Only thing predictable about Game 7 is that it can't be predicted
KANSAS CITY — Of the many statistics with which you will be presented in the hours before the first World Series Game 7 since 2011, one will predominate: nine consecutive Games 7 have been won by the home team, every one of them that has been played in the last 35 years.
There are many theories as to why this is true, and why the Royals, then, ought to be considered the favorite to win on Wednesday night, in their own Kauffman Stadium. One involves the impact of a frenzied hometown crowd. "I think they feel it more than anything," Kansas City first baseman Eric Hosmer said of the opposing Giants, in the aftermath of his team's 10-0 blowout win in Game 6 on Tuesday. "When we get in a good count or something, and the crowd's on their feet, it just gives their pitchers more anxiety, and they just want to be fine with their pitches."
Another theory revolves around the home team's comfort in a ballpark with which it is familiar and on a field that it can tailor to its needs. There has been an inordinate amount of focus over the past week on the Royals' and Giants' respective groundskeeping crews, and in particular on their deployment of their hoses. The methodical Giants like their infield damp, to slow things down. The athletic Royals like theirs dry, to speed them up.
"I think the fields are pretty close to opposites as you can get right now," said Giants first baseman Brandon Belt. To be fair, the infields' consistencies did seem to have some effect on the outcomes of both Game 5 (in San Francisco) and Game 6 (in Kansas City). In Game 5, the generally surehanded Royals shortstop Alcides Escobar allowed a pair of hard-hit balls that he would normally glove to skip by him. "Esky's used to playing on a little bit firmer infield, and when I walked around on that infield, it was soft," Royals manager Ned Yost said. "I think [on] both of those balls, Esky expected it to hit and bounce up, like it normally does."
In the crucial second inning of Game 6, in which Kansas City ended up scoring seven runs to ensure that both sides would spend the rest of the affair preparing for Game 7, Royals batters hit at least two balls that barely eluded Giants fielders. The first was Mike Moustakas' two-run double down the rightfield line which opened the scoring, for which Belt dove and came up empty. The second was Nori Aoki's RBI single to left, for which third baseman Pablo Sandoval also futilely laid out. Would those plays have been made in San Francisco? "Maybe," said Belt. Will Game 7 come down to the hardness of Kansas City's dirt? Almost certainly not, but small things sometimes make a big difference.
In their influential 2011 book Scorecasting, University of Chicago economist Toby Moskowitz and Jon Wertheim, my colleague at SI, examined the phenomenon of home field advantage in sports. In each of the past 111 MLB seasons, home teams have won more often than they have lost, and the authors identified the principal reason: the officiating, particularly as far as the home plate umpire's calling of balls and strikes. Still, the authors pointed out that accountability — as far as the advent of PITCHf/x technology — has decreased the marginal advantage umpires inadvertently give to the home team, and that has held true in the years since the book came out.
In 2011, the winning percentage of home teams was .526, the 89th-highest of those 111 seasons. In '12, it was .533, ranking 77th. In '13, it was .538, ranking 60th. This year, it was .530, good for 82nd. That the home team has the edge 53 out of 100 times doesn't seem like much of an advantage at all, especially in the context of a single game, and also when you consider that the Royals — in front of their fans, on a field they can groom to their specifications — went 42-39 at Kauffman Stadium this year (and 47-34 away from it), and that the Giants went 43-38 on the road.
The umpiring advantage, too, doesn't hold up when you examine a strike zone chart from, say, Game 6. In fact, if you look very closely, you might conclude that of the 279 pitches thrown, home plate umpire Jeff Kellogg gave the Royals three balls on pitches that might normally be called strikes, and the Giants five, and that he didn't once turn what should have been a ball into a strike for either side.
The point is this: There is no anticipating who will win Game 7. That nine-game winning streak for home teams is interesting, but it is not predictive. Of the seven World Series Games 7 immediately preceding that streak — in a time in which home field advantage was slight more significant, due to umpires' marginally less consistent strike zones — the visiting club won six of them. "The numbers are constantly changing, I know that," Giants outfielder Hunter Pence said. "History, things are always changing."
He's right. It is only human to attempt to predict the unpredictable, but there is no factor to which you can confidently point as a deciding one in Game 7. The idea that home teams hold an advantage in Game 7, due to nine results over the the past 35 years, is most likely randomness masquerading as a pattern. The starting pitching matchup — between the Giants' Tim Hudson and the Royals' Jeremy Guthrie — is a wash, unlike Yordano Ventura versus Jake Peavy in Game 6, and unlike Madison Bumgarner versus anyone.
Despite a series in which only one game has been decided by fewer than five runs, the offenses have essentially played to a stalemate: the Giants have scored 27 runs to the Royals' 25, and both teams have 76 total bases. Both sides' likely key bullpen pieces — Bumgarner for San Francisco ("Maybe 200?" he said, when asked how many pitches he was prepared to throw two days after tossing a complete-game shutout), the dominating trio of Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland for Kansas City — are relatively rested, as their services were not required in the lopsided Game 6.
Some 2,461 major league games have been played so far this year, and the sport's champion will definitively be named after the 2,462nd. As we wait for its first pitch, that is the only thing we can know with any certainty.