Minnesota Twins: R.I.P. Baseball Anomaly, And Competitive AdvantageS

Will Leitch will be previewing/musing on every baseball team each weekday until the start of the season. You can pre-order his book and follow him on Twitter. Today: The Minnesota Twins.

I never quite understand home field advantage in baseball. Theoretically speaking, in some ways it should be large and in other ways it should not matter. Ostensibly, the home team has an advantage in that they have the final at-bat: If a game is tied going into the top of the ninth inning, the visiting team doesn't know how many runs it needs to win, whereas the home team knows it needs only one. But that doesn't happen all that often, at least not often enough to make a difference. It makes more sense that home-field wouldn't matter as much; in football, 75,000 humans' simultaneous screams can mess up your play calling, and in basketball, crowds inevitably mess with how referees call the game. (You might claim that fans and "make-up calls" don't affect you as a ref, but human nature certainly argues otherwise.) But baseball has so much more of the random involved: If you put the best team in baseball against the worst team in baseball in a seven-game series, the worst team would win a large percentage of the time. This is an individual sport that requires focus and concentration; players always say they never notice the fans. The job of hitting a baseball, or throwing the right pitch, is so singular and separate that the environment wouldn't seem to matter at all.

Yet, it does: Last year, every team in baseball played better at home than on the road except, strangely, the Phillies, Braves and Marlins. Those three NL East teams were peculiar outliers: In 2008, every team was better at home, and in 2007 only the Mets weren't. In 2006, the then-Devil Rays went 61-101, but at home, they were actually over .500, at 41-40. How does that happen? Is it psychological? Was The Naked Gun prophetic, and we have tigers that attack opposing fielders at second base? ESPN The Magazine looked at this a while back, and found some evidence that traversing time zones is difficult for road teams, which makes sense, I suppose, but I'm not sure solves the whole case. (Ultimately, that story blames it on umpires and the color red. There are some stats in there, but not much hard science other than "jet lag sucks.") The only theories are anecdotal: Home teams are more comfortable, variances in foul territory and outfield fences, last at-bat advantage, rampaging tigers. I'm not sure there's any proof, and the more I think about it, the less it makes sense. The last decade of baseball analysis has done a bang-up job of arguing that baseball is not psychological, that clutch-hitting probably isn't real, that a player succeeds because of who he inherently is, not what is in his head or his heart. This flies in the face of that. Why is the difference so dramatic?

I ask this because the Minnesota Twins — a small-market (whatever that means anymore) team with a devoted but limited fanbase, roster churn that has forced them to watch Johan Santana, Torii Hunter and David Ortiz thrive for deeper-pocketed teams in larger markets in the last decade and an actual threat of contraction in its past — are about to lose their most important competitive advantage of the last 30 years: The HHH Metrodome.

Now, obviously, the Twins are in a better position to compete with Target Field — which just looks lovely; I'm particularly fond of the cute little Twins characters in center field — considering its presumed revenue expansions, though that seems to never quite turn out the way everyone thinks it's going to. (It's worth noting that Evie Mohrfeld really likes it.) But the one place in baseball that was an actual home-field advantage was the old, outdated, ugly Metrodome. It was the place where visiting outfielders couldn't see fly balls, where there were hefty bags, where fans could create a cacophony that echoed and rattled in upon itself. I will have nightmares of the 1987 World Series, those homer hankies and the blood-curdling shrieks of the freezing, frenzied masses. The Metrodome was terrifying and stupid and outdated and totally wrong for baseball, but it's difficult to deny it wasn't a considerable advantage for the Twins, during an era in which they needed every break they could get.

Let's go year-by-year, looking at number of games more the Twins won at home than on the road:

2009: +11
2008: +18
2007: +3
2006: +12
2005: +7
2004: +6
2003: +6
2002: +14
2001: +9

Even accounting for the general (and unexplained) advantage playing at home gives everyone else in baseball, those are particularly high numbers. That's an advantage that — generally — has given the Twins help the rest of baseball hasn't had. (Without that 18-game disparity two years ago, no way the Twins tie for that division title.) The Twins are ecstatic about their new stadium, and they should be. (I can't wait to go myself.) But the Metrodome, as old as it was, as tiny as that cute left-field "Jumbotron" was, helped the Twins on the field in a way no other stadium does. It might take a while to break the new place in. It's worth keeping in mind: By finally having a baseball stadium that is remotely similar to the rest of the stadiums in baseball, the Twins might have lost part of who they are. It's worth it, sure. But there's still something that's gone.

Plus: very, very cold.