Pirates finding their (circadian) rhythm

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Sunday, May 8, 2011

When it comes to sleeping, Pirates right-hander Ross Ohlendorf is a night owl. That can be great when he pitches in a late game on the West Coast but not so much when he starts an afternoon game at PNC Park.

“I tend to not want to go to bed early, and I don’t want to get up (early),” Ohlendorf said. “If I sleep 7 1/2 hours, I usually feel pretty good. Nine, I usually feel better.” The turnaround from a night game to a day game is quick, robbing players of sleep. Travel also disrupts players’ sleeping habits. A two- or three-city road trip usually involves switching at least one time zone, which throws off a person’s internal clock. Making matters worse, teams tend to fly overnight and arrive in the next city in the wee hours.

“Going coast to coast, it definitely messes with your sleep patterns,” Ohlendorf said. To help manage their sleep routines, the Pirates this year hired Bill Sirois, senior vice president of Circadian, a firm specializing in 24/7 workforce performance and safety solutions.

The Massachusetts-based company advises construction workers who toil on the graveyard shift as well as globe-trotting CEOs. Sirois’ firm consults the Cleveland Indians and three NFL teams that he declined to identify. “We’re hard-wired to be daytime creatures,” Sirois said. “But now we work, play and do so much else at night, and that can be difficult. It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature.”

Even a small change to a sleep pattern can be disruptive, Sirois said. He cited a study that showed auto accidents increase by 8 percent the day when Daylight Savings Time begins.

“Just an hour’s shift or loss of sleep can have an impact,” Sirois said. “Translate to finely tuned athletes, and you can understand why a guy will hit three home runs one night then strike out four times the next.”

That could explain why Ohlendorf’s career stats in day games are slightly worse than those in night games.

Last year, the Pirates as a team hit better in night games (.245 batting average, .683 OPS) than day games (.234, .663).

Perhaps Sirois is having an effect. The Pirates just took four of six games on a swing through Denver and San Diego. They are 5-2 in day games on the road. Just five weeks into the season, the Pirates already have won more road series (five) than they did all of last season (four). They are 11-8 on the road after winning just 17 of 81 road games last season.

Pirates head conditioning coordinator Frank Velasquez figures that in order to become winners again, the team must first become the Slumber Company. “Not everyone has to lift weights, but everyone has to sleep,” Velasquez said. “So why not improve our quality of sleep, especially considering how much we travel?” Last season, the Pirates went 2-11 in the Western time zone, 3-3 in the Mountain zone and 8-28 in the Central zone. Velasquez puzzled over that awful road record all winter.

“We’ve researched different areas of recovery,” Velasquez said. “We do cold tanks, we do hydration and nutrition, and we stretch these guys out to keep them feeling good for as long as we can. One area we’d really never covered was sleep.” Sirois addressed the players and coaches in January at the Pirates’ minicamp in Bradenton, Fla. He continues to work closely with Velasquez, charting the players’ travel routines and their sleep patterns at home and on the road. Researchers have identified several different sleep personalities based on factors such as when a person falls asleep and wakes up without prompting and the number of hours slept. The extremes are what Sirois calls “morning larks” (early risers) and “night owls” (those who sleep in past 9 a.m.). Most people are “robins,” meaning they usually awaken around 7:30 a.m. Sirois wants players to remain on their natural sleep patterns as much as possible when traveling. On the Pirates’ recently completed Western swing, Velasquez charted game start and end times and time spent in transit. He also tried to track how each player behaved: Did he go to bed right away or stay up until what would’ve been 6 a.m. on the East Coast? “When we go from home to the West Coast, usually the second and third days are the toughest,” second baseman Neil Walker said. “Your body starts to adjust, but you’re fighting it. By the sixth inning of that second game, it’s 8:30 p.m. but you’re working on 11:30 p.m. in your brain.”

Sirois told the players to adjust to Pacific Time by going to sleep at a “normal” time (around 1 a.m. after a game that ends around 11 p.m.) and not setting the alarm clock.

There’s a bigger challenge when the Pirates return from California because the time zone change costs them three hours. The effects of jet lag can be more severe the first few days in Pittsburgh than they were in San Diego, Sirois said.

“Traveling west to east, you’re going against the grain of your biology,” he said. “The strategy is to get to bed an hour early if you can and wake up early, get some sunlight in the morning, then try to squeeze in a 20-minute nap in the mid afternoon.”

It’s too early to say whether Sirois’ program will produce tangible, long-term results. But the early returns are favorable.

“We tried to reconstruct their road routines, which can make a difference,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “You can fall into ruts and routines that are completely different than they are at home. We’re trying to keep them fresh, keep them simulated and really just play good baseball.”


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