in 1967 and 1975. Baltimore twice lost Game 7s at Memorial Stadium to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

So, home-field advantage — at least in decisive games — seemed to mean almost nothing. But since 1980, the trend has shifted. There have been nine Game 7s in the World Series over the last 35 years, and the home team won eight of them, the only exception being last year in Kansas City where the Royals could not solve San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner. If you include NLCS Game 7s, the home team is 14-4 since 1980.

MORE: Cardinals beat Bucs, trim magic number to two

Of course, you can cherry-pick the numbers all you want. But the point here is that this year, I think home-field advantage might play a massive role in the baseball playoffs. That’s because this year — perhaps more than any year in recent times — teams are built for their ballparks.

Start in the American League, where Toronto and Kansas City are going to the wire for the league’s best record and home-field advantage. There’s no telling if the Royals and Blue Jays will actually meet in the American League Championship Series. But if they do, the most important factor could be where Game 1 is played.

Why? Well, both teams are much, much better at home. And it’s easy to see why. Start in Toronto: The Blue Jays are a power-hitting team, and Rogers Centre is a palace for sluggers. It is one of the best doubles and home run ballparks in all of baseball, and the Blue Jays’ hitters absolutely love it there. They are slugging 60 points higher at home than they do on the road.

The key word there, by the way, is “sluggers.” Rogers Centre, paradoxically, is not a good hitters park. Batting averages tend to be lower, strikeouts tend to be higher, it can be an uncomfortable place to hit, especially when the roof is closed. The ball flies there, but it’s not easy to hit the ball hard there. So while the park is an advantage for Blue Jays hitters it is ALSO an advantage for Blue Jays pitchers. Opponents hit just .228 at the Rogers Centre (compared to .271 against Blue Jays pitchers on the road). Opponents strike out three times more often than they walk at the Rogers Centre.

So, when you consider that Toronto hitters are better at home AND Toronto pitchers are better at home, it’s no surprise to see that the Blue Jays are 53-28 in Canada and a mere 38-37 in the United States.

Kauffman Stadium is a very different park from Rogers Centre, and it perfectly suits the very different style of Kansas City. It has always been one of baseball’s most comfortable parks to hit — great background for hitters, the fountains are soothing, etc. — but it has a massive outfield, making it one of the toughest home run parks in the game. This fits the Royals. They don’t hit home runs. They hit gaps. The Royals hit .280 at home (compared with .262 on the road) with lots of doubles and triples. They strike out just five or so times a game — they’re always putting balls in play.

And, they have the best defense in baseball, meaning they cover more ground — especially in the outfield — than anybody. On top of that, Kauffman Stadium is now electrified by the fans; Kansas City offers one of the most thrilling atmospheres in all of baseball. That can’t hurt. The Royals are 51-30 at home, a less impressive 39-36 on the road.

And you can double the impact in this one because not only do those two parks play perfectly for the hometown team, they would play TERRIBLY for the visitor. The Royals probably don’t have the power to keep up with Toronto in Rogers Centre (they lost three of four earlier this year and were outhomered seven to three — all three homers coming from Ben Zobrist). But the Blue Jays might not have the defense and bullpen to keep up with Kansas City at Kauffman Stadium (they lost two of three in Kansas City and were actually shut out, a rare Toronto occurrence).

Yes, if I were Royals manager Ned Yost or Toronto’s John Gibbons, I’d sure like to play the first two games of that series at home and would sure like a Game 7 to be in my ballpark.

In the National League, there is a heck of a race going for home-field in the Division Series between the Dodgers and the Mets. As of Tuesday, the Mets led by two games, and that could be huge for the Mets. That’s because the Dodgers are a completely different team in Dodger Stadium — and, really, they always have been.

Yes, from the start in 1962, Dodger Stadium has transformed the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers were a completely different team when they played at the hitter-friendly Memorial Coliseum. In 1961, the team had a 4.04 ERA and gave up 167 home runs. In 1962, they moved into Dodger Stadium and, voila, the ERA dropped a half-run and they gave up 50 fewer homers. A year after that, the team ERA was a league-leading 2.85 and the Dodgers won the World Series.

The new ballpark didn’t just remodel the team, it completely changed the careers of a talented but previously underwhelming righty named Don Drysdale and an erratic, hard-throwing lefty named Sandy Koufax. Before 1962, they were both inconsistent. After Dodger Stadium? Drysdale won the Cy Young Award in 1962, Koufax won it in 1963, 1965 and 1966. And Los Angeles won three pennants and two World Series in its first five years in Dodger Stadium.

In time, it became clear that Dodger Stadium was a little bit TOO good a pitcher’s ballpark — the mounds were roughly the height of Mount Tammany in New Jersey. But even after lowering the mounds in 1969, Dodger Stadium still played to the pitcher. Five different Dodgers pitchers have won the Cy Young Award since the mound was lowered, and Zack Greinke this year could become the sixth. Greinke has a career record of 28-5 with a 2.02 ERA at Dodger Stadium.

Greinke will obviously be a huge factor in the Mets series. But Clayton Kershaw could be even bigger. He has won three Cy Youngs since 2011 and is having another Cy Young-caliber season this year.

Well, Kershaw is unquestionably great on the road.

37-16,  2.59 ERA,  4.5-to-1 strikeout to walk, .999 WHIP.

But here’s the thing: He’s other-worldly at Dodger Stadium.

50-17, 1.75 ERA, 5.7-to-1 strikeout to walk, .889 WHIP.

The Dodgers have been about as unbeatable at Dodger Stadium as a team can be. They are 52-26 at home. Meanwhile, they are a dreadful 35-43 on the road. There are no guarantees, of course, but if the Mets can get home-field advantage, their chances considerably improve. Having Kershaw and Greinke pitch Games 1 and 2 at Citi Field could make a huge difference, especially in a short series. It’s worth watching.

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