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March 27, 2014

Baseball Therapy

Advances in Chemistry?

by Russell A. Carleton


Let’s talk about the ESPN: The Magazine team chemistry rankings. For those who haven’t seen them yet, I suggest going here, but if you’d like to skip to the good part, the centerpiece of ESPN’s predictions about the 2014 season is that they adjusted them for team chemistry. The article actually (seriously, no really) says that the Tampa Bay Rays are projected to win 1.7 extra games this year because of chemistry. This will be enough to win them the AL East.

Right then.

This is evolution at a speed that would disprove some tenet of special relativity. I only wish I knew more about special relativity so that I could tell you which part. We’ve gone from chemical atheism (“Chemistry doesn’t matter. Winning breeds chemistry”) to chemical agnosticism (“Chemistry is this vague mysterious thing that you can’t easily measure and it might or might not have an effect.”) to fully drinking the chemically laced Gummiberry Juice (“Chemistry is worth 1.7 wins.”). Whoa.

I should probably cop to a couple of things. I have a bit of a head start on this one. Last summer, BP’s own Sam Miller wrote an article on team chemistry in—funny enough—ESPN the Magazine, in which I was quoted. He also talked to Santa Clara University professor Katerina Bezrukova, who spoke of her work on group dynamics, specifically how “fault lines” can appear based on any number of factors to divide members of a group from one another and can determine the success or failure of a group.

Since I’m thrilled to meet anyone who lives at the corner of Baseball Street and Psychology Lane, I contacted her and we chatted behind the scenes. I looked a bit into the #GoryMath and the theory behind her research. It’s not my area of expertise, but the theory was at least pleasantly plausible and the math that she (and her colleagues) used made sense, at least for what they were trying to investigate about workplace interactions in general. Like a lot of things in science, it needed more work before I would fully buy into it, but it passed the silliness test.

Flash forward to a few days ago, when the same Katerina Bezrukova and her collaborator Chester Spell re-appeared with their model, and some numbers to attach to it. They suggested three dimensions to team chemistry, including a demographic factor, an isolation factor, and an ego factor. To take the demographic factor as an example, they looked at race, nationality, and age. Methodologically, it seems that they ran a proximity/similarity matrix within each team based on those characteristics. The idea is that if a player is surrounded by other players who demographically resemble him, he will have more people to talk to, and that will lead to better living through chemistry.

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