|A few more night games might not be a bad idea.
Yesterday I looked at the Cubs’ league-worst home-field advantage since 1970. Today I’m surveying the history of the Cubs at home since 1901. Obviously most of that (every year from 1914 on) is at Wrigley Field, but I threw in the numbers from before that as well simply because . . . well, because I have them.
Before I go any further, I just want to rehash a few main points from yesterday’s post:
- Home-field advantage is legitimate in Major League Baseball. Every year since 1901 the home team has won a majority of the games played in baseball (a .540 winning percentage since 1970).
- A study of the 2004 MLB regular season showed that travel leading up to a game has no effect on win probability for either team.
- The study also concluded that home-field advantage is statistically relevant only in games decided by one run.
- Results over the years support that studies conclusion that home-field advantage matters the most in one-run games; the home team has a .608 winning percentage since 1970. The home team has still maintained an advantage in games decided by 2 runs or more (.511) or 3 runs or more (.518).
- Since 1970, the Cubs have MLB’s worst winning percentage (.577) in all one-run home games where their advantage should be the highest.
- Explaining home-field advantage is considered one of baseball’s most indiscernible mysteries.
- The Cubs, like every team in baseball, have an advantage when playing at home, but theirs has historically been less advantageous than that of any other team.
Most people who care to argue generally take one of a few main positions in explaining the home-field advantage in baseball. The first is that the structure of the game itself favors the home team. They’ll argue that having the last at-bat either allows the home team a strategic advantage in one-run games (they know exactly how many runs they need to score in the 9th) or that it simply creates the statistical illusion of an advantage (if the home team is tied or trailing in the 9th, they’ll almost always win by one if they win at all, and they never have the opportunity to build on their leads after the 8th inning).
Another main argument is that playing in front of the home crowd and hearing their cheers (or, adversely, boos) in a familiar environment gives the home team a psychological or emotional advantage that comes into play especially significantly in close ball games and dramatic situations. I’d expect this type of thing to be more observable in basketball and football where playing at home offers no advantage within the game itself. But I’d also expect that over time that type of thing would equalize from team to team.
The other main factor in discussing home field advantage is the field itself. Baseball is unique among team sports in that the field of play varies pretty significantly from venue to venue. Teams can then customize their teams according to their home park (or adjust the field
to the team’s strengths). It could be the spacious outfield at Petco, the speedy Astroturf infield at the old Busch Stadium, or the light mountain air of Coors Field. (Coors seems to have had the greatest impact on that front. The Rockies have a .652 winning percentage in the 339 one-run games in Denver, and there isn’t a close second in recent history. Three teams are tied with .635.)
Like I said earlier, the average winning percentage in one-run home games since 1970 league-wide is .608. There are only two teams with winning percentages more than .030 points away from that mark on either side. The Rockies at .652 (+.044) and the Cubs at .577 (-.031). The Coors effect isn’t really all that surprising, because the high altitude, you’d expect, requires an adjustment most visiting players need more than a few days to make. With Wrigley the most obvious explanation, the unique factor that comes to mind almost immediately, is the prevalence of day baseball. Is that really hurting the Cubs?
I think it is. I broke down the Cubs’ record in those all-important one-run games at Wrigley by decade using the miraculous Baseball-Reference play index tool
. I went by decades because it takes that long for a good 200+ game sample. The results almost speak for themselves, but I’ll ramble on just for kicks.
Cubs Home-Field Advantage in 1-Run Games by Decade
||6 of 16
||5 of 24
||7 of 16
||1 of 16
||14 of 16
||15 of 16
||10 of 24
||17 of 26
||19 of 26
||24 of 30
||28 of 30
||19 of 30
||3 of 16*
||30 of 30
*Of teams with at least 100 1-run home games in that span
As you can see, the Cubs enjoyed a pretty healthy home-field advantage compared to the rest of the league until the 1940s. Since then, they’ve only been above average in one decade. So what changed?
Well, in the late 1930s, the starting time of baseball games began to change. By the start of the 1942 season, only 5 teams had yet to install lights at their parks, and by 1949 there was only one holdout remaining. That team wouldn’t play a night game at home until August 8, 1988. Even now they play more day games than any other team in baseball, including all of their Friday home affairs.
Cubs home games have a uniqueness all their own. They play more night games than they used to, but the balance is still significantly different than the schedule of any other MLB team. That uniqueness is very likely costing the team wins. Since the 1942 season when most teams began playing night baseball, the Cubs have enjoyed a smaller-than-average portion of the built-in advantage appointed to every team in baseball. They went from a 2.8% better-than-average clip to a 2.9% dip below average.
Maybe it’s more than just the day-baseball factor. Maybe it’s their sub-par team facilities, too. Maybe it’s just luck. But seeing as though the bad luck thing doesn’t seem to want to go away, maybe the Cubs should address those other two distinctive traits and make the Wrigley confines a little more friendly to winning.