That’s why I’m here, to give you this inside stuff: That’s why they play the games.
The most notable difference between games at Fenway Park and games at Busch Stadium, other than the lack of a giant wall a few feet behind shortstop at Busch, is the designated hitter. In the World Series, the rule is in effect in the American League park, but in the National League park the pitchers bat.
One of the things people who like to argue about baseball like to argue about is whether the World Series designated hitter rules benefit the A.L. or the N.L. champ.
The argument that it favors the A.L. goes something like this: American League rosters are constructed with the D.H. in mind. A.L. teams can make use of all-hit, no-field guys like David Ortiz of Boston, who’d have a tough time in the National League, where his iron glove would detract from his offense. In games in the A.L. park, National League teams have to plug a bench player in as D.H. In the N.L. park, the A.L. champ loses its D.H., but gets to use him as a much better pinch-hitter than the N.L. champ has.
The N.L. argument goes something like: Adding a hitter to the lineup makes the N.L. champ’s lineup better in the A.L. park, even if it’s a mediocre hitter, because he’s still going to be a better hitter than the pitcher. But the A.L. champ loses a hitter, and maybe its best hitter — see Ortiz again — in the N.L. park. Either that or he has to put on a glove, which might be an adventure, and another hitter has to sit down.
In this case, it’s first baseman Kevin Millar who sits, which is no great loss for the Sox because he’s an atrocious hitter away from Fenway Park anyway, but now we’re getting into the back and forth of the argument.
There are plenty of rivulets and tributaries on both sides, but here’s what I think: It’s a wash. The offensive improvement an N.L. team gets by adding a D.H. just turns them into an American League team, and is offset by the blow its pitching takes by having to face a nine-hitter lineup, rather than eight hitters and a pitcher. The exact opposite happens to an American League team in the N.L. park.
But here’s something interesting: I thought I’d look at the results of the World Series played with the D.H. rule in effect, rather than just theorizing in midair, and what I concluded is that the D.H. gives an advantage to the home team. You might not conclude the same thing, and I’ll tell you why in a minute. But I think home-field advantage in the World Series is enhanced by the D.H. rule. It appears that playing by your own league’s rules is a big help.
First, a little background. The designated hitter rule was introduced in the American League in 1973, and the National League has never used it. The D.H. was first used in the World Series in 1976, when baseball decreed that it would be in effect for all games every other year. That lasted 10 years, five Series with and five without the D.H. In 1986, the current rule was implemented, with the D.H. used in A.L. parks and the pitchers hitting in N.L. parks.
In the regular season, home teams win about 54 percent of the time. In either league, the home winning percentage can spike above .555 or dip below .520, but for the most part it hovers around .540. Since 1986, National League teams have played exactly .540 ball at home in the regular season, American League teams .536.
In the league playoffs, home-field advantage seems to lessen ever so slightly overall, although in the A.L. Championship Series, home field has actually been a disadvantage since 1986. Here are the records for home teams in each league in the playoffs since ’86:
Division series (1995-2004)
N.L.: 40-35, .533
A.L.: 44-38, .537
League Championship Series (1986-2004)
N.L.: 58-51, .532
A.L.: 49-51, .490
Overall playoffs (1986-2004)
N.L.: 98-86, .533
A.L.: 93-89, .511
A little funky in the American League, but we’re only talking about 100 games in the ALCS, which might not be enough to offset one or two years when for some reason home teams just couldn’t buy a win. Overall, it looks like home-field advantage is roughly the same in the playoffs as the regular season.
Feel free to disagree and think something significant is going on in the ALCS, but I don’t think it bears on the World Series D.H. question.
So let’s look at the records of home teams in the World Series since 1986, and conveniently, there have been 50 home games for each team, including the first two games of this year’s Series:
World Series (1986-2004)
N.L.: 27-23, .540
A.L.: 33-17, .660
Eureka! The American League has a huge home advantage in the World Series! Games in N.L. parks go according to form, but in A.L. parks the National League champ is doomed to play .340 baseball. Mental comparison: In the last six years, only the ’04 Diamondbacks and the ’03 Tigers have failed to beat a .340 winning percentage.
But hang on a second. I don’t think the D.H. is behind that huge home-field advantage. This is the part where you might disagree with me. That 120-point difference in home winning percentage can be attributed to three things: the 1998 Yankees, the 1999 Yankees, and the 2000 Yankees.
Those three seasons, the Yanks were so earth-scorchingly dominant in the World Series, they throw off the numbers for the whole 19-year period we’re looking at. They swept the Padres in ’98 and the Braves in ’99, then beat the Mets 4-1 in 2000. No other team in this period has been anything close to that dominant in the World Series, and the only other team in history that did something similar was the 1936-39 Yanks, who went 16-3 in winning four straight Series.
The Yankees went 6-0 at home from 1998 to 2000, and 6-1 in National League parks. Take those three years out — just go with me on this for a second, even if you disagree — and the World Series home records look like this:
N.L.: 26-17, .605
A.L.: 27-17, .614
Pretty similar, wouldn’t you say? And note how the winning percentages are more than 10 percent higher than in the regular year or the rest of the playoffs.
Now, you might say, “But you can’t discount the ’98-00 Yankees. Those years happened, the rule was in effect, and you have to count it. You’re just cooking the numbers to make them say what you want them to say.”
Good point, imaginary person, but I don’t think that’s what I’m doing. The Yankees outplayed their opponents by a freakish amount those three years, and their advantage had nothing at all to do with the D.H. position. Let me show you.
The Yanks D.H. was Chili Davis in 1998, Darryl Strawberry in ’99 and Chuck Knoblauch in 2000. Davis had a nice “series” — two games — in ’98, going 2-for-6, both singles, plus three walks, but it was hardly a difference maker. Strawberry and Knoblauch combined to go 1-for-15 with two walks over the next two years, with one RBI. Over the three years, Yankees designated hitters went 3-for-21, drove in two runs in six games and posted a pitcher-like OPS of .439.
The Padres, Braves and Mets designated hitters were even worse. A motley collection of Jim Leyritz, Greg Vaughn, Jose Hernandez, Ozzie Guillen, Keith Lockhart, Lenny Harris and (for one game) Mike Piazza combined to go 3-for-26 with no walks, one double, 2 RBIs and a Kaufman-in-Little League-like OPS of .269.
But those teams didn’t lose those World Series because of the Yankees’ barely perceptible D.H. advantage. I think we have to throw those three years out of our little study as just being too anomalously one-sided.
But before deciding that the D.H. rule enhances home-field advantage, I figured I’d better look at the results of the previous 17 World Series, to match the current period, 1986-2003 minus the strike year of ’94 and this year’s first two games. The idea was to make sure it’s not the Series itself that boosts the home team.
That was hard to do because I didn’t know what to do with those five years when the D.H. was used in every game. So I did it two ways: I looked at the previous 17 years, 1969-85, and then I looked at the last 17 Series in which the D.H. was not used, which was 1964-75, plus the five odd-numbered years starting in 1977.
Previous 17 World Series (1969-85)
N.L.: 29-20, .592
A.L.: 33-20, .623
Previous 17 non-D.H. World Series (1964-75, plus odd years ’77-85)
N.L.: 26-25, .510
A.L.: 32-23, .582
Hmm. Here’s a funny thing: In those years when the designated hitter rule was used in every game, the National League rocked at home. They went 11-3. A.L. teams rocked at home too, going 10-4. The N.L. won three of those five Series.
I can’t explain that one. Maybe the designated hitter just enhances the home team’s advantage, no matter which league that team comes from, and that, not the ’98-00 Yankees, explains the A.L.’s advantage since ’86. But then, why doesn’t the D.H. make the home team better during the regular season or the A.L. playoffs?
I need to lie down.
Overall, the home teams in the 17 non-D.H. World Series before 1986 played about the way home teams do all year and in the playoffs. They went 58-48, a .547 winning percentage. I don’t know what explains the big A.L. home-field advantage. The American League won nine of those Series, the N.L. eight.
At first I thought the advantage came from the fact that at the time there were more old, quirky parks in the A.L., which gave the home team more of an advantage than the symmetrical stadiums that dominated the National League. I was wrong.
Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Tiger Stadium played host to six of those 17 World Series, all but one against teams playing in modern, non-quirky parks. (In the ’64 Series, the Cardinals hadn’t yet moved from oddly shaped Sportsman’s Park to symmetrical Busch Stadium.) The Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers combined to go 9-7 in their home games with the quirky-park advantage, 7-9 on the road in those Series. No advantage there.
Then I thought maybe the ’72-74 A’s would account for a similar skewering of the numbers that the late-’90s Yanks did. But no. The A’s were good at home, going 7-3, but that’s hardly overwhelming. The previous three years, the Orioles had gone 6-3 at home and lost the Series twice.
Whatever the reason for the A.L.’s superior home-field advantage from the mid-’60s to the mid-’80s, the only thing I can conclude from all this is that the change in the D.H. rule in 1986 had a profound effect on the World Series, changing the dynamic significantly.
If you agree with me that the ’98-00 Yankees ought to be discounted, then the change has been to increase home-field advantage by a lot. If you disagree and think we should count those Yankees teams, the change has been to increase the American League champion’s home-field advantage by even more than that.
All of this means squat for Game 3 because you know what? They still have to go out there and play the game.
Then again, it might rain, in which case we can argue some more.
Previous column: The Red Sock of Death
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