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February 3, 2014

Baseball Therapy

How Would We Know That a Team Has Good Chemistry?

by Russell A. Carleton


It’s one of the great unanswered questions in sabermetrics: Does team chemistry affect what you see on the field? I have a better question. What the heck is chemistry? I tend to be wary of words that have no explicit meaning, because they can mean anything, and undefined variables make for bad research. Ben Lindbergh recently found quotes uttered before the 2013 season from representatives of 25 of the 30 teams in MLB, who believed that their team had fantastic chemistry. Twenty-four of those teams did not win the World Series. In fact, some of them had really awful losing records. Ben found “great chemistry” quotes from the Astros, Marlins, Cubs, Twins, Mariners and White Sox, all of whom lost 90 games in 2013. If great chemistry is so important to a team, how is that possible?

Anyone can say “We have great chemistry.” It’s usually in response to a question about the team’s “clubhouse atmosphere” (one would hope 79 percent nitrogen, 20 percent oxygen, one percent carbon dioxide and others). Think about it, though. When was the last time that you answered the question “How are you doing?”—especially from a stranger—with anything other than “Fine”? We live in a culture where everyone is doing “fine,” even when they are not. About the most negative thing you might hear a baseball player say would be “No comment.”

Consider what would happen if the following quote actually made it into the papers:

Smith, when asked about his thoughts on the upcoming season, was blunt. “Yeah, we have some really talented young kids on this team, and I think we’ll win a lot of games. But, man, everyone around here hates each other. There’s bickering behind the scenes and half the guys on the team won’t talk to each other unless they absolutely have to. Skip and some of the veteran guys have tried to get people to at least tolerate each other, but nothing’s worked. That’s going to be a big challenge for us in the upcoming season.”

It would be a huge story, probably one that would destroy any chance at fences actually being mended. All of the incentives are lined up for players to say that things are fantastic in the clubhouse, especially in spring training, before players have had much chance to really get on each other’s nerves. It’s a nice line to get the nice reporter who has nothing else to write about off your back. It’s a nice line for the writer to report because he has nothing else to write about. The player giving the quote is probably being interviewed because he’s an outgoing, gregarious chap who loves talking to other people, including reporters who just need a quote. He’s probably the kind of guy who would get along with anyone, and we just assume that his perspective is the feeling of the whole clubhouse.

Our interviewee might very well be telling the truth about his own belief that the team has great chemistry. Maybe it actually does. But what does that mean? I don’t even want to get into the question of whether chemistry helps (or hinders) performance, or try to figure out how to measure it. Before we can go there, we need to ask a more basic question: What are we even talking about when we say “chemistry?”

***

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