Baseball’s Jet Lag Drag

Major League Baseball teams that travel through three time zones or more are at a significant disadvantage against their time-adjusted opponents, according to a new study by neurologist W. Christopher Winter of the Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center. The performance impairment diminishes with each day a given team has to acclimate to the new time zone.

But the circadian advantage, as Winter calls it, could grow larger. Amphetamines, which players have used to fight jet lag, were banned by the MLB in 2005.

This does nothing to explain the home-ice disadvantage that Dubner blogged about recently. But maybe it can help explain Omar Minaya‘s midnight firing of Mets manager Willie Randolph.

Phil Birnbaum

Cool! Is the actual study available anywhere online?


A theory for the jet-lag difference between baseball and hockey:

Baseball is a series of intermittent fast-twitch activities. You've got long periods of rest followed by precise split second reactions.

You bat once in a while. When you bat, a very slight amount of concentration lost makes a large difference. The difference between a hit, an out, a foul, or whatever is very marginal. You stand at the plate, trying to focus, but that ball comes fast and tricky. And it's not only a physical twitch reaction that is required. It's a quick mental decision as well. Take the pitch or swing. Pull it, keep it on the ground, aim for the bleachers, aim for the infield gaps or for the outfield gaps, all depending on recognition of the particular pitch and what you can do with it.

When fielding, you're waiting for the ball to come to you, if it does. Most plays would have the same result with any players, but the occasional difficult play has that marginal amount of focus required to make it successful. And though most plays are physical twitch reactions, some also require quick decisions on where to throw, or whether you need to barehand it to have a chance. Perhaps jet-lagged teams tend error more.

However, hockey is constant action. You get on the ice for your shift and you're focused for that time period. There's little chance of losing focus.

But most important, required reactions in hockey are almost completely physical, rather than requiring precise decision-making. A quick pass that you need to control perhaps isn't so much a matter of quick reaction or decision as it is of proper stick-handling technique to accept the pass. Just get the stick on it.

Even decisions in the game are done without much thought. There's often not a particularly right or wrong decision. Shoot the puck or pass, it's not an instant crucial decision. It's often just a matter of habit, or of what you see in your peripheral vision, or of what you sense around you. You can even have decisions made well before you get the puck. It may even be decided already simply by your role within the tactics of the team.

Just think of the difference in pressure of receiving a pitch at the plate, or fielding a ball and getting rid of it, versus receiving the puck in hockey, or having to make a decision on the puck. There's just more options and more room for error in hockey.

Plus to score in a baseball game usually requires players on a team to have a series of good decisions chained together at the plate (ya got 3 outs to chain something together), increasing the chance of a mistake ruining the inning. On the other hand, scoring in a hockey game can be a matter of one good chance succeeding, without too much dependency on getting a series of successes.



I've often wondered if the distance between teams within a division has any effect. Since a huge chunk of games are within a teams division, is there an advantage for teams with rivals close at hand; the trip from Boston to New York (AL East) has to be easier than Seattle to Texas (AL West)?


I like the intriguing concept of 'circadian advantage'- what I think is less well established is the adage that the better rested team has an advantage- that is, if a team is hot/won the night before, might they not have an advantage over a better rested opponent?- my flimsy sportsbetting bankroll hangs in the balance...

Carol Anne

I reserve my pity for the WNBA players who travel on commercial (not charter) planes and who make a maximum of $95,000 per season.

MLB millionaires don't rate any sympathy from me.


I wonder if this discovery has already been arbitraged in vegas?


a degenerate non-gambler

re #1: JS, you better believe it. I live in Reno and the sports books and gamblers consider all sorts of variables. Of course, the gamblers' biggest oversight is that whenever they happen to lose it's because of some "external" variable not going their way.

But now they might be able to get a discount at another Nevada attraction: