The question hangs in the air and takes a second before Lorenzo Cain begins his answer.
He and his Royals teammates and especially their manager have heard some version of this question a hundred times in the last month, and that is almost certainly a conservative guess, but even so Cain thinks a bit before he answers. This is more complicated than it seems on the surface.
How important is home-field advantage to you guys in the playoffs?
The question sits there. The Royals entered Friday tied with the Blue Jays for the best record in the American League. The Blue Jays hold the tie breaker, so for the Royals to have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs they need to outperform Toronto by one game this weekend.
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But does it matter? The Royals’ center fielder and No. 3 hitter starts to say something. Then pauses. Then starts again.
“I think it’s huge,” he says. “Yeah. Huge. We play so well at home, so I think it’s going to be huge for us.”
OK. Here comes another pause. Like we say, this is more complicated than it might seem. Here’s Cain again.
“Does it translate to wins and losses?” he asks. “I mean, I don’t know. I wouldn’t look at it like that. You have to play ball either way. No matter what, you have to win games on the road. I just feel we’re another team when we’re at home.”
“If we don’t get it, last year we got to the World Series without home-field advantage, so let’s do it again.”
One more pause.
“I mean, I’d rather everybody in this room go into this healthy than have home-field advantage. That’s more important.”
Again, it’s complicated. The numbers are hazy, sometimes contradictory, and mostly inconclusive.
One statistic in particular may really surprise you.
Football is everything in this country, or at least it’s big enough that we can say it’s everything, and on the subject of home-field advantage it’s easy to wonder if that sport’s thinking has infiltrated this sport’s analysis.
In football, home-field advantage is enormous. Part of the sting of the Lin Elliott game and the Elvis Grbac game and the No Punt game is that those Chiefs teams went 13-3 and earned that home game. That’s supposed to mean something in the NFL, and most times, it does: home teams win more than 60 percent of regular-season games, and more than 66 percent of playoff games.
In baseball, the actual home-field advantage is more like a slightly weighted coin flip: 54 percent in the regular season and playoffs.
Since we’re talking about the Royals here, and the only remaining question is whether they’ll have home field in the LCS, let’s concentrate there.
In the last 20 years, the team with home-field advantage has won 19 of 40 league championship series. You notice that is less than half, even though the team with home-field advantage is generally better — at least, when judged by regular-season wins.
Again, lets customize the data another way to focus on the Royals and the Blue Jays. When teams with regular-season records within two wins of each other meet in a league championship series, the one without home-field advantage has won six of nine times.
You can come up with any number of theories for this. Baseball’s 2-3-2 format means series that end in five games include more games at the “disadvantaged” team’s park, and in the last 20 years more league championship series have ended in five games (11) than seven (nine).
The only way home-field advantage matters is if there is a game seven. And in those games, the home team has a somewhat less-than-resounding 5-4 advantage.
Look, playing at home is fun. Everybody loves to be loved. Getting the last at-bat is nice, too, and there is an advantage in how you can use your bench and bullpen.
All of those things make sense.
It’s just that in 20 years of wild-card teams in the playoffs, there is no evidence that home-field advantage matters any more than whether your neighbor is wearing clean underpants.
Of everyone employed by the Royals, manager Ned Yost has dealt with the home-field advantage question the most, and it is not even close. He deals with it every time he glances at the Blue Jays’ score, deals with it every time he makes out a lineup, and he deals with it every time he meets with the media before games.
He’s developed something of a standard answer here. He mentions that home-field advantage didn’t mean anything for the Royals last year, because they lost the only series they had it.
But, then, he also talks a lot about needing his team at full strength. That’s the first priority, even if it means an extra loss or two. Actually, even with home-field advantage hanging in the balance this weekend, Yost said he is treating it “a little bit like spring training,” particularly with the way he’ll use his bullpen.
Home-field advantage is important. It’s just, well, it’s just not important enough to sacrifice even a smidgen of strength when the playoffs start on Thursday.
“The reason we want home-field advantage is for our fans,” Yost says. “We feel like we can win anywhere. Our fans, the support they’ve given us over the years and the playoffs last year, it’s unbelievable. So I think more than anything else, any of those players out there, they want home-field advantage for our fans so they can get that extra game.”
He makes a good point, and probably the one that matters most. It would be nice for fans back in Kansas City to get that extra game. Except, of course, sometimes the team without the extra game actually gets the extra game.
Like we say, it’s complicated.