This article was originally published on WahooBlues.com.
No one likes to travel. Vacations are great and changes of scenery can be nice, but that doesn’t make the cramped bus trip or the bumpy plane ride any more pleasant. The destination may be worth it, but when was the last time you stood up after an hours-long voyage with your good mood still fully intact?
This sentiment is shared even by multimillionaires who make their livings playing a children game and are cheered by thousands of adoring fans every time they go to the office. In baseball, “getaway day” is dreaded, and while jet lag alone wouldn’t make the Indians fall to the White Sox (who’d’ve thought that would be a good example this year?), a team that just got in after a long flight is seen as being at a real, if relatively small, disadvantage at the start of a series.
It makes sense that the visiting team wouldn’t look its sharpest after a long flight, especially if time-zone changes are involved. But is it actually true? I compiled a list of every away game the Cleveland Indians played in 2009 and 2010—a full season’s worth of games—along with how many runs they scored and allowed; how far their destination city was from Cleveland; and how many time zones they crossed en route (I tested only away games to eliminate the sample bias of home-field advantage).
I then ran the correlations between the game-based variables (wins, runs scored, and runs allowed) and the geographic ones (miles travelled and time zones crossed). If jet lag plays a major factor in teams’ performances, we would expect the correlations to be negative.
The correlations for all six combinations were very small, but the most surprising part was that the Indians actually played better the farther they travelled. The correlation between wins and distance travelled was .029, while wins and time zones crossed had a correlation of .093.
Of course, correlation does not imply causation, and even if it did, the relationships are too weak to be significant—wins/time zones had an R2 score of .009, while wins/miles came out at just .001. The effect on offense was even smaller: both the runs scored/miles and runs scored/time zone R2 scores round to 0.000. Still, the evidence contradicts the idea that jet lag makes an impact of any significance.
There is a problem with these numbers, though: that they treat all games as the same. Players presumably wouldn’t be as jetlagged in the third or fourth game of an away series as they were in the opener. So I decided to repeat the test, but to include only the first games of road series. The results were quite different (a word of caution: the sample size for series openers is only 52 games).
The correlations between game one wins and distance and time zones travelled were stronger than the previous numbers, and they went the other way. The wins/miles correlation came out at -.113, while wins/time zones had a correlation of -.105—good for R2 scores of .013 and .011, respectively.
The Tribe’s hitting suffered an even bigger regression in these series openers, with a runs scored/miles correlation of -.164 (R2 = .027) and a runs scored/time zones correlation of -.135 (R2 = .018). All these numbers are still too small to draw any firm conclusions, but it may suggest that there is a real (albeit small) jet lag effect on teams at the beginnings of road trips.
But the most interesting aspect of all this is pitching. The correlation between runs allowed and distance and time zones for game ones is also negative, meaning the Indians’ game one pitching and defense was actually better when the team travelled farther. The numbers too are too small to be significant—runs allowed/miles has an R2 of .011, while runs allowed/time zones has an R2 of .013—but the R2 scores are virtually identical to those of the series opener correlations between distance and wins.
The idea that jetlagged teams perform worse is appealing, but it doesn’t seem to hold up against this data. What little negative impact the team as a whole suffers is roughly equal to the benefit enjoyed by pitchers after long flights—which, of course, doesn’t make any sense. We can infer, then, that the effects of travel are insignificant.
There is something of a sample bias here, with good teams like New York (402 miles from Cleveland) and Boston (547) nearby, but I think the talent is spread out enough that the difference would be negligible. Texas (1,043), Tampa (953), and Anaheim (2,037) were pretty good too, while weak Pittsburgh (112) and Baltimore (304) aren’t too far away.
A much larger sample size would be needed to determine whether the minor impact travel seems to make here is real or random chance, but the overall result is clear: while the effects of long flights may vary slightly as the series wears on and different players could be affected differently than others, the evidence here strongly contradicts the idea that jet lag is a substantial detriment to an away team.
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