Prior to Tuesday’s game, the story was Pittsburgh’s team. Following Tuesday’s game, the story was Pittsburgh’s crowd. The team, too, of course, did well, but the crowd at PNC was something a lot of the players said they had never experienced. The moment we’ll all remember for years was Johnny Cueto dropping the baseball and subsequently allowing a home run while the entire crowd chanted his name, but the crowd wasn’t on for one pitch — it was on for just shy of nine innings, and it was a crowd very much unlike the sort of crowd you expect at a baseball contest.
It’s not a leap to suggest it made for an intimidating environment. Of course, it’s been suggested that the Pirates were given a massive home-field advantage. You wouldn’t even need to look further than the drop and immediate dinger. Those gathered were very loud and very partisan, and the field itself isn’t sound-proofed. What’s happening above, they hear below, and the dozens of thousands had a certain rooting interest. You want to believe that it mattered. The only problem is evidence.
That isn’t just anecdotal evidence, I mean. You want there to be evidence that crowd size can have an effect on home-field advantage. Actually, you care about crowd volume, or intensity, but size is the best proxy we’ve got. Size, and circumstances. You figure bigger crowds make more noise. You figure playoff crowds make even more noise, still. Shouldn’t that be a big part of the advantage — having all those people assembled, rooting you on while rooting against your opponent?
In baseball, there’s very little evidence that a big crowd matters, meaningfully. For a related look, home-field advantage in the regular season has been about 54%. In the playoffs, it’s been about 54%. Playoff crowds are boisterous crowds, but even given what we saw last night, the history suggests the crowd makes very little difference. Which makes one yearn for an explanation.
One — a popular one — is that players are more or less immune. The theory is that, if you can be easily rattled, you’ll be weeded out before you make the majors, or that’ll just be conditioned out of you. And if you don’t feed off a negative crowd, maybe you block them out, such that you don’t feed off a positive crowd, either. You’re aware of the crowd, as one is always aware of surroundings, but it’s independent of performance.
But what if there’s something else, instead or in addition? What if crowd favoritism doesn’t play favorites? Last night, PNC was distinctly pro-Pirates and anti-Reds, mirroring the sentiments of greater America. The crowd’s always going to cheer loudly in support of the home team. But to what extent should we care about the intent? What if noise is just noise? If a pitcher might be distracted by loud cheering when he’s trying to concentrate, couldn’t that also, in turn, affect the hitter, while he’s trying to concentrate? If an opposing pitcher might feel more pressure to shut the crowd up, might a home hitter feel more pressure to send them into a frenzy? At some point, it doesn’t matter what people are yelling — it just matters that people are yelling. I have no idea how I could test this, but it might be possible the effect just balances out, and some evidence is right there in the home-field numbers in the playoffs.
I’m not sure what I believe, and I do think most players are pretty good about focusing. They have to be. Baseball’s hard. But players are always going to be aware of a particularly vocal crowd. You’d think that would make some kind of difference. Maybe it does make differences, almost equally good and bad.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.