Home field isn't always an advantage in postseason
Only one team over the past five years with league-best record has won pennant
Late last season, as the Nationals were closing in on clinching the National League's best record, manager Davey Johnson had his concerns -- even though nailing it down would mean that Washington would then be assured home-field advantage throughout the postseason.
Johnson's point was that with the addition of a second Wild Card, he wouldn't know until the last moment which team he'd be facing when the NL Division Series opened.
"From an operational standpoint, to line up your pitching, it's very difficult," he told reporters at the time. "It's great for the fans, but boy, for a manager, it's tough.
"It's actually easier for the clubs fighting for the Wild Card, because they'll know who they have to beat to move ahead. And then if they get in, they'll know who they're going to play. I don't. I shouldn't be handicapped that way. … I don't even know what the advantage of the best record is."
For that reason, Johnson said he planned on resting his regulars down the stretch, regardless of how that affected playoff seeding. And it turned out that he was right to be worried. The Nats did end up with the best overall record, but they were upset by the Wild Card Cardinals in the NLDS.
The Tigers had just clinched a playoff spot in 2011, but manager Jim Leyland said immediately afterward that he still had a regular-season goal to reach. He wanted Detroit to have the home-field advantage once the postseason began.
Just maybe not for the reason you might expect.
"We're [still] going for something," he said at the time. "Truthfully, I want that game bad -- that extra [playoff] game at home -- for a lot of reasons. First of all, we like being at home. Second of all, it gives your fans -- that would be the fifth game if [the Division Series] goes five -- that's the [decisive] game, so they'd get to see that.
"I don't know if I believe in the home-field advantage in baseball. But I do believe when you have the type of fans we have, they deserve to see that fifth game if we can get it for them."
As it turned out, the Tigers did not end up with home-field advantage, but they ended up winning the clinching Game 5 at Yankee Stadium anyway.
Johnson and Leyland may be onto something here.
Every division leader has a better record at home than on the road. The home team gets last ups and knows the quirks of its own park. The home team doesn't have to deal with checking in and out of hotels.
Logically, then, the Red Sox should do whatever they can in the last 10 days of the season to make sure they end up with best record in the American League, and the Braves should do the same in the NL. Given a choice, any team would prefer to play at home.
Except that recent history suggests it may not matter that much.
Of the 10 teams that have posted the best record in their league during the regular season over the past five years, assuring themselves home-field advantage in the first two rounds, only the 2009 Yankees won their league pennant. Six were knocked out in the Division Series and three were eliminated in the League Championship Series.
The Yankees won the World Series in 2009. But the Cardinals won it all in '11 after squeaking into the postseason as the NL Wild Card, clinching against the Phillies at Citizens Bank Park in the NLDS and at Miller Park against the Brewers at Miller Park in the NLCS. In fact, in the past five years, the success of Wild Cards is almost exactly the same as teams with the best overall records. The other Wild Cards have fallen in the DS seven times and in the LCS twice.
There are two possible reasons why the home-field advantage doesn't seem to have as much impact as you might think.
One is that playing the crucial final game or games at home would seem to be beneficial. Except that of the past 35 five- or seven-game series played, 16 ended before the home-field advantage would have kicked in at the end.
The other is that if the team that starts on the road splits the first two games of a 2-2-1 or a 2-3-2 series, they actually grab the home-field advantage.
From 2008-11, there were 12 series that did return to the original city. On nine of those occasions, the teams were even after two games. Four times, the team that didn't start with the home-field advantage ended up winning. And in the 2010 ALDS, Texas advanced by beating Tampa Bay three times at Tropicana Field while losing both at The Ballpark in Arlington.
Last year, to accommodate the addition of a second Wild Card in each league, the DS was changed to a 2-3 format. All four series went the limit. The Tigers, Giants and Cardinals all won despite having to play the last three games on the road. The Yankees were the exception, beating the Orioles in New York to clinch.
That's all counterintuitive. That doesn't make sense.
Paul Hagen is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.