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June 27, 2003
I hate travelling. Detest it. I spent a fair amount of time in Germany growing up, and I've seen a lot of the U.S. over the years, but by and large, I'm not a fan of it.
I remember when I was with KPMG Peat Marwick (now KPMG or BearingPoint or Accenture or SynergyMastersArroganciaMarginFiend$500anHourWithAStraightFace), and had an engagement in Montana. To get back to Sacramento, we flew Delta out of Kalispell "International" Airport, to which my good friend Erik Brent retorted: "Let the bastards fly to Canada once, and it goes straight to their f%$^in' heads." Overall, I find baggage checking, overpriced everything, small rooms, OnCommand Hotel Television, and the ritual of learning which channel in the hotel is ESPN to be really tedious. Given the choice between sitting next to a mule hoping the condom doesn't break and flood their system with black tar heroin for six hours while viewing the family-friendly version of Kids, and spending that time either in the woodshop, or hanging out with my wife and dogs, I tend to stay at home.
It always amazes me that ballplayers can adapt to a brutal travel schedule as well as they do. Sure, the way ballplayers travel bears little resemblance to the way most business and casual travelers do. Considering the huge investments clubs have in the performance of their players, it makes sense to surround them with people whose job it is to mitigate the hassle and soul-draining aspects of repeated travel. Just like it makes sense to have an equipment manager to deal with the equipment rather than risk some player suffer some freak injury that could significantly hurt the team, it makes sense to routinize travel as much as possible, even if it means an increase in staffing levels for the club.
But does it work? Having wandered aimlessly through an airport in a city I couldn't quite identify, praying for the appearance of a coffee vendor of some sort so I can at least appear coherent for an 8 a.m. meeting at JFK, I wondered what the effects of travel were on ballplayers. No matter how much effort goes into making travel easy, it's hard to imagine that heading out on the road wouldn't negatively affect one's performance on the field.
So let's take a look.
We know that teams just don't perform as well on the road as they do at home. Home-field advantage is universally accepted, and the scale of the effects are well known. Just as an example--of the 30 teams in MLB right now, 23 have a better record at home than on the road. But what about on that first day out on the road trip?
Using data from the year 2000, let's examine offensive players' performance on the first day of a road trip compared to their performance in all other road games:
Group BA OBP SLG RA/G 1st Day of Road Trip .265 .334 .430 5.11 All Other Road Games .267 .335 .428 5.16
Yeah, that's earth-shattering.
As you can see, the difference is, well, non-existent, or at least not actionable. I'm quite surprised by the data here; for years, I've believed there would be a significant effect here, and based on comments from players, broadcasters, and staff, I wasn't alone. Why might there not be an effect?
Aside from the mode of travel mentioned above, it's possible that any potential effect is mitigated by the home team's travel as well. In a significant percentage of series, the home team's returning from their road trip, so both teams would be subject to aftereffects from travel. Off days may be another mitigating factor.
It's possible that there is a significant travel day effect if I could break the data down further; maybe it's only really in play if you travel east for two time zones are more. Maybe it's more pronounced on the last days of a road trip rather than the first. The data we have aren't really conducive to that kind of breakdown. But overall, it doesn't appear that there's a significant travel day effect, at least for teams heading out on the road.