The primary focus of the final weekend of the 2016 Major League Baseball season will be the American and National League Wild Card races. But home-field advantage is still a wide-open issue for every playoff team except the 101-win Cubs, who clinched home field throughout the NL playoffs last week.
Things are particularly fluid in the AL, where just two losses separate the three division leaders going into Friday night. Meanwhile, the two Wild Card leaders are tied as a result of the Orioles' 4-0 win over the Blue Jays Thursday night, a victory which eliminated the Yankees and Astros from postseason contention and dramatically reduced the Mariners' Wild Card chances. That picture is further complicated by the fact that the AL Central champion Indians and Wild Card-contending Tigers were rained out on Thursday, which could require a make-up game on Monday to determine not only the Wild Card but home field in at least one AL Division Series.
Given the literal extra miles the Indians may need to travel to obtain it -- they play in Kansas City this weekend, the make-up game would take place in Detroit on Monday and their Division Series will open in either Cleveland, Boston or Arlington on Thursday -- we found ourselves wondering just how valuable home-field advantage in the various rounds of playoffs is, anyway.
The simple answer is that the more games there are in a series, the more important home-field advantage has proven to be, at least historically. Over the past five regular seasons, home teams have won at approximately a .534 clip, that's roughly an 86- to 87-win pace over a full season. However, in the first eight Wild Card Games since the addition of the second Wild Card team, the home team has won just twice, a mere quarter of the time.
Both of those home wins were memorable. The first was the Pirates' first postseason game in 21 years, one which saw opposing Reds starter Johnny Cueto appear to be visibly rattled by the ravenous, black-clad home crowd at PNC Park. The other was the Royals' thrilling extra-inning victory over the A's in 2014, in which they rallied twice during their last licks, first to tie the game in the bottom of the ninth, then to win it in the 12th. As great as those two games were, the road team has won every other Wild Card Game since its creation in 2012.
What if we add one-game tiebreakers to that sample? In addition to the eight Wild Card Games, there have been 10 one-game playoffs in modern Major League history to decide regular-season races. Of those, the home team won just five. Combine those with the Wild Card Games, and home teams are 7-11 (.389) in one-game playoffs since the creation of the American League in 1901.
Home teams have fared better in best-of-five series, but only because that single-game performance has set the bar so low. Prior to this season, there have been 68 best-of-five series in Major League history that followed the current 2-2-1 home-field pattern which was adopted by the Division Series in 1998. In those 68 series, the team with home-field advantage in the series emerged victorious 33 times. That's a .485 winning percentage.
I'm not going to argue that home-field advantage is a detriment in playoffs of five games or fewer, but history says that being the home team is no advantage at all. That's particularly true when one considers that home field in the Wild Card Games and Division Series is given to the team with the better regular season record (home field in tiebreakers is determined by a coin flip).
The outlook changes when the series expands to seven games, however. There have been 151 best-of-seven series in Major League history that followed the current 2-3-2 home-field pattern of the League Championship Series. The team with home-field advantage has won 83 of those 151 series for a .550 winning percentage (equivalent to an 89-win season over a 162-game schedule). In recent years, that percentage has been even higher. Since the addition of the Wild Card game, teams with home-field advantage in best-of-seven series have gone 8-4 for a .667 winning percentage, with half of the losses over that four-year span coming at the hands of the 2014 Royals.
Given all of the above, there's no good reason for the Dodgers to make any excessive effort to gain home-field advantage over the Nationals in their Division Series matchup. No matter how those two teams are seeded for their best-of-five Division Series, the winner would lack home field advantage in an NLCS against the Cubs and have home-field advantage in an NLCS against any Wild Card team that managed to beat Chicago in the NLDS. That's just as well. L.A. trails Washington by two games with three to play and, though the Dodgers have the tiebreaker by virtue of beating the Nationals in their season series, L.A. also has the more challenging final-series opponent, facing a Giants team fighting for a Wild Card berth while the Nats face a Marlins team that spent Thursday at Jose Fernandez's funeral.
In the AL, the Rangers have the inside track to home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, including the World Series courtesy of the AL's 4-2 win in the All-Star game. Texas leads the Red Sox by two games with three to play and Cleveland by two in the loss column. The Rangers also have the easiest final-series opponent of the trio, hosting the Rays while the Indians are in Kansas City and the Red Sox host the Blue Jays, who are fighting to hold on to their Wild Card position. The Rangers own the tiebreaker over the Red Sox and Indians, while the Red Sox also own a tiebreaker against Cleveland, with whom they are tied in the loss column. Cleveland would thus have to end Sunday's action with a half-game lead over the Red Sox or Rangers for the AL seeding to necessitate Monday's make-up.
As for the Wild Card contenders, they shouldn't give a single thought to home-field advantage -- they just need to get in.