Baseball teams don't have the same home-field advantage as, say, NBA teams, but it's still an important element of the game. Last season, 26 of the 30 teams had a better record at home, although a big home-field advantage isn't necessarily a path to the playoffs. The Astros, Cubs and Brewers each won 15 more games at home than on the road but finished a combined 199-287. The Tigers and Cardinals had the biggest home-field advantages among playoff teams, both going 50-31 at home and 38-43 on the road.
With the season under way, here's a look at some players for whom home-field advantage is an important thing to consider when evaluating how they may fare.
Tom Milone, P, A's. The soft-tossing lefty made his first start on Wednesday and showed again that he loves pitching at home. He allowed two home runs to Seattle in the first inning but settled down after that, throwing six scoreless frames and allowing just four total hits over his seven innings. Milone is a fly ball pitcher, which plays well with Oakland's big dimensions, but his splits were so extreme last year (2.74 ERA, 6 HR at home, 4.83 ERA, 18 HR on the road), that manager Bob Melvin should consider skipping him on the road whenever possible.
Jason Vargas, P, Angels. Staying in the AL West, Vargas moves over from Seattle, where he loved Safeco Field. He gave up 35 home runs last year despite pitching in a park that kills fly balls, especially to left-center. In his four years with Seattle, he allowed 34 home runs at Safeco but 57 on the road. Last year, his ERA was two runs higher on the road, where he allowed 26 of those 35 homers. Anaheim is still a pretty good park for fly ball pitchers (see Jered Weaver), but it will be interesting to see whether Vargas keep his home-field dominance intact.
Justin Upton, LF, Braves. Upton moves from one of the best hitting parks in baseball in Arizona to a more neutral environment. In general terms, every player performs a little better at home, but Upton's splits were pretty extreme with the D-backs. He hit .307/.389/.548 at Chase Field -- superstar numbers -- but a pedestrian .250/.325/406 on the road. So far so good: He's homered in his first two games at home, including smashing a low Roy Halladay fastball to right-center on Wednesday night.
Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes, Red Sox. One reason the Red Sox signed the two right-handed sluggers is their potential ability to take advantage of the Green Monster. Both have big raw power but can also pull the ball to left field. Over the past three years, 49 of Napoli's 80 home runs have gone to left or left-center. But what makes him even more intriguing is that he’s hit 18 to the “far right” -- meaning in the direction of the Pesky Pole. Fenway is a tough home run park to right-center, but very short down that right-field line. Napoli is that rare hitter who may take advantage of the Monster and the Pesky Pole. Gomes, meanwhile, is a dead-pull hitter. Over the past three years, 48 of his 50 homers went left or left-center.
Carlos Gonzalez, LF, Rockies. Is Gonzalez a star hitter or just a guy who takes advantage of Coors Field? Over the past three years he's at .361/.421/.651 at home (55 HRs) and .263/.315/.440 on the road (29 HRs). I'd like to see better production on the road before I declare him the great player many believe he is.
James Shields, P, Royals. Shields has pitched 200-plus innings the past six seasons and the Royals hope their new ace makes it seven. But he leaves Tampa, a pitcher's park, for Kansas City, a neutral hitting environment. During his tenure with the Rays, Shields had a 3.34 ERA at lovely Tropicana Field, 4.51 on the road. Last year, it wasn't quite as extreme, 3.25 and 3.83, but I think Shields will be hard-pressed putting up the same numbers he did with Tampa (although moving to the AL Central could help in that regard since he won't have to face the Yankees and Red Sox eight times a year or so).
Nick Swisher, OF-1B, Indians. Swisher averaged 26 home runs per season during his four years with the Yankees, but it was not because the switch-hitter took advantage of the short porch in right at Yankee Stadium. Fifty-nine of his 104 home runs in pinstripes came on the road, so I see no reason Swisher shouldn't hit around 25 home runs for Cleveland.
Josh Hamilton, RF, Angels. Hamilton, of course, moves from one of the best hitter's parks in baseball in Arlington -- probably second only to Coors Field -- to Angel Stadium. Despite the initial inclination that the move may hurt Hamilton, Michael Veneziano of ESPN Stats & Info argued in December that he may not be affected. Michael looked at all of Hamilton's home runs from last season and figured that only one would not have gone out at Angel Stadium. In other words, when Hamilton hits them, he hits them a long way.
Zack Greinke, P, Dodgers. The other big free-agent signing of the offseason should enjoy his new home park. Dodger Stadium remains an excellent park for pitchers and Greinke has spent most of the past two seasons in Milwaukee, where the balls fly. Despite that, he pitched very well at home (2.98 ERA last season, which includes his time with the Angels, versus 3.98 on the road). If that home-field advantage carries over to Dodger Stadium, Greinke could be poised for the big season his contract suggests.
All Mariners hitters! The Mariners are moving in the fences -- primarily in left-center -- so after years of cool Pacific Northwest air swatting down fly balls and line drives, will Seattle hit better at home? This was a team that actually scored more runs on the road a year ago than the Rangers. We don't know the effect this will have on the Mariners' hitters (or how it will hurt Felix Hernandez and friends on the mound), but I suspect we'll see a few more runs scored this year at Safeco and the hitters will enjoy a little home cooking for a change.