Home-field success can make or break a season

Home-field success can make or break a season

Home-field success can make or break a season
A retired Major League pitcher was recently asked to list the best things about playing at home. It didn't take him long to answer.

"Sleeping in my own bed," he said. "Eating at my favorite restaurant. Not having to get off a plane at four in the morning and go to a hotel and not get much sleep and then go into a smaller clubhouse. Having our fans there every night to cheer us on. Better workout facilities."

"Not that I'm complaining, but wow, what isn't better about being home?"

These advantages have been around since the game's beginning. Operating on your own turf provides a built-in head start that can power a team to a series win or an improved showing no matter how a season is going.

But there's a lot more to home teams winning -- especially when they're doing it at historic rates. According to numbers pointed out by MLB Network analyst Tom Verducci in his Sports Illustrated blog, it could be a trend.

Through Thursday's big league slate, home teams are 91-79 this year, a .532 winning percentage. The 2000s, with a home winning percentage of .542, was the best decade in that category since the 1940s.

HOME COOKING
Winning percentages of home teams each season since 2001 (2011 record through April 13):
YEAR PCT.
2001 .524
2002 .542
2003 .555
2004 .535
2005 .537
2006 .546
2007 .542
2008 .556
2009 .549
2010 .559
2011 .532

Verducci wrote, "I suspect it's a rather random development -- part of the cycles of the game," and maybe he's right. But what if he isn't? What could possibly be an explanation for this significant uptick in home-field advantage over the last 10 years?

Well, how about the stats?

Statistics that evaluate how each Major League stadium plays in reference to favoring offense or pitching have been around for at least 20 years, and they've become much more streamlined in the last decade. That's why more and more general managers have taken to building their rosters around their ballparks. By doing so, teams feel safe in the knowledge that a heavier-than-normal home-field advantage over 81 games will translate to a better record for the full 162-game schedule.

A good example is Seattle's Safeco Field, which is a park that has primarily skewed as favoring pitchers. Starting in the 2009 season, when GM Jack Zduriencik took over, he played to the park's strengths in an attempt to get his team as competitive as possible, as quickly as possible. The result was a run on defensive players, including center fielder Franklin Gutierrez, that would theoretically make his pitching staff better.

It worked that year because the club played great defense, pitched well and hit enough to win close games en route to an 85-77 record. However, the approach did not work last year when the Mariners had the worst offense in the Majors.

Still, Zduriencik sees benefits in this approach.

"Our ballpark here is a pitcher-friendly ballpark, which means it plays big," Zduriencik said. "But regardless, you're playing games on the road, you're going to go in these other ballparks, and the game is built around pitching. So as much as you'd love to have all this offense, and believe me, we will, and we do wish we had more, the game starts on the mound."

Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos took over the reins in Toronto prior to the 2010 season, and watched his team blast home run after home run in the confines of the Rogers Centre. Last season, he saw Jose Bautista break out with 54 long balls. Yet, he still doesn't buy that his ballpark is necessarily a hitter's park or that it matters in the grand scheme of things. The park factor stats have Rogers Centre as middle-of-the-road, with no particular advantage to hitter or pitcher.

"I think our park plays fair, and I know we hit a lot of home runs last year, so some people today would probably say it's a home run park," Anthopoulos said. "But again, it was a few years ago that we led all of baseball in starters' ERA and bullpen ERA and we didn't hit all that well, so I don't think it can be attributed to the park.

"I think a lot of it is the players you have on the field and who you have available. ... Look at Philadelphia. Everybody says it's a great place to hit, but I'm sure [Roy] Oswalt, [Cole] Hamels, [Roy] Halladay, [Cliff] Lee and [Joe] Blanton don't have a problem throwing there, and they'll still put up Cy Young-type numbers, so I think a lot of it depends on the players you have."

The caliber of today's players might be contributing to the surge in home-field wins, too.

Consider this: According to Baseball Prospectus statistician Clay Davenport, the gap between talent in Triple-A and the Major Leagues is shrinking. Davenport's numbers, based on how players' stats match up at the Triple-A level compared to when they make it to the Major Leagues, show a mere 3 percent difference over the last several years. Though a small margin, he says it could be enough to have a significant effect.

"The talent level throughout baseball is still getting stronger every year," Davenport said. "That's probably because of several factors, including more international talent pouring in, better training methods, more money in the game for salary incentives, and other things."

"So if you have better talent and players who are readily available from Triple-A who won't cost as much and can give you similar production, there's more talent throughout the game and more parity."

And parity could be the key. If the 30 clubs in Major League Baseball are more evenly matched, then something as simple as home-field advantage can be magnified.

"Maybe," Davenport says. "That could be a reason for it. But who knows?"

The fact is, nobody knows, and Verducci could be right about it being random.

Take the Detroit Tigers, who accounted for a large portion of the skewed home stats all by themselves in 2009 and 2010, going 103-59 at home and 54-99 on the road in that span.

As Tigers third baseman Brandon Inge explains, the spacious gaps at Comerica Park often intimidate opposing batters, which can favor the home team. The red-hot Texas Rangers just saw it while cooling down in two straight walk-off losses, including Inge's walk-off homer on Wednesday.

"This is where our ballpark plays in our favor a lot," Inge said. "Teams like that coming in swinging hot bats, they had three or four balls hit in the last two or three games that probably would've been home runs in their ballpark, and that would've given them momentum and they would've just kept running the bases and putting runs up."

"But they don't go out, and those guys now are scratching their heads when they come back in the dugout. Our pitchers have more confidence knowing they can go up in the zone and get outs, and you can see where the momentum transfers back over to us. A lot of people complain about this park, but it's a big park, and both teams have to play in it."

As for the Tigers' road woes, well, leave it to their manager, Jim Leyland, to offer his take on the whole mystifying situation.

"I don't have an answer for it," Leyland said. "What do you want me to say? We've played like horse [manure] on the road. ... We've got to play better on the road.

"If we don't, we're not going to be playing for anything. That's the end of that."

Doug Miller is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @DougMiller and read his MLBlog, Youneverknow. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.