Today is the day. It’s been a few years, but I don’t think anyone has forgotten how exciting this day is. The Red Sox are going to take the field in Cleveland tonight for some playoff baseball. A lot of people say postseason hockey is the pinnacle of athletic competition. A lot of people are wrong. There is nothing more intense than a late-inning at-bat between star hitter and star pitcher with everything on the line. We’re going to be watching through the lens of a fan, which is simultaneously thrilling and terrifying.
It goes without saying that every team in the postseason wants to get off to a good start in every series. This is particularly true in a five-game series. Obviously, it’s more important to win the first game the shorter a series gets. If you win Game One of a five-game series, you are 33 percent of the way to the next round.
Just how important is it, though? Is it so important that we should start preparing our own personal meltdowns if the Sox lose the series opener? Let’s look at some recent history to see what we can figure out.
In order to do this, I looked back at the last 10 years of Division Series results. That gives us 40 series to choose from, an ample sample size to determine a trend that becomes fairly obvious sooner rather than later. Of the 40 series, 31 teams who have won the first game of the series went on to win the series, giving them a .775 winning percentage. Furthermore, in six of the 10 years I looked at, all four teams who won the first game ended up going on to the LCS.
That’s not the only factor at play here, though. The Red Sox are on the road, and there are two ways to look at this. The first is that this inherently makes them the worse team since they couldn’t secure home field advantage. Given how close this particular race was, that doesn’t really work in this case. The other way to look at this is that, if the Red Sox win the opener, they have an even bigger advantage.
You hear it in every playoff series in every sport: If the road team wins Game One, they suddenly take over home field advantage. However, that second line of thinking hasn’t really played out. In this 10-year sample, 18 road teams have taken the first game of a Division Series. Those teams have gone on to win the series 13 times, giving them a .722 winning percentage. That’s clearly a high winning percentage, but it’s slightly worse than the overall record.
Once again, there is another layer to this I found interesting. Teams have recently shown a greater ability to come back after losing the first game. From 2006 through 2010, teams were 19-1, with the 2006 Yankees being the only team to win the first game and still lose the series. Things have changed pretty drastically since then, with Game One winners going just 12-8. Last season, three of the four Game One winners actually went on to lose the series. One would think the growing parity through the game has something to do with it. Even 10 years ago, the top of the league was utterly dominant, so they were much more likely to take command of a series early on.
All this is arguably good news for the Red Sox. However you feel about the Rick Porcello vs. David Price debate for Game One, Boston will have a strong pitcher on the mound. Cleveland, meanwhile, lost Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco to injury and were forced to push Corey Kluber back to Game Two. This leaves Trevor Bauer to take on Porcello. Bauer has shown flashes of success both this year and throughout his career, but he’s never been able to put it together consistently. Of course, baseball teams lose with the pitching advantage all the time, so the Red Sox are probably only something like 55 percent favorites.
So, I think it’s pretty clear that winning Game One is hugely important. Again, this isn’t all that surprising in a five-game series, and I would expect the numbers to be different in a seven-game set. If the Red Sox are fortunate enough to play in one of those, perhaps I’ll do this again. My advice would be to set your meltdown-o-meter to a six if the Red Sox lose Game One. History shows that’s a tough place to be, particularly if you lose to a home team.
However, recent history has been much more kind to Game One losers. Plus, if there’s one word you can use to describe this Red Sox team, it’s resilient.