The 2019 World Series set the record for having the most disappointed fans. Seven times, Astros and Nationals fans filled their respective ballparks. In Houston, each Astros run came with a blaring train horn to fill an opposing pitcher’s head with noise; in Washington, Nats fans sang a horrifically annoying children’s song with enough vigor to destroy opposing players’ wills. And yet the Nationals won the championship by becoming the first team ever to win four road games while losing all three of their home games. Seven games, seven unhappy parades of about 40,000 exiting fans who had paid hundreds or thousands of dollars to see their team make history. Of course, they did see their teams make history—just not in the way they had paid all that money to see.
This was the first World Series in which all seven games were won by the road team, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. It was the first best-of-seven series in any major American sport in which the road team won every game. In fact, this marked the first time in 1,420 best-of-seven MLB, NBA, or NHL postseason series that the road team even won the first six games—let alone the decisive Game 7.
The feat appears to have been accomplished just once before in sports history, in the second tier of professional hockey: In 1992, the Adirondack Red Wings of the American Hockey League won the Calder Cup over the St. John’s Maple Leafs by winning four games on the road and losing three games at home. The Houston Chronicle actually tracked down Barry Melrose, the ESPN analyst who coached the Red Wings at the time, to discuss how it happened. He credits the victory to Adirondack’s parent club, the Detroit Red Wings, loaning the minor league affiliate their private plane after they were eliminated from the NHL postseason. (I assume this was not a factor in the World Series.) Nobody celebrates the ’92 Calder Cup champions these days; the Red Wings moved from tiny Glens Falls, New York, to San Antonio, and the Maple Leafs moved from Canada’s Maritime provinces to Toronto. Before Wednesday, the seven-game sad-fan sweep had been pulled off only in a minor league, in far-flung places, between two teams that no longer exist in the form they once did.
As a budding take artist, I once believed that home-field advantage was mostly a myth. Yes, announcers talk about it, in the same way they talk about “grit” or how football teams need to establish the run. But come on—these are professional athletes, right? They’re trained for peak performance wherever they go. Do we really think that hearing fans cheer reminds them that they should try to succeed, or that hearing fans boo hurts their feelings enough to cause them to fail? I figured the entire concept of home-field advantage was created to make fans feel like they had some influence over the outcome of the game.
Of course, my proto-take is extremely untrue. In every sport, at every level, home teams win more often than they lose. Pro teams win more at home; college teams win more at home; teams with famously raucous home crowds win more at home; teams whose fans are mocked for leaving stadiums half-empty win more at home. (A 2017 ESPN study found that Louisiana Tech—with an average attendance of roughly 19,000—has the strongest home-field advantage of any college football team in the country.) Maybe athletes really are affected by the crowd; maybe they perform worse when they’re less attuned to their surroundings; maybe the effect of travel and not sleeping in one’s own bed makes a difference. Some contend that home-field advantage doesn’t have to do with the players at all—it’s the referees and umpires who can be swayed by the desire to avoid upsetting the locals. There are a lot of potential reasons!
And in every sport, at every level, home teams win even more often during the postseason. According to a FiveThirtyEight study conducted in May 2017, NFL teams had won 57 percent of their regular-season home games and 65 percent of their playoff home games since 2000; NBA teams had won 59.9 percent of regular-season games and 64.5 percent of playoff home games during the same span. Perhaps this uptick has to do with crowds being extra hyped in the postseason, but I suspect it has more to do with the fact that all of these sports give home-field advantage to the team that performed better in the regular season. Even at a neutral site, a good team would be projected to beat a not-as-good team; the notion that the good team is playing at home simply increases its likelihood of winning. That FiveThirtyEight study also found that in all sports besides hockey, playoff home teams win more than would be expected even after accounting for the better team receiving home-field advantage.
In the World Series, home-field advantage is even more valuable than the usual postseason home-field advantage, which is even more valuable than the usual regular-season home-field advantage. Home teams get a boost in baseball—they hit last, making for easier managerial choices about how to deploy late-game pitching. And since every home field in baseball has its own unique dimensions, the home team in any game is better prepared to pitch, hit, and field within the confines of its stadium.
Beyond that, there’s the biggest factor that makes home-field advantage in the World Series so critical: the designated hitter rule. The American League uses a designated hitter, and in World Series games played in AL ballparks the DH is in effect; the National League does not use the designated hitter, and in World Series games played in NL parks the pitchers must hit. I have always found this hilarious. Pitchers tend to be bad at hitting under any circumstances, and in the World Series not only do pitchers have to hit—pitchers from the AL teams who don’t hit all year are suddenly forced to swing a bat. No AL pitcher has recorded a hit in a World Series game since 2016. And the effects of the DH go deeper than the difference between AL and NL pitchers’ performances at the plate—AL rosters are constructed to carry nine quality starting hitters, while NL teams are built to have eight. AL teams can be put at a disadvantage on the road when they shove their DH into an unfamiliar fielding position and hope it works out. (As confusing as Justin Verlander swinging a bat: David Ortiz wearing a glove.)
Entering this World Series, home teams were 383-314 (.549 winning percentage) all time, and 187-130 (.589) since 1969. Teams with home-field advantage had even won 10 of the 15 World Series played during the blighted era from 2003 to 2017, when the All-Star Game determined World Series home-field advantage. (The slogan was true: Those times, it counted.) If we’re to assume that the home team in any World Series game has a 58.9 percent chance of winning, the odds of a road team winning seven games in a row are 0.19 percent. That works out to 2-in-1,000, which honestly isn’t so far off from the 1-in-1,421 number we’re sitting at right now.
The Nationals and Astros did not seem like the teams that would defy the home-field odds. The Astros were 60-21 at home and only 47-34 on the road during the 2019 regular season; the Nats were 50-31 at home and 43-38 on the road. In the ALDS, Houston won all three of its home games against the Rays, but were pushed to five games because Tampa Bay won both games in Tropicana Field. And neither seemed particularly well-suited to play in the other team’s park: The Astros’ designated hitter, Yordan Álvarez, played in the outfield only a handful of times this season, and had a dismal .909 fielding percentage; as such, the Astros benched him for Games 3 and 4. The Nationals put Howie Kendrick at designated hitter, and one of his greatest assets throughout his career has been his defensive versatility. It didn’t matter: Álvarez played the field long enough to win Game 5 for Houston with a pair of home runs, and Kendrick delivered the biggest hit of the entire series from the DH spot, a two-run homer that swung Game 7 from a 2-1 Astros lead to a 3-2 Nationals lead.
We got seven straight games in which road hitters blasted bombs into bleachers filled with groaning home fans, seven straight games in which road pitchers grooved beauties that forced umpires to tolerate heckling after those pitches were called strikes. Surely, someone out there is arguing that this World Series proves home-field advantage isn’t real. But the evidence to the contrary remains significant. This isn’t proof that we’ve long been thinking about home-field advantage wrong; it’s proof that we just witnessed a sports miracle.