Commentary

Advantage Milwaukee in Game 5?

Brewers won MLB-best 57 games at home, but D-backs' hitters are hot

Updated: October 7, 2011, 10:53 AM ET
By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine

PHOENIX -- How do you quantify what appears to be unquantifiable? Certainly there's a reason why the Milwaukee Brewers are good at home, but nobody on the team appears to know just why.

"It started early in the year and then the fans got behind us," Milwaukee outfielder Ryan Braun said. "It's created an environment where it's conducive to winning. Once you start a trend, whether it's good or bad, you become aware of it."

The Brewers, with 57 wins, had the best home record in baseball this year, and it's something they appear willing to lean on after their 10-6 loss to Arizona on Wednesday night that sends the NLDS back to Milwaukee for a deciding fifth game. The home team in this series has won every game.

"Coming here, we knew these guys are like us, good at home," Brewers right fielder Corey Hart said.

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AP Photo/David J. PhillipPrince Fielder and the Brewers outscored the D-backs 13-5 in winning Games 1 and 2.

Home-field advantage can be debunked. While there are specific instances when playing at home is a factor -- such as playing in a particularly oddly built ballpark where the visiting team has a high level of unfamiliarity -- it appears to be more of a statistical oddity. In a given year, home-field advantage may be due to scheduling, travel, roster construction, strength of a division and sometimes luck.

Last year, the Atlanta Braves led the majors in wins at home with 56 and yet were bounced from the playoffs in the division series by the eventual champion Giants. In contrast, the Yankees won 57 games at home and won the World Series. But the Yankees are the oddity. Since 2002, New York is the only team to win the World Series while having the best home record. In fact, in that span the only other team to even reach the World Series with the best home record was the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008. And who could possibly argue that Tampa Bay had any kind of atmosphere that was conducive to a good home record, unless you believe empty seats are inspiring?

What probably contributed largely to Milwaukee's home record was the fact that the Brewers play in the only division in baseball with three teams that won fewer than 75 games.

What may be more important is not whether it's statistically relevant that a team wins at home, but whether players believe it's a factor -- the placebo effect.

"This is why we played so hard during the regular season to [get] that [home-field advantage]," second baseman Rickie Weeks said.

"We do love playing at home," third baseman Jerry Hairston Jr. said. "You should be used to playing there."

"It's no secret [that we're good at home]," Prince Fielder said.

More relevant, though, might be why Milwaukee, for a division-winning team, is so bad on the road. The Brewers are the only team to make this year's playoffs with a losing record on the road (39-42). Counting the NLDS series loss against the Phillies in 2008, this Milwaukee core has lost four consecutive playoff road games. The Brewers haven't had a winning record on the road since 2008, and that year they were only 41-40. This is a team made to play in Miller Park.

For that reason, the fight for the No. 2 seed in the playoffs was so important during the last week of the season. Milwaukee doggedly played the final week as if its playoff life depended on it. Perhaps eventually it will. At home, Milwaukee's batting average is 31 points higher (.277 vs. .246), their on-base percentage is 37 points higher (.344 vs. .307) and their slugging percentage carries a whopping 107-point difference (.805 vs. .698).

Miller Park ranks only 10th in park factor, meaning it's not necessarily an extreme hitters' park. And even if it was, it wouldn't explain why Milwaukee pitches better there. At home, the Brewers see only a slight advantage in opposing OPS (.676 vs. .702) though a noticeable difference in ERA (3.42 vs 3.88).

If you believe in "beast mode" and loud crowd cheering as the major factor, then perhaps this is easily explained.

"Maybe we just like sleeping in our own beds," said one Brewer.

Most distressing about the two road losses to Arizona was that Randy Wolf (3.81 ERA) and Shaun Marcum (2.21) were Milwaukee's best pitchers on the road this year. But against the Diamondbacks, the duo allowed 14 runs in in just 7 2/3 innings.

Wolf attributed his woeful outing (seven runs in just three innings) to his inability to throw a curveball.

"My command was horrible today," he said. "My curveball -- I wasn't able to throw if for a strike. That put me in a corner."

It didn't help that Wolf's jockstrap broke during his pregame routine. Yup, Wolf warmed up with a broken jockstrap.

"My bullpen was weird," he said.

In the comfort of Miller Park, Wolf perhaps might have more easily gotten a replacement. Who knows?

What may be more important than geography is that the Brewers will send out ace Yovani Gallardo on Friday for Game 5; he has a 3.00 ERA at home this year compared to 4.05 on the road. Milwaukee considers him its ace regardless of where he pitches.

As the Brewers packed up to head back to Milwaukee, there was understandably a different tone than when they left Miller Park with a 2-0 series lead. With the series seemingly in hand, players had joked with one another and had taken compliments about their impeccably tailored suits with pride. On Wednesday, the suits didn't seem so primped and the style had sagged. Gregarious outfielder Nyjer Morgan -- aka Tony Plush -- had boasted about his team-leading fantasy football team on Sunday, but he was hardly a presence in the clubhouse after being benched for Game 4 in favor of Carlos Gomez.

Though the Brewers spoke postgame about not losing their confidence, about maintaining their swagger, they didn't exactly bowl you over with their demeanor.

But Milwaukee was heading home. Just exactly what that means no one is quite sure.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.