Dissecting the ‘All-Star Game’ Matters Rule

Mandatory Credit: boards.sportslogos.net

Mandatory Credit: boards.sportslogos.net

You can blame it on Omar Vizquel‘s RBI triple in the 8th inning. He tied the game 7-7 in a back and forth battle that saw 25 hits, 3 lead changes, and a starting pitcher for only two innings. By the bottom of the 11th inning, both teams had run out of relief pitchers. So, instead of trotting out backup catchers and college-pitchers-turned-outfielders to continue the contest, the MLB commissioner stepped in, shrugged his shoulders, and called the game a tie. This ruling carried great significance, as even today it plagues Major League Baseball and befuddles many lovers of the game.

If you’re struggling to recall this historic match-up, that’s because it didn’t count towards any one team’s win-loss record. The runs, the hits, the errors, the strikeouts, and every other major statistic were recorded only for amusement and trivial pursuits. It was, in fact, the 2002 MLB All-Star Game hosted in Milwaukee at Miller Field, home of the Brewers and the old stomping ground of the then-MLB commissioner Bud Selig. Jeers, boos, and beer bottles greeted Selig following his ‘it’s a tie’ ruling, as baseball loyalists balked at the thought of an MLB game ever ending in a tie.

In hopes of solving this largely unimportant All-Star Game problem, Major League Baseball reached an agreement with the MLB players’ union during the 2002 off-season to award home-field advantage in the World Series to the league that won the All-Star Game. The rule was used temporarily in 2003 and 2004, then renewed for the 2005 and 2006 seasons, and has since been made permanent.

Is there any logic in making the All-Star Game, to put it simply, matter? The only arguable point of view is one that it makes the All-Star Game more ‘interesting,’ that having the final score count towards something will make the players on their midsummer breather try harder. But should Mike Trout, Lorenzo Cain, or Jose Altuve risk a broken finger on stealing second base in a glorified exhibition game? Would Felix Hernandez or Clayton Kershaw throw an extra one-hundred pitches and further tax their already weary throwing arms? They wouldn’t. And they still don’t, even though the All-Star Game has raised the stakes for the two teams chasing bases in the Fall Classic.

So where should the line be drawn? For one, should the MLB All-Star Game have any effect on the regular season or the postseason? And second– though more important as it pertains to the integrity of the game– how has this seemingly innocuous rule change affected the most important competition of the MLB season, the World Series? For the sake of this argument, ignore the equally miffing fact that MLB elected to alternate between the AL and the NL as the home team in the World Series prior to the 2003 season rule change.

Since the addition of ‘the All-Star Game now means something so players will now try harder and make it better television’ rule, the American League has won 10 All-Star Games and the National League has netted a mere three Mid-Summer Classic victories. Not including 2015, that accounts for 12 years of new-rule baseball. Not what a sabermetrician would call a sufficient sample size, but for the sake of argumentative analysis, it’ll do.

From 2003-2009, the AL rattled off seven straight All-Star Game wins, with all but two of them decided by one run (how competitive!). At the end of four of those seven seasons, the World Series Champion hailed from the American league. Then from 2010 to 2012 the National League netted three consecutive Mid-Summer Classic victories. The National League headlined as World Series champions in all three of those seasons. Edge 7-3 to the ‘home’ team. And in 2013 and 2014 the AL won consecutively, with the World Series’ being split  — one to the AL and one to the NL. So, pending the finale of the 2015 season, the era of the ‘All-Star Game that matters’ has an 8-4 record in favor of the league that won the All-Star Game that season.

It would seem then that being the home team in the World Series has a quantifiable impact on the results. Whether or not that is provable, it remains here for the sake of the argument.

In the grand scheme of things, home field advantage is remarkably slim in Major League Baseball. Of all the major American sports leagues, baseball has the lowest win-percentage for home teams. The home-team winning-percentage in MLB peaked in 1931 at just over 58%, while the median win-percentage for home teams over the last hundred or so seasons is roughly 54%. In Scorecasting, authors Toby Moskowitz and Jon Worthheim note that MLB teams win at home 53.9% of the time, NHL teams 55.7% of the time, NFL teams 57.3% of the time, NBA teams 60.5% of the time, and MLS home teams win a whopping 69.1% of their games.

With such a nominal home-field advantage in baseball, then, one could diminish the correlation between home-field advantage in the World Series and championship banners. However, that 3.9% is still an advantage in the long run, and such thinking dilutes the benefit of leading the league in wins during the regular season.

From 1903 until 1968, the team with the best record in the American League would face the team with the best record in the National League in the World Series. So, quite simply, regular season record meant everything in those days.

Then, in 1969, the playoffs expanded to two rounds. With each league carrying 12 teams, MLB split each league into an Eastern and a Western division, with the respective division champions in each league competing in a series for a berth in the World Series. This format endured from 1969-1993.

In 1994, following league expansions over previous decades, MLB split each league into 3 divisions– East, Central, and West– while adding a wild-card team to the playoffs. So, each of the division leaders, plus one additional team with the next-best record in baseball, would battle through three rounds of elimination to win the World Series.

And, in 2011, the MLB playoffs expanded to include a second wild-card team, wherein the two wild-cards face off in a single game elimination, win-or-go-home contest, before the next three rounds of the playoffs begin. So now 10 teams out of 30 make the playoffs each season, a far cry from the 2 out of 10 from almost a century ago.

I do not intend to discount the excitement and parity and tension these expanded playoffs have added to Major League Baseball. But with more teams in the postseason than ever before, having the best record in baseball carries less weight. Just this season an 86-76 Houston Astros team made the playoffs, while the only team in baseball to reach 100 wins– the 100-62 St. Louis Cardinals– were eliminated in the NLDS by the third place team within their own division, the Chicago Cubs.

Regular season wins mean less, especially considering how 12 Wild-Card teams have played in the World Series since 1994, with six of those 12 going on to win the Fall Classic. But just how much has the All-Star Game rule affected the winners and losers in these most recent World Series’?

Eight of the last twelve ‘home’ teams in the World Series have gone home with the trophy. Of those twelve contests, there were two in which the ‘away’ team had a significantly superior record, but had to settle for only three home games. (In these numbers I do not include the 2013 World Series between the 96-win Cardinals and 96-win Red Sox, or the 2014 World Series between two wild card teams separated by 1-game in their win-loss records).

Those two teams docked a home game? The 2004 St. Louis Cardinals and the now-infamous 2011 Texas Rangers. Both teams, without the home game they should have earned, but didn’t during the regular season, lost in the World Series. On one side of the coin, the 94-win Red Sox benefited from an extra home game despite facing a 105-win St. Louis Cardinals team– a team they swept for the championship.

On the other side of things, the Rangers had a superior record with 96-wins, but were forced to play four away games against a 90-win St. Louis Cardinals team in a series where the Rangers were one strike away from a World Series title on two occasions.

It is hard to argue that the 2004 St. Louis Cardinals would have won the World Series had they been the home team. They were swept out of the Fall Classic by a team of destiny that broke the 86-year old ‘Curse of the Bambino.’

There is plenty more room for debate for the 2011 Texas Rangers. With the 2-3-2 World Series format, the Rangers’ home games were smothered on either side by trips to St. Louis. When the Josh Hamilton-led team from Arlington won three games through the first five in the series, the Rangers were forced to play two away games to try and clinch the World Series.

Ignoring the fact that the games would have been altogether different had the Rangers been the home team by virtue of their regular season record, Texas would have had games 6 and 7 in front of their home crowd in Arlington for the title.

In the end, the All-Star Game rule is no less arbitrary and ridiculous than the previous rule where the home team alternated year by year. And unless Major League Baseball is planning on moving the best-of-seven series to a neutral site for all seven games– which they won’t ever do– the team with the best regular season record should be the home team come time for the World Series.

Whether or not home-field advantage is only worth 53.9% in Major League Baseball, this dearth of honor for the best record in the league is a stain on the cover of baseball history. If teams are going to slog through six months and 162 games, their final win-loss record should carry weight into the most important series of the season.

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