I’m going to be a bad scientist and accept something without proper proof. I’m going to assume that “the clubhouse guy” exists and is a real phenomenon. I say that I don’t have proper proof only in the numerical sense. I don’t have a measure called ENZYME to tell me which players are chemically enhanced and I can’t tell you how many WARs it’s worth. At least not yet.
Despite all that, I think we all implicitly believe in the power of chemistry. If we don’t, then we hold some pretty strange beliefs about baseball. For example, no one reading this bats an eye at the fact that major-league teams employ coaches in the big leagues and a phalanx of coordinators and instructors in the minors to teach hitting and pitching. That might not seem to be related to chemistry, but it is. We accept that players can learn (and unlearn) things about hitting, and we might think that the coach is someone who just shows the player a better technical way of doing things. But really, if it were that easy, surely there’s a video out there that can teach Fred McGriff how to play defense. Why not just pop that in?
There are, of course, varying philosophies around hitting and pitching and different beliefs that coaches have. There’s also a good amount of hitting where, if you showed all 30 hitting coaches a video of a guy with a flaw in his swing, they’d all pick up on it. They’d all say “Yeah, this needs to change,” and then the trick is getting the kid to change it. Some coaches are good at that sort of thing. Some aren’t. The trick is in the interpersonal piece of it all. We accept that players can change and that just by having certain personality traits, some people are better suited to help a player make that change.
Even if you don’t accept this at the baseball level right away, you might accept it in another area of life. Not everyone has what it takes to be a good second grade teacher. If you’re reading this, I’m guessing that you could totally crush second grade schoolwork, but do you have the personality to walk into a room filled with thirty eight-year-olds and not freak out? Could you teach them how to do #GoryMath?
I have a feeling that if I surveyed even the most hardcore sabermetricians out there, they would all acknowledge that ideas of chemistry and clubhouse presence aren’t silly. They’d probably push back against the common narrative that Team X won the World Series based on the shining light of justice that came from Smith’s locker. (After all, there were probably veteran guys on all the other 29 teams who did not win the World Series.) They’d probably say that it’s hard to measure. (It is.) But if Smith sits down with Jones, shows him a trick he’s learned over the years on how to hit a curveball and Jones turns from a one-win player to a three-win player, don’t we have to give some of that credit to Smith?
I’m going to start with the assumption that chemistry and clubhouse presence exist and that they can have real, tangible effects on players, making them either better or worse. We don’t know how it works. We don’t know who’s who. We don’t know what the effects are. But what if we could at least make some reasonable assumptions about what those effects might be? Actual data-driven ones. For example, we know that some managers seem to have a special talent for keeping their players from burning out over the course of a year, and that the effect might be as big as 30 runs from the best to the worst.
So, how much could these soft factors actually be worth?
Warning! Gory Mathematical Details Ahead!
Let’s start by thinking about the mechanics of how this would even work. If we had a chemist on our team, where would he work his magic? There are two basic models. One is that he would befriend a specific player or two on the team (the “take him under his wing” model) and the other is that he would somehow have a broader influence over the culture of the clubhouse. It’s not that a player can’t do both, but it’s a little different skill set involved in each. On top of that, there’s only so much bandwidth that one person has for this sort of thing. (Take it from someone who used to work as a therapist….) We probably shouldn’t expect to see huge, team-wide effects.
The wily old veteran teaches a young player some new tricks and he becomes a superstar
Players do teach each other things. Why not? If I know something that can help us both win, I have every reason to share it with you. We have to imagine that there’s some of this going on between players in all 30 clubhouses and somewhere along the line, some of it helps. We know that some players get better every year (and some get worse). For example, in 2014 Anthony Rizzo put up an OBP of .386, an improvement of 63 points from the year before. It’s hard to know whether that was simply Rizzo’s own maturation process or whether a coach or a fellow teammate helped him along in becoming a better hitter. But how often do these sorts of breakouts even happen?
Some time ago, I developed a method that looks at a statistic and determines whether a player’s performance is significantly different from one year to the next, controlling for the reliability of the statistic and the player’s plate appearances. (With a bigger sample, a player’s performance is more reliable, and so we feel better about saying that he really has changed, even with smaller differences.) The method uses z-scores, so we expect to see a z-score of 1.96 or higher before we assume that the player has “really” gotten better. In 2014, there were 16 hitters (minimum 100 PA in each season) who had a “breakout.”
(For the curious: Michael McKenry, J.D. Martinez, Danny Espinoza, Ruben Tejada, Russell Martin, Justin Turner, Collin Cowgill, Anthony Rizzo, Jose Altuve, Aaron Hicks, Lonnie Chisenhall, Devin Mesoraco, Clint Barmes, Marwin Gonzalez, and Alcides Escobar.)
Sure, OBP is only one stat, and there were guys who had big jumps in OBP but who didn’t meet this rather stringent definition of improvement, but that’s how many guys truly break out for any reason. Maybe one of these guys benefited from some kind words of an old veteran, but my point is that it’s not very likely that you see a big huge breakout for any reason, veteran presence or not.
I think people get caught up looking for the big-ticket breakout. We’re going to have to look for effects that are a little more subtle. Of course, those are harder to find because it’s easy to dismiss them as small-sample flukes. Still, we’ve seen in the past that sometimes, we can find changes in a hitter’s behavior that seem to be correlated with his outcomes, even over small time frames. In 2013, I found 17 hitters who showed a provable link between their swing rate and OBP. It’s not that all of them broke out, but they certainly were changing their behavior (swinging) and it had an effect. Still, that’s also not a lot and we have no idea whether the local clubhouse guy was to blame or not. Players do change over time and there are some that change quickly, but expecting that isn’t a good idea, even if they do have a mentor.
The wily old veteran teaches a young player “how to play the game”
Groaning aside from taking “how to play the game” or “how to go about his business” a little too literally, there’s something to be said for this. Young major-leaguers are usually in their early 20s. Clubhouse guys are usually older, often in their 30s (or even older). Now that I’m on the wrong side of 30 (and 35), looking back on myself at 23 is a funny experience. Nobody liked me. I didn’t take care of myself the way I should have. I’m guessing that there are plenty of 35-year-olds in MLB clubhouses looking at their 23-year-old teammates and thinking, “Yeah, that used to be me… and I could have done better.”
I’ve written before about how minor-leaguers and young major-leaguers are at a time in their lives when they are learning the basic skills of being an adult, skills like how to get enough sleep, eat properly, and take care of daily life. Sleep, in particular, we know is a big deal, and it’s not even about staying up all night. Even losing an hour per night can negatively impact a person’s performance on tasks of what’s known as “selective attention” and reaction time. Baseball is a game of reaction time. For example, a tired person might be lagging on his reactions enough that even though he realizes that he should swing at a pitch, he’s not able to actually do it quickly enough. Not every time, but someone who has been shortchanging proper sleep by an hour each night for a week produces a four- to five-fold increase in these sorts of errors. Over the course of the approximately 20 pitches per night that a hitter sees, he might make an extra error of non-response on one of them that he might otherwise have gotten right. We’ve seen before that even changing a non-strike into a strike is worth .10 runs. Over 100 games, that would add up to a 10-run penalty that a player might pay for not getting proper sleep. (Again, this isn’t staying out all night. It’s just skimping a little bit.) It’s not something that would be visible to the naked eye, but it would be there. If a player can net that much value just by proper sleep, imagine if he was also properly eating and taking care of himself in other ways?
The wily old veteran helps to keep an air of calm in the clubhouse
This one is harder to get at because we’re looking at things that don’t happen. How does one put a value on something that never happened in the first place? Not only that, but the public gets only brief glimpses into the clubhouse, so we don’t know exactly what’s going on, and even if we could look, most interpersonal and group dynamics take place in the language of non-verbal gestures. It takes a bit of a trained eye to really understand what’s going on there.
When people are fighting and yet remain part of a group, they usually turn passive-aggressive. They stop talking to each other and collaborating with each other. And if it gets really odious, people don’t like hanging out in the clubhouse. In baseball, the way to be passive aggressive is to not bother with all the behind-the-scenes work that you need to do, and sometimes need to force yourself to do, to be really good at the game. You need to study up on pitchers/hitters. You need to do some training. There’s coaching sessions. It’s the sort of thing that missing one might not make a player go from superstar to replacement level, but over time, it adds up. My proof is that there are a lot of people in professional baseball who are tremendously gifted athletes. But taking a look at even the first round of any draft (here’s 2005), we see guys who don’t make the majors, or if they do, don’t contribute all that much. All of those guys had fantastic physical tools. Why didn’t they make it? There’s probably a cavalcade of reasons, but for some of them, there was probably a bit of lack of #want. If a lack of want can turn a guy with first-round tools into a non-factor, then it has to have some value. I hesitate to put a number on it, but it’s there. If a veteran guy can keep the clubhouse from getting toxic (or even better, be a happy guy that everyone likes to be around so that they are more willing to do all that hard work), then more power to him.
Then there’s the old saw that Smith, being a veteran guy, kept us from getting too high or too low. He kept everyone on a nice even keel. That one actually has some benefit to it. We know that it’s not a good idea to be too worked up or too slack about something. You want a balance between the two, and we know that it has real consequences in performance. On neuropsychological tests, people who were given specific training in how to not get too worked up and not get too slack (called modulated arousal) performed much better on a task of selective attention, cutting their errors by a third and becoming more consistent in their reaction times. I don’t know that any player could cut his strikes in half, but there’s value in it if he can just cut it down even a bit. Maybe getting a quicker jump on a ball and he gets to an extra one or two per month. These things add up. They may, again, not be discernible with the naked eye, but they have value, and we might chalk them up to just being a player developing on his own, but it’s not like people in general don’t have help growing up.
I’ll Be Your Mr. Miyagi
Let’s put this all together. I think we have the Hollywood model of mentorship in our heads. Mr. Miyagi appears and turns Daniel LaRusso from a sub-replacement-level karate student to an All-Valley champion. It’s not that it’s impossible, but that’s probably not the way it works most of the time. Still, we acknowledge that there are some people who are good at the touchy-feely stuff and we recognize the things that they can bring about have real neuropsychological consequences. And baseball is a game of neuropsychology. If a player can make even slightly better decisions or have slightly better reaction time because he is sharper or because he is calmer, it might only come into play once in a while, but our veteran can have an impact, maybe even a small one over several different players, if he plays his cards right.
Now the question is whether there are superstar clubhouse guys or whether they are common enough that every team can have one if they choose. We know from research on people who do this for a living, psychotherapists, that there are vast differences among them in how well they help their patients. So, a proposal. It’s entirely possible that there is a superstar clubhouse chemistry guy out there. Maybe two or three. Maybe in the way that managers can vary by 30 runs from each other just in the way that they help their players handle “The Grind.” I think it’s reasonable to believe that a good clubhouse guy can be worth a win by virtue of his clubhouse-ness.
Maybe he’s the kind of guy who is at best a replacement player and everyone else views him as a wash-up. He’s going to be slotted for the 25th spot on the roster. But if he can hold down replacement level in 200 PA and provide a win’s worth of value behind the scenes, isn’t that more than most teams get out of their last roster spot? We already know that teams value clubhouse guys. They talk about it, and as much as we want to believe that they’re blowing smoke, teams actually believe in this stuff. And there’s a good case to be made for why. For all I know, there are teams that are doing research on what constitutes a good clubhouse guy, because if you can find a way to identify someone who’s worth a win in a way that no one knows about and you can pay him the league minimum, isn’t that worth it? (Teams have gone to greater lengths chasing after less!)