Talk of Circadian rhythms, to paraphrase REM’s “Daysleeper”

Circadian rhythms are biological cycles that last approximately 24 hours, they are more commonly known as the body clock and as trans-Atlantic cross-pollination of sports leagues becomes increasingly de rigueur they become increasingly relevant.

Recently there have been 2 rumours attracting public scrutiny, the first and almost certainly the biggest news is that the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees are considering playing a “series” on the Eastern side of the pond which would seem a huge undertaking and the archetypal logistical nightmare (but if they think it’ll make money then it may very well happen).  Playing a series of games is pretty run of the mill stuff to MLB teams even though you would imagine most other sports (outside of basketball and ice hockey) would shudder at the prospect of travelling to and staying in a foreign city for at least 3 days (more if they are playing more than twice).

OK, now concentrate, here comes the science bit (well loosely speaking, as close as I get to science anyway); according to the National Centre for Biotechnology Information “Prolonged transmeridian air travel can impart a physical and emotional burden on athletes”.  They go on to state that “Jet lag may negatively affect the performance of athletes”.  Circadian rhythms are controlled in the body by the hypothalamus (the suprachiasmatic nucleus to be precise, nope, me neither) located more or less in the centre of the brain.  Circadian rhythms affect many biological factors including core body temperature but they are vitally important to the sleep-wake cycle, the brain uses exposure to light and the resulting secretion of the hormone melatonin to determine whether the body should be asleep or awake.  So really any long haul flight will cause disruption to an athlete’s sleep pattern and, as a result, their performance.  North American athlete’s in particular are habituated to long haul flights (the Seahawks have to fly for 6 hours every time they play in Florida, so don’t expect them to be in London anytime soon) but they rarely have to fly for over 6 hours and they never have to attend fan rally’s the day before the game as they do in London.  It’s widely accepted that travelling East produces more lasting effects than Westward travel as there is excessive exposure light and more melatonin production, so any trans-Atlantic journey will be arduous and the 10 plus hour flight from Los Angeles the Rams face would be more like torture.  The NCIB states that the optimum way to deal with jet lag is to adapt behaviour rather with rely on pharmaceutical products.  It is believed that it takes approximately 1 day to adjust to crossing 1 time zone (so the Rams would need 9 days in early October, they really didn’t think the whole LA move through, did they?) So if the Red Sox and the Yankees did attempt to play more than 1 game on this side of the pond it could be quite a long road trip for both teams.

The second and more pertinent whispering involves the NFL reconsidering the early kick off times (1:30 pm BST or 2:30pm GMT) that recent International Series games have had to a more traditional (and the original International Series) kick off time of 6pm BST or 5pm GMT (1pm Eastern Time).

This was surprisingly met with a fairly negative response from fans on social media, largely due to the fact a lot of them travel to deepest, darkest North London to watch the games (not as far as the LA Rams travel to play mind you).  Fans concerns may well be one of the factors that the organisers take into consideration when they finalise kick off times but it has to be said that the effects of playing well and truly out of not just their time-zone but also their comfort zone (the Bengals played in front of 84,448 fans at Wembley 13,000 more than their average home attendance and despite twice taking the lead, and, at one stage opening a 10 point lead they finished by tying a game that they could have easily lost).  Both the Bengals and Redskins suffered from a slow start as they amassed 17 points between them in the first half and a far more impressive 37 points in a breathless second half.  Like the Bengals the Colts struggled early on at Wembley (where they were playing in front of around 18,000 more people than their average home attendance) against an unconvincing Jaguars team who were 0-3, Andrew Luck and his Offence didn’t register a touchdown until the 4th Quarter but once they scored 1 they added another 2 in about 11 minutes.  The Rams who played against the New York Giants at (historic) Twickenham Stadium (which has a capacity almost 12,000 smaller than the Coliseum) managed the impressive feat of starting like a house on fire (very impressive considering it was 5:30 am where they had come from) until the Giants scored a touchdown and then the Rams managed to produce 3 scoreless quarters, while the Giants Offence didn’t register their first touchdown until the 4th Quarter to finally put the game to bed.

So, disruption of circadian rhythms, jetlag, call it what you will certainly appear to be a factor in how NFL players perform and since the NFL use the International Series to showcase the game to not just the UK but all of Europe (and to a certain extent the rest of the world) their primary concern is providing a spectacle that is not just convenient to attend but also entertaining to watch.

Purely from a personal perspective I think that Wembley under floodlights is a pretty spectacular venue, the pre-game shows inside a dark stadium are mesmeric.  This year the atmosphere when the Bengals and Redskins finished playing was absolutely electric (it’s pretty difficult to get “rowdy” at 1pm, the bars will have been open longer if they don’t kick off until 5pm or 6pm) so if the NFL feel that changing kick off times will benefit the players and provide entertaining games from the off it can only be a positive.

AL East 2016

I’ve always thought it’s totally impossible to even attempt to predict what will happen over the course of a season that lasts about 7 months and includes 162 games (before the playoffs even start) but since I recently realised that I’ve been a Blue Jays fan for 25 years I thought I could try to make some sense of what could happen in their division.

There’s 2 causes for concern for Blue Jays followers this season, the biggest being that David Price (who won 9 regular season games and lost just 1 last season) signed for the Red Sox during the offseason (so they could potentially have to face him 4 times this season), the second is that GM Alex Anthopoulos upped sticks and moved to LA to become the Dodgers Vice-President of baseball operations.  His decision may well have been motivated by money, the Dodgers were valued at $2.4 billion in 2015 (the Blue Jays are valued at a comparatively small $900 million), or maybe he’s discovered a new found passion for surfing at the ripe old age of 38, but the more likely explanation is that he foresaw a tricky period ahead for the Blue Jays after he moved heaven and earth to sign Price and Ben Revere last season and both left as free agents in the offseason.  Acquiring those 2 players meant losing 5 pitching prospects, he also traded 2 young pitchers to the Rockies as part of the deal to bring Troy Tulowitzki to the Rogers Centre all of which now means that the pitching rotation will be lead by a 24 year old with just 24 career starts to his name and will include a 41 year old knuckleballer with a 100-93 career record, a 23 year old who has made just 11 career starts and a 33 year old who has allowed 985 hits in 196 games.  They also lost Liam Hendriks who put in some stellar performances from the bullpen last season and LaTroy Hawkins who was the stabilising influence at the of end of the regular season has retired so relief pitching could prove to be a stumbling block.

Everyone will preface the Blue Jays with phrase “loaded batting line up” but even with megastars like Donaldson, Encarnacion and Bautista hitting and defence from Tulowitzki alongside the underrated Pillar and Goins repeating last season’s success within the division could be just out of reach.  Personally I think the loss of Ben Revere will be tricky to cover and with his slated replacement Michael Saunders coming off a season where a lingering knee injury reduced him to just 9 starts it’s possible that leftfield may become a bit of a carousel. 23 year Dalton Pompey was expected to compete with Saunders for the role but he’s been shipped to Buffalo, former Phillies outfielder All-Star Dominic Brown signed a minor league contract in February but he also struggled for fitness last year and played just 63 games.  Winning the division isn’t totally out of the question for the Blue Jays but they’ll need more than a slice of good fortune, I think a mid-table finish is more likely with the transition going on within the pitching staff and 3rd place would signify a reasonable season.

 

The Yankees outperformed pretty much everyone’s expectations last season off the back of a resurgent Alex Rodriguez and the power of Mark Teixeira and Brian McCann who hit 90 homeruns between them.  The infield for the Yankees doesn’t look anywhere near as dynamic as the Blue Jays does even with their offseason signing of short stop/ 2nd baseman Starlin Castro.  Ironically Castro has consistently struggled achieve a level of consistency during his 6 year career but he’s always flashed brilliance and if he can manage to settle in New York and perform near his best on a regular basis he could form a good pairing with Dutch short stop Didi Gregorius who finished his first season as a Yankee looking more assured than he began it.  The potentially lacklustre Yankees infield is more than compensated by the stability their pitching rotation provides, lead by Mashahiro Tanaka who even though he may have lost some of his initial pop due to a troublesome elbow injury is still a class act.  He struggled with a partial tear to his ulna collateral ligament in his right elbow back in 2014 and last October he had a bone spur removed from the same elbow, despite these issues he still managed to win 25 of his 44 starts in the last 2 years.  Even though he’s the Yankees Ace only 1 of their rotation has fewer wins than him in MLB, 23 year old Luis Severino who has 5 but he’s only started 11 games in his young career.  With CC Sabathia expected to return following his stay at an alcohol rehab centre in October (he checked himself in a week before their Wildcard game) the Yankees figure to have a veteran presence with 214 career wins to bolster a talented rotation with an average age of just 25.  Signing Reds closer Aroldis Chapman whilst he was embroiled in an alleged domestic violence controversy might have seemed like a strange decision at the time but he threw at over 100 mph and struck out 3 of the 5 batters he faced in a recent spring training game so he’ll definitely benefit the team on the field once his 30 game suspension ends in May.  Even without Chapman the Yankees have 2 pitchers who recorded 46 saves between them last season, the imposing 6 feet 7 inch Andrew Miller and the absolutely monstrous 6 feet 8 inch and 265 lb Dellin Betances. With such a strong pitching rotation I expect the Yankees to make a return to the playoffs this season and if their veterans like Jacoby Ellsbury, Carlos Beltran and of course A- Rod can produce the goods they should win the division.

 

The Orioles, Rays and Red Sox all finished within 3 games of each other last season with the Red Sox 78-84 record being the division’s worst (although it would have seen them finish 3rd in the NL East) and this season they all fit into the same category, the “could win the division but then again could finish bottom” category and that’s why this division is so interesting and exciting.

 

The Red Sox certainly have a lot of talent at their disposal, probably more than any other team and if their players match their potential then they will not only be difficult to stop within the division they could easily be back in the World Series for the first time since they won it 2013.  They suffered from a real lack of power last season with their best 3 hitters (David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez and Mookie Betts) mustering just 74 homeruns between them (27 fewer than the Blue Jays top 3), the plus side for the Red Sox is that they have a particularly young team with 4 of their 8 starting hitters all being 25 or under.  Last season they experimented with Hanley Ramirez playing left field where he ended the season with the lowest defensive ranking at that position in the league, so this year they have resolved to move him to a different position (1st base where he’s never played before and therefore another gamble).  If it pays off and Ramirez can improve on the 18 homeruns he scored in an injury effect last season and veterans Pablo Sandoval and Dustin Pedroia can remain healthy the Red Sox see an increase in the number of homeruns they score.  The arrival of David Price as an Ace pitcher and Craig Kimbrel as a tried and tested closer have definitely improved the Red Sox but with 2 pitchers in the starting rotation who have career ERA’s above 4 and a relief pitcher with an ERA above 5 they will give opponents opportunities to score runs.  It would be a surprise if a 29 year old Sandoval struggled as much this season as he did last and if Hanley Ramirez can resettle in Beantown (10 years after they traded him to the Marlins) as their youngsters begin to feel increasingly comfortable in the big league I can see the Red Sox finishing second in the division and even making a Wild Card spot.

 

The Orioles were tipped to win the division last season and they excelled at hitting homeruns, only the Blue Jays scored more than their 217 with 1st baseman Chris Davis hitting a league leading 47.  They did however seem to lack a certain amount of speed and aggression in running the bases, they only stole 44 bases last season, half the number the Blue Jays managed and 18 fewer than their opponents stole.  The Orioles have an interesting mix of youth and experience in their batting line-up with 23 year old homerun machine Manny Machado and 24 year old Jonathan Schoop who is tipped to have a breakout year added to the veterans like Matt Wieters and Adam Jones.  The signings of the powerful Pedro Alvarez and the 28 year old Korean Hyun Soo Kim (after his 9 year career playing in his home country) make them a team who could do big things this season but the arrival of Alvarez will likely see Mark Trumbo who is used to playing 1st base or as a DH move to right field which could weaken their defence.  The pitching rotation for the Orioles has not been particularly economical recently and last year they had a collective ERA of 4.05, they lost last season’s Ace Wei-Yin Chen to the Marlins and for the final and for the final 4 months of last season Miguel Gonzalez had an ERA of 6.06!  Just like the Blue Jays losing Price the Orioles will struggle unless they can get some help for that pitching rotation (and they do have plenty of prospects who could blossom or be involved in a trade) I think they’ll be locked in a battle for 4th place in the division with the Rays but they have got the power hitters to keep them off the bottom of the table.

 

The Rays pitching was the best in the division last season with the lowest ERA at just 3.74 and the most shut outs, 12. They were also 3rd in the league (and lead the division) when it came to opponents batting average with opposition hitters recording an average of .240.  They weren’t quite as good when it came to defence and the 95 errors they committed left them 21st in the league with only the transitioning Red Sox team below them in the AL East.  Their fielding percentage was .984, just .004 below the highest in the league but still the worst in the AL East and 21st overall in the league.  They were however 2nd in the AL East with 4,360 putouts, only the Yankees recorded more with 4,373.  Their Ace pitcher Chris Archer was recently voted 8th best right handed pitcher in the league and centre fielder Kevin Kiermayer was voted the 9th best in his position so they are not without serious talent.  They had the opposite problem to the Orioles last season, while they stole 87 bases they were only able to hit 167 homeruns with nobody in their line-up able to hit more than 21, to compound this problem Asdrubal Cabrera who hit 15 of them whilst knocking in 58 runs last season has joined the Mets.  With such a good pitching rotation the Rays shouldn’t have to score many runs to win games but if they’re going to try to squeeze their opponents and succeed in low scoring affairs they’ll need to tighten up their fielding.  In James Loney, Corey Dickerson and Evan Longoria they do have players who hit a long ball but whether they have the depth to challenge the big guns in the division remains questionable.  I think the lack of power will be the Rays undoing again this season and they might not be able to finish as high as they did last season.

The most exciting thing about the AL East is that all the teams have some very special players who can drag their teammates along with them and with a very long season ahead anything really could happen.  Whoever progresses to the playoffs will have some unbelievably impressive teams to compete with, they’ll likely have to meet the Royals in the ALCS but the Rangers and the Astros and possibly even the Tigers could well have something to say about that.  And that’s just in the American League!