Baseball has a problem. The history of the last third of a century of the World Series proclaims that the Red Sox probably won baseball’s world title on Sunday night, even though they still must return to Fenway Park for Game 6 on Wednesday.
The annals of the World Series since 1980 say that what already happened on Sunday — the Red Sox ensuring that they would simply get back home for a precious Game 6 on their own turf — matters more than any other single factor in becoming MLB’s champion.
In all those 33 World Series, the home team has a .846 winning percentage in Games 6 and 7. That’s insane. It’s more of an outlier than Ortiz’s preposterous batting feats. It doesn’t matter whether you come home winning three games to two or losing three games to two. You are either probably going to win in Game 7 (if you’re behind through five) or almost certainly win (probably in Game 7) if you return home ahead.
Since ’80, of 11 teams that came home trailing three games to two, eight won Games 6 and 7 to win the series.
And all six that came home leading three to two won the series. Only one of them even needed a Game 7.
Just as startling, the average run differential in all Game 6s and 7s in the last 33 years is 2.42 runs per game in favor of the home team (142-79). That is off any chart. For a full season that margin would be an advantage of more than 400 runs, something that no team has ever done. You can say, and I do say, that the data sample is small — 26 games over that 33-year period. But that’s small comfort to the 14 of 17 teams that got to a Game 6 on the road in the World Series since ’80 and went home losers.
The Cards sure look like they’re about to add to that list. The last team to win Games 6 and 7 on the road was Pittsburgh in Baltimore in ’79.
What extra factor has been introduced into the World Series in this period that could so radically transform the impact of home field, especially under the greatest pressure?
That’s easy. In ’86 baseball decided to introduce the designated hitter into the World Series — in the American League city. At that moment, home field became a double advantage. You play before your own fans and you also play by your own rules; that always puts the other team at a disadvantage. Its roster is literally built improperly.
Home-field advantage in the World Series has become such a huge factor that the sport simply can’t award that advantage based on nonsense like alternate years or the better but still goofy method of giving home field to the league that wins the all-star game, which has been used for the last 11 seasons.
At the most obvious level, baseball is in an era when 21 of the last 25 World Series have been won by the team with home-field advantage. That alone might indicate that best record during the regular season, even though imperfect, would be a better method. Just use it.
But the issue may go even deeper. It isn’t simply having four games at home in a full seven-game World Series that is extremely difficult to overcome. Home-field advantage in the World Series has become so decisive that it overwhelms every other consideration and makes a champion out of almost every team that can simply make it back home to play Game 6 in its own park.
MLB brags that, in the regular season, its sport has the least home-field edge of the four major sports.
But the World Series is baseball’s grand stage and time after time, if you’re actually in the park covering the event, you feel the waves of energy that seem to sweep the home teams to victories no matter how outrageous their comebacks must be.
Game 6 of the World Series has become synonymous with amazing wins by home teams that trailed — always home teams. The Angels made a miracle comeback in Game 6 in ’02. The Twins needed a game for the ages from Kirby Pucket to win Game 6 at home in ’91. The ’85 Royals needed Don Denkinger’s infamous blown call to escape with a Game 6 win. The Bill Buckner play, yes, a Game 6 to set up a Game 7 win at home. Perhaps the most insane Game 6 came just two years ago when the Cards scored two in the ninth to tie, two in the 10th to tie, then beat the Rangers, 10-9, in 11 innings.
Before 1980, home field in Games 6 and 7 meant nothing: 30-30 from ’24 through ’79. So this current 33-year binge is not just some leveling of lopsided data from an earlier period. What we’re probably seeing is the result of getting to play your own rules at home. The Red Sox don’t just get to go home. They get to put Mike Napoli back in the lineup.
If the Cards defy this trend and emulate teams like the ’79 Pirates, ’68 Tigers and ’58 Yanks and ’52 Yanks who won the final two games on the road, it will be refreshing and perhaps even healthy for baseball. But, since ’34, there have been only four teams that have done it in 78 years. And none has done it since home teams got to play by their own league’s rules. If you root for the Cardinals, cross all your fingers. They’ll need it.
The day may come when a solution as radical, and still unthinkable, as using the DH-or-no-DH rules of the visiting team becomes the World Series rule. Give one team the potential for four games at home, but the other the ability to use its league’s DH theory four times.
Let’s hope it never comes to that. How sickening to watch your team play one way all season, then switch to alien rules in your own park when playing for all the marbles?
But if “just get back home and you win the World Series” becomes close to baseball law, something will have to be done someday.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.