On Tuesday night, the Twins can become the first team to secure a postseason berth. A win over the Indians and a loss by the White Sox would clinch the American League Central for Minnesota but that doesn't mean the Twins can suddenly start coasting in preparation for October. There is still the important matter of home-field advantage to be determined and it is likely to go down to the final days of the regular season.
As things stand entering Tuesday's action, the Yankees are one game in front of the Twins for best record in the league and the majors and 1 1/2 up on the Rays in the AL East. That lead is extremely tentative, however, as the Rays and Yankees are in the midst of a four-game set in the Bronx which could easily allow the Rays to retake the division lead by the time they leave New York. The Yankees won the first game of that set Monday night but they dropped two of three to the Rays in Florida last week in a tightly-contested series in which two games went extra innings, all three were decided by one run, and the cumulative score was 12-11 Rays.
While the Rays and Yankees have been jockeying for position as the best team in baseball all year, the Twins are a surprise contender for home-field. They were in third place in the AL Central at the All-Star break and just three games over .500 but have gone 39-14 (.736) since July 24 thanks in large part to their pitching, which has allowed a measly 3.47 runs per game over that stretch. If the Rays and Yankees end up splitting their current series and the Twins can complete a sweep the Indians at Target Field this week -- they won the series opener Monday night -- Minnesota will enter play on Friday with a half-game lead over New York and a full-game lead over Tampa Bay for the best record in baseball.
So, just how important is home-field advantage in the playoffs, anyway? That depends on how you want to slice the numbers. Going back to 1998, when baseball moved to the current 2-2-1 home field arrangement for the Division Series (prior to that the "home" team actually played the first two games on the road), teams with home field advantage are 45-39 (.536) in the playoffs and World Series. Limit that data to the first two rounds of the playoffs only -- no matter which AL team secures home field advantage this year, they will be the road team in the World Series due to the National League's victory in the All-Star Game -- and home teams are just 37-35 (.514) over the past 12 postseasons. Given that the home team typically has the better regular season record (though not always as wild card teams will still be road teams when playing division winners with lesser records), that seems to suggest there's no advantage at all to having home field in the playoffs.
There's an interesting split within those numbers, however. AL teams have gone 22-14 (.611) with home field advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs over the last dozen years, while NL teams have gone a surprising 15-21 (.417). The reason for the difference is unclear. It could be the relative parity in the NL compared to the AL. For example, the Yankees have won six of the last 12 AL pennants while 10 different NL teams have won pennants in that same time. From 2002 to 2007, seven of the 12 pennant winners in the two leagues, including three AL entries, were wild card teams, which never have home-field advantage in the first two rounds of the playoffs. In the two postseasons since then, however, the team with home-field advantage has gone 9-3 in the first two rounds, including a 4-2 record in the NL.
If those numbers tell us anything it's that home-field advantage might be overrated. Still, the Twins and Yankees are both 50-25 (.667) at home this season against .533 and .547 winning percentages on the road, which is reason enough for them to believe that home-field advantage is important. The Rays, who have a .613/.581 home-road split thus far this season, might be less convinced. It's ironic, then, that the Rays have the softest record remaining after this week's action and could thus have the inside track to home-field advantage if they can just hang with the Yankees this week.
The Yankees have the toughest road as they will face the Red Sox six times and the Blue Jays twice and play their final six games on the road. The Twins, who have it easier this week as they host the Indians, play their next six on the road, but against lesser opponents in the Tigers and Royals, then finish with four at home against the Jays. After leaving the Bronx, the Rays head home to play six games against the lowly Mariners and (recent Buck Showalter-induced surge aside) Orioles, then finish on the road, but with a four-game set against the last-place Royals. Put another way, the Rays' schedule over the season's final 10 days consists exclusively of the teams with the three worst records in the league, while the Yankees and Twins each face two teams with winning records and the Yankees not only don't have any games remaining against losing teams, but have six games left against the non-playoff team with the best record in the league.
The Yankees have held a share of first place in the AL East for all but three days since June 13 but given their remaining schedule relative to the Rays', they seem like a long-shot to win the division unless they complete what would be a very unlikely sweep this week against Tampa Bay. If the Yankees can't pull that off, the Rays have to be considered the favorites to win the East and secure home field advantage throughout the AL playoffs.