We don’t really talk about home field in baseball the same way we do in other sports, and I think that’s probably for good reason. Thinking especially about a sport like football where home field is treated as a massive deal, there isn’t the same kind of verbal play-calling in baseball that can be disrupted by a loud crowd. It’s also not the same kind of viewing experience, being a much more flow-y and relaxed vibe outside of a handful of ultra-tense moments as compared to a sport where giants crash into each other for a few hours. It’s not hard to see why the crowds would be different.
But that doesn’t mean that home field doesn’t matter at all, and it could be a big factor in the Wildcard Game on Tuesday. That the Red Sox punched their ticket to that game on its own is remarkable given the expectations for this team, but that they are hosting the game, coming out of the scrum that was this final week with the top seed among wildcard contenders, is almost literally unbelievable. And I am of the belief that that alone is one reason why the home field advantage matters. It’s not all about what it means on the field or practically speaking in the game. It’s a symbol reminding everyone on the field which team had a better season, and perhaps a reason the team can come out confident despite a last week that should, in theory, render then anything but.
And of course there are all of the other reasons why home field advantage is a big deal, starting with the most obvious ones. There are universal reasons why home field (or court, or ice, or whatever) is so important in all sports. The crowd, even if it is a different kind of crowd than other sports, is still a big deal. Not that I’ve ever experienced it, having topped out in leagues where attendance in the crowd is pretty much just parents, but one would have to imagine there’s something different about making a big pitch with the crowd at their feet in support of you rather than the other way around.
And there’s the concrete advantage of having a home crowd surrounding you in the strike zone, as studies have shown umpires give an advantage to the home team in the same way you can expect the home basketball team to get a couple more borderline foul calls going in their direction. Umpires are human beings (for now, at least) and it’s human nature to not want to piss off the many thousands of drinking people all around you.
Also human beings? The players. I think when we talk about home field in sports we talk a whole lot about the crowd and how players can feed off that energy and how it can affect the umpires/referees. But the part that never really seems to get the shine that it probably should is the human aspect of being at home. Players are certainly used to sleeping in hotels, but I would have to imagine (again, I did not play high-level sports, believe it or not) it’s easier to be at your best when you get to wake up in your own bed, and maybe wake up surrounded by family, as opposed to being alone in a hotel room. Baseball players are surrounded by routine, and finding routine at home is easier on the road.
So that’s all the normal home field stuff, but there’s an extra wrinkle added in for the Red Sox in a couple of ways. The first is that the short porch of Yankee Stadium is no longer in play. Granted, we all know the likes of Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Gallo, and all the other big bats in this Yankee lineup can hit homers everywhere, but it’s obviously easier to do out to right field at Yankee Stadium than at Fenway. Taking away the long ball is a big part of potentially shutting this lineup down.
Playing at Fenway should also make Alex Cora breathe a little more easily with his lineup decision given the short left field. It remains to be seen how he builds things out, but if he’s on the fence about putting Kyle Schwarber in the outfield — given the ankle injury he suffered on Sunday, I don’t see J.D. Martinez being put in the outfield if he plays at all — the short left field should be helpful. For a team with the defensive issues Boston has, any help on that front will be welcomed with open arms. Furthermore, the Yankees’ outfield will have a tougher time as well. Brett Gardner is not the center fielder he was in his prime, and while he’s certainly not unfamiliar with Fenway’s strange dimensions, it does put a little more stress on a veteran outfielder than would otherwise.
Like I said, home field in baseball is not the same as it would be in other sports. The odds of this matchup are not going to move much based on being at Fenway versus Yankee Stadium. But baseball, as we’ve all heard a million times, is a game of inches, and any marginal advantagae can be the difference maker in an individual game. And that’s what we’re down to now, is an individual game. The Red Sox earned their home field advantage on Tuesday, and now we just hope it works out to just that: An advantage.