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?”
A small exercise. I’m going to describe some situations to you, and I want you to pick out which one of these teams you think has the best chemistry.
Team no. 1: Most of the guys on this team are actually pretty quiet and introverted. Several have interests in reading, some like playing endless sessions of World of Warcraft, and some just like to work out on their own. Most of them prefer to confide in people back home, wherever that is. It’s nothing personal. Everyone will make small talk with everyone else and people generally respect each other’s privacy, but in general, after a game, it’s 25 guys just kinda doing their own thing.
Team no. 2: This team is a near opposite of Team no. 1. There are a lot of really loud guys in here. After a game, the clubhouse is boisterous, and that’s just the start of things. The guys all believe that they should play hard on the field and then play hard elsewhere. They all like to go out together. On the plane, everyone interacts with everyone else, and if someone is feeling down, there are plenty of group hugs. However, in any group of people that interact a lot, sometimes tensions develop. Because these guys all have “loud” as their default setting, sometimes there are some very loud arguments. The reporters are politely asked to leave after some games and get to stand awkwardly in the hallway as several voices yell things that are muffled by the door. Something about that play in the sixth inning.
Team no. 3: This team has several cliques in the clubhouse. There are five or six guys who are all really religious and tend to form their own circle to study the Bible. There are three guys from the Dominican Republic who love playing around, and they even sort of adopted the new guy who’s from Panama because he speaks Spanish, even if he speaks it with a funny accent. The bullpen guys are…weird, but they all hang out together. There are three or four older players who are married and have kids and sit around and chuckle at the 20-somethings and swap stories about silly things that their kids do.
Team no. 4: This clubhouse centers on Smith. It’s more a cult than anything. If there’s a problem in the clubhouse, Smith goes over and deals with it, and people don’t question him. He’s been around a long time. He gets to know everyone. He’s a likeable guy and everyone respects him. When someone needs to give a speech, Smith gives it. When there’s a team activity, Smith organized it. When reporters are bugging a kid who’s overwhelmed, Smith kindly walks over, gives them a quote, and tells them to get off the kid’s back. Were he to be traded away, the clubhouse would at least momentarily devolve into anarchy.
Team no. 5: If you took a survey of this team, you’d find that of the 25 players, 20 of them feel really happy in the clubhouse. They get along with people and have a good friend or two on the team. There’s very little conflict, and people usually deal with what does come up. However, the other five guys, once you inject them with truth serum, tell a different story. Two feel like outcasts and think that people exclude them. One is socially awkward and just has a hard time making friends. One is a jerk. One got traded here a month ago and misses his old team. The thing is that the 20 guys who think everything is great are totally oblivious to the fact that the other five are having a rough time (well, okay, except the jerk).
So which of these teams has the best chemistry?
You might be tempted to say that Team no. 1 has limited chemistry because they don’t interact with one another. I’d argue that this team actually sounds like it has pretty good chemistry. People often mistake extroversion for chemistry, but it isn’t the case. The guys on this team are introverts, but it seems that they all have things that fulfil their needs as human beings and people to whom they can talk. It’s just not each other. They might be boring, but since people respect one another’s space, there’s not a lot of conflict that seems to be brewing. On the other hand, they might be so self-focused that they forget that they’re part of a collective effort.
Team no. 2 sounds like they are all friends, and everyone appears to be an extrovert. (Remember, don’t mistake extroversion for chemistry.) But you might have started to sour on them when you heard that there were some shouting matches after games. That might be a sign of a poisonous clubhouse, but it doesn’t have to be. Don’t mistake conflict for bad chemistry either (or lack of conflict for the good chemistry). Yes, it sounds like this group of guys deals with conflict by yelling, but if at the end of the day that resolves the conflict, then that’s actually a good thing. They’re probably better off than the team that has a proverbial “elephant in the room” but doesn’t talk about it.
You might think that Team no. 3 with its cliques is a fragmented clubhouse. Before we declare them a chemical disaster area, it’s possible that they have great chemistry. If one of those religious guys is also a dad, there’s something of a natural linkage between groups there. If there’s a conflict to resolve, he might be able to mediate. Alternately, the team might just have some reasonable adults on the roster who realize that if there’s a conflict, the best thing to do is to walk over and help resolve it, even if they hang out with different people. That works too.
Team no. 4’s chemistry basically boils down to how good Smith is at being a cult leader. It’s a lot to ask of a single person, but some people are just built like that. Even if he’s bad at it, the team at least has an organizing principle. I’m actually most concerned about Team no. 5, even though they would probably be the team most likely to be labeled as having “good chemistry.” That team seems to be having problem reaching out to everyone and integrating new team members.
The (fake) teams that I’ve constructed are, of course, exaggerated versions of what a real team would look like. Most teams have a leader or a small set of leaders. There will be some introverts and some extroverts on the team. There will be cliques that form, and in some cases, some guys won’t feel like a part of the team. But these surface elements are not what makes for good chemistry, even though people mistake them for it. You need to look a level deeper than that.
There’s often a skepticism among analytical types around what chemistry can do for an individual player or for a team. It sounds all gooey and narrative driven. After all, how will having friends on the team help a player swing or throw harder? I’d argue that the effect isn’t a direct one, which is not the same thing as saying that it’s not real.
Consider the nature of what a baseball player does. The game starts at 7:05, but his day is so much more than the game. For one thing, he’s constantly traveling, and that’s its own special grind. There are meetings to go over the advanced scouting reports on tonight’s opponent (and who are we playing tonight anyway?). There are coaching sessions. There’s good ol’ batting practice. There’s time for video. Sleep can be at a premium. Then there are the little aches and pains that go along with the job. And there’s no let up to this grind for six months. At some point, there has to be a temptation to cut a few corners. Maybe I’ll stay out a little later than I should after the game. What? It helps me unwind after a crazy day, and it’s not like that extra hour of sleep is going to be that big a deal (oh yes it is!). Maybe I’ll show up to the meeting but not really pay attention. Look, I know that I should be putting everything into this, but what are the chances that this meeting makes a difference. And I’m tired and hurting, so get off my back.
Maybe it’s true that this particular meeting won’t make a difference, but you never know when one extra piece of information changes a strike into a ball, and turns an at-bat. And it’s also true that some guys are just #want to be amazing and despite the grind, they’ll put everything, 24 hours a day into becoming better players. But let’s make the reasonable assumption that if a player slacks a little bit, he could end up bleeding away value around the edges. We need to find something that will stop that bleeding.
I became a father four and a half years ago. If there is something that I understand, it’s doing things that I do not want to do because I’m tired. You want me to read Curious George for a third time this morning, after you got me up at an insanely early hour and I can barely keep my eyes open? Sure, kiddo. It’s not about me. It’s about the family. Maybe this third time through won’t change anything, but maybe it’s the memory that cements in my daughter’s head that daddy was always there for her. If this were about me I would go back to bed. It’s not about me.
A baseball player might face much the same decision. If he indulges a lazy moment, he is not only letting himself down (potentially), but also his team. It’s a lot easier to fight the slack when you actually like going into work and feel like you fit in. Maybe you even have some emotional investment (friendship?) in some of your teammates. Team chemistry won’t make you into a great player, but it can make you think twice about tanking it for a few minutes. Or a game. It won’t solve everything, but it sure doesn’t hurt.
So we return to the question, “What is chemistry?” I think, as the term is used in throwaway spring training quotes and World Series parade speeches, it just means, “There’s not a lot of open conflict and no one absolutely hates each other here.” (After a World Series, it also means “We just won the World Series.”) Throwaway quotes are not the final word on anything.
Instead, we should think of chemistry as the answer to the question, “Why should I bother?” Some nights, the answer will be “because I want to make an extra million next year” or “because I want to leave my mark on the game” or something like that. But there will always be a time when you just don’t want to, and the answer is going to have to be “because my teammates are counting on me and I don’t want to let them down.”
What will bond a person to the larger group is going to vary from person to person. Some will need more of this sort of motivation than others. Some are already built to worry about the group, and some guys care only about the name on the back of their jersey. Some guys will be looking for a good friend. Some will want to feel like part of something larger than themselves. Some just need to know that what they do is valued. And that means that every player is going to have a different view of how much “chemistry” is in the clubhouse.
Now, that leaves us in an interesting place in answering “the chemistry question.” We’re nowhere near being able to address it now, and that starts with the fact that we’re thinking about it all wrong. It seems that chemistry is most often spoken of as something that “a clubhouse,” not an individual player, has or doesn’t have. Teams can do things that spread the good vibes for everyone. In fact, any time you hear of a team that has some sort of weird ritual, that’s a team creating its own little culture. People share in rituals and through them become connected to the group, but it takes 25 individual decisions for that to happen.
I’m fond of saying that one of the first hires that I would make as a GM would be someone who had experience as a summer camp counselor, and for mostly the same reason. We’re all going to be hanging out together in close quarters for the next few months, and we’re going to play a lot of sports. Let’s organize some activities together that will allow a safe space for people to get to know one another and build a sense that the name on the front of the jersey is actually the name of a community, rather than a logo.
But now, on to the #GoryMath of it all. How would I prove that it’s working? I’ve proposed a model that suggests that several factors can cause chemistry, that it can take several forms, that it affects individuals in different ways, and that its primary effect is that it stops players from not doing something. Sound like it would be hard to prove? I agree. Multi-causal, multi-final models with no counter-factual control group are hard to suss out, even if you have access to good data.
But being hard to measure is not the same thing as being unimportant. Let’s make some reasonable assumptions. All players have untapped potential. Unlocking that potential will take some work that he might not be willing to do. Chemistry can be improved, and that gives an extra incentive to a player to do that work and unlock that potential…or at least not to do things that will drain his abilities. And if there’s an advantage that chemistry has, it’s that it’s a systemic variable. If it has a relatively small effect, but is multiplied over 25 players, it can be a powerful force indeed.
Here’s the part you might not like. Chemistry is too complex to nail down in a simple regression. I don’t think we’ll ever get to the point where we can say “Good chemistry is worth 20 wins” and mean it in proper mathematical sense. And I still think teams (and sabermetricians) ignore it at their own peril.