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Reds Fanatic
06-10-2008, 02:07 PM
http://sports.espn.go.com/mlb/columns/story?columnist=stark_jayson&id=3435041


Some things in life don't make a whole lot of sense. And by that, we don't mean just the ongoing fame and fortune of Whoopi Goldberg.


We mean stuff like this:

The Braves are 25-11 at home -- but 7-21 on the road. That's a gap of .444 winning-percentage points, which would be the biggest home/road discrepancy in modern baseball history if it holds up all year.

The Red Sox are 26-6 at home -- but 14-20 on the road. That's a gap of .401 percentage points, which would be the largest home/road split in American League history.

Biggest Home/Road ERA Disparities
Team Home Road
Rays 2.81 5.00
Pirates 3.76 5.99
Twins 3.63 5.51
Brewers 3.27 5.02
Padres 3.41 5.01

Tampa Bay has the best ERA in baseball at home (2.81) -- but the same pitchers have a 5.00 ERA when they leave the scenic state of Florida.

The Tigers have a .287 batting average at home, the third-best in the American League -- but the same hitters turn into an entire roster full of Humberto Cotas on the road (where their team average is .235).

And we could cite numbers like that for another hour -- in a season in which just three teams in the entire sport (Angels, Phillies, Cardinals) have a winning record away from home. But instead, let's just ask:

What the heck is up with that?

Now granted, if you take a long, hard look at baseball -- for which Fenway Park doesn't seem as if it could possibly have been designed to house the same sport as Tropicana Field -- you could certainly understand why home teams would have a gigantic advantage.

Except that it's never really worked out that way.

Until this year.

This year, road teams went into Monday with a combined record of 401-511. That works out to a mind-boggling winning percentage of just .421. If that lasts all season, we'll see the lowest winning percentage by road teams (and, by a remarkable coincidence, the highest by home teams) since 1931, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

So we ask again: Why? We've been collecting theories from players, GMs and other great baseball minds. Now let's examine whether they're real or folklore:

1. No more greenies
You never want to explain anything in baseball by attributing it to the pharmaceuticals industry. But face it: This is one development that's impossible to ignore.

"There's an 800-pound gorilla in every clubhouse, and it's greenies and steroids," one GM said. "The travel these days wears everyone out. Day games after night games. Coast-to-coast trips. How do you think these guys got through it before? Greenies have been in the game for probably 50 to 60 years. So now you take them away, and you don't think it takes a toll on teams when they're traveling?"

In a world in which these players change time zones as regularly as they change wrist bands, this is as logical a theory as we've heard. But why would it be showing up this year? Didn't baseball's ban on amphetamines actually take effect last year?

"Because I don't think guys were totally off greenies last year," the same GM said. "But this year, they've scared the living hell out of these guys. They know they're checking. They know the tests could come any time. They know Major League Baseball is trying to play gotcha. So what doctor wants to sign his name to this stuff now? Even if these guys want to use it now, where are they going to get it and who are they going to get it from?"

Good question. Valid question. And it makes as much sense as any theory out there.

Biggest Home/Road OPS Disparities
Team Home Road
Cubs .887 .720
Tigers .832 .671
D-backs .833 .675
Astros .824 .675
Braves .826 .720

2. The young and the winless
The next most prevalent theory we've heard is another one that makes sense in a lot of ways: Young teams have more trouble winning on the road than veteran teams.

It's a theory that works this year in particular because, when you compare the sport this season to the sport in seasons past, not much is different -- except this:

Never in recent history have more teams decided it was time to go young.

So the Joey Vottos, Blake DeWitts and Geovany Sotos of the world are getting their shot -- while the Kenny Loftons and Sammy Sosas and Mike Piazzas can't get a job.

But how does that apply to this particular topic? Hey, use your imagination.

The official explanation, as laid out by one GM, is that young players have a tougher time establishing a "routine" on the road and then sticking to it. The unofficial explanation is, well, that young players sometimes have other agendas on the road beyond, say, getting their proper rest.

We heard that theory a lot two years ago, when one of the youngest clubs in the big leagues (Tampa Bay) went 3-33 on the road after July 1. But does it work this year?

Sure -- until you examine the facts.

We looked at the five youngest teams in baseball -- the Diamondbacks, A's, Twins, Marlins and Rangers. We compared them to the five oldest teams in baseball -- the Astros, Mets, Phillies, Red Sox and Cubs.

Oops. The five youngest teams had a higher road winning percentage through Sunday (.453) than the five oldest teams (.426). And one of the AL's worst road records belonged to its oldest team (Boston) while one of its youngest teams (the Angels) had the best road record in the whole darned sport (21-12).

So while we hate it when the facts get in the way of a good theory, it looks like it happened to this one.

3. There's no place like home
So maybe we're attacking this backward. Maybe this isn't about the road teams at all. Maybe it's really about the home teams.

After all, why wouldn't the Red Sox (26-6) and Cubs (26-8) have the best home records in each league, for instance, considering the funky parks they play in?

"We should be winning at Wrigley," said the Cubs' Mark DeRosa. "Every single day, we have over 40,000 fans cheering us on, rain or shine. Wrigley Field should be the definition of home-field advantage."

Biggest Home/Road Batting Avg. Disparities
Team Home Road
D-backs .285 .214
Cubs .309 .254
Tigers .287 .235
Braves .298 .247
Astros .288 .245

And it should. But (A) it hasn't always been -- in part due to issues that weren't the fault of Wrigley, its ever-impassioned occupants or its storied crop of ivy. And (B) whether Wrigley has a special magic or not, how would it help us explain the home record of the rest of the sport?

"Maybe teams are adjusting the fields to the strength of their clubs," suggested Astros pitcher Brian Moehler. "For years, Wrigley Field used to have high grass in the infield. Now the grass is lower. I can't speak for the Cubs, but maybe that plays into the strengths of their infielders."

Hmmm. We have no doubt that sort of thing goes on. We also agree that it influences a given game here and there, or a given team here and there. But can it possibly explain home-team records across the sport, or account for a dramatic difference between this year or last year? Most of the other folks we polled didn't think so.

"I have always thought," said White Sox GM Kenny Williams, "that outside of Boston, New York and Minnesota -- yes, Minnesota, due to the House of Horror Dome -- there are no great advantages for home teams in baseball."

"The Braves are 25-11 at home," another AL executive said. "And there is nothing about that park or those fans that would give them an advantage."

Yeah, we're afraid so. If there were something about the increasingly quirky ballparks that now dot our landscape that would give the home team a special edge, it would have shown up before this year. Wouldn't it? We would have seen home winning percentages spiking upward and creeping toward history over the past 10 years. Wouldn't we?

Sure we would. But that isn't what's been happening. As The Elias Sports Bureau's Steve Hirdt told our buddy Buster Olney recently, home winning percentages have held steady for years. And only once in the 76 seasons since 1931 has there been any other season in which road win percentage dipped below even .430. That was in 1978, when it hit .427.

So compelling as it might be to theorize that home is where the heart -- and the advantage -- is, there's not a ballpark-related reason on earth it should be a massively bigger advantage this season than last season, the season before or the 20 before that.

4. It's a different game
All right, here's a theory nobody can deny: Most teams employ different strategy when they play at home than when they play on the road. The rules don't just allow it, they practically dictate it.

"Some of it must be bullpen [use]," suggested Red Sox manager Terry Francona. "At home, managers are using closers and set-up guys in tie games more. It's hard to do that on the road."

So if home teams are using their best relief pitchers more often at home than on the road, that could help explain this. Possibly.

To check this out, we looked at four prominent closers -- Mariano Rivera, Billy Wagner, Brad Lidge and Francona's closer, Jonathan Papelbon. Turned out that all but Rivera have pitched more often at home than on the road. Then again, their teams have better records at home than on the road. So put that in the "effect" column, not the "cause" column.


Some of it must be bullpen [use]. At home, managers are using closers and set-up guys in tie games more. It's hard to do that on the road.
--Red Sox manager Terry Francona on the disparity of home and road records

Then we looked at how many tie games they'd pitched in. Turned out they entered a total of 11 tie games at home, to just four on the road. Multiply that across the sport, and theoretically, closers would have pitched in somewhere around 50 more tie games at home than away from home.

So we're definitely onto something here -- except for one thing:

This is nothing new.

It might explain, to some small degree, why home teams have a better record than road teams. But it doesn't explain, best we can tell, why that record is so much better than last year. Or any other year since the dawn of modern relief pitching. Which leaves us one final conclusion

5. It's just one of those random years

We surveyed 15 people in baseball for this column. They tossed out lots of fun theories. Besides the ones named above, the others included:

Lousy scheduling.

Crummy weather in the northern half of our great land.

More parity/mediocrity, creating a greater edge for the home teams.

And even such amusing, tongue-in-cheek suggestions as "food in the visiting clubhouses is becoming healthier," which "may have shaken many teams' routines."

But by far the most popular theory was one we hate to admit to, but also the one most likely to apply:

It's a fluke.

"It's a statistical anomaly," the Astros' Brad Ausmus said.

"It's a statistic waiting to be corrected in the second half," Nationals GM Jim Bowden said.

"I'm not sure there is a magic bullet," Pirates GM Neal Huntingdon said.

And we've come to this conclusion: They're right. According to ESPN's research department, there have been four other seasons since 1931 when home teams actually had a higher winning percentage over the first two months than they did this year. That record then declined over the rest of the season in every one of those years.

Why? "Because this game will always prove that it's completely unpredictable," Padres pitcher Randy Wolf said. "Just when you think you've seen it all or figured it out, it will throw something completely unusual at you."

And friends, it looks as if baseball has done it again -- unless The No Greenie Effect is more powerful than anyone ever realized.