What Should Determine Home-Field Advantage for the World Series?

Grooving All-Star Game pitches to legends like Derek Jeter is no longer innocent fun. (via Keith Allison)

Grooving All-Star Game pitches to legends like Derek Jeter is no longer innocent fun. (via Keith Allison)

In just a few hours, after nine (or more!) innings of exhibition baseball, we will learn two things: 1) which league’s somewhat arbitrarily selected group of players beat the other league’s somewhat arbitrarily selected group of players in a single game played under bizarre conditions (Five starting pitchers! Pinch hitters at every turn!) and 2) which league gets home-field advantage in the World Series.

The former is part of the fun of the All-Star Game; the latter has been a source of controversy ever since the rule was implemented in 2003. In the midst of years of declining TV ratings and following the debacle that was the tie in the 2002 All-Star Game, Major League Baseball decided the cure to all ills was to make the All-Star Game “matter.” This time it counts!

The problem is that making the All-Star Game “matter” hasn’t had much positive impact and may have had some negative impact. This policy came under fire again this year when there was quite a hullabaloo (that’s the technical term) over the American League All-Star team nearly being the Royals and Mike Trout (because nothing can stop Mike Trout, not even the suddenly rabid Kansas City fan base). And so again there are calls for MLB to end this experiment. But to do so, the league needs a new way to determine who gets to host the first, second, sixth and seventh games of baseball’s biggest showcase event.

With that in mind, we’ll discuss the four options we see for determining World Series home-field advantage. Additionally, we have polled various players and coaches from around the league for their thoughts on the subject.

Option 1: Status Quo

The lone advantage to this option is it theoretically creates some interest in the All-Star Game. But there are a host of problems. First, there is no hard evidence this goal actually is being accomplished. While TV ratings were up last year, they have been dropping since before the rule change in 2003 and still are lower than they were at that time. Second, it’s a totally meaningless game played by guys mostly focused on looking impressive and not getting hurt, yet we give home field in the most important games of the year based on it? Third, the entertainment value of the All-Star Game suffers. This season, for instance, Brock Holt (a good player who does everything asked of him) was chosen over superstar Alex Rodriguez–a player who has been the talk of the game in his resurgent season–because Holt offers more positional flexibility than does the player who ranks fourth all time in home runs.

Of course, that is just one point of view. The players themselves are split on it.

Pat Neshek, who took the loss in the 2014 All-Star Game, shares the notion that, to many players, winning isn’t the primary focus. “You’re there to enjoy the week,” said Neshek. “Everybody is having fun, and baseball is the last thing you’re worried about.”

The Royals issue attracted the attention of at least one player. Chris Denorfia isn’t a believer that it is fair to award home-field advantage when fan voting is such a focal point of who makes the team. “I like the idea of the All-Star game meaning something, but this year we’re seeing the impact fan voting can have,” said Denorfia. “It’s not necessarily the most-deserving players getting voted in. I don’t see how awarding home field in the World Series based on that is fair.”

Adam Jones brought up the uneven nature of home field in the All-Star Game itself. “It’s going to be tough on the American League that the next four All-Star games are in National league ballparks,” Jones said.

On the other hand, Mets bench coach Bob Geren likes that there is something different about baseball’s All-Star Game. “Other sports All-Star Games are kind of just a show. Baseball is not really a show sport, it’s very intricate, trying to get a run over and get them in. You have to do things like that. I do like the idea that there is something on the line for the game.

Marlins manager Dan Jennings and his catcher Jeff Mathis both expressed support for the current set-up. Mathis said, “The All-Star game matters, and I don’t disagree with that. It makes the game more interesting.”

Jennings echoed that, but he also pointed out, “There’s something to be said for both sides of it. You remember the fun things, like Torii Hunter being lifted up by (Barry) Bonds, but I think it does need to count.”

Larry-WalkerThat last point is one that sticks for a lot of fans. The pre-“This time it counts” era was littered with great All-Star Game moments, and almost none have anything to do with who won or lost: John Kruk looking lost and a little scared facing Randy Johnson; Larry Walker getting smart and just refusing to bat left-handed against the Big Unit; eccentric rookie phenom Mark “The Bird” Fidrych starting for the American League and facing 35-year-old icon Pete Rose in the NL lineup; Alex Rodriguez refusing to take his position in deference to a legend; that same legend hitting a home run shortly thereafter; Bonds “celebrating” with Hunter after Hunter denied him a homer. These were great moments, but they all would be totally unacceptable in a meaningful game.

Now? Now we get controversy because Adam Wainwright either admitted or joked that he grooved a couple pitches to a retiring Derek Jeter, giving him a shot at an All-Star moment like Cal Ripken’s. This controversy would have been fun, but no…it can’t be…because Wainwright might have legitimately cost some team (maybe even his team!) the World Series by trying to make a legend look good. He didn’t, but that doesn’t matter.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

The All-Star Game can be a fun exhibition with great moments that would never happen in a real game. Or it can “count.” But not both.

Option 2: Old School

Alternate leagues by year. Back in the day, the team that hosted World Series Game One was decided by the calendar. The American League hosts one year, the National League the next, and so on.

There is a simple elegance to this. It is random (make the Series in 2015, get four home games; in 2016, you get only three), but it is fair, in that it does not favor any team or league.

But it is also kind of boring. Making home field contingent on something can add some intrigue, and below we’ll look at a couple options that don’t require forcing that intrigue on an event that is otherwise meaningless.

Astros manager A.J. Hinch recognizes this. He voiced support for giving home field to the team with the best record (which we’ll look at next), though he recognized some concerns with that approach. “Alternating years is probably the least invasive of the other ways to decide it.”

Alternating years is the least likely to offend people. It is safe, if boring. But maybe we can do better.

Option 3: Best Overall Record

This is the semi-obvious route. It’s what the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association do, it is home field advantage is determined in the other rounds of MLB’s postseason, and it makes some logical sense. If the AL team wins 98 and the NL team wins 92, why not reward that AL team?

This is also the preferred method of the players and coaches we spoke with.

Marlins bench coach Mike Goff: “The team that ground it out and had the best record over 162 games has won the right to that advantage.”

Hinch: “The 175 games the teams have played (including the postseason)…I’d expect that record to be worth something.”

Red Sox infielder Mike Napoli: “You’ve earned the best record, so you should have the home-field advantage.”

Orioles manager Buck Showalter: “Whoever has the best record. There’s a novel thought. Let’s put all of the emphasis on winning games.”

The problem is that while this is not random (as is option 2), it also is not fair. Schedules are unbalanced, even within each league. Between leagues you have two teams who have only a small share of their games in common. If you happen to be the best team in the best division in the best league, the slog to get through that schedule may leave you with fewer wins than a team that dominated weaker opposition.

The NBA, for one, accepts this. Baseball accepts a modified version of it in the pre-World Series rounds. And there are benefits. Late in the year, we see players rest and teams take it easy to prep for the postseason. But if World Series home field might hinge on a Sept. 29 win, teams may take those games more seriously. For fans of the game, this means more meaning in those late-season games. For fans at those games, it means seeing the stars they paid to see.

But this can be really unfair. If the AL goes through a downturn and isn’t as deep as the NL, a single dominant AL team would benefit greatly. You potentially punish a team for having tougher opposition. But there is clearly interest in the game in having World Series home field hinge on regular-season games, though. Which brings us to…

Option 4: Interleague Record

Whichever league has the better record in the 300 interleague games gets to host the World Series. This is our favorite option.

It is not random: one league will earn this reward, and the team that wins that league will benefit. It is the most fair: the interleague games are head-to-head, so the only way one league could have a “tougher” schedule in those 300 games is if the other league is better. Sure, there are minor issues thanks to the fact that interleague play now happens all year, and teams run hot or cold at different times, but over the course of 300 games that shouldn’t be a large issue.

Andrew Miller, who is on his way to closing postseason games for the Yankees, likes that, compared to the All-Star Game, “[Interleague play] is a bigger sample size for determining which league is better.”

Red Sox pitcher Justin Masterson likes the idea of best overall record (our option 3), but also notes, “there’s also fairness in it being how well you do in interleague play.”

Giving home field to the league champ from the better league makes sense, and there is (almost) no better way to determine which league is better over the course of the season than interleague record. Sure, the statistically inclined among us probably could find a way to measure which league is better (total WAR created?), but that probably wouldn’t appeal to a larger fan base that wants a simple solution.

What would appeal to the sea of casual fans is that there could be a countdown of sorts for who actually receives home-field advantage. Interleague action happens every week of the season, and in a close race (the AL was up 98-80 entering play last Friday), the race for interleague league champion could come down to the final week of the season. Furthermore, those suffering in interleague competition, like the Padres (4-10) and Rockies (1-10) are this season, may feel external pressure to put their best foot forward in those contests.

The biggest con is that maybe interleague play is not actually fair. There are those who argue (with data to back them up) that the DH is a big advantage for the AL. In AL parks, NL teams have to use a player they never really intended to start, while in NL parks, the AL team has an elite pinch hitter ready and waiting. If there is an inherent bias in interleague play, this goes from fair to unfair in a hurry.

The Wall Street Journal article linked above cites the AL’s large home-field advantage in interleague games (winning 57.5 percent of home games vs. 52.7 percent for NL teams) and concludes that “the designated hitter improved the American League’s win rate in home interleague games by more than two percentage points,” though the author doesn’t fully explain how she reached that conclusion.

In practice, the AL has had the best record in 14 of 18 years (and is off to a lead this year), including the last 11 straight seasons. Is that bias toward the AL in the rules? Or is that just the AL being better recently? Or is it just noise? Maybe a bit of all three, but the DH has seemingly not been an issue in the World Series. With the same rule situation as interleague play, the NL has won six of the last 10 Fall Classics.

It seems likely major league teams don’t think the DH is a big advantage. If every NL team thought it was disadvantaged in 10 games a year and in the World Series, you would think there would be more focus on changing the rules. The Rockies are a great example. With the slugging Wilin Rosario and former MVP Justin Morneau relegated to first base, they should have little issue fielding a competent DH, and they’re pulling up the rear in interleague play this season. Of course, major league teams are not always right, but if the NL is comfortable with the rules as is, maybe there is nothing to worry about.

So, Commissioner Manfred, this is our proposal: Home field goes to the champ from the league with the better interleague record. Is it perfect? No. But it’s much better than what we have today.

References & Resources

  • Thanks to Eno Sarris for procuring additional quotes for this piece.

David Laurila authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus, is a regular contributor to several publications, and is the author of the book Interviews from Red Sox Nation. Follow him on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA. Chad Young is a product manager at Amazon by day and a baseball writer (RotoGraphs, Let's Go Tribe), sports fan and digital enthusiast at all times. Follow him on Twitter @chadyoung.
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Ted B.
7 years ago

Why not the team with the best record? Unless the team with the better record is a wild card against a division winner then the division winner would get it. You should be rewarded for winning your division. If 2 teams are tied, use interleague record, record against common opponents, division record, etc., to decide any ties. Let the All Star game go back to being fun and the exhibition it should be.

Chad Young
7 years ago
Reply to  Ted B.

We talked about this in the piece itself, but the best record is not really tied to the best team. It creates a significant incentive to playing in an easy division or the less impressive league. In fact, in the situation you set up (a wild card making the WS and having a better record) what is to say that the 95-win Wild Card team in the NL (who won 95 despite playing in a division with a team that won 96+) is more or less deserving than the 90 win AL division champ? It’s really unclear. Maybe the AL team was in a division where all five teams won 85-90 games, while the three non-playoff teams the NL team had in their division won 65-70 each?

It’s not a BAD measure, per se, but it is not fair or accurate, either.

Frederick Graboske
7 years ago

There are other alternatives to the ASG, which is a poor way to select home field advantage (HFA). One way is to subtract each team’s pitchers’ batting average against (BAA) from the team’s batting average (BA). The team with the highest result (BA minus BAA) gets HFA.

Chad Young
7 years ago

I don’t think most fans would accept or enjoy that. Plus, what happens last day of the season when a team benefits by forfeiting the game rather than risking their lead in that stat?

Professor Longnose
7 years ago

Generally, how early is this settled? At what point in the season has either league clinched best interleague record? At what point has it become obvious who would win, even if not clinched? If this is basically decided by the end of July, it won’t be very exciting.

Chad Young
7 years ago

True…but exciting is secondary.

Mythical Monkey
7 years ago

So basically Ruben Amaro, Jr., and the tanking Phillies would have an equal impact on determining home field advantage in the World Series as the Cardinals, Dodgers or Nationals? This strikes me as the worst idea of the four. Either go old school or best team record.

Just my humble opinion.

Mythical Monkey
7 years ago

Or here’s a fifth idea: make it the combined records of the five American League playoff teams versus the combined records of the five National League teams. That might smooth out some of the problems of a team racking up a good record in a bad division as well as make it a “league” reward as opposed to a team reward.

Chad Young
7 years ago

That would reward the league with the biggest divide between the best and worst teams, rather than the league with the best teams overall.

Chad Young
7 years ago

Do the Phillies have less of an impact on best overall record? I bet an NL team who finishes behind the Nats or Mets (for home field of Wild Card) would say the Phillies have a huge impact on best record.

Jim Diffley
7 years ago

Very thoughtful article and analysis. Funny how ALL other major sports do it the SAME way: Option 3 is the ONLY option.

7 years ago
Reply to  Jim Diffley

Except the NFL, which uses an option not discussed here at all. Hold the championship on a neutral field. Since baseball’s champion is not decided in one game, there could even be two neutral fields–one for games 1,2,6 and 7, and the other for the other games–which of course would vary from year to year.

The late Pete Axthelm, watching infielders “resemble clowns” in the rainy opener of the 1979 WS, thought this would be a wonderful idea.

Chad Young
7 years ago
Reply to  Jim Diffley

What Andy said, in part. The NFL does not use this model, the NBA and NHL do. MLB is similar to the NBA and NHL in that they require a 7 game series making a neutral field logistically really difficult. MLB is similar to the NFL in that they play heavily unbalanced schedules (far more unbalanced than NBA or NHL) which makes overall best record – especially between two teams in different leagues/conferences – a far less meaningful measure than it is in the other two leagues (where the schedules are unbalanced but not as drastically).

So with four data points (we can add MLS if you want, but they use a home-and-home in the playoffs, until the finals, a la Champions League, which makes them quite unique), we have a 50-50 split between best record and other measures, and the two leagues that DON’T use best record have a common trait that explains why. Best record is obviously an option, and not an outright horrible one, but there are definite problems with it and it is without a doubt an unfair system. Maybe it doesn’t matter if it is unfair, but we certainly can’t pretend it is the only or unquestionably the best option just because the NBA and NHL use it.

7 years ago

My preference, best to worst: 3, 4, 1, 2

7 years ago

How about if we take the 5 playoff teams from each league and their combined IL play? Best winning percentage gets HFA. This way it is the teams in the playoffs that decide where the games are played and not weighted so heavily on the teams not making the playoffs.

Or maybe even better yet, head-to-head records of the 5 NL team vs the 5 AL teams in the playoffs – this takes out all the noise of the non playoff teams in the records. The problem with this is a much smaller sample size, but at least there is no worry about what the Phillies do in IL play in September….

Chad Young
7 years ago
Reply to  JJ

I feel like there is a lot of unnecessary hand-wringing over the Phillies here. They are a real team. And they are bad, but there are three other NL teams with a worse record than any team in the AL. Part of the point of looking at overall interleague record is that it avoids the question of “are the Phils/Brewers/Rockies/Marlins really THAT bad or are the Cards/Pirates/Dodgers/Nats (all better than all but one AL team) really THAT good?” Using overall interleague record helps to show us that, in fact those top four teams benefited greatly from being in the weaker league (if we accept interleague record as a measure of that) and don’t deserve as much credit for dominating that weaker competition. The team winning the AL will presumably have had a rougher go of it over all 162 games – due to better competition – regardless of overall record.

My bigger issue with just looking at the 5 playoff teams is your sample sizes skew heavily. You are taking an even more unbalanced look at their opposition. If the top AL teams happen to have easy interleague schedules this year, they get home field based on that?

7 years ago

I’m not even sure why this is an issue in a 2-3-2 format. What people call a home-field advantage only occurs if it goes 7. If it goes 5 the “other” team had HFA. In the NBA’s 2-2-1-1-1 it is a different story.

Jose Hernandez
7 years ago

Just give it to the league who won the previous world series.

7 years ago
Reply to  Jose Hernandez

I like this option. If the team that won the previous year can make it back, they could end up defending their title at home.

I think this is the best option yet.

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

It’s not “fair” but I didn’t think alternating was so bad, although it arguably allowed the Twins to win two WS that they probably would not have (1987 and 1991) otherwise. Generally, I would say it doesn’t make that much difference in baseball, but in recent years it has, largely, I guess, because of the DH. Until last year, the home team had won several Game 7s in a row (I can’t remember the number). This was not traditionally true; the road team often won Game 7. In the NBA, home field is largely outcome determinative in a way it is not in baseball.

I think the best way is interleague record. As you note, best team record can be misleading and unfair in the day of unbalanced schedules.

7 years ago

What about best record, but rather than just raw wins and losses, use a fairly easy to understand schedule-adjusted record such as Baseball Reference’s SRS? This would care of the bias of the unbalanced schedule. I realize that the calculations behind SRS may be somewhat over the head of the average fan, but it isn’t necessary to know precisely how the ratings are calculated. People accept computer rankings in golf and tennis without needing to know the nitty gritty details. As long as you communicate that SRS (or something similar) is a fair and straightforward system that accounts for schedule and run differential, I think the average fan could accept that.

Paul G.
7 years ago

So we are beyond Thunderdome, right? Just checking.

I think the ideal solution is expand interleague to include a series against every team in the other league. The series winner of the two World Series teams gets home field. If it is a tie for some reason, the All-Star Game is the tiebreaker.

Doug Lampert
7 years ago
Reply to  Paul G.

It’s even fairly easy to do. 162 games can be done as 9 four game series and 42 three game series and fits well with the current season length and the desire for everyone to have a weekend series ever week.

15 teams in the other league, make it 14 three game series and a single four game series broken up as a two and two/home and home against your “natural rival”. (We already have the natural rival series of inter-league games in this format.)

That leaves 28 three game series and 8 four game for your own league, and there are 14 other teams in the league and 4 other teams in the division. A 3 game home and a 3 game away at every other team in your league, and an additional 4 and 4 at every other team in your division.

All four game series are close to home (same division or regional rival), so you get travel days when you need them.

Tony Molinaro
7 years ago

Let’s think about marketing here instead of just statistics. Choose the three days before the All-Star break and schedule interleague series for all the teams. Whichever league has the best record from these 45 games (plus the All-Star game) would get home field advantage for the World Series. Let the All-Star game winner get a bonus (It counts for 5 games.) and tally up everything. In case of a tie, the All-Star game winner gets the home field. Sports radio, TV stations and newspapers would keep track of the games for these 3 days. MLB could brand it as Rivalry Week or something like that. It would add some spark to the mid-season.

7 years ago

What if the opening series of the season was a rematch of the previous Octobers WS? The winner of said rematch would earn the right for their league to host the next WS

7 years ago
Reply to  MPLSman

4 games at each teams’ home field, with ties decided by the ASG.

7 years ago

They should play a game of musical chairs with all the GMs on and/or mascots on the last day of the season, winner takes home field advantage!

7 years ago

Want to create some real excitement to determine home field advantage for the World Series? Have the teams with the best records from each league have a one-game playoff before the regular postseason begins. The host team would be the one with the best overall regular season record. If they have identical records a tiebreaker based on interleague or some other format would determine the city the game would be played in. The only real problem is time and scheduling. Maybe the regular season schedule could start earlier or the number of games could be reduced?

7 years ago

@ Andy @ Chad

You think season ticket holders are going to want to spend thousands of dollars a year and then be told that they have to spend even more money on airfare, hotels, etc (assuming they could even get the time off from work) if they are selected for the opportunity to buy tickets at some neutral site?

Count me out.

7 years ago

Another option? – The league with the most inter-league wins should get home field with the All-Star Game used as the tiebreaker.

7 years ago

Why doesn’t the HFA get determined by the actual teams in the playoffs somehow. Team with the least number of games played. That, in theory has the same instrinsic problem that the overall regular season best record has though. Best run differential in the post season (that particular post season). This, while removing the bias towards number of games played, in theory removes league factors, because you’re pitting only the 5 best teams (or, at worst, 5 of the best 7).

Michael Bacon
7 years ago

How about the team with the best pythagorean W-L record? Hey, this is a website for stat-heads, is it not?
Having the home field determined by the All-Star is one of the most ridiculous knee-jerk decisions made by “Bud.” It fits under “Sometimes progress ain’t.” It is so silly as to be laughable. Thanks for the legacy, “Bud.” It fits in nicely with raging ‘roids and a one game playoff, not to mention all the stupid rule changes implemented last season that had to be rescinded mid-season. Glad the man was finally “contracted.” Don’t let the door hit you on the way out…

7 years ago

Don’t think I saw a consideration of the days off between series. I think baseball has fewer than basketball and there is a big difference as a ticket holder from out of town whether you are getting a game 1 or game 3 ticket and having to make travel arrangements. Reserving hotels etc…
I would rather alternate or base it on last year’s WS than interleague.

David Scott
7 years ago

Option 3 all the way.

“Schedules are unbalanced, even within each league.” But that’s why we have three rounds of playoffs before the World Series–to eliminate the teams that took advantage of the unbalanced schedule.

“If you happen to be the best team in the best division in the best league, the slog to get through that schedule may leave you with fewer wins than a team that dominated weaker opposition.” But if you are the best team in the best division in the best league, it shouldn’t matter where game seven is played. You should win the series because you have a better team. If the team is really that good, the series shouldn’t even go seven games.

Marc Schneider
7 years ago

Baseball keeps saying they can’t use best team record because of logistics for the World Series. I find that hard to believe in this day of the internet and just-in-time merchandising. Even though I initially advocated for the league that wins the interleague series, I now think David Scott is right. Just go with the team with the best record; it’s not a perfect determinant but nothing is. It’s virtue is that it’s simple and does not rely on games between lousy teams. Certainly, it’s possible a team could build up its record against bad teams, but look at the AL East during it’s prime. As strong as it was, the top teams still frequently had the best records. Plus, in baseball, winning games is winning games.

7 years ago

GO BACK to OLD SCHOOL, using alternating years. Figure which league would have hosted during 2003-present, and bring it forward,,,,,,

Trace Juno
7 years ago

I think a big reason why the ASG decides it these days is that it is very simple. One game, bam, there you go.
It looks like we pretty much all hate it, but I point this out because it is also a reason to go with the regular season record. You simply look at the standings and that’s it. I know this won’t please a lot of people, but it is part of the equation and therefore should be considered. When I open the sports section of a newspaper, where the hell do I find the overall interleague record?

I do tink the regular season record is a relatively fair, very obvious way to determine home-field-advantage. I think the DH issue is a much bigger problem than an unbalanced schedule.

(Did I say I hate interleague play since it’s part of everyday baseball?…)

John Hamilton
7 years ago

The ONLY reason we gave the current system is because of that jackass Selig, in the signature moment of his career, throwing up his hands.

Given unbalanced schedules and the DH difference, there is no equitable way to determine home field advantage. The All-Star Game should be a pure exhibition and one game is a ridiculous way to determine anything important in a sport that takes 162 games to let the cream rise to the top.

Old school alternating years is the fairest.

Ron Cohen
6 years ago

The team with the best win loss record should be rewarded with home field advantage. The only exception is if the wild card team is playing a divisional champ the latter should be rewarded accordingly. No outside event like the winner of the all star baseball team should determine the home field advantage.