Home-field advantage? Division Series format could favor underdog
I’m going to make this one brief — more of a rant, to be honest — but I just learned Major League Baseball has made this year’s Division Series begin at the ballpark of the away team. Wait, let’s stop and read that again: this year’s Division Series will begin at the park of the away team.
So, the overall number-one seed will have the risk of only one home game. Moreover, the wild card team will run the risk of having to play three consecutive games on the road to close a series.
Here’s the problem with this configuration. First of all, postseason games often turn on hard-to-predict turns of events. Second, more so than in most other sports, home-field advantage makes a difference in a one-game situation in baseball. Let’s examine both.
Postseasons, in every sport, are full of stories where relatively pedestrian players come out of nowhere to play the game, or series, of their lives. Postseasons are also full of stories where guys like Craig Counsell, who seem to flourish specifically in the postseason, change the course of things seemingly by themselves. Cody Ross, a good but streaky player who blew up for the Giants to help them win a World Series, is another example. And how about last season? Most casual fans didn’t know who David Freese was heading into the postseason.
Lastly, postseasons are full of stories where players like Edgar Renteria come out of relative obscurity to jump-start good careers, always being remembered for being young cats who put themselves on the map when it really counted (see the NBA’s Sam Cassell). If a wild card team has a Cody Ross-type performance on their home turf, with the fans behind him and going nuts, and said wild card team’s “ace” outduels the “ace” of the one seed, then the best regular-season record in the AL or NL might go back home having to win three in a row.
As for the importance of home ballparks, I don’t care what sabermetrics say; baseball is the only sport where you get to design the field’s parameters as you see fit, and good teams often build around their home park. If the Yankees wind up as the wild card, they’ll get to play in a park designed around their home-run-happy lineup, including Derek Jeter (all due respect to DJ, notwithstanding) and his 316-foot punch shots to right field. If they decide to stick poorly aged and overweight Andruw Jones in left field, hoping he’ll free-swing his way into a home-run binge, they’ll be more free to do it because Andruw will have a nice, small left field to roam. Conversely, if the Detroit Tigers get to start their series at home, with Justin Verlander pitching and their cavernous outfield spacing to eat home runs … well, the number-one seed might have to come home down two games.
Here is the mlb.com article on this year’s format. I believe this line is somewhat salient:
“This one-year change, which eliminates a travel day prior to a decisive Game Five of the Division Series, was necessary because the 2012 regular season schedule was established before the agreement on the new Postseason format was reached. Next year, the Division Series will return to the 2-2-1 format used in previous years.”
So, this is supposed to explain it? Are we talking about TV rights, here, or just laziness regarding the re-arrangement of the schedule? I know I’m not the only fan who looks with consternation at the effect of ratings-mongering on postseason schedules. I know you don’t want to put the games in places that consistently conflict with viewers’ ability or inclination to watch, but come on. You can’t mess with the competitive balance of the series for the sake of television! And if it isn’t a matter of TV, well …
The postseason is already full of flukes, surprises and dramatic performances; they can already be swung by the unconscious play of a journeyman or rookie, or a number three starter who turns into Sandy Koufax for a week. But, at least, let’s give each team an even shake to not have a hole dug for them during a long stretch on unfriendly terrain.