I put together all of my sports theories in a book over the weekend. I guarantee that you’ll never look at sports the same way again. Get your copy now.
Everyone seems to have a theory about home field advantage. Here’s one you haven’t heard before.
Freakonomics says it’s the referees. There is probably some truth to this, but what about sports that do not have referees? Since 1983, the host team has won the Ryder Cup 70% of the time. So there is something else at play here.
There are more fouls in important games. But why? If we say that the referees are so crucial to the game outcomes, it’s probably because there is more pressure on them. FiveThirtyEight’s blog did a piece about the home advantage playoff “boost.” Strangely enough, hockey does not get a boost at all.
In baseball, playing at home is only gives you a 2.6% edge. That’s really low if you’re thinking that crowd, umpires, and atmosphere play a major role here. Not to mention the added advantage of the home team batting last.
Soccer has the best home field advantage of any mainstream sport. The home team wins 49% of the time, and the away team only wins 29% of the time. Draws make up the other 22%.
Also worth noting, Denver athletics have the top home field advantage in every sport [Except hockey. Calgary has the highest advantage in hockey, and has an altitude of 3500 feet]. So altitude definitely plays a role here.
So why the huge difference between home field advantage in soccer and basketball?
Being similar endurance sports, you’d expect similar results. The home team in soccer wins 49% of the time, the away team wins 29% of the time, and they draw 22% of the time. If we say that half of the draws are wins, and half are losses you get a home field advantage right on par with that of basketball [8%-10%].
Why doesn’t home field advantage in baseball matter much at all?
Home advantage in baseball is under 3%. That’s almost a fair game. Take a look at the endurance athletes, that make decisions that impact the play of the game. It’s the pitchers, and they have much less control over a game than a quarterback does on a football field. Not to mention, they may be pulled before they complete the game for match ups , poor performance, or if they just didn’t have good “stuff” that day. So even if pitchers had a decent control over the action, they may only throw for a couple innings.
Your batters and fielders in baseball are your speed and strength guys. They are less effected by the environment, and translate better to road games.
What conclusions can we make here?
The main decision makers in the game, what type of athletes are they? If they are endurance athletes, home field advantage is much greater. For example, take the quarterbacks of the NFL. They are going to be the individuals most effected by the change in environment, and since they basically run the show, it’s a much more dramatic home field advantage.
In soccer and basketball, most of the athletes are endurance athletes and decision makers. The new environment has a small but measurable impact in the athletes, changing their timing, essentially. This is why the warm up is essential, even to players who have been at it their whole lives. Conditions are never exactly the same.
Your speed/strength athletes will be effected much less by the conditions. If you’re strong at sea level, you’re strong at 5000 feet. But timing is much more complicated than that. A basketball shot isn’t about how far you can shoot or how high you can jump. It’s a very precise, fluid motion. There’s a lot more room for error around the rim, so your “bigs” in basketball should be less effected by the environment.
Translating this to football, the majority of the athletes are speed and strength guys. So naturally, the sport is much less effected by home field advantage. The quarterbacks are the athletes most affected by the new environment, and because in most NFL games they play a major role in the outcome, it comes to reason that home field advantage should be close behind soccer and basketball. Obviously, this line of thought has its limitations. Alabama has the biggest, fastest, and strongest players in college football, so the quarterback really doesn’t matter.
The sport is the most important factor in determining the strength of your home field advantage. The nature of the athletes controlling play is more important than altitude or the referees in determining how many wins you have at home.
Watching the World Series this past week begs a single question? Why can’t pitchers hit? Before you say because of their builds, think about those outfielders who are built like pitchers, and can hit.
Use it or lose it. They simply don’t take much batting practice, and have even fewer plate appearances. There’s obviously some truth here. But I’d argue that you’d never be able to train most of these pitchers to hit over .200. With infinite resources in an environment that rewards nothing but performance, couldn’t we figure this out?
Pitching is about control. It doesn’t matter if you can throw 105 if you can’t throw strikes. And not just strikes. You need to be able to pick small portions from around the plate. It takes a very specific mindset to throw 95 mph and hit spots. Especially 100 times in a row. And the mindset to hit such a pitch is completely different. Think about most of those pitching motions. They’re typically long and loose. It’s the baseball equivalent to a distance runner. Relaxed, predictable, endurance athletes.
Batting is about reaction. It’s the opposite of control. There’s not much time to react to a major league pitch. Most people can’t even see it. To hit a fastball, you need to be able to change your mind after the ball has been pitched. The movements are shorter, faster, and less predictable. A good hitter hits .300. Any pitcher that threw strikes 30% of the time would’ve stopped playing baseball in high school, or found another position.
Why are most professional pitchers so tall?
The longer levers help them throw harder while relaxed. Meaning more pitches on target, for a longer period of time. Your third baseman may be able to touch 94 on the gun, but chances are great that with his build he couldn’t throw many pitches consistently on target at that speed. It’s exactly this difference that allows the third baseman to outhit the pitcher every single game. The shorter levers and bigger muscles allow for more changes and more acceleration.
What does John Isner have to do with this?
He has one of the best serves in the history of the tennis. But also one of the worst return games of anyone inside the top 100. It’s just like baseball. These big athletes do very well when they control the action. When they are reacting, they are just slower. More importantly, John Isner is a great example that you can’t teach a 6’7″ pitcher to hit. Why? Because he has the serving game figured out. If he could just return average for a touring pro, he’d make deep runs in majors, so don’t tell me he doesn’t practice returning. He probably spends at least as much time returning as he does on his serve.
What if the same mindset that makes him such a great server is what made him so tall and not vice versa? If that sounds crazy, you may want to read my post about height.
What about the exceptions?
Turns out most of the pitchers that were good hitters, couldn’t pitch all that well. I’d argue that the mindset that made them bad pitchers in the first place, gives them a better chance behind the plate.
Babe Ruth is the most interesting exception. He was a great pitcher, and one of the best batters in the history of the game. The problem with viewing him as the missing link, is that he only pitched professionally 10+ innings per year until 1919, and these were some of the worst hitting stretches of his career. After that, he focused almost exclusively on hitting.
What conclusions are there here?
Baseball is about thinking fast and slow. And those that think fast, bat well. Those that think slow, pitch. A reactive mind is faster, but has much less endurance. The controlled delivery of the best pitchers helps them maintain their velocity and accuracy inning after inning. So your most consistent pitchers are going to have the worst batting averages. And if you find a way to change their minds and time perception, you may can turn them into hitters, but it will come at a price.