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January 10, 2014

Overthinking It

The Trouble with Forecasting Chemistry

by Ben Lindbergh


We’re 27 days away from the first pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training. We’re also 27 days away from the first reporters reporting,* which means we’re no more than 28 days away from reading quotes about team chemistry.

Chemistry is confusing, and not just for those of us who haven’t played professional sports. Even among players, opinions on its value fall along a wide spectrum from “essential” to “superfluous.” On one extreme, you have Eric Hinske, who believes that one can’t win without chemistry (and whose presence was, conveniently enough, perceived to promote it):

If you don’t have any chemistry together in the clubhouse, you’re not going to win together on the field. If there’s a bunch of guys that really don’t get along, you’re not going to have success on the field, no matter how talented you are.

Then there’s the slightly more moderate stance of Hinske discipline Evan Longoria, who stops short of stating that one can’t win without good clubhouse chemistry, but still calls it “The most important thing.”

In the middle of the road, there’s Bud Black, who thinks chemistry is nice, but not essential:

Winning can create good chemistry—but not always. Very talented teams don't necessarily have to have it. But with teams not as talented, it can help you in terms of momentum, confidence, playing together.

And toward the other end of the spectrum, you have Jose Bautista:

I don’t think [chemistry] makes a good team into a bad team, or makes an excellent team into an average team. If you’re a great team, regardless of team chemistry, you’re going to win.

Finally, Jim Leyland, who when asked about the Blue Jays last spring exhaled and harrumphed:

When they win games they’ll have a great clubhouse like all the rest of us. If they don’t win, their clubhouse won’t be very good. If they do win, their clubhouse will be one of the best you ever saw.

We can boil the debate down to two sentences. “Winning creates chemistry,” Reggie Jackson told Lyle Spencer in 2012. “Good chemistry creates winning,” Carlos Beltran said, in the same article.

It's possible, then, for a wide array of players who’ve put in plenty of clubhouse time to disagree about where chemistry comes from and how much it matters. But no one would dispute that, say, hitting more home runs, or allowing fewer, can make a team much better. As Leyland once put it, apparently: "I'll tell you what fucking chemistry is: Chemistry is a .300 batting average, 30 home runs, and 30 stolen bases."

So when Baseball Prospectus predicts team and player performance, as we do every spring, we tend to focus on homers, steals, and other things we can count. There’s a lot less ambiguity about those things. We know what they’re worth, and we can project with at least some degree of confidence how many each player (and by extension, each team) might produce. Our projections are far from perfect: we can’t predict luck, and we haven’t made much progress in predicting injuries. But as Bo Porter points out, there’s another nut we’re not cracking:

Predictions are opinions made by people with quantitative information. The one thing they cannot measure is what lies inside the man.

Well, shoot. We all want to improve our predictions, and if we could do that by accounting for insides, we would. Contrary to the stathead stereotype, not every numbers guy dismisses the potential impact of a team’s unquantifiable je ne sais quoi. We’ve written plenty about it at BP, and the third result you get when you Google “team chemistry” is an article by my podcast partner. We just don’t have a handle on how to tell which teams will have it when we’re putting predictions out, and GMs either can’t tell or won’t admit to being able to when they’re putting their teams together.

Ideally, we’d send a baseball version of the Trimates to live among the players and record their interactions. Because we can’t do that, we rely on less rigorous observation. According to the internet, the Chinese painter Gu Kaizhi once said, “What lies inside a man cannot be better revealed than through the eye.” (He also said, “What? I’ve never even heard of Cicero.) Kaizhi believed that the point of portrait painting was “to convey the spirit and give a vivid portrayal.” Many baseball writers subscribe to the same principles: that their job, when not needlessly tweeting play-by-play, is to look a team in its collective eye and tell us what lies within, using as many vivid one-sentence paragraphs as possible.

So come February, we’ll start seeing stories about which teams are hungry and full of competitive fire and on the same page and playing loose and pulling together. In theory, we should want to see those stories. No lesser authority on team chemistry than Torii Hunter believes that spring training is when a team’s identity forms. “That's when everybody comes together,” Hunter said last year. “When the season starts, you should already have your chemistry. Teams say that it's built in April and May. No it isn't. It's built in spring training.”

If spring is so crucial for chemistry, it’s the time when we should want someone around to chronicle the reactions (Gomes (s) + Inge (s) —> 24 wins). And who better to do that than the beat writer? We can look up and analyze stats and transactions from afar, but we have no hope of evaluating chemistry without the aid of someone on the scene. Beat writers spend more time in the clubhouse than anyone who isn’t paid by the team, so aside from the players, they’re our primary source.

What offends our sabermetric sensibilities is when chemistry is trotted out to explain success or failure after the fact. As Russell Carleton put it, “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.”

Take, for example, an SI Orioles season preview from last March that began by mentioning the various bond-building clubhouse activities the O’s had engaged in the previous spring: table tennis, bumper pool, indoor golf. “That type of chemistry helps explain how the Orioles went 29-9 in one-run games and 16-2 in extra innings last season,” the next sentence said. It’s easy to draw that causal connection in retrospect—either for a surprise team like the Orioles or disappointing teams like the 2011 Red Sox and 2012 Marlins—but it’s far from convincing. Was Baltimore the only team playing table tennis? And where was the contention that the Orioles had a historically close clubhouse before they won those one-run games? To come closer to “sabermetrics for chemistry,” we’d have to have some data set down before Opening Day.

As I combed through columns from last spring in search of predictions for my article earlier this week, I came across a number of articles about chemistry. Eventually, I started to search for those specifically, and I came up with clubhouse quotes about almost every team dating back before the start of last season. See if you notice any similarities on the following team-by-team list:

Astros
Bo Porter went to great lengths to promote team unity last spring, and his players approved. “It’s been good. It really has,” Bud Norris said about the changes in the clubhouse. “I feel our chemistry’s been coming together all [through] spring training,” Rick Ankiel said.

Athletics
The A’s may have had more articles written about their clubhouse than any team except the Red Sox last spring. One representative quote from an article full of them: "It's not just [Reddick and bestie Travis Blackey], it's the whole team," Josh Reddick said. "Outfielders, infielders, older guys, younger guys. We don't segregate ourselves. That's why team chemistry is so great. We all mesh together."

Blue Jays
The Jays weren’t concerned that their new faces wouldn’t gel well. “I think we’re going to have a great dynamic in the clubhouse,” said R.A. Dickey. “We have quality players that are at the same time quality people,” Bautista said. “It's easy for everybody to get along and enjoy their time together and come together as a club for a common goal.”

Braves
Jason Heyward: “Everything’s going awesome, as far as the clubhouse goes.”
Chris Johnson, from the same article: “Everybody was concerned about the character guys that we lost, but I think you had enough good guys in place to really kind of replace that. It wasn’t like they were the only guys who were good character guys. And then we added two guys in B.J. and Justin who are good people and easy to get along with. You can bring in some bad guys sometimes and turn that clubhouse around, but (the Braves) didn’t do that.”

Cardinals
John Mozeliak: “I just feel like the group we have is so strong. If it lacked what I felt were character issues I would have addressed it. But I don’t believe it does.” Matt Holliday agreed, calling the Cardinals a “great group.”

Cubs
Alfonso Soriano: “We’re hungry to win, we have a very nice group.”

Diamondbacks
Kevin Towers: “I love the clubhouse.”

Dodgers
Last February, the Giants’ Brandon Belt took a shot at the big, bad Dodgers, telling FanFest attendees, “All I can say is, you can’t buy chemistry.” He wasn’t the only one: on March 31, an “NL executive” whom Nick Cafardo asked to compare the two teams said, “Check out the Dodgers—a lot of good players but bad clubhouse guys. And then look at the Giants, position by position, and you tell me.” A week after Belt’s comment, Matt Kemp wasn’t worried: “I can already tell with the people we have here that the chemistry is going to be good.”

Giants
Hunter Pence: “We have good chemistry with this group.”

Indians
Chris Perez: “There's just a different feeling… We're here to compete. We're here to win. It's not a country club atmosphere anymore. It's time to work and get ready for the season."
Jason Kipnis: “Guys are taking it a little more serious. They're not just going through the motions like another Spring Training… We have a good team and we feel we can win, so we don't want to cheat ourselves by not taking this serious or not getting work done."
And Terry Francona, on the team’s new attitude: "I told them I was proud of them. I meant that. I would not tell them that if I did not feel that way."

Mariners
Justin Smoak: “It’s a great group of guys in our clubhouse.”
Felix Hernandez: “We're always together right here in the clubhouse. We're having a lot of fun. And that's the difference."

Marlins
Greg Dobbs: “I think the main issue there with clubhouse culture was addressed halfway through the season. Once that was taken care of, the clubhouse culture was much better.”
David Samson: “I think the general aura around our clubhouse is really good.”

Nationals
No clubhouse drew more raves last spring than that of one of 2013’s most disappointing teams. “They have one of the best makeups of any team I’ve seen,” Davey Johnson said. “There are certain teams that are good, maybe, that don't have this team chemistry,” Danny Espinosa added. We have good team chemistry, and we all respect each other.”

Orioles
Chris Davis: "Our chemistry in the clubhouse was so huge last year, to have that closeness and that family feeling. I think it has (carried over this year) and we have a great clubhouse, a great group of guys."

Padres
Josh Byrnes: “We have good clubhouse guys. We have guys that demand professionalism and accountability without being wound too tight. That's vital for a group to realize its potential. You have to root for each other, and be pulling rope in the same direction. We have guys that do that, and we wanted to keep it that way."
Nick Hundley: “The focus and intensity of this camp has really been productive and crisp. There’s a more veteran approach. I love the vibe we have right now. I haven’t seen one guy waste time during the drills thus far. It’s a loose, but no-nonsense approach.”

Phillies
Jimmy Rollins: “Me and [Jonathan Papelbon] were actually at the golf course [Thursday] talking about [the Phillies’ lack of leadership in 2012]. He brought up the feel of the team this year compared to last year. The difference and how much better it is this year. It's nothing to take offense to. The bond was broken. Now we're back together. The glue is back together.”

Pirates
Neil Walker: “The chemistry on the team is extremely good.”

Rangers
Ron Washington: “The only opinion that matters is what's inside the clubhouse, and we feel good about ourselves inside the clubhouse."
Derek Holland: “To me, right now, it felt like the clubhouse of 2011. The chemistry is there.”

Rays
James Loney: "The biggest thing is I've felt a great vibe, great energy here. It just feels like good team chemistry, the right situation."

Red Sox
John Farrell, within one of many articles about how the Red Sox remade themselves in the clubhouse after the strife of 2012: “There’s a lot to be said for the people in our clubhouse. Guys want to be here; they like being around one another and they work well together. From what we’ve seen so far, that side of it has been outstanding. The character of the individuals is equivalent to their talents. That was certainly by design.”

Royals
“I believe this team has all the intangibles needed to win,” said James Shields, who “has winning flowing through [his] veins.

Rockies
“Leaders are defined in so many different ways,” said Michael Cuddyer, who made chemistry-enhancing t-shirts. “You got the guys that are a little more vocal, you get guys that lead by example, silent, but yet command respect when they walk into the room. It's good to have a mixture of that, and I think we do have a mixture of that."

Tigers
Torii Hunter: “The chemistry is there with this ballclub.”

White Sox
Robin Ventura: “We have quite a few guys that can lead. Have fun, motivate, criticize, get on somebody—all the things that good teams have.”
Chris Sale: “We have good veteran guys around the younger guys in every aspect of our (team).”
Paul Konerko: “I see a lot of hard workers who get their work in… I see this tremendous work ethic and a lot of that is who they are and because Robin and his staff demand it.”

Yankees
CC Sabathia: "The chemistry is great in here. This team gets along.”

In case you’re not counting, that’s 25 teams with great chemistry. And most of those quotes came from articles specifically devoted to assessing the state of a clubhouse: how the arrival of a new manager or new players had changed the mood; how returning players had grown together over time; how well team-building spring training exercises were working. I came up empty for only five teams: the Angels, the Brewers, the Mets, the Reds—who came close—and the Twins (and I might have missed something). Only the Mets’ clubhouse betrayed any publicized signs of unrest, thanks to incidents involving Jordany Valdespin and Zack Wheeler and Aderlin Rodriguez, as well as David Wright’s absence during the WBC.

So what should we make of the good feelings that seemed to sweep through every clubhouse last spring? One possible conclusion is that just about every team—with the occasional outlier on the low or high side—has pretty good chemistry, in which case clubhouse culture probably isn’t the separator it’s often made out to be. Another is that Hunter is wrong, and that spring training is just too soon to tell. Maybe every team starts out believing it has a great group of guys, but doesn’t discover its true nature until the going gets tough. But if spring is too soon, then winter is way premature, which means that teams would have no way to tell whether they’d assembled a good chemistry club until it’s too late to change course.

There’s another possibility: it could be that the players interviewed aren’t being honest—why air their dirty laundry and create further controversy?—or that no two or three of them can speak for a team. What strikes one player as the perfect clubhouse culture might rub another the wrong way, or affect his performance to a different degree. And while it seems like gauging group makeup would be one of the most obvious ways in which a reporter could add value, even writers who spend a lot of time around a team aren’t necessarily qualified to assess inter-player relationships when the clubhouse doors are closed. The chemistry column, after all, is an easy one for a writer who’s out of ideas to half-ass without substance on a slow day in spring training. Most players are happy to back up a narrative with boilerplate quotes if it gets the guy with the notepad to leave them alone.

Whatever the explanation, we’re not going to get any closer to the truth about clubhouse chemistry by bookmarking the dispatches filed from Florida and Arizona next month. It’s quite possible—even likely—that some teams have superior chemistry, and that that quality is worth some number of wins, just as it’s possible that some players who show up to spring training in the best shape of their lives will benefit from it. But when the available evidence suggests that almost every team has an enviable attitude, it doesn’t leave us with much useful information to work with. All it does is turn everyone into the team who cried chemistry, and ensure that when the real thing comes along, we can't adjust expectations accordingly.

*Except for Pirates beat writer Rob Biertempfel. He's already there.

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

Related Content:  Leadership,  Chemistry,  Clubhouse Chemistry

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