The Seattle Mariners have now played a game against the Oakland Athletics in the Tokyo Dome to officially kick off the regular season. Or maybe they're still playing right now - I'm writing this post in advance and it's possible that the M's and A's could go to extra innings. Because if there's one thing you want from a game that starts so damned early in the morning, it's extra innings.
While maybe you could quibble with the selection of teams, holding the opening series in Japan is a great gesture by Major League Baseball, and it serves to underscore the globalization of the game. Tom Verducci tackles it well. He writes:
The downside of a disrupted routine is a small price to pay for the many benefits of showcasing MLB on a true international stage in front of loyal fans. When you think of MLB as a multi-national corporation with $7 billion in revenues, the idea of bringing your product to a top customer for two days makes all the sense in the world.
About that disrupted routine, though. I've seen it posited that their extended trips to Japan could have negative consequences for the Mariners and A's going forward. It would have to do with jet lag and getting caught up and re-adjusting and everything. Is it possible that the teams are in for some turbulence in the weeks ahead after they return to the States? Even more turbulence than you'd expect the Mariners and A's to face, I mean?
To investigate this, we have to look to the past. Major League Baseball has opened in Japan on three occasions before:
2004: Tampa Bay Devil vs.
2008: vs. Oakland Athletics
Now for the simple matter of seeing how these teams recovered. We'll begin in 2000. The Mets and Cubs split their two games, and then resumed play four days later. At the 20-game mark, the Mets were 13-7 while the Cubs were 7-13. I know that the 20-game mark is arbitrary, but choosing any mark would be arbitrary. The Mets ultimately finished with 94 wins and a World Series berth, while the Cubs ultimately finished with 65 wins and Mark Prior. That was nice, for a while.
In 2004, the Devil Rays and Yankees split their two games, and then resumed play six days later. At the 20-game mark, the Devil Rays were 7-13 while the Yankees were 9-11. The Devil Rays ultimately finished with 70 wins - oddly going from 10-28 to 40-39 to 70-91 - while the Yankees ultimately finished with 101 wins and a legendary collapse in the ALCS.
In 2008, the Red Sox and A's split their two games, and then resumed play six days later. At the 20-game mark, the Red Sox were 13-7 while the A's were 12-8. The Red Sox ultimately finished with 95 wins and a loss in the ALCS, while the A's ultimately finished with 75 wins early in their hey-everybody-look-at-how-mediocre-we-are phase that lives on to this day.
If you're looking for conclusions, we can draw none of them. That's the problem with a sample size of six teams - it's a sample size of six teams. Plus we're trying to measure something that's essentially impossible to measure. In 2004, maybe the Yankees had a tough time recovering swiftly, or maybe that was a coincidence. If anything in 2008, the A's returned with more energy before coming apart. That team was 51-44 at the All-Star break.
If you just sit down and think about this for a little bit, there's not a lot of good reason to worry that the A's and Mariners will find themselves feeling the lingering effects of long-distance travel. Baseball teams travel all the time, for one thing, and while this trip is obviously exceptional, after Thursday the teams don't resume regular-season play until April 6. When they play each other, such that any effects might even balance out. Both teams will get in some Arizona exhibitions in between and it should all pretty quickly start to feel normal. I won't deny that jet lag is a real thing, but it goes away.
After the Japan trip, the Mariners and the A's should be fine. I mean, they'll be flawed, really flawed, relative to their other division rivals, but they shouldn't suffer significant lingering effects from the travel. And even if they do, we probably wouldn't be able to isolate travel as the cause for under-performance. If anything, the Mariners and A's should take heart that the three previous opening series in Japan featured a team that went to the playoffs. The three previous opening series in Japan also featured a team that was bad. Based on math, one of the Mariners and A's will go to the playoffs, and one of them will be bad. Those are better odds than they thought!