How the pitch timer can help player health
Brandon Guyer was no lock to reach and stick in the big leagues. As a fifth-round Draft pick out of the University of Virginia in 2007, he knew his only chance of ascending in the sport would be to train that much harder, eat that much healthier and play that much smarter than those with whom he was vying for playing time.
So when Guyer was in Major League camp with the Rays during Spring Training 2011 and a sleep expert spoke to the club about the importance of a good night’s rest, the message resonated.
“I remember leaving the meeting thinking, ‘It’s time to outsleep the competition,’” Guyer said. “Ever since then, I approach sleep like it’s a sport.”
Guyer began cutting out electronics before bedtime, setting the thermostat at ideal sleep temperatures (61 to 68 degrees) and turning on a white noise machine. On the road, he would travel with dark tape he could use to cover any sources of light (be it the red standby light on the TV or the soft glow of the thermometer), and he’d stuff pillows at the bottom crack of the door to prevent any light or sound from coming through.
The man was -- and, even as a retired player and father of young kids, still is -- obsessed with getting as close to 10 hours of sleep as his schedule will allow.
He believes that obsession is what allowed him to maximize his potential as a reliable outfielder who spent seven years in the bigs.
“I like to call [sleep] a magic pill,” said Guyer, who now espouses the value of sleep to young players as part of the Major League Mindset training program he created. “Some players might be playing at a high level but not realize there’s another level they can get to. Sleep is the top natural performance-enhancer there is.”
Most current ballplayers aren’t as zealous about their zzz's as Guyer.
But all of them have an opportunity in the coming season to improve their sleep patterns and, perhaps, their health and performance.
As MLB adopts the pitch timer in 2023, the obvious -- and immediate -- benefit is that the pace of play will improve as the dead time between pitches is drastically reduced. In the Minor Leagues last season, the pitch timer cut down average game times by about 25 minutes. A similar reduction in MLB, where average game times have reliably been three hours or more for the past decade, would be considered a crisper and more enticing viewing product for fans.
Think, though, about the longer-term impact the removal of that dead time can have on the players themselves. A single game wrapping up 20 or 25 minutes earlier than they are accustomed to does not make much of a difference. But the cumulative effect of shorter games over the course of 162 games could be substantial.
Consider that, in the first 12 seasons of Mike Trout’s great career, the average time of an MLB game has been 3:05. So on a given day, Trout could be expected to spend 92 1/2 minutes on his feet in center field.
Juxtapose that against Mickey Mantle, to whom Trout is often compared on a statistical level. The Mick played in an era in which, in his first 12 seasons, the average nine-inning game took 2:28. That’s around 16 fewer minutes in the field each day.
“That stuff,” said Trout, whose playing time the past two years has been compromised by elbow, calf, hand, groin, back and foot issues, “adds up over the course of the year.”
A reduction in game times would add up, too.
When MiLB adopted the pitch timer across all levels last year, some expressed concern that speeding up pitchers would result in an increase in injuries. On the contrary, pitcher injury events decreased 11% from 2021 to 2022, and some players espoused the benefits of the better pace.
“Just from a recovery standpoint, getting back in at a reasonable hour and getting a good night’s sleep is a game-changer,” Dodgers pitching prospect Nick Nastrini said last year. “It could be the difference between being able to play for five years and being able to play for 12. Because there’s the accumulation of getting back at 11:30 [p.m.] and 12:30 [a.m.] and getting into bed by 1 [a.m.] and having to do it all again the next day for 132 games in our season or 162 games in a big league season, it takes a big toll on your body.”
Sleep is baseball’s secret X-factor. Being the only professional sport in which teams play a game with no timed ending virtually every day of the season has its charms but also its challenges.
“Baseball is still somewhat unique in the sports landscape for its steady, methodical march through the year,” said Dr. Scott Kutscher, a clinical associate professor at Stanford with a focus on sleep medicine. “It’s the constant stress of a game with no clock and how to fit sleep into that puzzle of not knowing how the game is going to end.”
The 2022 Phillies, to grab an example at random, had a stretch of 14 games in 13 days in June.
On the front end, in a five-day span, they had two night games and then a four-hour day game in Milwaukee, followed by overnight travel to Philadelphia (losing an hour in the sky with the time change) for a three-hour, 24-minute night game, followed by a day game.
On the back end, there was a home series against the Nationals that included four games in the span of 50 hours.
Try getting 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep somewhere in there.
“That is one of the challenges the baseball schedule creates for players,” Guardians president Chris Antonetti said. “A lot of sleep advice revolves around having a consistent bedtime and a consistent wake time. None of that is really possible in professional sports. So we have to find other ways to adapt to that, given some of the constraints of the schedule.”
The result is the evolutionary demise of the literal “everyday” player.
In each of the last two seasons, only two players punched in for all 162 games (Whit Merrifield and Marcus Semien in 2021, and Matt Olson and Dansby Swanson in '22). Last season, only 88 players appeared in 140 or more games -- the fewest in a full season since 1972, when there were six fewer teams. Cal Ripken Jr.’s record games played streak is as secure as Fort Knox.
This elimination of the “Iron Man” is due in part to the steady rise of the injury rate (a trend exacerbated by the pandemic) and in part to teams deliberately building in more rest days for their players.
The result for fans is less opportunity to see the best athletes on the field.
A pitch timer obviously can’t fix all that. But it could improve our odds of seeing the best players perform at their best.
That is, if they heed the advice of Guyer and other bedtime backers.
“You’ll only get 30 minutes more sleep,” said Kutscher, “if you actually get 30 minutes more sleep.”
Kutscher cited a study of medical interns whose maximum consecutive work hours was cut from 24 hours to 16 hours. The study found no difference in their sleep patterns. They had an extra eight hours at their disposal but didn’t change their bedtime habits.
“You only get a change if you promote it,” said Kutscher. “If a team is bringing in sleep doctors and explaining why it’s important that you’re not using that extra time playing video games … why it’s important for your health and longevity.”
In 2013, Kutscher, then an assistant professor of sleep and neurology at Vanderbilt, found that slumber impacts the lumber. He used a database of every pitch in every Major League game from the previous season to determine that strike-zone judgment deteriorated over the course of the year, suggesting fatigue from the travel and disrupted sleep patterns. Another study published that same year by Dr. W. Christopher Winter of Martha Jefferson Hospital Sleep Medicine Center in Charlottesville, Va., had tracked self-reported scores of sleepiness on 80 players in a three-season span and found a strong correlation between the sleepiness of an MLB player and his longevity in the league. Furthermore, a 2014 study published in the Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics found that high school athletes who slept less than eight hours per night were 1.7 times more likely to suffer an injury than those who were more rested.
“I can go give a talk about sleep, and whether I’m at my 50th percentile performance or 90th percentile performance, no one’s going to be parsing the timing of my delivery or how good my jokes are,” Kutscher said. “But that’s not true on a baseball field. Everything counts there. At the elite level, tiny differences in performance have a big impact on outcomes.”
Perhaps, then, tiny -- or not so tiny -- differences in game times can have a big impact on performance.
So don’t sleep on that benefit of the pitch timer.
“In baseball, your sleep schedule is not going to be the same every night,” Guyer said. “But if you can make it as consistent as possible, that’s a huge lever to pull for recovery and energy levels.”