Reports indicate that Opening Day will be pushed back to mid-May at the earliest. A target date of Memorial Day weekend is optimistic, with some time in June appearing more realistic. Every day that the COVID-19 emergency pushes back the start of the regular season is another day that has to be squeezed in towards the end of the calendar year. It has been suggested that this could entail the use of neutral sites for at minimum the World Series.
I’ll be the first to agree that playing games at neutral locations is far from ideal. Families save up for months if not years to buy World Series tickets, and these dedicated fans would be left out in the cold by a neutral site World Series. However, if the decision comes down to neutral baseball or no baseball, I’m choosing the former.
Since the 1968 season, the Yankees have played a grand total of six games at truly neutral locations, two each against the White Sox at County Stadium in Milwaukee in 1968-1969, the Rays at the Tokyo Dome in 2004, and the Red Sox in the London Series. The Bombers are 5-3 in these games, however a sample size as insignificant as this over a more than 50-year time frame is only worth mentioning for posterity’s sake.
For the purpose of this exercise, I will be looking at away results from the last three seasons to get an idea of how the current Yankees team might perform in a neutral site. I feel that 2017 marked the opening of the Yankees’ championship window with the current crop of players.
Over the last three years in the regular season, the Yankees have compiled a 133-110 record on the road, on average equivalent to an 89-win season. The Bombers already are successful when traveling to another ballpark, proving that playing in an unfamiliar environment does not faze them.
The Yankees hit more home runs on the road last season than at home, at once both dispelling the perception of the Yankee Stadium park effect as well as proving the permanence of their offensive potency. Curiously, the trio of James Paxton, Masahiro Tanaka, and J.A. Happ combined pitched better at home, with the short porch, than they did in away games. This is in part inflated by the two outlier starts Tanaka had against the Red Sox, but still makes for an interesting caveat to this discussion.
Playing at a neutral site levels the playing ground between the Yankees and the opponent to an extent, relative to the Yankees playing an away game at said opponent’s home stadium. Neither team has the muscle-memory of playing on their home turf, and with it the familiarity of the speed of the infield, the sight-lines, or the angles of the walls.
The head-to-head becomes a much closer comparison of the teams on paper, and that is a matchup the Yankees can feel comfortable with every day. And this doesn’t even mention the elimination of nefarious sign-stealing apparatus by certain unnamed teams.
The most important factor in these neutral site hypotheticals is the ubiquity of Yankees fans around the country. They are undeniably the most numerous fan base in the country, and can invade opposing stadiums and turn away games into home games.
No, that’s not LA fans booing Luke Voit, that’s the newly-familiar serenade of “Luuuuuke!” ringing down from the Angel Stadium bleachers. Playing deep into November in a theoretical postseason scenario, I’d presume that those games would all be held in a neutral stadium, so as not to give warm-weather franchises an unfair edge over teams that cannot physically host games in their frigid climes. In such a playoff situation, one can imagine those cheers growing exponentially in volume.
There are questions surrounding the magnitude of the overall effect of home field advantage, a topic I will look into more thoroughly later this week. However, over the last three seasons, it is clear that the team with home field advantage in the playoffs has a significant edge over the competition. During that span, the home team has gone 61-47, good for a .564 winning percentage, or about a 92-win season scaled to the regular season. This is including last year’s World Series, where the away team inexplicably won every game.
Given this advantage for a team playing in front of a home crowd, and the ability of Yankees fans to turn an away game into a home atmosphere, the Bombers could find themselves playing with an approximation of home field advantage in every neutral site game. That is a massive leg-up should they make a run in the playoffs.
It is looking more and more likely that the MLB season and postseason could at the very least get pushed into late-November. The weather would make it obviously impossible to play outdoor games above a certain latitude, and would necessitate that contests be held at a more habitable temperature. The Yankees are uniquely positioned to take advantage of the proposal to play end-of-season games on neutral grounds.