The Toronto Blue Jays announced Friday that they will play their home games this season at Sahlen Field in Buffalo. After a two-week search that included several options along the east coast and rejections from multiple levels of government, the team has returned to its AAA affiliate, about a two-hour drive from Toronto.
The field is not yet MLB ready, according to league officials. It requires lighting upgrades, and other changes that will not be completed in time for the Blue Jays’ scheduled home opener against the Washington Nationals on Wednesday, July 29. Those games will be played in Washington, team officials said, where the Blue Jays play as visitors on Monday and Tuesday. It might really not matter at all.
During this strange MLB season, the fact that no fans will be attending games already poses a question mark regarding home field advantage. In baseball, specifically, there is evidence that umpires call more out-of-zone pitches strikes when the home team pitches and, likewise, call more in-zone pitches balls when away teams pitch—a bias that could be attributed to the pressure caused by cheers and boos of the crowd.
We analyzed five randomly chosen MLB seasons over the past two decades, however, and found no correlation between average home field attendance and home field advantage, defining the latter as the difference between a team’s winning percentage at home and its winning percentage on the road.
There is also no evidence to support the notion that teams known for drawing large crowds, like the Los Angeles Dodgers, will be hit harder by the absence of fans this season than teams that struggle with attendance, such as the Miami Marlins. As the above graph indicates, the former’s home field advantage wasn’t actually greater to begin with.
In fact, games being played in front of empty stadiums doesn’t mean that home field advantage will disappear, or even be diminished at all. In the 2020 Korea Baseball Organization League season, which has been played thus far without fans, the home team has won 56% of games (178 of 318) as of July 23, compared to a similar 55.1% last year.
Home teams have won 54% of MLB games in each of the past five decades. This advantage has remained remarkably steady, and familiarity with the ballparks and their associated environmental conditions is a large factor in producing it. For example, the Colorado Rockies experience the MLB’s largest home field advantage, most likely due to Denver’s high altitude.
The Blue Jays will not have the privilege of playing in familiar surroundings this season, but a lack of fans is unlikely to affect the outcome.