The last baseball postseason began with a stirring comeback and a sudsy celebration. Down to their last few outs in the National League wild-card game, the Washington Nationals rallied to stun the Milwaukee Brewers on their way to a championship. The party was on in the bleachers.
“The amount of beer that was thrown in the air in left field was unbelievable,” Dave Martinez, the Nationals’ manager, recalled a few days ago. “That will always stick in my mind. It was crazy. The players just fed off it, they loved it. Not having fans in the stands, it’s going to be difficult.”
Indeed, when the pandemic postseason starts on Tuesday — with four American League teams hosting openers of a new best-of-three series in the first round — the only spectators will be cardboard cutouts. The division series, league championship series and World Series will be held at neutral sites in California and Texas, so even if Major League Baseball gets approval to sell tickets, no teams will play at their home ballparks in the weightiest rounds.
This is a first for M.L.B., which is finishing its shortest schedule since 1878 this weekend. With no in-stadium revenue for the regular season, the league staged a 60-game sprint to the lucrative playoffs, agreeing with the players’ union on opening night to expand the field to 16 teams, from 10.
Commissioner Rob Manfred hopes to keep a modified version of that structure for future seasons, with 14 teams instead of 16 and a first-round bye for each league’s top finisher. But for now, it will be a wide-open, socially distanced postseason, with none of the communal joy that has always been part of October baseball.
“This new thing that we’re getting ready to embark on — I don’t know if anybody has a strong sense of what it’s going to be like,” said Tampa Bay Rays Manager Kevin Cash, whose team won the American League East. “It’s going to be neutral for both teams once you get past the first wild-card round.”
Here’s a secret, though: It already is neutral. While no team will play in front of home crowds this fall, recent history shows that home-field advantage is largely a myth.
Last year, the road team won all seven games of the World Series for the first time ever. While the Nationals surely appreciated the buzz of the crowds for Games 3, 4 and 5 in Washington, the Astros walloped them by a combined score of 19-3. Yet in four games in Houston, the Nationals seemed like a different team.
They were — because those were the games started by their best pitchers, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg, who outshone the Astros’ aces. The World Series ended with a victory by the road team for the sixth season in a row, matching 1954-59 for the longest such streak in history.
Similarly, in the eight seasons that M.L.B. has held winner-take-all wild card games, from 2012 through 2019, home teams had no special edge: the road team won nine times, the home team only seven. In 2018, eight of the nine clinching postseason games were won by the road team.
“The good players are good players whether it’s home field or not,” said Jack McKeon, a senior adviser to Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo. “If you’re good, you’re good. The determining factor is who’s got the better pitcher out there. If the visitors got a better pitcher, they’re going to win.”
Of course, there are famous examples of teams using their ballparks to manufacture an edge. The Minnesota Twins won all eight World Series games at the cacophonous Metrodome in 1987 and 1991; years later, a superintendent acknowledged to the Star-Tribune that he adjusted the dome’s ventilation to try to give extra lift to the Twins’ fly balls. In 2017, when the Houston Astros used an electronic sign-stealing scheme at Minute Maid Park, they won eight of nine postseason home games.
Yet when M.L.B. formally tried to highlight home-field advantage, the sport showed just how fickle that factor can be.
In 2003, home-field advantage for the World Series was awarded to the league that won the All-Star Game, a gimmick to inject more meaning to that event. So what happened that October? The young Florida Marlins, managed by McKeon, stormed into the Bronx, edged a flat Yankees team in the opener, and took the Game 6 clincher with a Josh Beckett shutout a week later.
So much for the perils of the road.
“We go to Yankee Stadium, and the owner says to me, ‘Hey, you want to have a meeting and talk about the monuments and being here at Yankee Stadium?’” McKeon said. “I said, ‘Are you out of your mind? These guys don’t know whether they’re playing in New York or Hoboken. They’re having fun. We don’t need to distract them.’”
Dontrelle Willis, who had never pitched above Class A before that season, said he actually did visit the monuments. He felt so nervous before his appearance in Game 1 that he worried he might trip while jogging to the mound from the bullpen. But Willis performed just fine, retiring October stalwarts like Derek Jeter and Jorge Posada while protecting a slim lead.
“We were a very, very close team,” said Willis, now an analyst for Fox Sports. “We were very tight-knit and guys cared about each other, and we took on the role of being giant killers, not only for us, but also for the organization and the city. We wanted to earn some respect on a national scale.”
In doing so, the Marlins upended recent history. In the previous 20 World Series, eight teams had come home for Game 6 trailing three games to two. Seven of those teams (all but the 1992 Atlanta Braves, who lost in six to the Toronto Blue Jays) rallied to win Games 6 and 7, reinforcing the notion that home-field advantage really counted.
In reality — as Yogi Berra might have said — it only matters when it makes a difference. Joe Maddon coached for the Angels in 2002, when they clinched the title in Anaheim surrounded by three decks of raucous fans with inflatable noisemakers. Fourteen years later, as manager of the Chicago Cubs, Maddon’s team won a championship in Cleveland, before a largely divided crowd in Ohio.
“It is more exciting when you’re in front of your fans,” Maddon said. “But I don’t know that, really, home-court advantage exists that much in baseball anymore.”
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, home winning percentages have been strikingly consistent for the past two decades, hovering between 52 and 56 percent. In this strange season without crowds, teams have actually had a higher success rate than usual at home, at 55.4 percent, the majors’ best mark since 2010, when home teams won 55.9 percent of the time.
Maddon, who now manages the Angels, said some players thrive off negative energy of a hostile crowd. But the setting usually makes no difference to veterans, he added, and if young players make it all the way to October, they tend to follow that example.
“You have to have the right players with the right kind of makeup,” Maddon said, “and to get to the playoffs, you probably do.”
Teams will miss the passion of hometown crowds this postseason; there is no way to replicate the dizzying charm of exulting with your own fans, in your own city. But the impact on the field of all that noise and travel will not be missed — because it hasn’t been a big deal anyway.
“Really, it’s mostly about having the last at-bat or not, the difference in that regard,” said Mike Shildt, the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals. “Otherwise, it’s just baseball.”