Yankees: Why home-field advantage means nothing in playoffs


On his MLB Network show, Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo predicted that the ALCS would come down to a battle between the Astros and the Yankees.

Chris Russo argued vociferously that the Yankees MUST enter the playoffs with home-field advantage if they have any hope of beating the ‘Stros in the best-of-seven series and making it to the World Series. Is he right?

Many if not most sports analysts, whether it be football, basketball, or baseball, believe that teams tend to play significantly better at home than on the road. This year in baseball, for example, the Chicago Cubs have a home record of 44-21 (.677 winning percentage) and an away record of only 25-39 (a dismal .391 winning percentage). In the case of the Cubbies, the difference between their home and road records is considerable.

In contrast, the Bronx Bombers have a home record of 49-20 (.710 winning percentage) and a road record of 35-27 (a solid .565 winning percentage).

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The Yanks have won 14 more games at home than on the road, and have a better record on the road than the Cubs (and most other teams).

In general, nearly all MLB clubs are more successful at home than away from home during a full 162-game season. How much better teams play at home versus on the road tends to vary during the season. Historically, the home team in baseball triumphs about an average of 54 percent of the time during the regular season.

Why do baseball teams tend to have better home records than road records? No doubt, greater familiarity with the dimensions and characteristics of one’s home field is a significant advantage.

In addition, the positive physical and psychological effects of not traveling, sleeping in one’s bed and eating home-cooked meals in their home — and, of course, the greater support home teams receive from their fans attending games are significant benefits, too.

Home-field advantage in the playoffs

What about in the baseball playoffs? Does the benefit of home-field advantage transfer over to a shorter playoff scenario? Can one assume parity in the postseason with the regular season? Is Mad Dog’s admonition correct?

Previous research and statistical analyses question whether home-field advantage from a full season transfers over to a shorter playoff series, like the seven-game ALCS. According to Jeffrey Gross, there are at least two reasons why this is the case.

First, the shortness of a playoff series, even a best of seven-game series, makes anything possible. There have been many instances where inferior teams have played a lot better in a much shorter playoff series than they did during the 162-game regular season.

Second, applying the home-field advantage logic in the postseason assumes that the series lasts long enough for that advantage to make a difference. An inferior team winning the first four games — or four out of five games is relatively common as we know. Few ALCS’ and World Series’ go a full seven games.

As already mentioned, there is an average 54 percent likelihood win expectancy of home teams during the regular season. However, in a seven-game series, the team with home-field advantage is mathematically expected to win only 51.25 percent of the time based on all possible best-of-seven-game series outcomes.

The reason why this percentage is so low is that the club with the home-field advantage does not play all its games at home during a seven-game series (either ALCS or World Series). A 1.25 percent advantage is minimal. Not only is it based on an assumption of parity, but applying it to battles in October also assumes that the series will last seven games.

Furthermore, the structure of later-round postseason play in MLB is a 2-3-2 sequence. For the team with home-field advantage in the ALCS (either the Yanks or the Astros, let’s say) to profit from the 1.25-percent statistical advantage, the series must go a full seven games. In fact, the home-field advantage is non-existent if the series is a sweep (4-0) since both teams play two games at home.

Interestingly, given the established sequence and location of the ALCS games, the visiting team has a two-percent win probability over the home team in a five-game series. In a six-game series, the home team has a two-percent win probability and only a 2.51 percent win probability if the ALCS goes the full seven games.

Given these win probability percentages, if the series does not go a full seven, the visiting team actually has a neutral or better advantage than the team with home-field advantage based on its regular-season record. Thus, the visitor’s value of the home-field edge is more immediately attainable than it is for the team with home-field advantage.

Aside, this discussion suggests that the sequence in which games are played at home in the ALCS (as well as in the World Series) results in the value of home-field advantage to work to the disadvantage of the club that the MLB intends to reward!

Based on history, the probability of a seventh game being necessary is much less than the likelihood of a series ending in four to six games.

Ironically, if home-field advantage comes into play, it more likely benefits the visitor and not the home team. This suggests that serious consideration should be given to revising the sequence and location of playoff games if the real intent is to provide the team with the best record during the regular season an advantage during the ALCS (or World Series).

Of course, a significant number of games are left to play for both the Astros and the Yankees and, as we have seen in the past, anything can happen. There is no guarantee that both or either one will make it to the ALCS.

Regardless, given the statistics and probabilities cited here, Mad Dog (and others) is substantially overestimating the importance of acquiring home-field advantage for the Bombers. The Yanks are better off mathematically not achieving such an outcome.

The upshot of this analysis is that manager Aaron Boone would be smarter to focus more on resting his players, especially his pitchers who have been inconsistent during the regular season, than on winning games. Such a strategy will yield a higher return on investment for the Yanks, provided that they win enough games to at least make it to the playoffs, which is highly likely at the moment.