The Reds Need Home-Field Advantage

There are 162 games in a major league season, spread out over six months, and the mantra you hear from managers and players is almost always the same: Take it one game at a time.

That’s almost always good advice, serving to shepherd an ever-changing group of 25 players through the highs and lows of a long season, but in certain situations that kind of calming effect is no longer appropriate. With more than 98 percent of the season in the books, the Cincinnati Reds and Pittsburgh Pirates find themselves in exactly that position, entering a series that’s more than just about adding to the season-long win total — it’s a face-to-face battle to see who hosts the one-game NL wild-card matchup between the same two teams on Tuesday.

(The Pirates are technically still alive for the NL Central division title as well, which may give them added motivation, but it’s beyond unlikely; not only would Pittsburgh have to sweep the Reds in Cincinnati, but St. Louis would have to drop three games at home to the last-place Cubs. Don’t hold your breath on that.)

Even though the Pirates have a one-game edge, the Reds would own the tiebreaker if they win two of three this weekend in Cincinnati. So whichever team wins the series gets to host the wild-card game on Tuesday. And while both teams would obviously love to host, the Reds have a bit more to gain playing on their own turf.

Road-fearing hurlers

On the surface, these are two very evenly-matched teams. Both squads have 97 wRC+, and in terms of run prevention, nearly-identical ERAs (3.29 to 3.35 in favor of the Bucs). Though the Reds won four of the previous seven games between the two in Cincinnati this year, each side scored 21 runs apiece; in Pittsburgh, the Pirates went 5-4, despite being outscored by eight runs. (Two of the losses were via shutout.)

No road warriors

Liriano has a much larger home-road split this year.

PITCHER HOME ROAD
Liriano 1.47 4.33
Latos 2.77 3.48

 

That makes any added edge either side can pick up crucial, and both likely wild-card starters — expected to be resurgent lefty Francisco Lirianofor Pittsburgh and Cincinnati ace Mat Latos — would benefit from games at home, because each have pitched much better in the home whites this year.

In two previous starts this year at Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, Liriano allowed a line of .250/.348/.500 and three home runs — one more homer than he gave up in 11 starts at home, where he allowed just a puny line of .174/.249/.225. Liriano has completely dominated left-handed hitters this year (.321 OPS against), which bodes well against the Reds’ lefty-heavy lineup, but his problems at Great American, a more hitter-friendly park than PNC, can’t be ignored.

Latos made three starts at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park, and not only was it the only visiting park that he allowed more than a single home run in, his total of four allowed is half what it was at home, where he started 14 times.

The Aroldis factor

Reds fans may also hope for a home game beyond the obvious reasons because it may allow for a more effective usage of elite closer Aroldis Chapman. Though this clearly falls into a larger “old school-vs-new school” debate — and Reds manager Dusty Baker is firmly old-school — a source of frustration for many Cincinnati supporters this year has been Baker’s reluctance to use Chapman in non-save situations on the road, even allowing his team to lose with inferior pitchers on the mound while Chapman watches from the bullpen.

To cherry-pick just one example of many that directly impacted this race, the Reds lost 5-4 in Pittsburgh in 11 innings on June 2 without Chapman — who had pitched only once in the previous week — entering the game. Instead, Alfredo Simon, an effective reliever who is nonetheless far from Chapman’s level, was pushed to a third inning of relief and eventually allowed the winning run as Chapman waited for the “save situation” that never came.

Baker manages much differently at home in the ninth and extra innings, when there is no longer an opportunity for a save, like he did on Wednesday by using Chapman in the ninth with the Reds down 1-0 to the Mets. Whether by coincidence or not, Chapman performs much better at home both in 2013 (.169 wOBA against as opposed to .371 wOBA on the road) and over his career (.214 wOBA at home, .270 wOBA on the road), which combined with Baker’s tendencies, makes the Reds closer much more dangerous in Cincinnati. Of all the reasons why the Reds need the game at home, this one is the most crucial.

Pirate pandemonium

Off the field, there’s a slightly different approach to this series in Pittsburgh than there is in Cincinnati, where the Reds have hosted playoff games twice in the last four seasons. After waiting more than two decades for the next good Pirates team, Pittsburgh fans have already seen the end of the 2013 home regular season schedule, which wrapped up on Sunday when the Pirates lost to these same Reds 11-3.

It would be a cruel taunt if the Pirates finally broke that streak to make it back to the playoffs and found the reward was merely to extend the season-ending three-game trip to Cincinnati into four, without even so much as a home playoff game for the long-suffering fans who’d been patient for so long. So whatever stock you want to put in soft factors such as extra motivation from the crowd, you’d have to think that Pittsburgh’s fan would bring the noise a little bit more than Cincinnati’s.

Will simply gaining the home field for the wild-card game guarantee a victory? Of course not; the home team won about 54 percent of the time across MLB this year, and 54 percent is a far cry from 100. But for two teams that are so evenly matched, every little edge — Liriano’s larger home-road split, the Pittsburgh fans, Baker’s usage of Chapman — can have an enormous impact in a single game. That’s what makes this weekend’s series so important, both teams could use home-field advantage, and the Reds could use it a little bit more.




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Mike Petriello used to write here, and now he does not. Find him at @mike_petriello or MLB.com.

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