A Quick Question About Home-Field Advantage

Prior to Tuesday’s game, the story was Pittsburgh’s team. Following Tuesday’s game, the story was Pittsburgh’s crowd. The team, too, of course, did well, but the crowd at PNC was something a lot of the players said they had never experienced. The moment we’ll all remember for years was Johnny Cueto dropping the baseball and subsequently allowing a home run while the entire crowd chanted his name, but the crowd wasn’t on for one pitch — it was on for just shy of nine innings, and it was a crowd very much unlike the sort of crowd you expect at a baseball contest.

It’s not a leap to suggest it made for an intimidating environment. Of course, it’s been suggested that the Pirates were given a massive home-field advantage. You wouldn’t even need to look further than the drop and immediate dinger. Those gathered were very loud and very partisan, and the field itself isn’t sound-proofed. What’s happening above, they hear below, and the dozens of thousands had a certain rooting interest. You want to believe that it mattered. The only problem is evidence.

That isn’t just anecdotal evidence, I mean. You want there to be evidence that crowd size can have an effect on home-field advantage. Actually, you care about crowd volume, or intensity, but size is the best proxy we’ve got. Size, and circumstances. You figure bigger crowds make more noise. You figure playoff crowds make even more noise, still. Shouldn’t that be a big part of the advantage — having all those people assembled, rooting you on while rooting against your opponent?

In baseball, there’s very little evidence that a big crowd matters, meaningfully. For a related look, home-field advantage in the regular season has been about 54%. In the playoffs, it’s been about 54%. Playoff crowds are boisterous crowds, but even given what we saw last night, the history suggests the crowd makes very little difference. Which makes one yearn for an explanation.

One — a popular one — is that players are more or less immune. The theory is that, if you can be easily rattled, you’ll be weeded out before you make the majors, or that’ll just be conditioned out of you. And if you don’t feed off a negative crowd, maybe you block them out, such that you don’t feed off a positive crowd, either. You’re aware of the crowd, as one is always aware of surroundings, but it’s independent of performance.

But what if there’s something else, instead or in addition? What if crowd favoritism doesn’t play favorites? Last night, PNC was distinctly pro-Pirates and anti-Reds, mirroring the sentiments of greater America. The crowd’s always going to cheer loudly in support of the home team. But to what extent should we care about the intent? What if noise is just noise? If a pitcher might be distracted by loud cheering when he’s trying to concentrate, couldn’t that also, in turn, affect the hitter, while he’s trying to concentrate? If an opposing pitcher might feel more pressure to shut the crowd up, might a home hitter feel more pressure to send them into a frenzy? At some point, it doesn’t matter what people are yelling — it just matters that people are yelling. I have no idea how I could test this, but it might be possible the effect just balances out, and some evidence is right there in the home-field numbers in the playoffs.

I’m not sure what I believe, and I do think most players are pretty good about focusing. They have to be. Baseball’s hard. But players are always going to be aware of a particularly vocal crowd. You’d think that would make some kind of difference. Maybe it does make differences, almost equally good and bad.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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Ron
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Ron
2 years 10 months ago

Well noise is why it matters in football and not baseball. Baseball almost all meaningful communication is done silently while in football the ability to hear is vital to timing and plays. I wonder how much an advantage the Seahawks would have if all NFL helmets had speakers, and if the quarterback had a microphone.

Ruki Motomiya
Member
Ruki Motomiya
2 years 10 months ago

I definitely think this is true. Having watched football for a long time, home teams get a lot of advantage from the lack of microphones and the like when you need to communicate via sound.

Wil
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Wil
2 years 10 months ago

Oh yeah, but you can see crowd noise in the NFL has a real tangible effect on the team (False starts, etc). In the MLB (The Cueto instance aside) it’s less easy to see any effect, if there is one.

Brandon
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Brandon
2 years 10 months ago

What makes the 53% playoff number even more interesting is that the (slight) majority of playoff home games are played in the stadium of the team that have demonstrated (slight) superiority over the course of the season.

They playoffs are a crapshoot, and there are a lot of extenuating factors, but I’m sure that if you factor in Log5 winning odds then that 53% looks even closer to 50%.

evo34
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evo34
2 years 10 months ago

I suspect the lack of back-to-back games in different cities helps road teams in the playoffs.

Richie
Member
Richie
2 years 10 months ago

Didn’t they look at this recently? (maybe even here?) And did find small but real differences in home field advantage according to what game it was in the series?

evo34
Guest
evo34
2 years 10 months ago

I doubt there’s a large enough set of playoff games to draw any real conclusions. I do know that having an off day benefits the road team (more than the equally rested home team) in the regular season.

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 10 months ago

Excellent point

Zack
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Zack
2 years 10 months ago

It’s long been my feeling that nearly all of home-field advantage in sports comes from officiating. In baseball, we know how a change in the count from 1-2 to 2-1, for instance, can affect the expected OBP/SLG of a particular at bat. Umpires feel an unwitting social pressure to make the crowd cheer and avoid a boo. The best way to make a crowd cheer is to give close calls to the home team, especially in crucial situations. I don’t know how to research this, but I’m sure it would be supported by the data. Pitch/FX is likely to show that a majority of close ball-strike calls go to the home team, and moreso on a deciding pitch (e.g., full count). You’d probably also find similar results with close calls at first and on tag plays at each base (especially home). All of these small advantages to the home team would likely add up to the 3% difference from the expected winning percentage.

My guess would be that with robot umpires or perhaps in an empty stadium the home team winning percentage would be 50% with a large enough sample.

Justin
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Justin
2 years 10 months ago

I think officiating is the leading hypothesis for home field advantage in all sports. Marginal improvement in ball/strike calls leads to improved batting/pitching and a few percentage points advantage. The book Scorecasting has a pretty compelling chapter supporting this idea, and also dispelling the idea that home crowds have an impact on the home/away teams’ performance.

AC_Butcha_AC
Member
AC_Butcha_AC
2 years 10 months ago

Have you ever been to a soccer game in Europe or South America? The crowd is the factor here. No. Doubt. About. That!

The atmosphere in Pittsburgh was mediocre AT BEST in comparison to a soccer game. The Cueto-chants hahaha cute… Here in Europe there is every opponing player treated as badly and harshly as possible. Crossing lines and all. Getting personal and in the head of the opponent. Belive me… it’s literally a whole ‘nother ballgame. The ref has not nearly as much to do with home field advantage as the crowd. And home field advantage in soccer is HUGE.

You guys should be familiar with rate stats like wRC+… In soccer, the home team has an advantage of about 140.

Brandon
Guest
Brandon
2 years 10 months ago

I see your point, and I offer a very serious refutation. When it comes to the strike zone, “Among 29 non-control, statistically significant variables, home field ranks dead last.”

http://www.beyondtheboxscore.com/2011/1/29/1961942/strike-zone-a-marginal-component-of-home-field-advantage

jessef
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2 years 10 months ago

The author interpreted his results wrong. It says that homefield advantage is not important within the context of a game because it’s comparing it to much more important factors like situation, batter handedness, and pitch type.

However, in the context of trying to determine the components of homefield advantage, those are not factors. In fact, the article suggests that the strike zone portion of home-field advantage is worth slightly more than one win over the course of a season (0.06 runs / game * 162 game season). Considering that homefield advantage over the course of a season would net an average team around 87.5 wins, this one win due solely to officiating accounts for roughly 15% of the total home-field advantage.

Considering that this doesn’t include the effects of unwitting safe/out and fair/foul calls, I’d argue that officiating effects are indeed a very important component of homefield advantage.

jessef
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

Actually, thinking about this more, since there’s a home team and a road team in every game, the effect is twice as strong. So I’d think it could account for as much as 30% of homefield advantage.

Tim
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Tim
2 years 10 months ago

There’s a certain fundamental advantage to batting last, though.

Doug Lampert
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Doug Lampert
2 years 10 months ago

And to knowing the field and the ground rules. And to not being on travel. Baseball has more reasons for there to be a big homefield advantage than most sports, and a very small homefield advantage overall.

evo34
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evo34
2 years 10 months ago

This (umpire bias) may be a big factor (no way to prove it), but it’s definitely the whole story. Anyone who bets sports can tell you the effect of travel on a team’s performance is very real.

evo34
Guest
evo34
2 years 10 months ago

definitely *not* the whole story, I meant to say..

TWNDAI
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

You admit that size is “the best we have” for trying to measure intensity, but being the best we have doesn’t mean it’s good enough. I’m not sure if I believe that an intense crowd can sway a game, but I don’t think you can rule it out based only on studying crowd size

For the record, I was at the game last night, and it was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Was the sequence of the chanting, the dropped ball, and the home run on the next pitch all connected? Hard to say. But if not, those are certainly what you would call coincidences.

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 10 months ago

I have seen dropped balls and subsequent HR’s when there were 10,000 fans in meaningless games

I do believe some players choke in big games, but they do it at home as well as on the road, in fact, they may be more likely to choke at home.

TKDC
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TKDC
2 years 10 months ago

You honestly remember a pitcher just dropping the ball while on the mound and then giving up a home run on the very next pitch in a meaningless game with a crowd under 10,000? I mean, I guess this is the internet; where you can just say anything you want.

Someone Else
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Someone Else
2 years 10 months ago

Is it that hard to believe that maybe a pitcher is rattled because he’s been not hitting pitches, and that’s why he drops the ball? The rattled pitcher then makes a bad pitch, and gives up a home run.

That happens to people in beer league games with no one watching.

TWNDAI
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

As admittedly silly as it is to go all post-hoc-ergo-propter-hoc on this stuff, I don’t know that it’s much less silly to say “this has happened in meaningless games, therefore there is no correlation.” That’s not really any more empirical than the idea that the crowd had an effect.

Catoblepas
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Catoblepas
2 years 10 months ago

This is like the definition of anecdotal evidence.

TWNDAI
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

It actually isn’t, because it isn’t even being presented as evidence. It’s being presented as an argument against the idea that you can prove otherwise. I’m not saying it’s true: I’m saying the crowd size metric is a pretty poor one, and for the moment people should stop trying to pretend there’s a way to empirically validate (or disprove) this sort of thing. There isn’t.

For the record, 99% of the time, I don’t believe in this stuff. I believe in the “weeding out” effect, wherein people who can be rattled by such things generally don’t make it to the majors. But then, generally is not always. It can be invalid as a general principle and still true in select circumstances. I don’t know if it is, but a true reliance on empiricism here doesn’t just mean gravitating towards empirical measurements: it means recognizing when the evidence we have falls short. And I think anyone really dedicated to applying empiricism to these questions has to recognize that, in this case, we don’t have much to quantify what’s happening, and can’t really say.

Wil
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Wil
2 years 10 months ago

I wonder if your own personal bias and by that I mean you were actually at the game, plays into your perception or uncertainty about crowd noise?

You state that 99% of the time you don’t believe it has any effect. Well why -this- time, do you? Is it because your experience from being at the game, or have you always harbored this slight 1% belief it does make a difference?

Just curious about your thought process as I enjoyed your comments.

TWNDAI
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

It’s a fair question, and one I’ve obviously asked myself. But of course, it can work either way; the fact that I don’t usually buy into this sort of thing could be read as an argument FOR it having made a difference, given my usual reticence. I can’t give you a truly objective answer, so that’s for others to decide, I suppose.

That said, just in general over the last couple of years, I’ve definitely found myself questioning the way empiricism is waved around in sports. I think what started as smart skepticism and a reliance on hard data has turned into handwaving. I think people are increasingly treating empiricism like it’s graded on a curve, even though it’s entirely possible (and common, I would say) for the best measure we have to still be far from sufficient for drawing conclusions. I think that’s the case here.

There’s also an element of common sense at play: is it really plausible to say a crowd *never* gets into an athlete’s head? That seems absurd on its face. It’s pretty clearly irrational to think this sort of thing happens all the time, but the fact that it’s an unlikely explanation in any one instance should not be confused with the idea that it never happens.

edgar4evar
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edgar4evar
2 years 10 months ago

While I think Zack has one piece of the puzzle, it doesn’t explain why home field advantage plays so small a role in baseball. My theory is that one key factor is that home crowds really can exhort their team’s players to increase their level of effort. When a player is exhausted from running around he can be encouraged to push himself by a cheering home crowd. By so doing he can find a reserve of energy and compete harder, longer.

The reason this doesn’t work in baseball is simply that more effort rarely helps a person win at baseball. Pitchers don’t pitch better by throwing harder. Hitters don’t hit better by swinging harder. Baseball requires focus and concentration more than sheer effort.

Or it’s just that noise distracts both teams the same. Baseball has two natural home field advantages in the home team hitting last, and being able to tailor a team for the home park. It makes me wonder if these advantages didn’t exist, if there would be a net home disadvantage due to the pressure of the home crowd or something.

Nate
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Nate
2 years 10 months ago

I think you hit the nail on the head. But there are a couple types of players that could benefit from crowd noise: “power pitchers” and basestealers. If you’re at 99mph and adrenaline can take you to 102mph, that could take your fastball to unhittable levels. However, this probably comes with the tradeoff of reduced control.

Since running is not a finesse skill, you might expect a base stealer to run slightly faster. But again, with the few number of bases stolen in a game, I wouldn’t expect to see much of an effect on game outcome.

evo34
Guest
evo34
2 years 10 months ago

“The reason this doesn’t work in baseball is simply that more effort rarely helps a person win at baseball. ”

You’re exactly right on that point. I would also argue that the fact that road teams have a 2/3 chance of not traveling the day before in baseball makes road games easier than they are in other sports.

Edgar4Evar
Guest
Edgar4Evar
2 years 10 months ago

I hadn’t thought of that, but in basketball and hockey where they play a lot of games they wind up playing back-to-back nights with travel in between. Frankly I always felt ripped off when I watched one of those games since the road team was obviously not playing at their best. The home team must have a big advantage in those games.

Now I don’t watch either of those sports because I live in Seattle. Sad face.

Bill
Guest
Bill
2 years 10 months ago

I’m thinking things other than the fans which are unique to that stadium, in that game also carry an effect. Familiarity. The psychology of comfort. The perception that home field advantage is real. Crowd sympathetic umpiring, even if entirely unconscious. The hitting backdrop. The feel of that particular pitchers mound. Knowing the outfield wall caroms like a professional billiards player. Sleeping at home. Getting to the park with less stress.

I would not stand in disbelief that the sum of details like this might account for a 4% swing in win pct. If anything, I would kind of expect it to be slightly more. Regardless, everyone would rather have it than not.

JMcD
Member
JMcD
2 years 10 months ago

Home Field Advantage has shown in multiple sports to be strongest at the beginning of games and gradually decrease. Also, with the effect being greater in inter-conference games. This would agree very much with Bill that the cause would be the psychology of comfort. Here’s an interesting read from a football perspective: http://www.advancednflstats.com/2009/09/hawks-doves-and-home-field-advantage.html

lex logan
Guest
lex logan
2 years 10 months ago

I remember reading 30 or 40 years ago that in basketball, the home court advantage was almost entirely attributable to the roar of the crowd after a made basket; wish I could locate the source. Based on UKy basketball I buy this; there was a period of low student participation when the Wildcats traditional home court dominance vanished. Rupp Arena was so quiet you could hear the sneakers squeak (I attended games as a grad student at that time, and previously as an undergrad when the arena could be deafening.) After a few years of this they implemented a lower-arena student cheering section and home court advantage returned. Perhaps the effect was on the officials, but it seems plausible that the cheering after a made basket pumped up the players on defense; that’s what it always seemed like, the great comebacks would be triggered by a basket and turnover or defensive stop. I don’t think anything comparable happens in baseball.

Jim Garman
Guest
2 years 10 months ago

This thread is the reason I love Fangraphs.

Brad Johnson
Member
Member
2 years 10 months ago

I’m a little late chiming in here, but I agree that this seems to be an issue of psychology more so than pure noise or what’s being chanted.

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