How Important Is Home Field Advantage in the Playoffs?
L.A. Weekly is a great predictor of Dodgers doings. In fact, we're a veritable Nostradamus of forecasting National League West outcomes, our record standing at a perfect one-for-one.
The baseball writing staff conferenced on August 23, stuck a fork in the division and pronounced Los Angeles the victor. Since that time the Dodgers have gone from 75-52 and 9 ½ games up on Arizona to 83-56 and 12 ½ in front, with the focus in most quarters shifting from summer to fall ball, and to the importance of home field advantage during the postseason in particular.
Because Bob Brenly and Joe Torre ran out of players in the 2002 All-Star Game, causing Bud Selig to call the game a tie, and in effort to increase ratings for the Midsummer Classic, Major League Baseball has been awarding home field in the World Series to the league which wins that summer's unrelated contest/exhibition/non-exhibition or whatever you want to call it ever since.
The American League won the 2013 ASG, the Dodgers will host at most three World Series games this year (should they win the NL pennant) and MLB can switch to handing home field to the winners of the Home Run Derby for all I care, because it makes just about as much sense. And there's nothing a Senior Circuit team can do about it.
There is something the Dodgers can do about securing home field throughout the playoffs, however -- they can finish with the league's best record -- the question is, at what cost? Just how important is it for L.A. to get home field?
Bleacher Report's Zachary D. Rymer has a fine take on home field advantage generally (and here is the complete postseason schedule), but what matters here is not home field in a vacuum, but what it means to L.A. And remember, however the Dodgers approach the rest of their regular season schedule, the Braves face the exact same decisions. You might even call them dilemmas.
Since it's possible and because we have to start someplace, let's assume the standings after 162 games remain as they are today. Atlanta gets home field throughout the NL playoffs, the Pirates take the Central, with the Cards and Reds playing a single game in St. Louis to determine the wild card. Atlanta plays the wild card winner with home field in a best-of-five National League Division Series, and L.A. gets the Bucs beginning at Dodger Stadium Thursday, October 3.
Dodgers lose the NLDS -- even with home field -- and go home heartbroken like the rest of us, and the whole thing is moot. So they'd better win that first series, and whatever it takes to be ready, that's priority number one. Period.
Say the wild card winner beats the Braves, which is easy enough to imagine because Atlanta has been underachieving in October for the better part of two decades. They lost right out of the gate in 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2010 and 2012, for example, losing to St. Louis in the wild card game last year. At home.
They lost in the second round in 2001, and failed to make the postseason in the other years of the current millennium.
So again, Braves lose in the first round, the argument goes away completely and the Dodgers get home field versus the wild card winner starting Friday, October 11 in Los Angeles. And all this handwringing over home field for one ballgame which may not even occur.
But yeah, that one game is important -- it's the most important game of the year, potentially -- and the Dodgers want that NLCS game at home. They want Game 1, Game 2, Game 6 (if necessary) and Game 7 (if necessary) at Dodger Stadium.
Oh, and the Braves' 51-20 is baseball's best home record; L.A.'s 40-28 represents the game's best on the road. So stick that in the Waring blender and see how it shakes out.
Don Mattingly and his Dodger brain trust will settle on a plan they're comfortable with. They'll seek that happy medium, hoping to rest their precious resources wisely, without sacrificing sharpness. That's the challenge: keep everybody at peak performance, don't get anyone injured unnecessarily and win as many games as you can. It's not as complicated as the worriers among us would have you believe.
September rest will be prescribed for iron man Adrian Gonzalez, in particular, Yasiel Puig will be allowed to nurse his sore left knee if need be, and with any luck we'll see Matt Kemp playing several days week sooner rather than later, spelling Carl Crawford and Andre Ethier in the process.
Nick Punto, Skip Schumaker and newcomer Michael Young will fill in for veterans Mark Ellis, Hanley Ramirez and Juan Uribe. Starters will have their pitch counts monitored, their innings reduced as best as can be arranged. Relievers pretty much the same.
Perhaps most importantly, A.J. Ellis will get a break behind the plate. And he needs it. The popular Ellis is hitting .241, with a .327 on base percentage, both of which would be major and minor league career worsts, with the exception of the .219 he recorded in his 40-game 2004 season at Single-A Vero Beach. He's hitting .198/.283 since the All-Star break and .133 over the last seven days.
Ellis spent the first two weeks of June on the disabled list with an oblique and took a ball to the knee on August 16, and having caught 97 of his team's 139 games could be battling an ailment of almost any sort. Or he could simply be slumping. It happens.
Meanwhile, Tim Federowicz has his average up to .244, and is hitting .333/.375 since the break, so the solution is obvious: a little (or a lot of) rest for Ellis, an increase in work for the backup catcher. And pray that neither of them gets hurt; that no key Dodger gets hurt.
Look, a team with the best record in either league can be swept out of the playoffs tails between their legs in as little as 72 hours, a wild card team barely over .500 can win the whole damn thing, and there isn't a pundit alive who can forecast it for you. Absolutely anything can happen.
The postseason starts October 1, ends on Halloween, with one team being dressed as champions. We'll dispense with the momentum can of worms because all it'll do it lead to the dreaded "backing in" line, which isn't any easier to sort out than the advantage gained from finishing with your league's best record.
As for home field advantage, Rymer put it best in the article referenced above: "As with most things in life, it's better to have it than to not have it."
I'll just add this: don't risk your season worrying about a single road game in Atlanta, because if history teaches us anything, it's that that Braves won't be anywhere near Turner Field come first pitch.