The New Moneyball? It's Major League Sleep

Some baseball teams are consulting sleep experts to help keep their players in top shape.

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The game ended, shortly after a Rick Ankiel 11th inning home run, at about 10:30 p.m. Pacific time. The San Francisco Giants, having blown a 4-0 lead, worn and weary, would have to board a plane and play two back-to-back games three time zones away against the Atlanta Braves in the 2010 National League Division Series, needing to win at least one of them to bring the series back to the Bay.

A conference call earlier that week between manager Bruce Bochy, general manager Brian Sabean, members of the team's training staff, and a sleep specialist, Dr. William (Chris) Winter, may have given the team an extra advantage over the Braves, who had only made two trips to the west coast all season.

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"We asked, 'What do we need to do to adjust and play in Atlanta?,'" says Ben Potenziano, the Giants' strength and conditioning coach at the time. "Chris told us to leave immediately after that game—get out of there that night, no matter how tired we were so they can get acclimated to the east coast."

"The adjustments Chris was suggesting, I think those things did have some effect on that team," he adds.

The Giants, with Winter's advice, won the next two in Atlanta and eventually won the franchise's first World Series championship since moving to California from New York in 1958.

Winter might be on to something—more major league teams are looking into the effects of sleep on their players, and a newly-published study by Winter suggests that is time well spent.

Winter found that of the 40 players he randomly surveyed in 2009, 15 of them were out of baseball by the end of the 2011 season, in line with typical baseball attrition rates. But more than three quarters of those who said they were excessively sleepy during the daytime were out of baseball by that time.

In a game that says it's cleaned up steroid and performance enhancing supplement abuse, sleep may be key to making sure teams get the most out of their players, Winter says. During deep sleep, the body naturally creates human growth hormone—which, when artificially taken, is banned by Major League Baseball—which is key to muscle and tissue recovery.

"If they're not getting quality, deep sleep, they won't be able to recover from the grind of a season," Winter says. "It might be a new Moneyball situation. Steroids are now off the table, and teams are desperate for an advantage. Teams are now looking more at exercise, diet, and health. Most teams now have dieticians, but the sleep thing is relatively new."

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Winter says he's made a pitch to many teams to consider tracking their player's sleeping habits—not all have bitten. "Some we go out to and they're very interested, others are very old school and say they don't want to hear it," he says.

Potenziano, who has since taken a promotion with the Pittsburgh Pirates, is one of the few trainers who buys into the idea that a good night's sleep can have a positive impact on a player's performance. He says he tracks what each player's sleep-style is—are they a night owl or an early bird? Do early birds play better during day games after night games? With the Giants, he noticed a pattern—the team was losing the first couple games of many of its road trips east.

"I keep saying we need to be pushing this—to do more to bring [sleep] to the forefront. We're not telling managers to not play certain players in day games, but they can at least look at the information and stats," he says.

Last year, Winter, with Potenziano's help, found that players who were "morning types" played better during day games and "evening types" played better during night games.

It's tough to say whether Potenziano and Winter's strategies have made a difference in the Pirates' performance. So far this year, they are 11-9 in day games and are off to a surprising start after 19 consecutive losing seasons. Last year, the Giants went just 26-28 in 54 day games. In night games, they went 60-48.