By virtue of winning the most games in the American League this season, and a win for the AL team in the All-Star Game, the Royals have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
But does the potential to play more at home really give the Royals a leg-up? Isn’t that just another one of those sports myths, like the one about the team with more heart and hustle always winning?
“The home field advantage: definitely no myth,” says Jon Wertheim, executive editor of Sports Illustrated.
Wertheim and University of Chicago economist Tobias Moskowitz co-authored Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won, which busts many common sports myths.
But not this one.
In baseball, the home team wins about 54 percent of the time, which is good news for the Royals. In the seven-game American League Championship Series, they could play four games at home.
So why does this advantage for the home side persist?
“The first instinct is that it’s the comfort of home and you’re sleeping in your own bed and the fans are cheering you and booing the other guys,” Wertheim says. “But there’s actually very little to suggest that performance drops.”
In other words, Wertheim and Moskowitz didn’t find evidence that batting averages dropped for visiting teams, or that pitchers suddenly get wild away from their home park. When they ran the numbers, they found that players generally play just as well at home as they do on the road.
But could visiting teams lose more often because of the hassles of travel, of waking up in an unfamiliar hotel room?
Probably not. When teams are away but close to home – think the New York Yankees going across town to play the New York Mets – home-field advantage holds up, Wertheim and Moskowitz found. In basketball, home teams don’t shoot free throws any better than visitors, even with thousands of fans screaming in their faces.
In fact, the authors found home-field advantage probably has more to do with referees than anything else.
“The (statistical) bells starting going off when we looked at the officiating,” Wertheim says. “Whether it’s baseball, football, basketball hockey – the home team gets favorable calls, and more of them, from the officials,”
After diving into the data, they chalk it up mostly to unconscious biases that the umpires, referees, or line judges aren’t even aware of.
“You have fans screaming at you and you’re asked to make these snap decisions,” Wertheim says. “And if you make these judgment calls one way you’re going to get applauded and the other way you’re going to get booed. You’ve got thousands and thousands of fans telling you how you should be making that call. Even at a subconscious level that is not something that officials can divorce themselves from.”
Crowds influence players? Wrong. Travel is tough on players? Wrong. Turns out: home-field advantage may come down to natural, human nature.
“The loud fans, and the fans with their Thundersticks, and fans doing the wave – if they really wanted to make a difference they’d direct it at the umpires and not the players,” Wertheim says.
Lest Royals fans rest on their laurels, know this: the home-field advantage is actually less prevalent in baseball than in other sports. Home NBA teams, for instance, win about 63 percent of their games, compared to baseball’s 54 percent.
Jeremy Bernfeld is the editor of KCUR's Harvest Public Media. Find him on Twitter @JeremyHPM.