Coveted home field advantage on line for Pirates, Reds
CINCINNATI — The Pirates likely are not playing for a division title this weekend at Great American Ball Park. The Pirates would need a sweep of the Reds and have the first-place Cardinals be swept by the last-place Cubs to force a tie-breaking 163rd game.
But there remains something significant at stake in Cincinnati: home field in the wild-card play-in game.
The Pirates are playing .617 baseball (50-31) at PNC Park this season compared to a .525 mark (41-37) on the road. The Reds are winning at a .636 clip (49-28) at home this season. They are a .500 team (41-41) on the road.
Whoever wins this weekend's series earns home field for Tuesday's play-in game, and, with that, they increase their chances of advancing to the NLDS by roughly 10 percent.
The home-field edge becomes even more important for the Pirates when examining projected play-in game starter Francisco Liriano's home ERA (1.47) vs. his road ERA (4.32) this season.
What makes home-field advantage so important?
A small part of home-field advantage is no doubt tied to teams tailoring their roster to their home ballparks. Many believe home-field advantage is tied to comforts of playing at home and opponents' travel fatigue. Perhaps most commonly cited is the idea energetic crowds energize on-field performers.
Reds left fielder Ryan Ludwick certainly thinks so, criticizing the Reds' home crowd after a 1-0 loss to the Mets on Wednesday.
“When we went to Pittsburgh, they had an advantage. (Fans) were loud. A playoff atmosphere,” Ludwick told reporters. “I might be calling (fans) out. But I'm calling them out in a positive way. We want loud and energetic. It's like a natural Red Bull. We need every positive aspect we can to keep this thing going.”
But what University of Chicago behavioral economist Tobias Moskowitz and Sports Illustrated writer L. Jon Wertheim concluded in their book “Scorecasting” is that home-field advantage is tied predominately to umpire bias — and they found it to be true in every sport.
The authors examined millions of pitches tracked by QuesTec and PitchFx — computerized systems that track pitch location and velocity — and found the home team benefited from borderline strike-ball decisions by umpires.
“In baseball it turns out that the most significant difference between home and away teams is that the home teams strike out less and walk more — a lot more — per plate appearance than road teams,” they wrote.
The Reds staff is striking out 8.64 opponents per nine innings at home and 7.19 on the road in 2013. The Pirates' staff is walking 2.83 batters per nine innings at home and 3.49 on the road. Liriano's walk rate jumps from 3.1 to 3.8, home to road, and most alarming is his home-run rate spikes from .24 home runs per nine innings at home to .72 on the road.
Wrote Forbes' Steven Dunning on home-field advantage: “Referees and umpires genuinely believe the opinions of the group. That's because people's perceptions change (when) they operate within a social (environment).”
What Ludwick and behavioral economists can agree on is that energized crowds do influence. Who they influence is up for debate, perhaps, but an energized crowd creates a home-field advantage, something worth playing for this weekend at Cincinnati.