FanPost

Be Careful What You Wish For (or Why Hosting a Championship Game 7 May Not Be All That it is Cracked Up to Be)

Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

In the event that MLB decides to set aside the battle over money and/or COVID-19 decides to allow some baseball to be played, teams will strive to achieve the ultimate goal (at least those that aren't tanking and "building for the future"): Winning the World Series. In particular, teams will try to not only qualify for the playoffs, but set themselves up for home-field advantage. In particular, if you were to ask teams what one of their major goals for the season would be, a common one expected is "home field advantage throughout the playoffs."

Last season, the Houston Astros had that goal, and they achieved it. They got exactly what they wanted. In particular, they secured a potential World Series-Deciding Game 7 at home. They had the best overall record and in particular, the best home record in all of baseball. It was all there for them...until it wasn't. Somehow, they had it all...and lost it. Yet, after doing a little digging, you come to find out that a team, even one with a superior record and home-field advantage in the deciding game, is not assured victory.

It is an accepted truism in sports that given a chance, a team desires a deciding game for a championship on their own home field/court/ice. Generally, teams strive for the best possible record in a regular season so that they will have that all important home-field advantage. That is especially true when it comes to a championship series (World Series/Stanley Cup/NBA Finals). In a best-of-7 series (the current standard for most American professional sports), the deciding Game 7 goes to the team that earned the home field advantage. In theory, that should mean that the home team should have a decided advantage.

However, recent events seem to dispute that notion. Since 2016, the 3 major North American Sports Leagues that use a best of 7 series to decide a championship have all had at least one Game 7 in the Championship Series. Yet, the crazy thing is that for each league, a team that hosted the Game 7 DID NOT win the game/championship. In fact, since 2016, the home team is a collective 0-5 in Championship Game 7s. The breakout:

- NBA: Home Teams in Game 7s: 0-1 (2016: Cleveland Cavilers def Golden State Warriors)

- NHL: Home Teams in Game 7s: 0-1 (2019: St. Louis Blues def. Boston Bruins)

- MLB: Home Teams in Game 7s: 0-3 (2016: Chicago Cubs def. Cleveland Indians; 2017: Houston Astros def. Los Angeles Dodgers; 2019: Washington Nationals def. Houston Astros)

Why is that? Why does it seem that all of a sudden, you don’t want to be the team hosting the decisive home game? You want to make the final series, but maybe, just maybe, you don’t want to be the one hosting. Is the pressure too great for the home team? Have improvements in travel and sports medicine made it so that the road team is not as inconvenienced? Has social media/information overload corrupted the long-standing sports balance? Or, is it some sort of je ne c'est quoi, and that is just how things are these days?

When it comes to home-field advantage in sports, there are a number of academic studies that show that yes, there is a quantifiable advantage for the home teams. This is due to such factors as the home team being used to the playing environment (field, ice, facilities), the positive (and inspiration of negative) feedback from the fans, the disadvantages of the road team having to travel and getting out of their normal home/family routine, and yes, that larger home-field crowd can have a quantifiable impact on the officiating calls in a match. Yet, of note, of the major sports considered in this study, the home-field advantage for baseball was lesser than the other sports, but that was mostly due to the increased number of overall games, and that baseball teams would play more road games and those advantages would lessen over time. Still, in academic study, home-field advantage is an actual thing.

Yet, there are also academic studies that look at the concept of "choking", whereby an athlete or team will fail to perform under pressure situations. The most notable study was looking at the performance on pressure putting in golf, especially where a male golfer was challenged by the fact that he was being challenged by a woman golfer. The study noted how the male golfers started to act differently, seeming to think too much, internalizing the processes as opposed to just doing. That concept could transfer to other sports and teams. Additionally, there is literature that discusses how teams, facing elimination, especially if they are on the road, tend to lose more often than not.

However, there is not a lot of current academic study about why the recent trend for home teams in "winner-take-all" games to not come through. Given the variances in sports, it can be hard to say that there is one common thread that links them all together. In a number of cases (2016 Golden State Warriors, 2017 Dodgers, 2019 Astros), the home team was not only the squad with home-field, but they were the best in the league, if not one of the greatest teams in that league’s history.

If it is accepted that there is a definitive home-field advantage for teams, and that advantage can go up in the playoffs and in "elimination" games, then why, in the history of baseball, does the home team actually have a losing record in Game 7s for the World Series? After the Nationals upended the Astros in 2019, home teams held a record of 19-21 in World Series Game 7s. This was the 4th straight loss for home teams as well (The San Francisco Giants defeated the Kansas City Royals in 2014 at KC to clinch their 3rd World Series win of the decade).

Yet, a simple 19-21 does not explain everything. To go further into that record, there are a few things of note. One Game 7 in a Best-of-7 Series was not a deciding, winner-take-all. In 1912, the New York Giants (101-51) beat the Boston Red Sox (105-47) 11-4 in Game 7. However, since Game 2 ended in a tie, The Giants' victory evened the series at 3-3-1. The two teams would met for a Game 8 to decide the series, won by by the home team Boston 3-2 in 10 innings .

The 19-21 record does not account for 3 other Game 7s in World Series history. Between 1919-1921, the World Series (which reverted to a Best-of-9 for 3 years after WWI), saw 3 Game 7s, with Cleveland clinching in 1920 in Game 7. The 1919 World Series Game 7 saw Chicago thwart Cincinnati's attempt to clinch the championship at home, only for CIN to return the favor in Chicago in Game 8. The 1921 World Series was a "Polo Grounds Series" as all 8 games were played there. The Giants, as the "home" team, won Game 7, and proceeded to win "on the road" in Game 8 over the New York Yankees for the championship.

Combined, in the modern era of the World Series (since 1904), home teams are 21-22 in all World Series Game 7s. Even with the 2-1 record from the Best-of-9s series, the home teams somehow find themselves on the wrong end of the box score in these match-ups over half the time.

Additionally, until 2003, home-field for the World Series was not based on which team had the better regular-season record. The leagues would alternate locations from year to year, with the result that a team with a significantly worse regular season record would have home-field advantage in the championship series. The main reason for the alternating home-field was due to the fact that before 1997, NL and AL teams did not play each other unless they met in the World Series. With no common opponents or common games, it could be argued that win/loss record alone did not constitute a fair basis for deciding home field. Yet, even after 1997, when regular season inter-league play started, baseball still continued to do the alternating home-field advantage rule, regardless of record. A break-out:

Pre-2003 World Series Teams (Best-of-7 Series only)*:

Year Victor Reg Season Record Vanquished Reg Season Record Home Field for Game Seven
2002 LA Angels 99-63 San Francisco Giants 95-66 LA Angels
2001 Arizona Diamondbacks 92-70 NY Yankees 95-65 Arizona
1997 Florida Marlins 92-70 Cleveland Indians 86-75 Florida
1991 Minnesota Twins 95-67 Atlanta Braves 94-68 Minnesota
1987 Minnesota Twins 85-77 St Louis Cardinals 95-67 Minnesota
1986 New York Mets 108-54 Boston Red Sox 95-66 NY Mets
1985 Kansas City Royals 91-71 St Louis Cardinals 101-61 Kansas City
1982 St Louis Cardinals 92-70 Milwaukee Brewers 95-67 St Louis
1979 Pittsburgh Pirates 98-64 Baltimore Orioles 102-57 Pittsburg
1975 Cincinnati Reds 108-54 Boston Red Sox 95-65 Boston
1973 Oakland A's 94-68 NY Mets 82-79 Oakland
1972 Oakland A's 93-62 Cincinnati Reds 95-59 Cincinnati
1971 Pittsburgh Pirates 97-65 Baltimore Orioles 101-57 Baltimore
1968 Detroit Tigers 103-59 St Louis Cardinals 97-65 St Louis
1967 St Louis Cardinals 101-60 Boston Red Sox 92-70 Boston
1965 LA Dodgers 97-65 Minnesota Twins 102-60 Minnesota
1964 St Louis Cardinals 93-69 NY Yankees 99-63 St Louis
1962 NY Yankees 99-63 San Francisco Giants 103-62 San Francisco
1960 Pittsburgh Pirates 95-59 NY Yankees 97-57 Pittsburg
1958 NY Yankees 92-62 Milwaukee Braves 92-62 Milwaukee
1957 Milwaukee Braves 95-59 NY Yankees 98-56 NY Yankees
1956 NY Yankees 97-57 Brooklyn Dodgers 93-61 Brooklyn
1955 Brooklyn Dodgers 98-55 NY Yankees 96-58 NY Yankees
1952 NY Yankees 95-59 Brooklyn Dodgers 96-57 Brooklyn
1947 NY Yankees 97-57 Brooklyn Dodgers 94-60 NY Yankees
1946 St Louis Cardinals 98-58 Boston Red Sox 104-50 St Louis
1945 Detroit Tigers 88-65 Chicago Cubs 98-56 Detroit
1940 Cincinnati Reds 100-53 Detroit Tigers 90-64 Cincinnati
1934 St Louis Cardinals 95-58 Detroit Tigers 101-53 Detroit
1931 St Louis Cardinals 101-53 Philadelphia Athletics 107-45 St Louis
1926 St Louis Cardinals 89-65 NY Yankees 91-63 NY Yankees
1925 Pittsburgh Pirates 95-58 Washington Senators 96-55 Pittsburg
1924 Washington Senators 92-62 NY Giants 93-60 Washington
1909 Pittsburgh Pirates 110-42 Detroit Tigers 98-54 Detroit

*This does not account for the previously mentioned 1912 World Series, which saw the NY Giants win Game 7 in Boston, but since the series was only tied 3-3-1, the teams had to play a championship clinching Game 8 (won by Boston in Boston).

Main Stats:

  • Home Team Record: 19-15 (not including 1912 Game 7)
  • Team w/Better Win-Loss Record: 13-20 (not including the 1912 Game 7 and the 1958 Series (both teams with same record)
  • Team with Worse Win/Loss Record with Home Field Advantage: 12-5
  • Team with Better Win-Loss Record with Home Field Advantage: 7-8 (not including 1912 Game 7)

From 2003-2016, baseball, in arguably one of the most knee-jerk reactions to a meaningless result (a tie) in an All-Star Game, decided that the league that won the All-Star game would have home-field advantage in the World Series. Given that an All-Star Game really means absolutely nothing in the general scheme of things for competitive baseball, except to offer a chance to make some more money, this might also go down as one of the more, er, dumber decisions in sports history. The results as it relates to Game 7s:

Graphic on 2003-2016 World Series Records/Game 7s:

Year Victor Reg Season Record Vanquished Reg Season Record Home Field for Game Seven
2016 Chicago Cubs 103-58 Cleveland Indians 94-67 Cleveland
2014 San Francisco Giants 88-74 Kansas City Royals 89-73 Kansas City
2011 St Louis Cardinals 90-72 Texas Rangers 96-66 St Louis

Main Stats:

  • Home Team Record: 1-2
  • Team w/Better Win-Loss Record: 1-2
  • Team with Worse Win/Loss Record with Home Field Advantage: 1-1
  • Team with Better Win-Loss Record with Home Field Advantage: 0-1

Since 2017, baseball (rightly in this author’s opinion) has gone with the team with the better record in the World Series gets home-field advantage. Given the increased play between leagues, the win/loss distinction between teams of different leagues appears more equitable, given the increase in common opponents between leagues/etc. The results:

Graphic on 2017-present:

Year

Victor

Reg Season Record

Vanquished

Reg Season Record

Home Field for Game Seven

2019

Washington Nationals

93-69

Houston Astros

107-55

Houston

2017

Houston Astros

101-61

LA Dodgers

104-58

LA Dodgers

Main Stats:

  • Home Team Record: 0-2
  • Team w/Better Win-Loss Record: 0-2
  • Team with Worse Win/Loss Record with Home Field Advantage: N/A
  • Team with Better Win-Loss Record with Home Field Advantage: 0-2

To finish out the analysis, here are the 3 World Series Game 7s from those times when baseball went with a Best-of-9 format:

Year Victor Reg Season Record Vanquished Reg Season Record Home Field for Game Seven
1921 NY Giants 94-59 NY Yankees 98-55 NY Giants Alternating Home Team (all games played at the Polo Grounds), The NY Giants clinched in Game 8 as the "road team"
1920 Cleveland Indians 98-56 Brooklyn Robbers 93-61 Cleveland Clinched WS in this game (5-2)
1919 Chicago White Sox 88-52 Cincinnati Reds 96-44 Cincinnati Chicago White Sox had overall home field. Cincinnati clinched WS in Game 8 in Chicago

Main Stats:

  • Home Team Record: 2-1
  • Team w/Better Win-Loss Record: 1-2
  • Team with Worse Win/Loss Record with Home Field Advantage:1-0
  • Team with Better Win-Loss Record with Home Field Advantage:1-1

Combined Numbers + Some other fun stat notes (Excluding 1912 World Series except where noted. For comparing win/loss records, excluding 1958 World Series, where both teams finished with identical records):

  • Combined Record of Teams w/Better Regular Season Win-Loss Record: 16-25
  • Team w/Worse Win/Loss Record with Home Field Advantage (pre-2017 and including Best-of-9): 14-6
  • Team w/Better Win-Loss Record and Home Field Advantage: 8-12
  • The 2019 WS saw the biggest difference between home team/road team win/loss record where the road team beat the home team (14 games) (that was really painful to type, BTW).
  • The 1909 WS saw the biggest disparity in win/loss records where the road team had the better win/loss record (12 games).
  • St Louis, with 8 wins, has the most Game 7 victories (with 5 of those victories at home, all when they had the worse regular season record), followed by Pittsburgh and the New York Yankees, with 5 apiece
  • The New York Yankees have the most Game 7 losses, 6, with Boston second with 4. Factor in the 1912 World Series as well as the 3 Best-of-9s and that number goes up to 7 and 5, respectively (of course, for Boston, they would clinch in Game 8 in 1912).

It is possible to read too much into numbers, especially if looking at one stat to explain over 100 years of World Series action. Each series and each particular Game 7 has its own story and what happens in one Game 7 is not guaranteed to happen in another. Yet, why, among the other sports leagues, is Game 7 in the World Series not as great an advantage as it is in other sports, and why, as of late, can the home team not get it done when they have that supposedly all important home-field advantage?

This is especially apparent with teams that posted the superior regular season records. There are factors to consider outside of just mere records. The style and quality of teams in each league, especially before regular-season inter-league play can make comparisons difficult. Difference in rules, especially when it comes to the DH in the AL, can also factor into the discussions. Individual team factors, from injuries to intangibles can also contribute to how a team will play in a 7-game series.

While both the NBA and the NHL saw home teams fail to win at home in the deciding Game 7 in the past decades, that is not as near a common occurrence. In the NBA Finals and its best-of-seven format, home teams are 15-4. In the NHL, they are 12-5. For the NBA, the 2016 Finals win by Cleveland snapped a 6-game win streak by the home teams. However, the NHL has seen the road team win the past 3 Stanley Cup Finals Game 7s. While each sport has its own challenges and significant differences, it is worth wondering if there is some reason why since 2010, the only the 2010 Lakers and the 2013 Miami Heat won the winner-take-all games at home of the 3 major sports leagues discussed here.

Amid all the sports literature and sports content dominating the internet and communication mediums, I have not seen a lot of discussions about why hosting Winner-Take-All Game 7s can suddenly seem like the kiss of death. From anecdotal to academic research shows that by and large, home-field is a quantifiable advantage. Perhaps there is more research to be done, from further analysis on the role of social media and increased informational access for players, to updating the studies on "choking' and pressure/expectations on athletic performance in "crunch/clutch" situations. I am sure that some sports psychologist/statistician can take on this challenge, figuring out why, at least in recent times, does it seem that perhaps teams should just be good enough to get to the championship series, but maybe not the ones hosting the final game (or at least, having the option to decide where the final game should be played).

Note: I did not take into account Game 7s at the LCS level, nor deciding Game 5s at the Divisional/LCS level when LCS were Best-of-5 series.