"Root, root, root for the home team.” It’s a tuneful ditty to sing during the seventh inning stretch, but it won’t help Padres fans. They should really sing, “Pray, pray, pray for the umpires to act as they normally do” — that is, biased toward the host team.
That is one of many conclusions of a delightful new book, Scorecasting, by Tobias Moskowitz, a professor of finance at the University of Chicago, and Jon Wertheim, a writer for Sports Illustrated. They apply exhaustive statistical analysis to sports of all kinds and reach some iconoclastic conclusions that blindly devoted fans may not like but would be well advised to study.
There are lessons for both the Padres and the Chargers. In fact, the book, in describing fatuous decision-making in the pro football draft, cites both very smart and very dumb moves by the Chargers.
First, the home team. Yes, statistics definitively prove that the home team in major sports wins more often than the visiting team. The difference is greatest in soccer. In America’s Major League Soccer, the home team triumphs 69.1 percent of the time. The home team wins more than 60 percent of the time in Europe and South America, where soccer is more a religion than a sport.
Home teams have the least significant advantage in Major League Baseball. Between 1903 and 2009, home teams have won 54.1 percent of the games. The authors refute the reasons most often given: (1) Crowd support. Nope. “Fans’ influence on the players is pretty small,” say the writers. (2) Travel rigors doom visitors. Not statistically valid. (3) Home teams benefit from easier schedules. It’s true that big college football teams jack up their won-loss records by scheduling sissy schools at home, but that’s not a big enough factor to explain the overall phenomenon. (4) Baseball teams tailor their rosters to fit the idiosyncrasies of their ballparks. Listen up, Padres: that’s no ticket to inordinate home success. I’ll consider that below.
“ ‘Officials’ bias’ is the most significant contributor to home field advantage,” say the authors, and they make a superb statistical case for it — pointing out, for example, that soccer outcomes are the most dependent on referees’ calls. Looking at reams of game data, Moskowitz and Wertheim show that in baseball, home teams strike out less and walk a lot more per plate appearance than do the visitors. Further, when the game is close, home teams have an even larger advantage in umpires’ ball and strike calls. Similarly, home teams are more likely to be successful when stealing a base or turning a double play.
Now for the clincher. Between 2002 and 2008, up to 11 teams had a system called QuesTec that measured where the ball went over the plate. Ergo, the umpires had machines looking over their shoulders. The authors studied 5.5 million pitches in those years. The result: “Called strikes and balls went the home teams’ way, but only in stadiums without QuesTec — that is, ballparks where umpires were not being monitored,” write the authors. As H.L. Mencken wryly observed, “Conscience is the inner voice that warns us somebody may be looking.”
The authors say that umpires “call balls and strikes correctly 85.6 percent of the time. But the errors they do make don’t seem to be random. They favor the home team.” (Incidentally, in pro football, the introduction of instant replay in 1999 resulted in fewer calls in favor of the home team.)
Then came a point in the book when I slammed it down and screamed “Horse manure!” The authors insist that most if not all officials are “uncorrupted and incorruptible, consciously doing their best to ensure fairness.” After I recovered from my outburst, the authors hedged their bets. “In a variety of ways — some subtle, some not — officials must take in cues that the league has an economic incentive for home teams to do well.” Right on! Sports are part of the entertainment business. And game-fixing is another variable.
Now let’s go back to the Padres. Petco Park is designed to be a pitchers’ park. The team hopes to win by stacking up on good pitchers and fleet, sure-handed fielders. In other words, defense wins. The book cites multiple statistics showing that defensive-minded and offensive-minded teams win about equally in all sports. In baseball, the authors show that teams molded to their ballparks’ peculiarities don’t necessarily have an advantage. Pitchers’ parks aren’t a panacea, and teams that beef up on sluggers to take advantage of a hitters’ park don’t clean up, either.
Geoff Young, a statistics expert who follows the Padres, said in the Hardball Times last year, “Petco Park remains the most difficult environment in [Major League Baseball] in which to score runs, and by a wide margin.” But, using complicated formulas, Young said that the Padres were winning only 1.5 games per 162-game season more than they would be expected to win, “and it’s quite possible that luck is the overriding factor.”
Young figured that from 2004, when Petco opened, through 2010, the Padres won 52.9 percent of their home games, while Major League Baseball home teams were winning 54.6 percent of theirs. “The question of whether the Padres are using Petco Park to their greatest advantage remains open,” said Young. This year’s experience would hardly seem to make the case — at least thus far in the season. They are now 7 wins, 14 losses at home.
Even though it’s not certain that there will be a pro season in 2011–2012, the National Football League went through with its ritual draft of college players last month. As always, controversy raged. Scorecasting points out how team managements, clinging to hoary theories, continue to make big draft blunders. A classic example is the 2004 draft in which the Chargers snookered the New York Giants, who desperately wanted Eli Manning, brother of the league’s best quarterback. Other top quarterbacks available were Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger.
The Chargers took Manning first. He didn’t want to play in San Diego. The Giants could have traded for a lower pick and taken Roethlisberger, but they were so hot for Manning that they drafted Rivers and then gave him and three draft picks to the Chargers for that first pick. The Chargers got Rivers; Pittsburgh got Roethlisberger with the 11th pick. The Giants “effectively considered Eli Manning to be worth more than Ben Roethlisberger plus four additional players,” write Moskowitz and Wertheim sardonically. And the first pick in the draft typically is paid about 80 percent more than the 11th pick. National Football League general managers grossly overvalue the high draft picks.
But the Chargers can be taken too. Almost all San Diegans are aware of the 1998 draft in which the Chargers traded away three top picks plus active players to move up to second place in the draft and land Ryan Leaf, who has since landed in a heap of trouble and never amounted to anything in the sport. By trading up to get a supposedly top player, then paying him a monstrous salary, a team often pays “the price of a Porsche for a clunker,” write the authors. By taking top picks, “you will never get a great player at a cheap price.” But just try to tell that to the National Football League.