The one constant across all sports is the travel. Every week, it’s a new city, no matter what kind of ball you play with for a living.
And, as all of us know, life on the road can get taxing. Something about getting in and out of that suitcase, upsetting your routines, and sleeping on someone else’s bed is already bad enough — then you’ve got the time zone jet lag to deal with. Then there are issues concerning altitude and humidity, as the new place doesn’t feel like your regular place. Travel for fun is amazing for many of these reasons. We all need to get out of our heads sometimes and see new things. Travel for work is kind of terrible for all of these reasons.
It shows. Much of the home-field advantage research has admitted that travel is a big source of the advantage. Of course, as Nate Silver pointed out for baseball in 2008, there are all sorts of things that factor in to a home field advantage, from the home facilities (dome or no?) to the weather. But travel was on his list as well.
Academic research found that crowd, familiarity, travel and rule factors were the primary drivers of homefield advantage (Courneya and Carron, 1992, cited here). Travel seems to count double there. That same piece referenced multiple studies that found that HFA increased with travel distance, and was particularly bad with east-west travel.
Bill Barnwell wrote about travel in the NFL recently on Grantland. He had the same difficulty as Silver in finding a statistical relationship between miles traveled and winning percentage directly, but he did find this interesting nugget:
|Travel Distance, One-Way||Winning Percentage, Road Teams|
There’s enough blood in this water to call it: long-distance travel can affect your play on the field negatively.
And baseball might have some of the biggest travel issues, even if they have one of the smaller home-field advantages. Just consider that they play more games than any other sport first of all. And then look at his travel chart from Dave Allen at FanGraphs, which shows that the Seattle Mariners almost traveled twice as far as the Milwaukee Brewers in 2011.
Now there’s an added wrinkle — realignment. Houston will be joining the… American League West next year. Houston, Texas doesn’t seem very far West, but hey, the Rangers already did it.
It looks like the difference will be noticeable. ThunderStreetWorkshop, in a fan post to Royals Review, showed how different each division will be with respect to travel next year and tried to solve the problem differently. Take a look at this graphic, which is pretty stark: It kinda sucks to be in the AL West.
Houston was already traveling more often than the average baseball team before the switch. Since they are further south, they will probably end up traveling more than Texas, which only seven teams could say in 2011. Next year, you’ll have the west coast teams, Tampa Bay, and Houston as the teams with the heaviest travel schedules in baseball.
How can we use this knowledge in fantasy baseball? Obviously, you can’t just drop all your Seattle pitchers (although they are pitching to a 4.81 FIP on the road and a 3.53 FIP at home this year, so maybe you should be sitting all of them save Felix Hernandez on the road). You can’t expect absolutely nothing from a star that has traveled far to get to a game — he’s still a star. You still need to draft players from Oakland, which travels further than anyone save Seattle. This can’t be a black mark against all Dodgers — well, maybe it can be for all non-Matt-Kemp and non-Andre-Ethier hitters, but you get the point.
On the other hand, many of us do play daily fantasy baseball, and in those leagues, matchup is king. Madison Bumgarner pitched badly yesterday for the Giants in Washington, and that whole team has looked tired in a matchup that has pulled them far away from home. Could just have been a bad week, or it could have been the jet lag. Colorado arrives in town next (from St. Louis), but it’s not like you were going to start any of their pitchers right now. Instead you might pick up some Nationals players for some of those games — could be that righty Mike Morse will enjoy hitting off a fatigued lefty Drew Pomeranz on Friday. Maybe you’re considering playing Jake Arrieta against the Angels tonight — he’s probably cheap, his fastball has been better, and on the right day he’s been good this year — but he just flew down from Seattle with his teammates and might be jetlagged. On the other hand, he stayed within his time zone, so maybe it’s not such a big deal.
It’s tough to put a finger on exactly how much travel means to a player’s performance on any single day. And the Astros are already in serious trouble in the National League, so adding a bad travel schedule on to their 2013 fortunes is probably just piling on at this point.
But it does seem clear that travel means something — when you’re picking a daily matchup, it’s probably a good idea to check where that player was the day before. If they just came east or traveled a great distance, you might want to rethink your pick.