In sports, there really is no place like home
Research finds calls likely behind effect
As he headed into Fenway Park to watch Wednesday night’s game between the Red Sox and Yankees, Walter Brickowski identified what his team is truly battling for. “They don’t want to play game seven at Yankee Stadium,’’ he said.
At this point in the season, Boston and New York are so far ahead of the rest of the field that both teams are almost sure to make the playoffs. That leaves them fighting for essentially one thing: first place, and the home field advantage in postseason play that goes with it.
It’s a big deal. Statistics show that Major League Baseball teams win 54 percent of their home games. The benefit is even higher in other sports, according to the economist who compiled the figures. In the NHL the home teams win 57 percent of the time, in the NFL it’s 58 percent, and in the NBA it’s 62 percent.
What’s so great about being at home?
Tobias J. Moskowitz, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, ran decades of numbers in an effort to explain the well-known phenomenon, and he concluded that the single biggest contributor is - get ready to start booing - officiating bias by umpires and referees, unintentional though it may be.
“There’s this very strong tendency for officials to call things the home team’s way,’’ said Moskowitz, co-author of “Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won,’’ which was published in January. “No one likes to be booed.’’
Actually, it’s not always popularity they’re after. Sometimes the officials making a key call are subconsciously looking for input. “When you put someone in a situation where they don’t know the right answer, their immediate action is to look to others for help,’’ Moskowitz said. And if those others are 37,000-plus Fenway fans yelling “He’s out!’’ or 68,756 people at Gillette screaming for a holding call, hey, maybe they’re right.
Moskowitz and his coauthor came to their conclusion by looking at various explanations for home field advantage and then trying one-by-one to verify or eliminate them. They examined weather and found no effect if a cold-weather team played a hot-weather team in cold conditions and vice versa. They looked at player performance and in baseball found that pitchers and batters threw or hit equally well at home and on the road.
To cite one of his many examples: Home and away basketball players shoot free throws with identical accuracy. “This is a nice example, because a free throw is an isolated incident between the player and the crowd,’’ he e-mailed. “At home the player is treated to silence to concentrate on the shot. On the road the player is abused with thunderstix [and] comments about the chastity of his sister or mother.’’
They also turned their attention to the referees and found that officiating errors-as determined by measuring an official’s call against instant replay or other objective information - tended to favor the home team.
In the NFL, for example, instant replay challenges - in which referees use video to review calls - by the away team are overturned 40 percent of the time, compared with only 28 percent of the time for the home team, Moskowitz found. The visitors’ challenge success rate rises to almost 50 percent when the home team is winning.
When Moskowitz looked at called pitches in Major League Baseball, he found that the away team gets 516 more strikeouts per season than it should have, and the home team gets 195 more walks than it should have.
In loose-ball foul situations in the NBA, visiting players get the foul 57 percent of the time, home players 43 percent. “You’d expect it to be about 50-50,’’ he said.
Moskowitz may have statistical analysis on his side, but outside Fenway Park on Wednesdays, the bar stool pundits had their own theories.
“It’s like sleeping in your own bed,’’ said Brickowski, a 55-year-old Gulf Oil executive who lives in Boston. “Everyone is more comfortable playing in a stadium they’re familiar with.’’
“If you can get in your opponents’ head, it’s definitely a boost,’’ said Rasheed Allen, 33, a tennis teacher from the South End. “Most sports, they say, are 90 percent mental.’’
“It’s not easy knowing how to field balls off the Green Monster,’’ said Donna Sacino, 53, a lab technician from Leominster. “It’s Fenway magic.’’
Moskowitz and his co-author, L. Jon Wertheim, a senior writer with Sports Illustrated, have their critics, among those a retired longtime Major League umpire who called the theory “pure garbage.’’
Not only do umpires not mind being booed said Jim Evans, a veteran of four World Series, including the 1986 Series between the Red Sox and Mets, but it can make for a good day. “In many cases, [booing] is an affirmation that you are doing your job well. You are administering justice in a hostile environment. Genuine satisfaction can be derived from that.’’
“You hear players talk frequently about how beneficial, how motivational it is to be playing before the home crowd,’’ he said. “Well, as an umpire, you zero out the crowd.’’
Outside Fenway Park on Wednesday, the pregame crowd was with the umpires. Even those who thought they might be biased said they understood.
“It’s a matter of 40,000 people being angry at you at any given moment,’’ said William Gorman, 37, a corrections officer from Watervliet, N.Y. “It’s fair. Everyone’s getting it.’’
And even if officials sometimes appear to tilt with the roar of the crowd, there’s an upside, said Joe Page, 24, an air traffic controller, and it’s not just for the home team. “Everyone likes to make an excuse for why their team lost.’’