Royals Use Sports Science to Stay On Time

  • FILE - In this Sept. 20, 2017, file photo, Kansas City Royals' Whit Merrifield hits a solo home run against the Toronto Blue Jays during the sixth inning of a baseball game, in Toronto. Merrifield fought every spring to make the Royals roster, usually to no avail. Once he broke through, he made sure he would never give his spot away. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP, File) Nathan Denette

  • The Kansas City Royals' Whit Merrifield during a spring training workout on February 19, 2018, in Surprise, Ariz. (John Sleezer/Kansas City Star/TNS) TNS/Kansas City Star — John Sleezer

The Kansas City Star
Published: 2/25/2018 12:16:16 AM
Modified: 2/25/2018 12:16:17 AM

Surprise, Ariz. — On most days this spring, Whit Merrifield sets his alarm clock for around 6 a.m. One hour later, he’s already on site at Royals camp, preferring a workout in the morning and a protein-laden breakfast inside the clubhouse kitchen before the day officially starts. His routine is simple.

Merrifield, the Royals’ second baseman, is what you might call a morning person. But even if he wasn’t, he spends his offseason on the East Coast in North Carolina. Out here in Arizona, he wakes up early naturally, he says. He usually gets 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night.

It’s a decent diet of rest. One we all could envy. Yet as the Royals continue their spring, Merrifield’s bosses wouldn’t mind if he slept a little more. The same goes for the rest of the roster, from left fielder Alex Gordon to the non-roster invitees destined for Class Triple-A Omaha.

In an effort to optimize training and increase productivity, the Royals pushed the start of workouts back an hour, from 10 to 11 a.m. They hope the change will allow their players to sleep later and more comfortably. They are just the latest club to bet on the power of sleep and the science that suggests its import.

“We’re trying some different things,” Royals general manager Dayton Moore said.

In some ways, the premise is simple, maybe even obvious. Sleep is good. Glorious, even. Most every adult on the planet would like to roll into work an hour later. We all want more rest.

The Royals’ change, however, has been spurred by an increasing understanding of how additional sleep can affect athletic performance. The decision offers a peek into the inner workings of a baseball front office, where every club searches for competitive advantages and market inefficiency.

One of those areas is sports science, the application of scientific literature to practice and training methods. The Royals sought to explore the discipline last season, hiring Austin Driggers, a minor-league strength coach with a background in sports science, to be the club’s first ever sports science coordinator.

Driggers searches for the latest innovation or research to incorporate in Kansas City. It was he who pored over the studies of sleep and performance and presented the data to catching coach Pedro Grifol this offseason. Grifol relayed the value to Royals manager Ned Yost.

“Everything we’ve learned about sleep and athletic performance has really been learned in the last 10 to 12 years,” Driggers said. “It’s a very new area of research.”

The benefits are basic, yet substantial. In athletes, additional sleep is connected to memory consolidation, Driggers said, the ability to both remember concepts and techniques taught during a workout and the physical muscle memory needed to master something like a baseball swing. Driggers compares the process to downloading information onto a computer hard drive. To be sleep deprived is the equivalent of turning off your computer without saving a document.

“This is a very skill-intensive time of the year,” Driggers said. “We know sleep supports skill development.”

This may sound obvious, Driggers says, and some of it is. Yet it’s supported by scientific research, including work by the Australian Institute of Sport. The sport of baseball is catching up to the NFL, where teams such as the Philadelphia Eagles kick-started the trend under former coach Chip Kelly.

Most teams understand, of course, that sleep is important. But there is also this fact: Studies have also shown — as any parent of a teenager might know — that athletes will get more rest if workouts start later. It’s much easier to sleep in than meet a strict bedtime.

“The body needs sleep to store that information about what you were working on physically,” Driggers said.

The Royals’ focus on sleep is part of a larger mission to incorporate sound sports science into the organization’s player development methods. This spring, the club also has a nutritionist, Erika Sharp, on site, adjusting meal schedules and diet.

“We’re eating squash for breakfast,” said Yost, who is, by admission, more in tune with bacon and eggs.

Like most clubs, the Royals remain naturally hesitant to reveal too much about their methods for incorporating analytics or data into their organizational philosophy. An altered schedule is easy to spot. Other areas of focus are more hidden. When asked about his club’s sports science wing, Moore responded: “We’re trying to figure out how to put a man on Mars quicker than everyone else.”

In Driggers, the club has a former baseball and football player at Wheaton (Ill.) College with a degree in applied science and a background in strength and conditioning. During spring training and the season, Moore said, they meet two to three times per month to discuss ideas and how to implement them.

“We’re going to continue to develop that department and work closely with analytics,” Moore said. “It’s all fascinating.”

For now, the Royals are still tinkering with their schedule. It could change when the club began its Cactus League slate this weekend. Yet Yost has tried to convince his players to arrive a little later. In most years, catcher Salvador Perez arrives to the ballpark at close to 6 a.m., diving into his routine of workouts and early catching drills. Others were not far behind, toting coffee from Starbucks and other sustenance.

“I’d like it if they showed up to the park closer to 8 a.m.,” Yost said.

For now, many players have split the difference. Merrifield still arrives around 7 a.m. or so, depending on the day. He can’t stay away. Others, though, are appreciative of the extra hour. After all, who doesn’t like to hit the snooze button a few times?

“I’m all for it, dude,” left-hander Danny Duffy said. “I’m not what you call a morning person, anyway. Ninety percent of our games are night games during the season, so who wants to get up early?”

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