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This article is from the In-Depth Report The Science of Baseball

Out of the Zone: Jet-Lagged Baseball Teams Suffer Disadvantage

New research shows that long commutes affect a team's chances of winning
baseball batter



© ISTOCKPHOTO/ROB FRIEDMAN

Betting on your favorite Major League Baseball team? You might want to reconsider if it has to cross three time zones to play. A new study shows that MLB teams that travel such distances to play a game could have up to a 60 percent chance of losing.

The reason: players' body clocks are out of whack, giving their opponents an advantage, according to W. Christopher Winter, a neurologist at the Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Va., and co-author of the study presented today at the annual conference of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies in Baltimore, Md.

Winter calls this a "circadian advantage," referring to the 24-hour cycles of activity and sleep that mammals go through daily. He and his colleagues based their conclusions on an analysis of the results of 24,121 MLB games played during baseball seasons from 1997 to 2006.

Though it may seem like just a "small advantage," Winter says it could mean the one- or two-game difference between making or not making the playoffs at the end of the regular season.

For the study researchers considered teams to be acclimated to the time zone they are playing in on the first day of the season. (Winters notes that visiting teams typically arrive a day or two ahead of when they play their opening game.) As teams travel from their starting point, the study was predicated on previous research showing that it takes the average person one day for every time zone crossed to become reacclimated.

So, let's say the New York Mets have to travel cross-country—and, so, through three time zones—for a four-game series against the Giants in San Francisco. According to the new research, the Mets would have a three-hour disadvantage, or 60 percent chance of losing the first game; their odds of winning would rise from 40 to 48 percent by the second day, and the Giant's advantage—at least the one based on circadian clocks—would dwindle to 51 percent by the third day. If there was a fourth game in the series, the teams would be equal in terms of their body clocks.

"[The study's] conclusions, at first glance, seem to correlate with what I've learned about the effect of sleep deprivation on cognitive and motor-skill abilities," says Steve Hirdt, executive vice president of the Elias Sports Bureau, which specializes in historical sports statistics.

According to Winter, his research shows that cheering fans and familiar dugouts may not be the only factors that give teams a leg up when playing at home. The analysis shows that more often than not, the home team has the circadian advantage when there is one.

His advice: Major League Baseball should eliminate at least the most extreme case of circadian advantage—when one team has a three-hour benefit. Luckily, he says such games are infrequent—one team typically has a three-hour advantage over another in 16 total games throughout a season of more than 2,400 games. He notes that by giving the traveling team a rest day to acclimate to the new time zone a three-hour advantage can be cut to two.

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