MLB blew it with 2012 playoff schedule
When Major League Baseball decided to add a second Wild Card team to each league, the intent was to create an extra obstacle for non-division winning playoff teams by forcing them to meet in a one-game play-in prior to the Division Series. The change was designed to go hand-in-hand with a realignment plan that shifted the Astros from the NL Central to the AL West in 2013, thereby creating six five-team divisions and a more uniform path to the postseason for every team. Alas, the financial allure of the Wild Card games proved too great for commissioner Bud Selig, the owners and the players union to resist, so next year's design has been grafted to this year's model, thereby creating an inequity that actually favors the Wild Card winner. That's the upshot of the postseason schedule MLB officially announced last Thursday.
As it stands, the regular season ends on Wednesday, October 3. That leaves October 4 open for any make-ups of previously postponed games or Game 163 tiebreakers, of which there were three from 2007-2009 — a situation that helped whet appetites for the new format. The two Wild Card games will be played on Friday, October 5. Two of the four Division Series begin on October 6, namely those involving the second and third seeds in each league, with the ones involving the top seed and the Wild Card winners the next day.
So far, all of that seems reasonable. The rub is that the Division Series will be played in a 2-3 format, with one travel day in between the change of venues, and the lower seed hosting the first two games, a significant advantage because it creates the possibility of more home games for the underdog than the favorite. Meanwhile, the more logical 2-2-1 format, which gives the team with the better record the advantage of hosting the first two games as well as the finale, and which was used from 1998-2011, has been tabled until next year, because heaven forbid that extra travel day push the start of the League Championship Series back a day. According to ESPN's Jayson Stark — who has covered this issue in minute detail — baseball's national television contract with TBS calls for the ALCS to begin on Saturday October 13, with the NLCS starting on Sunday October 14 on Fox, and those dates are set in stone.
Home field advantage is no small matter in baseball. As with any MLB-wide stat, it may deviate sharply from year to year for no apparent reason; in 2010, home teams posted a collective .559 winning percentage, while in 2011, they fell to .526, and this year, they're at .530. But according to work done by Matt Swartz at Baseball Prospectus back in 2009, over the course of more than a century, the home team's winning percentage has consistently hovered around .540 from decade to decade.
The advantage persists in the postseason. Breaking it down by era for the broad strokes:
|Period||Rounds||Home W||Home L||Home WPCT|
|1969-1993 exc. 1981||2||209||156||.573|
Overall, that's very close to the regular season historical average. Within those groupings are a dizzying number of rule changes. For example, prior to 2003, home field advantage for the World Series alternated between the two leagues, but the tie that ended the 2002 All-Star Game put the bee in Bud Selig's bonnet to hitch the advantage to the winning league. From 1969-1984, the League Championship Series were best-of-fives with a 2-3 format, while in 1985, they became best-of-sevens with a 2-3-2 format. Until 1998, home field advantage for the LCS was determined on a rotating basis, first between the two divisions (through 1993) and then between the three divisions (from 1995-1997).
Beginning in 1998, home field advantage in the Division and League Championship Series went to the teams with the better record, with the caveat that the Wild Card team couldn't hold it, and couldn't face the team that finished above them in the division in the first round. The Division Series went to a 2-2-1 format, while the LCS remained 2-3-2. That marked what is arguably the most equitable period of postseason history, since on-field performance, rather than chronological happenstance, determined the team with the advantage. This year's schedule rolls that back.
How much of a difference does it make in a five-game series? From 1995-1997, when the determination of the advantage owed to chance, the home team went 24-20 (.545) in the Division Series, while from 1998-2011, when it was determined by record, the home team went 113-105 (.518); overall that's a .523 winning percentage for the home team. While the records of home teams broken down by individual games is a bit inconsistent due to sample size, what's clear is how quickly the advantage tilts to the team who wins the first game, regardless of whether they earned home field advantage:
|Game||Home W-L||Home WPCT||Winner's Series Record||WPCT|
Both trends persists if we enlarge the sample size by over 50 percent to include all of the five-game postseason series (the 1969-1984 LCS and the 1981 Division Series):
|Game||Home W-L||Home WPCT||Winner's Series Record||WPCT|
The home field advantage in any individual game isn't huge, particularly the later the series gets. In the rubber game, the home and visiting teams have split the 30 games, though that's only 1.1 wins less than the five-game series home winning percentage of .536 would predict — in other words, sample size is an issue there. Meanwhile, the advantage held by the winner of the early games — where the better team by rights should have the home field advantage — is massive. Just over 70 percent of the time, the winner of Game 1 has gone on to win the series, while the winner of Game 2 has gone on to win 75 percent of the time. Major League Baseball's history in creating a fair postseason system has long left something to be desired. If the powers that be want to create a fair system, they should uphold the home field advantage earned by the teams with the best records. Particularly so because the early games in the series — the ones which MLB has haphazardly awarded to the wrong team in order to satisfy their 2012 prime-time television schedule — have such a huge impact on the series results. The playoffs have yet to begin, and MLB has already blown this one.