The 2020 MLB season -- delayed four months and spanning just 60 regular season games -- will be like nothing we've ever glimpsed before in a number of ways. One of those ways, albeit much less conspicuous than others, is what will become of the home-field advantage.
Probably you've seen, say, Cardinals fans bemoan that this season they'll play just three of 10 games against the Cubs in Busch Stadium. Or maybe you've heard a Boston rooter complain that the Yankees will play host to the Red Sox seven games out of 10. That's the nature of this one-off experience of trying to cram 60 games into a shrinking calendar. The good news -- or bad news for those with a fetish for the lamentation -- is that edge typically enjoyed by the home squadron figures to be quite muted in 2020.
Now let us step into our Jacques Cartier explorer's breeches and explore why that's the case...
Home-field advantage doesn't mean that much in MLB
This isn't specific to the 2020 season, but it's important that we're aware of the baseline. That MLB baseline may be more modest than you think. In a 2014 study published in the Encyclopedia of Sport and Exercise Psychology that examined home team winning percentages in the NFL, the NBA, and MLB across five years, authors Albert Carron and Kyle F. Paradis found the following:
- NBA teams won 61 percent of their home games.
- NFL teams won 58.2 percent of their home games.
- MLB teams won 53.6 percent of their home games.
As you can see, MLB confers much less of an edge to the home team. That tracks with our assumptions about the sport -- baseball has a great deal of structural parity (you face Mike Trout at the plate only once out of every nine hitters, and you face Gerrit Cole on the mound only once every five days and so forth). That in large measure is why in MLB you see much more compressed winning percentages from best team to worst team than you do in the NBA or NFL. Expand the data sample, and you'll still find that the home team in MLB wins in general between 53 and 54 percent of the time.
Also of note is that little changes when you look at the home winning percentages of teams playing opponents of roughly equal quality. Michael J. Lopez, Gregory J. Matthews, and Benjamin S. Baumer studied that very wrinkle for a 2017 issue of the Annals of Applied Statistics and found similar numbers. The relevant digits:
- NBA teams against evenly matched opponents won 62 percent of their home games.
- NFL teams against evenly matched opponents won 59 percent of their home games.
- MLB teams against evenly matched opponents won 54 percent of their home games.
Again, MLB confers significantly less of an advantage than its NFL and NBA counterparts. So when pondering home-field advantage in 2020, bear in mind that we're not starting with much of one in the first place.
Travel is significantly reduced in 2020
In order to try to manage the risk of COVID-19 clusters within the game, teams are playing regional schedules in 2020. That means they'll play 40 of 60 games against teams within their own division and the remaining 20 against teams from the corresponding regional division in the other league (e.g., NL East versus AL East). This obviously limits travel by quite a bit.
How much? Here's a look at the "leaders" in this particular category over the last four seasons:
|Season||Team with most miles traveled||Miles traveled|
*Data via AllMySportsTeamsSuck.com, which is an honorable name.
Notably, the A's also topped 50,000 miles last season. That means the A's and Mariners in 2019 traveled enough to circle the entire globe twice.
That brings us to 2020. This season -- assuming all goes as planned -- the Rangers will lead all comers in miles traveled with ... 14,706. That's roughly 25 percent of the row hoed by the M's in 2019. This is of course a natural consequence of that regional schedule across just 60 games. The rigors and fatigue associated with travel no doubt play a consequential role in the home-field advantage in baseball, especially over the sprawl of the usual six-month regular season. That particular ingredient of the home edge, however, will be drastically lessened in 2020.
No fans -- at least to start
As for the "home field" part of home-field advantage, some of it no doubt flows from familiarity with the ballpark and its peculiarities. That's not going away. Another component, however, is the effect of the home crowd on the opposing players and the umpires. The bigger the moment, the more verve and vinegar the home crowd brings, generally speaking.
Doubtless, you'll recall this instance from the 2013 NL Wild Card Game:
With something like that, it's impossible to separate correlation and causation, but it seems likely that the PNC Park crowd had at least a little something to do with Johnny Cueto's tribulations on that night.
As for the umpiring part of things, it's largely reducible to ball and strike calls by the plate ump. There's compelling evidence that umps call those balls and strikes with a modest but very real bias toward the home team. This isn't intentional, of course. It's the residue of an unconscious dynamic that comes from wanting to pacify the braying throngs of fans in the seats. Umps are subject to human limitations, and even though they are very good at their craft they can't fully tame those inaccessible corners of the mind.
As noted, the reasonable assumption is that the presence of fans -- densely packed and making themselves heard -- is the driver here. Because of COVID-19, no fans will be in the seats for MLB games in 2020, at least for the start of the season. Maybe at some point, certain ballparks in certain states open up to partial capacity seating, but given the recent trends of the virus that seems unlikely. Even if things do open up to a limited extent, the "fan effect" will surely be attenuated when it comes to its capacity to rattle visiting players and predispose the authority figure behind the dish.
So in 2020, don't sweat the home-road inequities too much. It'll matter less than it ever has, for those three reasons above.