In sports, coaches are always looking for every advantage that can make the difference between winning and losing both games and tournaments. It’s a matter of understanding probability and strategies and applying them in ways that other coaches don’t.
I firmly believe that choosing home or visitor is an overlooked decision that can make that incremental difference. The vast majority of coaches, though, make this choice without thinking it through.Home or Visitor: Are youth tournament baseball coaches making the wrong choice? Click To Tweet
The Automatic Assumption
I’ve stood in that coaches meeting hundreds of times. And of the countless times I “lost” the flip, I can’t say there’s a single coach who chose to be the visiting team. Coaches are essentially flipping to see who is the home team.
While you can certainly make the argument that being the home team for a single game is either advantageous or offers no disadvantage, most coaches ignore the benefits of being the visitor in tournament ball.
The Home Advantage
“Home Field Advantage” is a term we’ve heard so many times, we assume there is some sort of inherent value in being the home team. But we forget about why that advantage exists.
There is an advantage to being the home team in sports — particularly college and professional sports — when teams travel to opposing facilities. It’s the home crowd that can provide the emotional lift for the home team or frustration for the opponent.
But when it comes to a baseball game being played on a neutral field, is there an advantage? We’re just changing the order of which team bats first or last. Each team will get the same number of opportunities either way — assuming they need them.
Does hitting first or last actually matter?
You could make the argument that having the home field would be an emotional advantage for a team with a dominant pitcher and a weaker offense. This allows that dominant pitcher to start the game and give his team an emotional lift while frustrating the opposition prior to that team coming to the plate.
However, you could just as easily make the argument that a strong offensive team should bat first to get that emotional lift. But since so few coaches choose to be visitor, that would not seem to be a driving force to this decision.
The argument is also made that having the final turn at bat in the game is an advantage. The idea here is that there is more pressure on the team in the field with so much on the line. I don’t know that this has ever been proven using controlled scenarios, but I have to imagine that the advantage is minimal — if anything at all.
The main thing I want you to understand here is that any value in these arguments is intangible.
Anyone who has been associated with tournament baseball knows just how valuable pitching is. There is a cap on the number of innings pitchers can throw to protect their arms — typically anywhere from six to eight innings in the tournament. As a result, you must be very careful about how you use these innings.
Tournaments tend to require that the champions play anywhere from four to eight games. And in order to do that — and win the final game — the coach needs to be strategic by winning games while saving as much good pitching as possible for the end.
Let’s look at extreme examples. You could use your best pitcher from the first day of pool play and move to your next best pitcher from there. This would give you the best chance of advancing to tournament play, but it would also give you the worst chance of winning a tournament game — and especially the championship game — since you won’t have any pitching left.
On the flip side, you could choose to save your three or four best pitchers, using your next four pitchers for pool play only. In that case, you’d be giving yourself the best chance to succeed in tournament play, but the worst chance of actually making it that far.
There’s a balance here. You need to use just as much pitching as you need to use in order to advance past pool play. And you need to use just enough pitching in each tournament game to win while having enough for the championship game.
Every time your best option isn’t on the mound it’s a bit of a risk. It’s a gamble that you believe you’ll be able to win without that best option.
The perfect scenario would be to save your ace for the championship game. That’s not always possible — actually, it rarely is. There are bound to be one or two close games along the way where you feel you must use your ace to advance.
The underlying point here is that each inning of pitching matters — a lot. And any coach for a tournament baseball team values these innings as they are often the difference between wins and losses.
The Visitor Advantage: In the Event of a Loss
Whenever there is a coin flip in pool play, it almost always makes the most sense to be the visitor. There is a tangible reason behind it.
Let’s take a game between Team A and Team B as our example. Team A wins the game 2-1. To simplify this, Team A scores both of their runs in the first inning while Team B scores their one run in the first as well.
So in this case, Team B will bat six times in a six inning game, regardless of whether they are the home or visiting team. Team A, on the other hand, will only bat the sixth time in the case where they are the visitor. Because as the team with the lead, they wouldn’t bat in the sixth inning as the home team.
In pool play, the coach is focused primarily on two things: 1) Making it to tournament play with a high seed, and 2) Saving pitching. Wins are important, but the main thing is that you do as well as possible while using as little pitching as possible.
In other words, losing is acceptable during pool play — to a point. You don’t need to go 4-0 to make it to tournament play; going 3-1 would get you there, too. Sometimes going 2-1-1 or 2-2 would get you there as well.
If you are the home team, you will always use a pitcher for each inning of the game — win or lose. As the visitor, you will use a pitcher in all but one inning if you lose.
I know, I know. “We always expect to win.” I’ve heard that argument against this approach. It’s shallow and misses the point.
By being the visitor in pool play, you aren’t saying you expect to lose. But if you do lose, you don’t need to waste a valuable inning of pitching. And that inning could prove to be needed the next day.
The Visitor Advantage: Bracket Seeding
How your team performs will determine where you will be seeded in bracket play — or whether you make it there at all. And the difference in your seed will often come down to tiebreakers.
Wins and winning percentage are always the first tie-breaker. That’s easy. But don’t ignore what’s next.
Tie-breakers vary from tournament to tournament, but they often include one or more of the following:
- Runs Scored
- Runs Allowed
- Run Differential
If you are always the home team, think about how you are hurting yourself in each scenario…
1. Runs Scored: If you go undefeated in a 4-game pool play, you may have willingly passed on four innings worth of scoring opportunities.
2. Runs Allowed: If you are always the home team and you lose one or two games in pool play, you may have willingly pitched two innings you didn’t need to pitch, potentially increasing your runs allowed.
3. Run Differential: You hurt yourself both ways here. You’re giving up run-scoring opportunities in the final inning of games you win, and you’re putting your defense in the field in the final inning of games you lose. Those who reflexively choose home team will be hurting themselves in almost every tournament that uses run differential for tie-breaking purposes in bracket seeding.
This is so big, it amazes me I even need to write this blog post. If any of these three things are your tie-breakers for bracket play, you should be the visitor. Any argument against it lacks substance.
The Visitor Advantage: Managing Pitching
Unless it’s the championship game, being the visitor also simplifies managing pitching.
When you’re visitor, you will bat twice when the opposition bats once; bat three times when the opposition bats twice; bat four times when the opposition bats three times, etc. This means something. Let me explain…
Let’s say that you’re in the top of the third inning of a tight game, a 3-3 score. Your team is the home team. In that case, it’s smart to keep your best pitcher in the game for at least another inning to keep your team in it.
Now let’s assume that you’re the visitor in this tight game. Before deciding to put your ace back on the mound for the third, your team comes to the plate and breaks out for 10 runs. Suddenly, it no longer seems as urgent to use that ace pitcher for the third. You just saved him for a later game.
By choosing to be visitor, you give yourself more time to evaluate what’s happening in the game to determine whether you need to continue to use a pitcher or move to someone else. By being the home team, you can only make this decision based on the current score, not knowing what your offense is going to do in the bottom of the inning.
Next time you’re in that coaches meeting prior to a tournament game and you win the toss, pick visitors. Observe the surprise on the opposing coach’s face. And smile all the way to the dugout!
The truth is that when 99% of coaches choose to be the home team, you are going to win 99% of these flips. Because even if you “lose,” you’ll get what you want.
And what you want goes well beyond the results of that single game. You’re thinking ahead to bracket play.
What are your thoughts on being the visitor instead of home team?
Let me know in the comments below!