WASHINGTON — With 162 home and road games each year, professional baseball is the ultimate game of jet-setting and team logistics. But if you turn on the TV and your team seems flat, there could be a scientific reason why.
The experts at Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences did a study on 20 years of baseball data, or 46,535 games, and determined that travel across time zones has a measurable effect on statistical performance.
The effect, commonly known as jet lag, has long been cited by weary travelers for impairing mental performance after travel. But this study confirms that travel, particularly heading in the eastern direction, makes a big difference.
Hitters traveling two or more time zones to the East Coast produced fewer stolen bases, doubles and triples in the next game. They were also more likely to hit into double plays and be picked off.
Pitchers traveling two or more time zones to the east were also more susceptible to give up home runs in the game following travel. This is more incentive for teams to start sending starters and key bullpen players on flights ahead of the rest of the team.
For East Coast teams, that effect can be felt in a different, but still serious way. If the Washington Nationals are coming off a series at the Colorado Rockies (Mountain Time Zone), and return home to face the New York Mets coming off a series at the Philadelphia Phillies–as they will on Friday, April 21–the effects of their cross-country travel could effectively erase any home field advantage.
It’s not just time on the plane, which is considerably nicer for baseball players than for commercial travelers. According to one of the authors, Dr. Ravi Allada, the study proves that humans are still ruled by their internal circadian clocks.
“We know, based on studies in animals and humans, that when you misalign your internal biological clock with your external environment, there can be a lot of consequences in terms of health,” Allada said. “And the circadian clock is present in muscle cells, too, so it makes sense that one might see an impairment in muscle activity or muscle efficiency, as a result of this misalignment.”
This has application not only for baseball, but also NFL teams who travel to the opposite coast early on road trips, or stay on that coast if they have multiple road games in a row. This also adds an extra complication in expanding the NFL to Europe or Asia.
For now, Allada and his team recommend sending players like starting players on road trips early to allow their clocks to adjust. Most people are able to adjust one hour per day, so a trip to Colorado would be two days in advance, while a trip to Los Angeles would be three.
Can’t manage? Allada recommends the “fake it until you make it” approach of adjusting behavior and sleep to compensate. There isn’t nearly as much scientific research to back this strategy, but that could be the next frontier of sports strategy that intersects with scientific study.