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October 11, 2013

Baseball Therapy

Why Sabermetricians Don't Talk About Chemistry

by Russell A. Carleton

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On Thursday’s episode of ESPN’s Baseball Tonight podcast, host Buster Olney, while discussing the Cardinals’ NLDS victory over the Pirates with ESPN’s Pedro Gomez, made a comment that sabermetricians do not often discuss matters of team chemistry or clubhouse culture. (Well, maybe once in a while…) Olney then proceeded to talk about how he believed that one reason for the Cardinals’ success, both within the NLDS and more broadly over the past few years, has to do with the culture that the club has worked to cultivate. Olney cited, among other things, that Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina, himself worthy of some legitimate MVP support this year, is also one of the hardest workers on the team. Olney pointed out that Cardinals management (Tony LaRussa and, later, Mike Matheny) has gone out of its way to specifically ask its star players to set an example for the rest of the team. He reasoned that other players on the team see this sort of commitment from Molina and are inspired to commit themselves to similarly hard work, and pointed out that it’s rare for sabermetricians give much credence to this as a reason that some teams win while others fall by the wayside.

Buster is right that chemistry and culture are not common topics, for the semi-obvious reason that most of what’s referred to as chemistry takes place behind closed doors and isn’t measurable even if we wanted to measure it. There’s probably also a healthy suspicion that some of the common wisdom about chemistry is post hoc, ecological fallacy-driven narrative building that would fail an undergrad research methodology course. The Cardinals won and Molina is a good player and a hard worker. Therefore, Molina’s work ethic must have been the difference between the teams. Science just doesn’t work like that. (That’s also a straw-man argument, but one that I’ve jumped to plenty of times. How unscientific of me!)

It’s often assumed that the problem is that because the matter doesn’t lend itself to being quantified, sabermetrics dismisses the idea of culture affecting performance altogether. There have been times when I’ve been guilty of that, but the real reason that I’m shy to speak definitively on matters of chemistry in baseball is that it’s just so hard to do good science on the matter. In that case, the best thing to say is “I don’t know” and be done with it. Maybe “I don’t know” has been interpreted as “I assert that it has no effect at all.” I would suggest that the former is a much better answer than the latter.

But maybe there’s a little bit of room for Molina’s work ethic after all. There is research in the field of public health that looks at what leads to people adopting attitudes that lead to healthy behaviors (e.g., quitting smoking, eating more healthfully). Baseball teams certainly have an incentive to promote “willingness to work hard at baseball.” There’s research that shows that in other areas of life, a big predictor of whether or not someone will adopt a positive attitude toward a health behavior is whether someone whom they respect also endorses it. The effect for this is much greater than receiving information about the benefits of the behavior. If you want to get someone to wear sunscreen, don’t give them them a pamphlet showing the benefits of sunscreen. Let them have a conversation about sunscreen with someone whom they respect.

In light of this research, public health initiatives within groups—for example, anti-bullying initiatives at schools—have begun to focus on working with “opinion leaders” in the school. The idea is that if you spend your time convincing those few people, they will have a larger effect over the entire culture of the school than will trying to convince everyone. There’s good, solid science behind the idea. Molina would be a good candidate to be an opinion leader. He is good at baseball, and men tend to value competence (along with personal warmth) as markers of someone whom they should emulate. (I have no idea whether Yadier Molina is a nice guy…I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he is.) With that in mind, the LaRussa-Matheny strategy makes complete sense. Tony LaRussa seems to have identified Molina as an opinion leader and tried to use that to his advantage. The rest of that diagram kinda draws itself. It’s not foolproof and it’s a diffuse, rather than direct, effect, but that’s how groups work.

This is not a direct test of whether Molina’s work ethic really does rub off on the Cardinals and yes, we will have a hard time putting a run value on it, but it’s a very reasonable hypothesis. Given our current data limitations, indirect evidence is probably the best evidence that we’re going to get. It doesn’t mean that other teams don’t also have these opinion leaders. In fact, I’d wager that most teams at least try this strategy, whether formally or informally. It’s not the one and only reason that the Cardinals beat the Pirates in the NLDS (Adam Wainwright’s curveball may have had something to do with it.) The Pirates might have had a similar leader. Maybe most teams do and having that leader only allows a team to keep pace with all the others. That doesn’t make it unimportant. And given that this sort of strategy has almost no cost and that any effect is likely to be positive, teams might as well try it.

If, as sabermetricians, we are attempting to apply rigorous scientific method to the study of baseball, I suppose that instead of ignoring chemistry, we can still do acceptable science through analogous reasoning. There are problems with that (not all analogies work!) and we do need to keep a healthy skepticism, but I’d argue that it’s time that we stop ignoring the “soft factors” like culture and chemistry and start doing the best we can with what’s available. And talk about it once in a while. If there’s one thing that sabermetrics is guilty of, it’s idolizing the third decimal place. Instead, let’s get more comfortable starting off sentences with “I can’t be totally sure about this, but it’s reasonable to think that…”

Russell A. Carleton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Russell's other articles. You can contact Russell by clicking here

Related Content:  Leadership,  Chemistry,  Clubhouse Chemistry

10 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Gotribe31

Great stuff. As you said, too many are taking the approach of "if I can't measure it, it must not exist." Similar to those who hold that a manager, pitching coach, hitting coach etc has no discernable effect on a team. While there's no way to know just how much a manager can improve a ballclub, and I agree that a good manager isn't going to take an otherwise ordinary team to the playoffs on the strenth of his leadership alone, there is some sort of relationship between good managers and successful baseball teams.

Oct 11, 2013 05:26 AM
rating: 0
 
jdeich

The hard part for me is that for every 2013 Cardinals, there is a 1978 Yankees or 1986 Mets to consider.

The first key step will be making some falsifiable hypotheses, even if it's fuzzy prediction. Let's say you were able to survey teams in April, and predict whether they would exceed their PECOTA projection, meet it (within some range), or fall short. (Maybe you make some corrections for injuries.) In theory, that's how chemistry (and/or good management) should show up-- everybody outplays their previous level of talent.

Even then, you'd have to account for changing personnel. If you accept that the 2013 Cardinals were improved by Molina's leadership, you might not expect an improvement in 2014, since Molina will still be there. But a team that has had a lot of turnover might be ripe for this kind of analysis.

Oct 11, 2013 07:16 AM
rating: 0
 
Tarakas

If one lives long enough and works enough places long enough, one sees that there are employees who improve or hinder the culture of their workplaces. In my life, I have seen a few people have tremendous impact on the culture and chemistry of workplaces, impacts that significantly altered the productivity of the people around them. I have seen this happen in workplaces full of talented, well-trained people. I have seen one person tear a department apart, and I have one person pull a department together.

I believe it is commonly accepted in organizations that this is true.

Instead of asking for evidence that team chemistry matters in baseball, let's flip it around. I would like to hear the evidence on why baseball is an exception to most workplaces--why it is a rare workplace where chemistry has no impact.

Oct 11, 2013 08:35 AM
rating: 1
 
dougdirt

My problem with things like this reply, is that professional sports aren't the real world. Professional sports are full of the best athletes in the world who got there because of their hard work and dedication. No one, not even the best players of all time, got there simply because they were gifted. Yes, they were extremely gifted, but they worked their butts off too.

I don't doubt that some sort of clubhouse chemistry does exist, but I also believe it has a very, very small impact. Baseball is a sport where on a play an individual is isolated from his teammates. Everything is up to him. He doesn't need someone to block for him or pass him the ball. He has to catch it and throw it. He has to hit it or not swing at it. It is all on him.

Do some guys bring different things to the clubhouse? Sure. Some guys can keep things loose. Some guys are the intense guys. Some are more "keep to myself" guy. A clubhouse is going to have a variety of guys and the idea that you are going to get 25 professional athletes together and somehow they aren't going to want to win or try hard just doesn't pass the smell test for me. These aren't your normal types of people.

Oct 11, 2013 09:37 AM
rating: 0
 
mblthd

Buster Olney: Chemistry :: Hawk Harrelson : Will To Win

Oct 11, 2013 09:03 AM
rating: 1
 
bossfan101

Tee Dubya Tee Dubya.

Oct 12, 2013 00:15 AM
rating: 1
 
Brady Childs

I don't have a problem admitting that chemistry can help a team. The problem I have is when writers start claiming that chemistry is the reason for winning, that teams like the Blue Jays, Orioles, or Nationals failed because they didn't have as much "drive" as the Tiger's, Athletics', or Red Sox (Most walk off victories! How do you do it? WE NEVER GIVE UP!)

I'd love to see a reporter actually tell an athlete that that's the reason for his team's failing. I'm sure there are some athletes that don't try hard, but there's nothing to prove (to my knowledge)that entire team's have just stopped trying. Except the 1919 Black Sox scandal.

Oct 11, 2013 10:20 AM
rating: 3
 
Johnson Magic

Yes, this.

A baseball season is a zero-sum game. If chemistry is a factor in the outcome of games, then let's not just praise the Molinas of the world, but identify and call out the teams that fall short on chemistry grounds.

While we're on the topic, what is Molina's WARC (Wins Above Replacement Chemist)?

Oct 11, 2013 12:37 PM
rating: 0
 
kmostern

The question of whether "sabermetrics dismisses the idea of culture affecting performance altogether" is particular to the question of "which sabermatricians?" Without listing here, I have seen certain writers say "I don't know," and certain other say "it has no effect at all." From my point of view the ones in the latter camp are as dumb as the "traditionalists" they are trying to oust.

Sabermatrics provides a set of relevant tools with which to analyze baseball, tools that teams ignore at their peril. It is not, however, the only discipline that provides such tools. And as any historian of science knows, scientists have egos too.

Oct 11, 2013 11:34 AM
rating: 1
 
misterjohnny
(925)

But team chemistry under the STL model isn't "let's all go out to dinner together and we'll hit better". It's "work hard at improving your craft."

Reporters mostly report on whether the team likes each other, which may or may not have any impact on whether the team is full of hard workers who are improving their craft (or preventing a erosion of skills).

That hard work may result in better performance, but that should show up in Year over Year improvements in player performance. Probably hard to suss that out of the normal variability in player growth curves.

But in your fantasy drafts next year, you may see an uptick in performance from the guy who got traded to the Cardinals in the offseason.

Oct 11, 2013 15:48 PM
rating: 1
 
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