Which MLB Team Has the Best Home Field Advantage?
Unlike other sports like football and basketball, each Major League Baseball stadium is unique. While there are always ninety feet to first no matter where home is, the outfield fence can be wildly different shapes, heights, and distances, making the line between home run and long fly ball arbitrary. Teams can move their fences in and out and even cut holes in the wall (I’m looking at you, Tampa Bay) to make their park play differently. In theory, this gives organizations the opportunity to build a team that plays to their home park’s strengths to maximize their win probability over the course of 81 home games. It was no surprise, for example, when the Yankees snatched up a bunch of left-handed power hitters to hit popups that get caught in a wind tunnel and carried out to the short porch in right field. If there is a home field advantage in baseball, which teams take advantage of it most effectively, and how do they do it?
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To determine who has the best home field advantage in baseball, I used each team’s run differential in home and road splits from 2011-2013. To figure out the actual run value of their advantage, I subtracted the road differential from the home differential and divided by two. This method accounts for quality of team, as a good team with no home advantage would theoretically win by the same amount of runs on the road as it does at home. It also allows us to compare home park performance against a neutral field, even though baseball teams never play at a neutral park. It also gives us the opportunity to say that a team is expected to score an average of X number of runs more since they’re playing at home, in much the same way that the home team in football is usually given an extra 3 points.
The primary drawback with this method of determining home field advantage is random chance in scheduling. For instance, the Orioles should beat the Giants in 2 out of 3 games based on team ability. Since the Orioles were scheduled to play in San Francisco in 2013, those wins add to their positive road run differential even though the Orioles should theoretically win those games regardless of where they’re played. That 2-1 series could just as easily contribute to the Orioles’ home run differential if the games happened to be scheduled in Baltimore. MLB balances this out to a great extent by having a home and road series for every opponent in the same league, so that the only home-only or road-only series for the Orioles would be a handful of games against NL opponents.
As with every league ranking, unbalanced schedule is an issue too, though pops up only in interleague play. The Orioles might play significantly better or significantly worse teams from the NL than the Yankees do, which affects each team’s run differential. Since there are relatively few of those games, it’s probably not much to worry about in this case. Divisional strength is taken out of the equation too: if Detroit wins by a lot at home and on the road because the AL Central is a joke, their home field advantage wouldn’t change.
A quick disclaimer: rationalizing the reasons for home field advantage after determining which teams can actually claim it is simply applying a narrative to fit the results. We can probably convincingly present an argument for every team having or not having an advantage in their home park. The reasons I think contribute to home field advantage below are just ideas that fit what I see in the numbers, but aren’t necessarily valid or the sole reason for playing well at home. Hold me accountable: I expect Boston, New York, Colorado, and all domed teams to show home field advantage because each park has an unusual shape or distinct geographical features that are well-known and can be exploited. The teams I expect to play worse at home are those in small parks with many average or below-average pitchers on their roster, like the Mets and possibly the Orioles, since their pitchers likely fare better in parks with more outfield space.
Here’s a table with each team’s home field advantage over the last three years:
Note: The Miami Marlins didn’t move into their current stadium until 2012, so their 2011 HFA as the Florida Marlins is not considered.
Is there really home field advantage in baseball?
Maybe. Theoretically, it makes sense that there is some way to take advantage of the quirks present in the home park. Unlike other sports, in which home field advantage is generally thought to derive at least partially from crowd involvement, there is a real, quantifiable difference between baseball fields. Like other sports, home field advantage could also derive from weather factors that one team grows accustomed to.
Then again, it might be foolish to plan your season and multiple future seasons around strategically performing better at home. Sure, the Red Sox could conceivably hire a less-skilled defensive left fielder because they have a comically short outfield thanks to the Green Monster, but they’d still have to stick that guy in the outfield for 81 away games. If an organization is trying to win 90+ games every year, it’d be a tall order to create a team that can consistently go .500 on the road and .625 or better at home.
There is a positive correlation between home field advantage in 2013 and 2011, but it’s not particularly strong, and it’s not supported by a similar correlation between 2012 and 2013 or 2011 and 2012:
Since the idea of home field advantage can be supported in theory, I’m going to assume that it exists to some extent. I don’t think it’s attributable only to biased umpiring, as suggested by Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim in Scorecasting.
Which teams have the best and worst home field advantage?
At the top of the list of teams with the best home-field advantage is the Colorado Rockies. Colorado is a unique case in that the dimensions of the stadium are likely not the root of the team’s home field advantage. Because the stadium sits a significantly higher altitude than any other park in baseball, it’s generally believed that baseballs tend to fly farther there than they would in any other park. Coors Field features an enormous outfield, making deep flies less dangerous than they would be somewhere like Camden Yards. Denver also has a particularly arid climate. The Rockies keep their baseballs in a humidor to reduce their bounciness and quell the effects of the naturally dry air. Of course, these geographic effects affect both teams, so the question remains why, in 2013, the Rockies scored 0.91 runs per game (0.55 runs per game over the 2011-2013 period) more at home than they would on a neutral field. The Rockies aren’t particularly good, though they have standout players in Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki (when healthy). They definitely don’t have star pitchers that maintain low run-scoring environment for opponents. My thought is that training and playing at Coors Field has acclimated the Rockies’ roster to physical exertion in the extreme environment of Denver. It can’t be easy to fly from San Diego or Los Angeles to Denver for a three-game set and be expected to perform at peak levels without much oxygen. The Rockies have also fielded a team of spectacular line drive hitters, contrary to what I expected. This lineup of hitters with plenty of guys hitting line drives more than 25% of the time takes advantage of the large outfield and helps the team record more doubles than it might in a smaller park.
Reds outfielder gets stuck in the ivy at Wrigley Field
The next most dangerous teams are ones that I didn’t expect. I am not aware of any major stadium quirks in the Cubs’, Braves’, or Brewers’ stadiums that would lend themselves as a major benefit to the home team. I suppose the ivy at Wrigley Field could be a challenge for visiting left fielders, since it may cause balls to bounce back to the field of play differently than they would if it were just a padded wall. I definitely did not expect Wrigley to be worth 0.3 runs per game to the Cubs, though that number is carried by a much larger home field advantage in 2012 than in 2011 or 2013.
I didn’t anticipate Detroit’s home field advantage either. I expected the powerful Tigers lineup and their rotation full of studs to play equally well everywhere. As it is, Comerica Park has been worth a handful of runs over the course of the season to the Tigers team. It could be that their park is pretty big, so only the strongest boppers like Fielder and Cabrera can consistently hit home runs, and long fly balls that might be homers at Camden Yards become easy outs in Detroit.
The New York Mets sit at the bottom of the pile, playing considerably worse at home than on the road over the last three years. I have to imagine that it stems from the team moving the fences in (possibly to help David Wright), but even its most homer-prone pitcher, Dillon Gee, is much better at home than on the road. Prior to 2013, the Mets were not trotting studs out to the mound, so it’s possible that they just ignored any potential home park benefits when crafting their team.
Dodger Stadium, 2013
The Dodgers fell right on my arbitrary cutoff for meaningful home field advantage of ±0.20 runs over the past three seasons. Their entire team was revamped in a major trade with the Red Sox, dramatically changing their lineup for the 2013 season, but the team still performed far worse at home than on the road. Like the Tigers, I anticipated the Dodgers’ current lineup and rotation to play well anywhere, so I was very surprised to see their poor 2013 home field advantage consideration. They even went 42-8 during a 50-game stretch of 2013! How that streak didn’t boost their run differential at home is beyond me. Nothing I know about Dodger Stadium would suggest it being difficult to consistently play well in. I might have to chalk the Dodgers in 2013 up as a statistical quirk. Their run differential might be very positive if they happened to have more home games scheduled during that 42-8 run, or if some of the away games that they won during a 15-game road winning streak were played at home. This goes back to playing games that would have been won anywhere just happening to have been on the road; the team could have been so hot that they would have won at that pace if they were playing on the moon.
How can the Orioles take advantage of Camden Yards?
You mean, aside from being wonderfully fan friendly and an architectural landmark that attracts people from around the country to generate revenue from ticket sales?
The O’s didn’t exhibit much of a home park benefit, especially during the 2012 and 2013 seasons in which they were over .500 on the season. Playing in Baltimore is apparently worth less than one-tenth of a run per game, low enough for me to think that the Orioles have no home field advantage.
The Orioles are going a different route than many teams in building their lineup, and it may be partly because of the stadium that they play in. For better or for worse, while other teams are pursuing OBP and walks, the Orioles are going the boom-or-bust route and snatching up free swingers that launch dingers. The hitter-friendly dimensions to the corner outfield positions encourage power hitters that generally pull their fly balls, and wouldn’t you know:
JJ Hardy’s 2013 home runs with OPACY overlay
Adam Jones’ home runs in 2013 with an OPACY overlay
Chris Davis’ home runs were impressively sprayed almost evenly to all fields, but other home run leaders on the team had the opportunity to push balls out to left field. Those are certainly not cheap home runs, but many of them are borderline or warning-track fly balls in other stadiums. Hardy, for instance, would have ended with 7 fewer home runs if all of his were hit at Coors Field – and that’s if a good outfielder didn’t snag one or two that would have barely made it over the wall. This team is built to make a lot of noise, especially in the corners, and our park helps that to happen.
The other thing the Orioles can do would help them both at home and on the road: acquire good pitching. The Orioles didn’t outdo their opponents by much anywhere, and keeping opponents in check will go a long way towards improving run differential and win-loss record in any city the team visits.