Posted August 14, 2012

MLB blew it with 2012 playoff schedule

Postseason schedule

If Craig Kimbrel and the Wild Card-leading Braves make it to the Division Series they’ll get to open the series in Atlanta. (AP)

When Major League Baseball decided to add a second Wild Card team to each league, the intent was to create an extra obstacle for non-division winning playoff teams by forcing them to meet in a one-game play-in prior to the Division Series. The change was designed to go hand-in-hand with a realignment plan that shifted the Astros from the NL Central to the AL West in 2013, thereby creating six five-team divisions and a more uniform path to the postseason for every team. Alas, the financial allure of the Wild Card games proved too great for commissioner Bud Selig, the owners and the players union to resist, so next year’s design has been grafted to this year’s model, thereby creating an inequity that actually favors the Wild Card winner. That’s the upshot of the postseason schedule MLB officially announced last Thursday.

As it stands, the regular season ends on Wednesday, October 3. That leaves October 4 open for any make-ups of previously postponed games or Game 163 tiebreakers, of which there were three from 2007-2009 — a situation that helped whet appetites for the new format. The two Wild Card games will be played on Friday, October 5. Two of the four Division Series begin on October 6, namely those involving the second and third seeds in each league, with the ones involving the top seed and the Wild Card winners the next day.

So far, all of that seems reasonable. The rub is that the Division Series will be played in a 2-3 format, with one travel day in between the change of venues, and the lower seed hosting the first two games, a significant advantage because it creates the possibility of more home games for the underdog than the favorite. Meanwhile, the more logical 2-2-1 format, which gives the team with the better record the advantage of hosting the first two games as well as the finale, and which was used from 1998-2011, has been tabled until next year, because heaven forbid that extra travel day push the start of the League Championship Series back a day. According to ESPN’s Jayson Stark — who has covered this issue in minute detail — baseball’s national television contract with TBS calls for the ALCS to begin on Saturday October 13, with the NLCS starting on Sunday October 14 on Fox, and those dates are set in stone.

Home field advantage is no small matter in baseball. As with any MLB-wide stat, it may deviate sharply from year to year for no apparent reason; in 2010, home teams posted a collective .559 winning percentage, while in 2011, they fell to .526, and this year, they’re at .530. But according to work done by Matt Swartz at Baseball Prospectus back in 2009, over the course of more than a century, the home team’s winning percentage has consistently hovered around .540 from decade to decade.

The advantage persists in the postseason. Breaking it down by era for the broad strokes:

Period Rounds Home W Home L Home WPCT
1903-1968 1 196 185 .514
1969-1993 exc. 1981 2 209 156 .573
1981 (strike) 3 20 12 .625
1995-2011 3 298 252 .542
Total 723 605 .544

Overall, that’s very close to the regular season historical average. Within those groupings are a dizzying number of rule changes. For example, prior to 2003, home field advantage for the World Series alternated between the two leagues, but the tie that ended the 2002 All-Star Game put the bee in Bud Selig’s bonnet to hitch the advantage to the winning league. From 1969-1984, the League Championship Series were best-of-fives with a 2-3 format, while in 1985, they became best-of-sevens with a 2-3-2 format. Until 1998, home field advantage for the LCS was determined on a rotating basis, first between the two divisions (through 1993) and then between the three divisions (from 1995-1997).

Beginning in 1998, home field advantage in the Division and League Championship Series went to the teams with the better record, with the caveat that the Wild Card team couldn’t hold it, and couldn’t face the team that finished above them in the division in the first round. The Division Series went to a 2-2-1 format, while the LCS remained 2-3-2. That marked what is arguably the most equitable period of postseason history, since on-field performance, rather than chronological happenstance, determined the team with the advantage. This year’s schedule rolls that back.

How much of a difference does it make in a five-game series? From 1995-1997, when the determination of the advantage owed to chance, the home team went 24-20 (.545) in the Division Series, while from 1998-2011, when it was determined by record, the home team went 113-105 (.518); overall that’s a .523 winning percentage for the home team. While the records of home teams broken down by individual games is a bit inconsistent due to sample size, what’s clear is how quickly the advantage tilts to the team who wins the first game, regardless of whether they earned home field advantage:

Game Home W-L Home WPCT Winner’s Series Record WPCT
1 37-31 .544 48-20 .706
2 41-27 .603 50-18 .735
3 31-37 .456 50-18 .735
4 21-20 .512 34-7 .829
5 7-10 .412 17-0 1.000

Both trends persists if we enlarge the sample size by over 50 percent to include all of the five-game postseason series (the 1969-1984 LCS and the 1981 Division Series):

Game Home W-L Home WPCT Winner’s Series Record WPCT
1 56-48 .538 73-31 .702
2 61-43 .587 78-26 .750
3 53-51 .510 76-28 .731
4 32-31 .508 50-13 .794
5 15-15 .500 30-0 1.000

The home field advantage in any individual game isn’t huge, particularly the later the series gets. In the rubber game, the home and visiting teams have split the 30 games, though that’s only 1.1 wins less than the five-game series home winning percentage of .536 would predict — in other words, sample size is an issue there. Meanwhile, the advantage held by the winner of the early games — where the better team by rights should have the home field advantage — is massive. Just over 70 percent of the time, the winner of Game 1 has gone on to win the series, while the winner of Game 2 has gone on to win 75 percent of the time.

Major League Baseball’s history in creating a fair postseason system has long left something to be desired. If the powers that be want to create a fair system, they should uphold the home field advantage earned by the teams with the best records. Particularly so because the early games in the series — the ones which MLB has haphazardly awarded to the wrong team in order to satisfy their 2012 prime-time television schedule — have such a huge impact on the series results. The playoffs have yet to begin, and MLB has already blown this one.

8 comments
JamesClark
JamesClark

But....you forget that unlike what has happened in the past the wild card team will already have a distinct disadvantage on the pitching matchups so you can throw all those old home field advantage stats out the window. New format means you have to adjust for what that format brings with it.

Frostbite
Frostbite

Honestly, if instead of adding that second wild card they just gave the team with the best record 4 home games (play the first game at the wild card) then all the problems they were trying to fix would have been solved as teams would still really want to avoid the wild card spot.

GeeMan999
GeeMan999

There is a truly simple solution - make ALL games away games...schedule ALL teams in ALL playoff games for Ranger Stadium in DFW.  DFW is centrally located for everyone in the country, so will be fair to everyone.  No home team advantage for ANYONE (...well, except for the Rangers...heh, heh, heh...).

Frostbite
Frostbite

Geoff - I actually put importance on games 3 and 4 (in either scenario game 5 is at the favored team). In your scenario, the only way it is an advantage for the home team is if they win those first two games. I mentioned this in that it this puts the pressure on them from the get go, the game one gitters and such.

 

You could say that being at home will help them win those games but as I said in my post, there have been many times where the underdog was there because they had 1 really good pitcher and the rest of the staff was just good enough. In those cases having that pitcher pitch a road game might equal out that home field advantage.

 

You commented that I "You keep putting importance on games 4 & 5 saying that if a team is down 0-2,..." I only mentioned 0-2 once. I also mentioned 1-1 and being up 2-0. I spoke about how the 2-2-1 puts the pressure on the favored team.

 

You mentioned that "If the better team was home for games 1 & 2, they wouldn't need games 4 & 5 " Why? They could still lose game 3? If they did then game 4 would be kinda important. With games 3 and 4 would being on the road the underdog can win those and while game 5 is in the favorite's park the underdog now has the momentum.

Geff
Geff

Frostbite - Your theory is flawed.  You keep putting importance on games 4 & 5 saying that if a team is down 0-2, they would rather be home for the last 3 games, but that's the whole point that you are missing.  If the better team was home for games 1 & 2, they wouldn't need games 4 & 5 & those 2 games wouldn't be important, because games 1 & 2 would be the important ones.

Frostbite
Frostbite

The 2-3 format favors the underdog?????

 

If you are down 0-2 would you rather have 3 games at home or 2 on the road and only *if* you win do you get the game 5 at home?

 

If you are split at 1-1 would you rather have to win two get 2 out of 3 home games or 2 out of three where the first two are on the road?

 

If you are up 2-0 would you rather finish the series off at home or go on the road and give the underdog a better chance to tie it up.

 

The 2-2-1 format puts the pressure immediately on the favorite as they have to hold home field or else risk not making it home for game 5

 

All the road team has to do is get a split in a 2-2-1 whereas in a 2-3 they pretty much have to win both or force themselves to take 2 out of three in the favorite's park.

 

The 2-2-1 format also makes it so the only way the favored team can clinch the series in front of their fans is they have to go to a game 5.

 

Add to that the underdog might be in the playoffs only because they have two great pitcher but not a great staff (Think something like Arizona with Schilling and Johnson), A team like that in a 2-2-1 format would be able to pitch those aces on the road increasing the underdog’s chances of winning on the road THEN when they have to use the weaker pitchers they can use them at home.

 

The only argument for a 2-2-1 is that the 2-3 gives the underdog a better chance to go up 2-0 by winning their two home games (1 and 2) but in a 2-2-1 format if the underdog wins their two home games (3 and 4) they have either 1) won the series if they split games one and two or 2) have the momentum going into game 5 so either way 2-2-1 is not an advantage for the home team.

 

2-3 is the better format for the favorite as it gives the favorite the home games when they are more important, puts more pressure on the underdog to win and is better for the favorite’s fans as they get a better chance to see their team clinch the series.

 

RobertSmith
RobertSmith

It is not right to use a 2-3 format, but it does not greatly tilt the field, not nearly to the extent that the semi-hysterical Jaffe tries to suggest.  Forget for a moment that some of these historical factors are about more than "won first game" ... the BETTER team historically has been at home for the first game.

 

But assume a home team wins 54% of the time, that only results in the home team winning the first two games 29% of the team (and those probably are too high because NOW the better team will be the visitors.  Even in that situation, they STILL have to win on the road.  AND, in the 71% of the time that they do not win both games, they have to win AT LEAST 2 of 3 on the road.  I don't like those odds.

 

At the end of the day, a team has to win 3 of 5 games, with the better team having 3 home games.  

 

In a four game series, the games are split 2/2 home/away with either format.  In a  five game series the games are split 3/2 in favor of the better team with either format.  

 

It slightly improves the odds of the lesser team winning in 3 games by sweeping at home and picking up one on the road, but really has ZERO impact on probability of winning in 4 or 5 games unless the odds for later games are conditional on the results of the earlier games, which Jaffe's analysis suggests is not true.  AND if they sweep at home and pick up a win on the road, they will win anyway ... it might take four games instead of three.

 

Worry about real issues.

SteveRicketts
SteveRicketts

stay with the 2-3 format, but let the team with the best record decide whether it wants to host the first 2 or last 3 games