Fan impact overblown in MLB playoffs



Chicago Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta throws against the Pittsburgh Pirates during the first inning at PNC Park in Pittsburgh on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015. (Nuccio DiNuzzo/Chicago Tribune/TNS)

By Chris Puzia / Assistant Sports Editor

As if Pirates fans didn’t already have enough reason to despise Cubs ace Jake Arrieta, his Twitter feed might provide more fodder.

“Whatever helps keep your hope alive, just know, it doesn’t matter,” Arrieta responded Sunday to a tweet suggesting PNC Park’s blackout crowd will rattle him in Wednesday’s Wild Card game.

The dig at Arrieta likely had the 2013 Wild Card game in mind, when Cincinnati Reds pitcher Johnny Cueto dropped the baseball on the mound amid loud chants of his last name from the PNC Park faithful.

I have to say, for the most part, regardless of what happened in 2013, Arrieta is right — the noise fans make won’t decide anything.

Pitchers of that high of a caliber do not let their performances ride on whether the people in their surrounding areas like them or not. And before you point at the aforementioned Cueto incident, let me remind you of a more recent Wild Card performance against the Pirates — last year’s Madison Bumgarner dominating the Buccos.

I’ve seen the dampening effect of Bumgarner’s performance firsthand. Over the weekend I walked into a Dick’s Sporting Goods, littered with shirts saying something like, “The playoffs are ours,” for the Pirates. But the first thing I heard when I got in the store was a customer walking by, looking at the shirt and scoffing, “Waste of money for a shirt they’ll only need for one day.” After that season-ending loss last year at home, Pirates fans can’t take anything for granted simply based on the location of the game.

This feeds into a larger point about the overprizing of home-field advantage in baseball games. While that postseason atmosphere can certainly amp up the home team, especially for teams not used to perennial playoff berths, these players are hyper-focused from the start.

In football playoff games, the home team wins 66 percent of its games. In baseball, regular season or postseason, the home team wins 54 percent of the time — a little more than a coin-flip probability. Looking at the past 20 years of league championship series, the team with home-field advantage has won only 19 of 40 series.

Will Houston’s Dallas Keuchel — who finished the season 20-8 with a 2.48 ERA — play under his capabilities because he’s in Yankee Stadium? I’m not the only one who’s doubtful.

“Opponents find playing in the new Yankee Stadium as comfortable as playing in their living room,” wrote Ken Rosenthal of Fox Sports. “The crowd is not the least bit intimidating. Let’s see if the place is even full on Tuesday.”

I do think, though, that the stadiums themselves have much more of a direct impact than the people who occupy them. Perhaps the Yankees will have an advantage in the game because they’ve filled their lineup with power-based sluggers who can hit the ball past Yankee Stadium’s Little League fences.

Stadiums like PNC Park provide less of a geometric advantage, which makes me more skeptical that anything outside of individual player performance will decide who faces St. Louis in the NLDS.

Players like playing at home because it’s, well, home. Royals outfielder Lorenzo Cain said it doesn’t go much deeper than that.

“Does it translate to wins and losses? I mean, I don’t know,” Cain said. “I wouldn’t look at it like that. You have to play ball either way … I’d rather everybody in this room go into this healthy than have home-field advantage. That’s more important.”

He makes a good point. The games still happen, some people may just thrive in their own friendly confines, and that makes sense. But to say opposing teams get rattled in road games — Arrieta threw eight one-run innings in his last trip to Pittsburgh on Sept. 16 — has less weight.

Cain’s manager, Ned Yost, said there are advantages to playing more at home, but it’s not directly tied to results.

“The reason we want home-field advantage is for our fans,” Yost said. “We feel like we can win anywhere.”

This is not to say only the Kansas City Royals are immune — they just face the question more than most teams because of their impressive 51-30 home record.

So regardless of the outcome of Wednesday’s National League Wild Card game, some fans can take some degree of solace. If the Pirates win, they’ll be happy. But if they lose, it isn’t because they didn’t yell loud enough when Arrieta threw that one fastball.

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