A new theory on the poor road performance
There have been a lot of theories thrown around as to why the Pittsburgh Pirates have been so horrible on the road this year, yet at the same time a success at home.
People have said that the struggles are due to this being a young team that can’t handle the distractions of the road. I don’t really buy this theory. First of all, playing on the road is something that players do through college, the minors, and in the majors. The Pirates were struggling on the road earlier in the season. Veterans like Paul Maholm and Adam LaRoche were struggling on the road.
The struggling on the road isn’t the issue. The Pirates have been bad on the road for a long time. Dating back to the 1998 season they’ve averaged 31 wins per season, and only have one year with more than 34 wins on the road in a season (the 2003 season, when they had 36). Losing on the road is just a trait of a bad team. That’s why, from 1998 to now, the Pirates are the second worst road team in the majors, joined at the bottom by the Rays, Nationals, Royals, Rockies, Tigers, and Orioles as the teams with the worst road records. The problem here is that a bad team doesn’t traditionally have this much success at home.
A team is usually going to be better at home, thus the term “home field advantage”. The Pirates have never been this good at home. They are currently on pace for a 44-37 record at home this year. The last time they had a better home record was in the 1999 season, when the Pirates finished at 78-83, thanks to a 45-36 home record.
To get an idea of how bad the Pirates have been on the road this year, only two teams have been worse since 1998. Those teams were the 2006 Rays, and the 2003 Tigers. However, neither of those teams had the success of the 2009 Pirates at home, although the Rays went 41-40.
This is the 12th season that the Pirates have significantly struggled on the road (well, it might be more, but I stopped at 1998 since that’s when Arizona and Tampa Bay entered the league and Milwaukee came over from the AL). You’d think that one of those years they’d manage to have a decent year, like something around 38-39 wins on the road, especially in years like the 2009 and 1999 seasons, when they proved to be capable of winning games at home.
Maybe it is all about losing on the road after all. Maybe it’s something the Pirates can’t control, like the schedule and division alignment, for example.
The Pirates are clearly out of place in the Central division. Every other team in the Central, with exception of the Cincinnati Reds, are in the Central Time Zone. That means the Pirates play 31 games on the road in the Central time zone, with only 27 of their 81 road games coming in their own time zone.
Anyone who travels knows that this can play a major impact on a person’s biological clock. Instead of playing their games at 7:00 EST, the Pirates are playing most of their road games at 8:00 EST. That means that when an Eastern Time game would be finished, a Central Time game is in the final three innings. Just think for a second, how many times have we seen the Pirates let a game slip away in the final innings on the road this year?
I ran through every Pirates game this season, tracking their performance based on how many days they spend in a time zone. Before doing the research I had the theory that the Pirates would be much worse the first few days in a new time zone than they would in the following days. The research proved this to be true.
The Pirates have changed time zones 12 times this season. So far they are 0-12 in games on the first day in the new time zone. They are 8-14 in games on the second day in the new time zone. That’s a combined 8-26 record, or a .235 winning percentage. In games after the first two days in a new time zone (that’s GAFT DINTZ for short), they are 45-51, which is a .469 winning percentage. These figures include both home and road games.
This is amplified this year because the NL Central is playing the AL Central in Interleague play. That’s more travel to the Central Time zone for the Pirates, as they played the Minnesota Twins and the Chicago White Sox on the road. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Pirates went 4-2 against the Central Time Zone Royals and Tigers at home, while going 2-4 against the White Sox and Twins in the Central Time Zone.
So how would it change if the Pirates were in the NL East, where every team is in their time zone? There were 15 instances this season where the Pirates entered a new time zone, thanks to their placement in the NL Central. Had they been in the NL East, they would have continued playing in the same time zone, as they would have been traveling to a place like New York or Washington, rather than to Milwaukee or Chicago. The Pirates were 0-9 in these situations when playing a game on the first day in that new time zone. They were 4-10 in games on the following day, which includes a 2-4 record when getting a day off between time zones. Overall that’s a .174 winning percentage.
If we assume the Pirates are in the NL East, those games end up as just a continuation of their time in the East Coast. Using the .469 GAFT DINTZ winning percentage (you didn’t think I would use it, did you?), that’s seven additional wins for the Pirates on the road. Seven wins isn’t a lot, as it takes this team from 18-50 to 25-43, and on pace for a 30 win season on the road. However, with their projected 44 wins at home, that’s a 74 win season, which is a significant increase over the 67-68 win totals of the past several seasons.
There’s also another factor to consider. The Pirates are one of six teams in baseball who play in a different time zone than the rest of their division (it might be seven, but I don’t know how to factor in Arizona’s time zone situation). The other teams are Cleveland and Detroit in the AL Central, Texas in the AL West, Cincinnati in the NL Central, and Colorado in the NL West. Those teams have combined for a 67-93 (.419) record this season in their first two games in a new time zone. Their GAFT DINTZ record (what’s the over/under on how long it takes that to show up on Baseball-Reference?): 267-236 (.531).
The difference between those teams and the Pirates is that the Pirates have had a tougher schedule, with more frequent moves. The Pirates have only stayed in the same time zone for 11 days on five occasions. Only four of those occasions they remained in the time zone for a 12th day. Only three of those occasions did they remain for a 13th and 14th day. They never spent more than 14 days in a time zone. The Pirates are 16-11 after spending eight days in a time zone, which makes sense because it allows plenty of time for the team to get adjusted and comfortable.
How does that compare to the other teams? Cleveland actually spent 31 days in the Eastern Time Zone from mid-April to mid-May. Detroit had two instances where they spent 21 days in the same time zone. Cincinnati spent 31 days in the Eastern Time zone between the middle of June and the middle of July. Meanwhile, Colorado hasn’t had more than 11 games in a row in the same time zone, while Texas has only one instance with more than ten games in a row in the same time zone. The winning percentages for those teams in their first two days in a new time zone:
Notice a trend? The teams with more frequent time zone changes (Colorado, Texas, Pittsburgh) struggle more on their first two days in the new time zone. The teams who get longer spans of time in a time zone have a better record in th
eir first two days in a new time zone. The theory behind this would be that frequent travel has an additional negative effect on a team. The Pirates, for example, have had six instances this season where they were in three different time zones in the span of a week. I don’t even want to think about the jet lag involved there.
Overall I don’t think anything would make this year’s Pirates a winning team. However, their home record suggests the road record should be much better than 18-50, and the frequent time zone changes could very well play an impact. Comparing them to another team in the NL Central, Milwaukee is only scheduled for 20 time zone changes this year. Pittsburgh already has 23 time zone changes, with five more remaining. That’s eight additional time zone changes the Pirates have to go through.
Maybe it’s time the Pirates get moved to the NL East, where every team is the division is in their time zone.