SCIENCE

How Spring Training Screws Up Player Sleep Cycles

Even science says spring training makes no sense

SCIENCE
Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Mar 31, 2017 at 4:08 PM ET

When it comes to sleep, former Cy Young-winner Roy Halladay is spoken of like a mystical guru atop a secluded, icy mountain. Teammates and coaches alike speak of his circadian rhythm in reverential tones. Halladay, it was said, would arrive at the complex before 5 a.m. and be deep into his routine before anyone had even arrived at the stadium.

Halladay’s was but the most extreme version of a league-wide state of affairs: Alarm clocks buzz before the rooster crows during the seven-week spring slog. It’s the one time of year when veteran players with toddlers have an advantage over the younger players setting multiple alarm clocks with staggered snoozes to pry themselves out of bed.

In an informal survey of players a few years ago, most said they would rise by 5 or 6 a.m. to report to the team complex by 7. By the time the day’s game was over, they were free to leave, creating a structured morning-to-afternoon schedule of punching in and out.

“It’s almost like you have a real job,” longtime catcher Gerald Laird said then.

Nearly every major league club follows a similar agenda for a month and a half: individual workouts around 7 a.m., team practice at 9:30, and an exhibition game at 1 p.m., with the day wrapped up by 4. Then, overnight, it’s the regular season.

“On the normal schedule,” retired outfielder Michael Cuddyer once told me, “it’s totally flip-flopped.”

While Opening Day typically has a similar afternoon first-pitch, nearly every game hence is played in the evening. That consists of ballpark arrivals by 1 or 2 p.m. before a game at 7 that ends around 10. It’s a six-hour stagger that disrupts a player’s sleep cycle.

“Spring training makes absolutely no sense, nor does an NBA training camp where it’s even worse,” sleep specialist Dr. Chris Winter said, referring to the early morning start times. “All of a sudden, you want them to flip a switch and be athletically great at 7 p.m. It’s bizarre to me. It’s like training for a marathon at 3 o’clock in the morning that’s going to be run at 3 o’clock in the afternoon or vice versa.”

Winter is the owner of Charlottesville Neurology and Sleep Medicine, author of the forthcoming book “The Sleep Solution, Why Your Sleep Is Broken and How To Fix It,” and a consultant for dozens of pro sports teams, a list that has included eight major league clubs at various times; in 2006, Major League Baseball retained him for a research project investigating the impact of scheduling and time-zone travel on performance.

His baseball studies have shown the effect time-zone travel can have on team winning percentage; that high levels of fatigue lead to attrition from the majors; and that a starting pitcher’s chronotype—i.e. whether he’s naturally a morning- or evening-oriented person—seems to affect performance in afternoon or night games. On the last count, for instance, Winter believes managers should consider changing the order of pitchers in doubleheaders based on that evidence.

Dr. Scott Kutscher, a clinical assistant professor at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, said it’s fairly common to see such mistimed training, with industries not always scheduling activity for “optimal performance,” citing transportation, medicine, and education (such as teenagers forced to take early-morning classes in high school) as examples.

“Baseball is not unusual in that way,” Kutscher said. “It is, however, a fairly easily solvable problem in baseball because they make their own schedule.”

This is far from a major problem needing a big fix and more of a small matter with an obvious remedy. Scheduling is, of course, a complicated endeavor with any number of tugs and pulls beyond sleep habits—primetime television, travel, stadium availability, day-of-the-week, and more—but clubs do have more leeway in arranging their spring training home-game schedule (done in some communication with league office and opponents) than their regular season docket. The vast majority of spring games take place at or around 1 p.m., but a couple veteran players endorsed the idea of more evening games in the final week of spring to facilitate the adjustment. (It’s not just for sleep, either, but for acclimating to evening games under artificial light.)

Kutscher, who has consulted for major league and other pro sports teams, said the rule of thumb for transitioning from spring training start times to regular season first pitches will mimic guidelines for travel: one day to offset one hour in time-zone change. The same principle holds true if you’re trying to shift your sleep window in your sleep cycle, so moving from 1 p.m. game times to 7 p.m. would take, on average, about six days to adjust. The Yankees and Rays have both pushed back the start time of spring training workouts in recent years, at the advice of sleep scientists.

The current body of sleep literature has well established that fatigue and sleep deprivation instigate “difficulties with attention and reaction time,” Kutscher said, so he studied hitters’ plate discipline and discovered that there were an increasing number of swings at pitches outside the strike zone as the season progressed—due to fatigue, he surmised.

While a player’s biorhythm calibration between spring training and regular season schedules generally can be resolved in about a week, clubs with poor travel schedules or with an inordinate number of day games are especially susceptible to lapses due to fatigue. Major League Baseball has shown some cognizance of this issue, and the sport’s new collective-bargaining agreement increases the number of rest during the season and includes more protections against onerous travel. Several experts, including Cincinnati Reds medical director Tim Kremchek and pitching research guru Glenn Fleisig, have pinned fatigue as the top culprit for injuries.

Winter speculates that one endemic issue plaguing the Cubs for most of their recent century of World Series futility may have been their tradition of playing so many day games at Wrigley Field. Players who performed well elsewhere but didn’t have success on Chicago’s North Side may have been suffering from an issue with a default morning/evening disposition discrepancy—a tendency that’s “very ingrained,” Winter said. One recent former Cub, pitcher Adam Warren, said optional sleep tracking devices were offered to players, but he declined, citing privacy issues. (Chicago general manager Jed Hoyer did not respond to a request for comment.)

“There’s no doubt in my mind that elite athletics in this country—because of television and games being on in primetime—we’re probably selecting out awesome athletes that are very morning-oriented,” Winter said. “I’ve seen it happen before. These are the guys that just eat you up in practice in the morning and are awesome in the morning but just don’t show up for games, and nobody can figure it out.

“These kinds of things are real effects,” he added. “I just don’t think people pay much attention to them.”

Winter has consulted for the San Francisco Giants, among other clubs, and at his recommendation, the team is less likely to take overnight flights. He estimates proper attention to rest can add, maybe, three or four wins to a baseball team’s record over a 162-game season and figures the same is probably true with nutrition and any number of other disciplines.

“If you do enough of these little things, then great things will happen,” Winter said.

A story about the Pirates on the website Van Winkle’s discusses Winter’s work with assistant trainer Ben Potenziano to help Pittsburgh’s roster—everything from using brighter clubhouses light bulbs to trigger alertness at work to placing problem sleepers on the western side of a hotel (because of its darker mornings) to installing sleep chambers for naps.

Kutscher said there is a lot of variability among individuals in sleep response and tolerance. Bringing sound sleep science principles to baseball is not just about setting a good framework for team travel but understanding each player’s susceptibility. And each player will have a different experience with transitioning to a later start time.

“There’s always a couple day game, and also it’s easy to sleep in,” Braves reliever Eric O’Flaherty said a few years ago. “That’s not a big challenge to sleep longer. It’s always way harder adjusting to spring training than getting out of it.”

It is, however, a more complicated endeavor for veteran players with children.

“Our bodies are amazing and our ability to adapt, so it takes maybe a few days to get on that program, and then within four, five days you forget that you were waking up at 6 a.m.,” former A’s and Rays outfielder Sam Fuld has said. “If anything, as a parent, the hardest thing is getting your kids on that schedule.”

Sleep science, after all, is “still relatively new” when compared to other biological sciences, Kutscher said, so expect more advances in the field. Sleep is, of course, not the only variable but it’s clearly not one to, uh, you know, sleep on.