By Cliff Corcoran
There's a strange dynamic at play in the American League Central race this year beyond, or perhaps behind, the Twins' and Indians' respective over- and underachieving. We've seen it play out over the last two weeks in the head-to-head confrontations between those two teams. With a sweep of the Indians this past weekend, the Twins improved to 5-1 in Cleveland this season, but the Indians swept a four-game set at Target Field the previous weekend to improve to 7-0 in Minnesota.
That dynamic is the manifestation of one quality those two teams share this season: They have both been outstanding on the road and awful at home. Looking around the league, an unusual home/road split has also been at play in the successes of two other surprising teams, the Rockies and Brewers, albeit to different degrees and for different reasons. In total, just three of Major League Baseball's 30 teams have a winning record on the road but a losing record at home, while just one other team with a losing record at home has performed better on the road than in its own ballpark. Here's a closer look at those teams whose unusual home/road splits are noteworthy aspects of unexpected overall performances.
Home: 16-25 (.390) / Road: 24-11 (.686)
The Twins' surprising success this season has come entirely on the road and has been entirely due to their run prevention outside of Minnesota. Their run scoring has been consistent both home (4.56 runs per game) and away (4.51 R/G), but the Twins have allowed a mere 3.97 runs per game on the road compared to a whopping 6.12 at home.
Strength of schedule can explain part of that performance. The list of teams the Twins have played only at home thus far this season includes the Astros, Rockies and Rays (against whom they have gone 2-7), while the teams they have played only on the road are the Giants, Orioles, Angels and Rangers (against whom they are 10-3). Their sweep at the hands of the Astros at the end of May, in particular, had a huge impact on the splits, as Houston scored 40 runs in that three-game set. Still, even if you factor the Astros out, the Twins have allowed 5.55 runs per game at home, almost exactly a run and a half more than they have allowed on the road. Similarly, while the Astros hit 10 home runs in that series, the Twins as a team have still given up home runs at a higher rate at home than on the road against all other opponents, allowing 1.6 home runs per nine innings at home against non-Astros compared to 1.2 HR/9 on the road (compared to an American League average of 1.3 HR/9). That stat is particularly surprising given Target Field's reputation as a home-run-suppressing ballpark. In reality, the Twins' home park has played more neutral in recent seasons, but that split is far from neutral. It's also surprising given that the Twins have played 17 of their 35 road games, one shy of half, in the homer-friendly ballparks of the Rangers, Orioles, White Sox and Indians.
Another interesting aspect of the Twins home/road split is that their opponents are hitting .261 on balls in play on the road but have a .315 BABIP in Minnesota. I find it difficult to believe that the Twins' defense, which is often cited as a primary reason for their success, is only effective on the road. The team has visited 10 ballparks with varying dimensions, sight lines and grounds crews.
All of this only increases the degree to which the Twins look like a fluke headed for a fall. Heck, even with its relatively stingy road performance, Minnesota is overachieving on the road. Its Pythagorean winning percentage on the road, based on its run differential outside of Minnesota, is .564, which translates to a road record more than four wins worse than its actual road performance. Correction could be imminent. Already down 1-2 in their current series in Boston, the Twins' next three road opponents, spread out over the next month, are the red-hot Royals (four games this weekend), the Astros (coming out of the All-Star break) and the Dodgers.
Home: 17-21 (.447) / Road: 24-15 (.615)
In sharp contrast to the Twins, the Indians appear to be a team whose robust road performance is a better representation of their true level than their surprisingly weak home record. Run differential tells the bulk of the story here. While the Twins have been outscored by 64 runs at home, the Indians have actually outscored their opponents by 20 runs in Cleveland. Indeed, per Pythagorean record, Cleveland has been a .558 team at home, a winning percentage that represents the inverse of its actual won-loss record at Progressive Field. The Indians' performance has been rather consistent between home and road, as they're scoring 4.79 runs per game at home to 4.72 on the road and allowing 4.26 runs per game at home against 3.90 on the road, the latter difference reflecting the fact that Progressive Field has been far more offense-friendly in the wake of its recent renovations.
As to why the Indians are underperforming their Pythagorean record by so much at home, the mathematical explanation is that they are winning big, but losing small. The average margin of victory in Cleveland's home wins has been four runs, while the average margin of victory in its losses has been 2.4 runs. That skews the formula, but it also points the finger at the bullpen. Six of the Tribe's past 11 home losses (and four of their last six) have been charged to their top three relievers, Bryan Shaw, Andrew Miller (twice) and Cody Allen (thrice). On the season, those three have a 1.15 ERA in 55 road innings, but a 3.25 ERA in 55 1/3 home innings. That latter figure isn't awful, but Allen's home ERA is now up to 4.70 despite a 24:1 K/BB ratio, and Allen and Miller have allowed seven home runs at home compared to none on the road. The Indians' home performance should improve, separating them from the Twins in the standings, but they'll need their big three, and Allen especially, to pitch better at home for that to happen.
Home: 22-15 (.595) / Road: 25-20 (.556)
The Rockies haven't won more on the road than at home, but they have won more on the road than Rockies teams are accustomed to doing. In their first 24 years of existence, from 1993 to 2016, the Rockies posted a winning record on the road just once, in 2009, when they went 41-40 (.506) away from Denver's thin air. They could go 17-19 on the road over the remainder of the season and still set the all-time franchise mark for road wins in a single season. Meanwhile, the Rockies' run differential is almost an exact match for their actual road winning percentage, suggesting that they really are a .556 (or .557) team on the road.
What's different? The Rockies are scoring runs outside of Denver. They have averaged 4.40 runs per game on the road thus far this season. The last time they scored that often outside of Colorado was in 2007, not coincidentally the year of the team's only World Series appearance. In their previous 24 seasons, the Rockies have surpassed 4.40 runs per game on the road just five times.
Over the course of franchise history, the Rockies have had far more trouble hitting on the road than pitching at home, with the gap between their runs scored home and road roughly doubling the gap between their runs allowed home and road over those 24 seasons. Only twice in those 24 seasons has the difference in their pitching performance at home versus on the road been more dramatic than the difference between their hitting performance, and the most recent of those two seasons was 1995 (again, not coincidentally, a playoff season for the team). Thus far this season, and for the first time in 22 years, their offensive performance has been more consistent home and road than their pitching. So, no, the Rockies aren't winning more often on the road than at home, but their road performance, specifically the performance of their hitters on the road, is the primary reason they have leapt into contention this season.
Home: 21-22 (.488) / Road: 20-17 (.541)
The Brewers are a fairly mediocre team whose prominence this season has as much to do with the struggles of the rest of the National League Central -- particularly that of the Cubs who lost again on Wednesday night to fall back to .500 -- as with their own modest success. At home they are exactly one game below .500 and have been outscored by their opponents by one run. On the road, their bats have been less potent, as one might expect given their hitter-friendly home ballpark, but their pitchers have been significantly more effective, allowing just 4.16 runs per game compared to 5.02 R/G at home. Again, some of that is to be expected given the nature of Miller Park, so we're not talking about a wild outlier here. Ultimately, the Brewers' road run differential would translate to a 43-38 record over 81 games. That's enough to keep them in the mix in a disappointing division, but it's not such a far cry from their middling home performance as to suggest there's anything unusual going on.
New York Mets
Home: 17-23 (.425) / Road: 18-19 (.486)
Amid all of their injuries and bad behavior, the Mets' disappointing season wouldn't seem to be one that needs much additional explanation. Yet their unexpected home/road splits provide some compelling insight.
With their pitching staff devastated by injury, the Mets have allowed more than five runs per game both at home and on the road, and with a run-suppressing ballpark, that figure has been larger on the road than at home. Nothing unusual there.
However, on the other side of the ball, the Mets have had a Jekyll and Hyde season, scoring a meek 4.18 runs per game at home, but a wild 5.68 R/G on the road. What has been powering that road offense has been … power. Catcher Travis d'Arnaud has hit all nine of his home runs on the road. Yoenis Cespedes has hit seven of his nine on the road. Veteran outfielder Curtis Granderson has hit eight of his 12 outside of Citi Field, including a two-run shot in the Mets' 8-0 win in Miami Wednesday night. At home, the Mets have slugged just .389, the fourth-lowest home slugging percentage in the Majors. But they are the top slugging road team in all of baseball, hitting .269/.343/.510 as a team on the road. Only the Astros have had a more potent road offense this season, scoring an absurd 6.61 runs per game outside of Houston, but no team is even close to the 72 home runs the Mets have hit on the road this season (the Astros, who have played one more road game, are second with 63).
As impressive as all that may be, the Mets only just surpassed their road opponents' run total on the season with that win over Miami on Wednesday night, and they've been outscored by 38 runs at home. The team's offensive performance at home and on the road might even out in the second half of the season, but given their injury issues, particularly in the starting rotation, and management's refusal to make easy and obvious upgrades to their roster (see: Rosario, Amed), their fortunes seem unlikely to drastically improve.
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Cliff Corcoran is a Sports on Earth contributor and a regular guest analyst on the MLB Network. An editor or contributor to 13 books about baseball, including seven Baseball Prospectus annuals, he spent the last 10 seasons covering baseball for SI.com and has also written for USA Today and SB Nation, among others.