February 11, 2013
How to Measure Clubhouse Chemistry
This one is dedicated to the memory of my father-in-law, himself a biochemist. I once tried explaining baseball and sabermetrics to him (he was from Russia). He thought it was nice that I had such an interesting hobby. He will be missed.
Clubhouse chemistry. The fact that everyone in the room believes in everyone else. Except Smith. The fact that this team is composed of a great bunch of guys who are there for each other and support each other. The fact that no one could ever ask for a better group of teammates. The fact that we just won the World Series.
The chemistry question is one that flummoxes data-driven investigation, mostly because there just isn't any direct evidence to test the hypothesis. Can an ill-defined and nebulous concept like "chemistry" among the people on the team have an effect on their performances on the field? Performance can be measured, but how on earth does one actually measure chemistry? It's not like MLBAM is putting out BESTFRIENDf/x any time soon. (MLBAM, if you're reading this... I'm just saying.) Outsiders don't have access to the clubhouse, either directly or indirectly. Players and media usually have an unspoken agreement that what happens in there stays there. About the only time that outsiders even see a locker room is when players are spraying each other with champagne after clinching a tie for the second Wild Card, entitling them to a play-in game to get into a play-in game. No one interviews the team that lost 100 games. Maybe everyone on that team liked each other too. And anyway, even if they did interview them, there's a standard answer that everyone knows how to mouth.
There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the claim that chemistry influences performance. One commonly cited idea is that the arrow is pointing in the wrong direction. Chemistry doesn't influence performance. Winning puts everyone in a better, friendlier mood. (More on that a little later.) Another is the selection bias of the "proof" that's often offered. Players get the chance to proclaim how joyful things are only when they've won something, which gives the illusion that winners live in happy locker rooms. And even if people can barely stand each other, there's the old rule that if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all. These are all legitimate points that the available data are very biased. We can't scientifically accept the claim that chemistry influences performance.
But we can't dismiss it either. Often, I hear well-meaning sabermetricians deny the claim out of hand. How can anyone possibly buy into this stuff? There's no proof! But if we're going to be fair, the chemistry-performance link falls into the "reasonable hypothesis" category. We just don't know either way. It might not be true, but it at least passes the "if you say it out loud, you don't sound foolish" test.
In the absence of direct evidence, we're forced to look at (very) circumstantial evidence on the matter. In favor of the hypothesis, there's the fact that an entire field of study exists (industrial/organizational psychology) that looks at the evidence on "workplace environment" and productivity in other types of jobs. The general evidence is that the structure of the workplace and the interpersonal relationships between workers make a difference. A baseball team is just another workplace, right? On the other side, a few weeks ago, when I tried to find an effect for one specific type of workplace chemical agents (that just sounds wrong...) that teams tend to employ, the "veteran leader", there was no major effect that blanketed the whole team, although there might be some effects on individual players that we wouldn't be able to detect.