Home field advantage is a tricky concept to qualify in baseball. There is a prevailing notion amongst many sports fans that home field doesn’t actually exist in the sport. Oftentimes, people reference the role of the crowd in home contests. Certainly, the nature of sports like basketball and football give a crowd more opportunities to emotionally impact a game at any moment. The in game action of those sports is more fluid than baseball so the chances for immediate momentum shifts are more present. While this is true, this doesn’t mean that a home field advantage doesn’t exist in baseball. It does and it would behoove the Yankees to secure it throughout the playoffs.
The Glory of the Walk Off
It is best to get the obvious out of the way first. Unlike every other major American sport that relies on a clock, baseball has a built in advantage for the home team. The absence of time based regulation allows the teams to decide the outcome based on their own efforts. This is obviously where the walk off comes to play. A walk off scenario immediately puts the game in sudden death mode and forces the road team to map out their pitching decisions differently. The home team can go to their closer with less apprehension knowing their team can win it in the bottom half. The road team has to be more cautious of how they deploy their relievers because they have to protect the bottom half of the inning.
The Yankees are built on power. Their lineup is designed to strike quickly and efficiently. This makes them one of the ideal teams to take advantage of the walk off. We saw this opportunistic approach over the last home stand. We all remember these two great moments:
The Gardner/Ford game was particularly interesting because of the bullpen usage by the Yankees and A’s. Bob Melvin chose to go with his closer, Liam Hendriks, for five outs. Melvin had to get out of the 8th inning with the lead. He also had to protect against the walk off in the ninth. Hendriks was his best option. Melvin pushed his closer more than he usually would and it resulted in a loss.
Aaron Boone, on the other hand, could play his bullpen options differently. After getting burned by Ryan Dull and Chance Adams, Boone knew he still had Adam Ottavino and Aroldis Chapman at his disposal. This gave him two innings to use high leverage relievers as opposed to Melvin relying on one. With his explosive lineup, he doesn’t have to think much about turning to those pitchers in back to back innings because he has the walk off potential in his pocket. This makes things slightly easier on the manager.
Creating as many chances to hit walk offs in a playoff series is an optimal way to utilize the profile of the Yankees lineup. The goal should be to provide as many advantages for the Yankees hitters to maximize damage.
There is a long standing belief that Yankee Stadium is a launching pad. There is certainly data to back this up. In the early years of the building, it felt like home runs were flying out of the park left and right. That hasn’t been the case this year. Yankee Stadium has turned into a pitcher’s park more so than any other time in its existence. Here is Bobby with an observation he made a few days ago:
There are obviously reasons for why this is occurring, but I won’t get into them here. The important thing to note is the park is favoring the pitching this season. We’re all well aware of the inconsistent pitching performances from the starting rotation this year. With that said, it may be crucial to the Yankees playoff run to have their starters pitch at home as frequently as possible. Let’s take a look at the home/away splits for the presumed first three starters in the playoffs (I’m not predicting order):
Of course pitchers generally perform better at home, but these splits are pretty stark. You would like to have at least one pitcher in your rotation that can carry high level performance in any park. Up until this point, the Yankees don’t have a starter that can do this on a consistent basis. It is worth looking up the home/road splits of three very good pitchers that we could see in the postseason: Justin Verlander, Gerritt Cole and Mike Clevinger. Their numbers are very similar. It is comforting for a team knowing their pitching actually travels. The Yankees don’t share in that comfort.
This puts Aaron Boone and his staff in a tricky position. How do you line up your rotation to handle the road starts in the postseason? The numbers indicate this won’t be an easy question to answer. Since this is the case, it is pretty crucial to give your staff as many home games as possible. The individual data suggests this is a prudent strategy and the park factors suggest this as well. For a starting rotation that carries legitimate question marks, pitching them in the most advantageous environment boosts their chances of better performance.
Playoff History and Confidence
The Yankees are currently 53-22 at home. This is second in the league to the Houston Astros. Both teams are playing over .700 baseball at home. Both teams are in the top 5 of home winning percentage for playoff bound teams in the wild card era. Coincidentally, the ’98 Yankees top the list. Success at home is also a strong indicator of postseason success. Here is a great nugget from Jayson Stark:
It is pretty rare for a team to play .700 ball at home over the course of a season. It is a form of dominance that can really put a team in position to go deep in the postseason. Yes, the Yankees are good on the road. They are also not playing .700 ball away from Yankee Stadium. We don’t want to overthink this too much. It is advantageous to secure the scenario that increases your odds of winning against the best teams in the league.
The margin of error between the Yankees and Astros is incredibly slight. Ballpark is reflected in the season series record between the two teams. The Astros swept the Yankees in Houston and the Yankees took three of four from the Astros in the Bronx. If we look back further, every game of the 2017 ALCS went to the home team. These teams are so evenly matched that external factors actually come into play.
There are some fans that don’t really value this. I understand the logic. Home field and home court are easier to feel in other sports. The energy isn’t interrupted by a pitcher waiting for a sign or a foul ball. It isn’t interrupted by a bunch of pitching changes to manipulate match ups. A pitcher can be locked in during that road start and negate the advantage. The point of securing home field advantage is to increase the odds of getting the best out of your team. Why refuse the opportunity to place your team in a more optimal scenario? Fans can debate this all day. Thankfully, the Yankees recognize the importance of it and make it clear they want it. Here is a quote from Aaron Boone provided by Lindsey Adler:
Obviously we wanna try and win the East first and foremost. But then that carrot of having the best record matters. To potentially have home-field advantage matters. We’re very good here. We’re very good playing at home. Hopefully we will secure that so I pay attention to it…We’re trying to be our best over this final month to put us in a really good position.Aaron Boone
The Yankees are more than capable of winning the title without home field. But when you share a league with another super power, capitalizing on every advantage feels like the smart thing to do.