Baseball Momentum

The MLB season is coming to a close. Baseball statistics fascinate me. Over the course of 162 games, the margin of error for playoff dreams is narrow. How many races come down to the last few days? Surprisingly, most. And some come down to the last day. Take the 2011 season, when four teams’ fate were decided in the last few hours: New York Yankees, Tampa Bay Devil Rays, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals.

“They will go down as the most thrilling 129 minutes in baseball history. Never before and likely never again—if we even dare to assume anything else can be likely ever again—will baseball captivate and exhilarate on so many fronts in so small a window the way it did September 28, 2011.”

Tom Verducci, Sports Illustrated

This year, the St. Louis Cardinals have the best record in baseball. At the time of this writing, they have a record of 91 wins against 54 losses. Still, they are only four games ahead of the mighty Pittsburg Pirates, who have the second-best record in all of baseball. If it wasn’t for Carlos Martinez making a wild play (while Mike Matheny begged him to eat the throw) on the perfect bunt, it could have been cut to two. And the upstart Cubs are in third place with the third best record in all of baseball. This maybe the best division in baseball history.

And the Cardinals are better off because of it. The MLB Playoffs are a different sport. It’s doesn’t have a large sample size, and over the past decade the best team over the course of 162 games rarely wins. Yes, there are outliers. But the regular season is a grind and the winners get (1) a seat at the table and (2) home field advantage.

The seat at the table is what counts. Unfortunately, the home field doesn’t matter so much. You would think a rocking stadium with chanting fans would have an impact. I figured as much. Remember the Minnesota Twins and the terrible towels? Why they tore down the dome I’ll never understand. Now that was the true essence of home field advantage. I do believe home field is meaningful in some sports. But I think the impact on the players is minimal. They still run as hard. Make great catches. Sure, some champions feed off the crowd.

Where home field probably has the most impact is with the officials. The hometown umpire does exist. Thousands of screaming fans make a difference. Remember the strike calls from the movie the Naked Gun? Oh, that is a beautiful scene. Leslie Nielsen played it to perfection. Pitch. Long pause. Catcher looks back. Strike? Crowd roars. Two pitches later, the umpire calls strike three before the ball crosses the plate. Leslie Nielsen does a 360, jumps into the splits, and performs a flawless moonwalk. Crowd roars louder.

Over the past ten years, the sports that have more grey areas in officiating have higher home field winning percentages. How fouls are called in an NBA game can change a series. It’s more art than a science. But why do you think Air Jordan and Phil Jackson worked the officials so much? Over the past ten years, the NBA home team wins on average approximately 60.7% of the time. Soccer is even higher. In some American soccer leagues, the home team wins almost 70% of the time.

In baseball over the same ten year period, the home team wins 56.3% of the time. However, what’s more interesting is that the home teams win percentage is dropping. In 2014, the home team in MLB only won 53.1% of the time. The NBA has seen a similar decrease in win percentage. The reason? Hard to say for sure but instant replay maybe the answer. It does show a correlation. When instant replay came to town, more fans left tears in their beer. It’s statistically significant.

Now, MLB teams are playing 162 games for the 3.1% edge. Yes, knowing the field, sleeping at home, and rising to the occasion has some meaning. I still remember Scottie Pippen in the NBA Finals whispering in Karl Malone’s ear, “The mailman doesn’t deliver on Sunday.” Maybe, it does make a difference. He did miss the free throw as the crowd screamed. There is something to be said for applying pressure at just the right moment.

Still, I’d rather have momentum going into the playoffs. To this day, the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals are without a doubt the worst team to win a World Series. But they did ride momentum and one strong starting pitcher. The 2014 San Francisco Giants may have had Madison Bumgarner, but the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals had Chris Carpenter. I’m not sure which one I’d rather see on the mound.

And the more I think through this, there is one team riding high right now. Maybe, Marty McFly and Doc Brown saw it right on the highway of the future. In the sequel, didn’t the Cubs win the World Series in 2015? I’ll have to go back and take a look. Perhaps momentum, home field advantage, and the other intangibles are meaningless. I’ll take destiny all day long. Looking back, you can always pick the winners.

Just a few links:


Home Field Advantage Fact and Fiction.

And the Naked Gun scene. Does this ever get old?

Do I really think the Cubs are going to win the World Series? Probably not. Still, I really do like Back to the Future. So, let’s all join hands and sing this is the year.