Chemistry is not an apt word choice
Iâ€™m using it here because itâ€™s the commonly cited term. But in real world chemistry, you look at what things are made of, how they act, and the changes that happen when you mix things. Given elements a, b, and c in specific proportions, you can predict what will happen. The concept of chemistry in baseball falls short compared to its scientific namesake in every way:
- We canâ€™t know what players are made of
- We canâ€™t know what teams are made of
- We canâ€™t predict how players, or teams, will act
- We canâ€™t predict what will happen with the addition or subtraction of any player to a team
Definitions of chemistry
There are generally two kinds of team chemistry. Thereâ€™s good chemistry, where a team works well together and makes everyone better, and thereâ€™s bad chemistry, where players donâ€™t like each other, characterized by factions in the clubhouse.
But then thereâ€™s good-bad chemistry, where players hate each other so much they work really hard to show the other players up, and the end result is they all work their ass off, glare at each other a lot, and win a ton of games.
And bad-good chemistry which is when everyoneâ€™s friendly and comfortable and doesnâ€™t try hard enough to win, and spends their time hanging out together instead of working out, and they joke around instead of concentrating in drills.
Thereâ€™s young team optimism chemistry, where a rebuilding franchise is learning the game, improving, working well together, keeping their head up even through the losses. They may not know they’re not supposed to win so much.
Then again, they might not know how to win. That happens, too.
And thereâ€™s winning team chemistry, where they expect to compete each day and win a championship.
And losing team chemsitry, where they’ve all given up and don’t really try.
Team chemistry is observed changing in-season, too. A team on a losing streak will find something wrong with whatever chemistry they had working up to that point. If theyâ€™re optimistic and have faith, theyâ€™re not realistic or working harder. If theyâ€™re working harder and depressed, theyâ€™ve lost faith and are flailing about. If they stick together, theyâ€™ll be ignoring to the problems they need to confront. If they admit that one part of the team or one player is struggling, theyâ€™ll be turning on each other.
If they start winning, whatever they were doing during the losing streak was key.
Quantifying and Predicting Team Chemistry
Until you can predict before a season starts which teams will have good or bad chemistry â€“ from past seasons, knowledge of the players, even watching them through spring training â€“ then what exactly can chemistry be? If itâ€™s how a team came together, or fell apart, something you can only see and use in an after-the-fact explanation, then itâ€™s a story, not an effect. And moreover, as itâ€™s usually applied, as an explanation of how teams that did surprisingly well succeeded and how unexpectedly bad teams failed, itâ€™s an argument that the chemistry doesnâ€™t cause wins or losses but is itself caused by winning and losing. This makes sense â€“ winning makes competitive people happy, and losing brings out the worst in them. It even fits with the changing characterizations of team’s in-season chemistry.
Or let’s not even say that you need to predict which teams will have good or bad chemistry at the start of the season. Let them play for half the year. If you could at mid-season determine which teams playing badly to that point had maintained a good clubhouse attitude, and so would have a great second half, the evaluation of team chemistry might be useful and significant. But even here, given a half-season of data, prediction fails. Weâ€™re forced to wait until the seasonâ€™s end to find out why one sub-.500 team went 55-35 in the second half to make a run while the other continued to struggle, unnoticed. That first team will then have had good chemistry, while the latter did not.
This is true even in the short term. Events are used to explain a teamâ€™s fortunes while similar events that donâ€™t produce the same results are ignored. If a player is arrested for drunk driving and the team goes into a three-game losing streak, the distraction will inevitably be used to account for the losses. If it doesnâ€™t, the teamâ€™s chemistry saved it. If they win three games, the negative attention brought the team together. But if you canâ€™t predict that a playerâ€™s arrest will have an effect, then how much can you know about a teamâ€™s chemistry?
If chemistry canâ€™t provide any additional predictive information on which team will win a game, or a series, all the way up to a season, even if youâ€™re aware of what kind of chemistry and how strong it is, then what use is it to know?
One of the strongest anecdotal arguments in favor of chemistry is the frequent testimony of managers, players, and people around championship teams that there was something special about that team. That there were players willing to â€œgo the extra mileâ€ or â€œdo whatever it tookâ€ and â€œstay focusedâ€ and so on, and that made all the difference.
This doesnâ€™t exclude the after-the-fact attribution, that chemistryâ€™s an explanation for winning or losing as much as it might be a cause. Looking back at a team that won it all for reasons why it succeeded, of course the positive attitude of bench players will seem to have contributed.
But you can take teams with similar attitudes in spring training, or early in the season, and see that their results vary greatly when they play the games. Teams with enthusiastic veteran benches donâ€™t all perform three games better than expected. Teams with self-aggrandizing defensively limited corner infielders donâ€™t all perform four games worse.
If you took a survey of every major league team going into a season for entirely intangible qualities, like satisfaction with teammates, music in clubhouse y/n, volume of music in decibels, difference in clubhouse noise levels post-win and post-loss, number of clubhouse leaders and number of clubhouse jokers, and its value in predicting regular-season records would approach zero â€“ and the only factors that would matter at all would be things like â€œveteran presenceâ€ or â€œchampionship experienceâ€ because teams that bring in high-profile free agents are disproportionately competitive.
The counter to this is that while you can know on a general level what a teamâ€™s chemistry is like, without knowing the actual, detailed interactions between teammates, you donâ€™t know the real picture and therefore any survey like that is meaningless. Or that the guy thought to be a leader turned out to be a goofball (which, again, is a after-the-fact justification).
Compare the qualifications and components of chemistry though to any other metric, and we quickly see that chemistryâ€™s effects, if they exist, are pretty limited.
- Is it better to have an offense that walks more, or that plays louder music after wins?
- Is it better to have a pitching staff that strikes out more hitters, or a team that includes two clubhouse leaders and at least one clubhouse jokester?
- Is it better to have a defense that makes more outs on balls put into play, or one that goes out to dinner together after games?
Now of course, those aren’t the choices you make: you can have a walk-happy offense score more runs and all dance around to salsa music after wins. But in a more general sense, teams do make these choices: when teams weigh a player who can contribute X and could be replaced by a cardboard cutout for interviews against one who offers 75% of that contribution but comes with a reputation as a hard worker and good teammate, this is the choice they make, over and over.
It doesnâ€™t matter what level you break it down to â€“ when you compare any frequently-cited thing-that-is-good-for-chemistry to a reasonably quantifiable quality of a team, youâ€™ll find that teams that succeed at the thing we know and can measure do better, while teams with two identified leaders donâ€™t do better than teams with one.
The argument then is that the definition of leader, or whatever the chemistry component is, is too vague, and hard to see. The press covering one team might identify a leader who isnâ€™t as strong as the leader on another, for instance. If thatâ€™s the case, though, and itâ€™s so difficult to establish standards for whoâ€™s a leader and whoâ€™s not, if an objective observer canâ€™t come in and determine whether someoneâ€™s contributing or not, and someone who observes the team daily and spends much of their working hours in direct contact with them canâ€™t either, then how obvious and significant can that leadership be?
And even in a case where everyone agrees that a particular player is a colossal jerk and difficult to be on the same team with (Barry Bonds, say) we still can’t determine an effect. As a group, players who join the team from no-jerk teams don’t perform worse, and players leaving the team with the jerk don’t perform better.
This is a stark contrast to other, measurable effects. We can determine the level of play in a minor league by tracing the performances of players moving up and down and sideways to other leagues of the same classification. We can track the different talent levels in divisions and leagues by how players perform, and project how a player going from the NL West will perform in the AL East. We can make good guesses at how a pitcher’s line will change moving from team to team based on the rough tools we have for measuring defense, but there’s no way anyone’s been able to measure what moving from team-with-bad-attitude to team-with-good-attitude might do.
And if we can’t see an effect in a case where everyone agrees that one player’s a bad influence, and as bad an influence as can be, where we can’t predict how players joining that team will suffer (or if they’ll suffer at all) how can we ever measure the effect?
Moreover, you canâ€™t predict what a player or several players will contribute
Teams frequently consider a playerâ€™s reputation in the clubhouse or their playoff experience as factors in who to try and trade for and sign in the off-season or even during a pennant drive. But thereâ€™s no guarantee that adding these players will help at all. The players come over and turn out to be jerks, or ineffective players. How theyâ€™re perceived might change:
- A player who is vocal and tries to get other players to work harder will be a leader on one team and an annoying jerk on another, and sometimes on the same team from year to year.
- A player who is quiet and works his ass off will be cited as leading by example and an inspiration and then selfish and a failure for not being more vocal.
Thereâ€™s no better example of this than the 2004 Mariners. The organization believed that they needed more veteran leadership and brought in Scott Spiezio, known as a huge work-ethic and makeup guy, to replace Jeff Cirillo, who had a terrible time here and was fingered as a clubhouse problem. They signed Rich Aurilia, also a good clubhouse guy with playoff experience. Ron Villone and Mike Myers for veteran left-handedness in the pen. Raul Ibanez signed as a free agent from Kansas City where he had a great reputation as a clubhouse presence and community leader. Eddie Guardado had a huge reputation as a great teammate and professional who kept everyone loose.
And they already had Dan Wilson, a clubhouse good guy, and Mark McLemore, a long-time veteran leader, a scrappy local boy with dirt on his uniform in Willie Bloomquist, and the steady presence of Edgar Martinez. They dumped Carlos Guillen, who the organization felt was a bad influence on other players.
It was a club overflowing with chemistry. If ever there was a team specifically constructed to maximize its raw chemistry and be better in total than on paper, it was the 2004 Mariners.
It went 63-99.
If a team can make that many moves to bring in great chemistry and leadership guys â€“ and all of those moves were considered great clubhouse moves at the time â€“ and fail on the field so spectacularly, does it make sense to consider chemisty as a significant factor in building a team?.
Baseball is not an office
Many people argue that a pleasant work environment makes people perform better, and I agree. Iâ€™ve been more productive when I worked with people I liked and wanted to do well for. But this is not the same at all. Baseball is largely a series of solitary events, unlike most other team sports.
My job is largely social, depending on my ability to communicate with other people, collaborate, and sometimes I go off and do something like write a design or research something by myself. A huge part of my job relies on having good relationships with people I work with.
When a hitterâ€™s up at the plate, their ability to hit the ball doesnâ€™t depend on their relationship with any other player, even if that other player is running from first to second at the time. Most fielding plays require minimal interaction, and most of that is â€œstand at first so I can throw it at you.â€ Thereâ€™s very little room for a player to get in anotherâ€™s way, and certainly not in the way you see in basketball, where a point guard could effectively keep the ball out of another playerâ€™s hands if he wanted.
Pitchers and catchers need to communicate well, but catchers who canâ€™t get along with their pitchers to the point that it drags the pitcher down wash out very quickly and are moved to other positions if they can hit. Even catchers known as jerks are able to work with their staff effectively.
Why chemistry might not matter to the performance of major league players
This is a lot like one of the arguments against the existence of the clutch hitter (someone who consistently performs better than expected in critical situations): if a playerâ€™s performance is dramatically affected by his teammates, or if he does things that affect the performance of his teammates, he doesnâ€™t make it to the major leagues.
Many players have little choice in their teammates through their career until they become free agents. Take a domestic player. They may have some sway in which high school they attend, but they canâ€™t pick their teammates. They can choose their college, if they attend, but again, theyâ€™ll know very little about what itâ€™s like to play a season with them until it happens. Even word-of-mouth on last yearâ€™s team canâ€™t identify recruits in the same recruiting class as the player. Then once they enter a major league system, theyâ€™re assigned to teams at the teamâ€™s wish for another six, seven years.
If a player canâ€™t stand players from Puerto Rico, and they pout and donâ€™t perform well if they have to play with them, theyâ€™ll be tossed out of the organization quickly. Same thing if they stink in day games because theyâ€™re too hungover every morning, or if they get into fights with teammates when they go 0-for in a game. The more talented they are, the more a team might try to get them help before they discard them, but discard them they will. Even players like Milton Bradley, who got into fights with umpires, manage to be decent teammates. Weird is okay, levels of annoyingness are okay, and inflated egos are okay â€“ as long as they donâ€™t result in serious disruptions to the team that affect performances.
Players are also evaluated and coached on their ability to take losses well, to not get too arrogant over wins, and to not be rattled after making a fielding error. Just as a player who makes one error and cracks is unlikely to rise to the major leagues, a player who mentally checks out if their A-ball team is 10 games out of the A-ball division race isnâ€™t going to get promoted, if only because their season performance wonâ€™t merit it.
Chemistry doesnâ€™t matter much to the career choices of major league players
One argument for chemistry’s effects is that while it might not affect a teamâ€™s performance or a playerâ€™s performance, it affects what players are willing to sign with that team, and for how much.
This is pretty clearly not true.
Players sign with competitive clubs with supposedly bad chemistry.
Players sign with struggling clubs with bad chemistry.
They also sign with clubs with supposedly good chemistry.
In almost all cases, they sign with the team that offer them the most. The majority of their equation is the money, but for many players the teamâ€™s proximity to their home or their families is important, or their familiarity with a teamâ€™s coaching staff.
While players will say that a teamâ€™s makeup played a part in their choice, it never results in a significant discount in the money they take, and certainly not in the way we see players taking less to play for the hometown team.
Take, for instance, the Giants. The Giants have featured Barry Bonds since 1994. Bonds is often described in the media as a clubhouse cancer, a difficult teammate, and increasingly since 2000, been one of the central figures in baseballâ€™s steroid controversies.
But the Giants were able to pursue and sign the players they wanted. Since the steroid circus really started, J.T. Snow signed there in 2003, and most prominently, they landed Barry Zito. Now, sure, you can go through the signings and say, for instance, that Zito wanted to play in the Bay, so the Giants had an advantage â€“ but that concedes that â€œplaying in the Bay + the contract offered â€“ playing with Bondsâ€ was better for him than â€œplaying in New York + contract offered + not playing with Bondsâ€.
The cost of â€œplaying with Bondsâ€ was not insurmountable.
Taking the example of Zito again, it doesnâ€™t appear to have even been valued that highly, even.
I concede though that this is one of the stronger arguments. There are teams like the Cardinals who managed through a long history of success, a supportive fan base, and good management to make themselves an attractive destination for players even though in the Cardinalsâ€™ case they didnâ€™t have the best facilities at the stadium. Players donâ€™t mind being traded there, which means that theyâ€™re less frequently listed in limited no-trade clauses, and in turn the Cardinals donâ€™t have to buy out a playerâ€™s reluctance. Free agents make a point to listen to the Cardinalsâ€™ contract offers. Thatâ€™s an advantage that helps the team, if in subtle ways.
But this is not the effect that chemistry is commonly held to have: that a team’s chemistry directly affects the way they play and their success on the field.
And if a team’s chemistry had a significant effect on a player’s performance and players knew that, the premium to sign free agents would be extremely high, because they would know that their stats would be taking a huge hit, making them less marketable.
Chemistry doesnâ€™t matter enough to see
No oneâ€™s going to argue that working environment could have an effect, and that happy teams could perform better than unhappy ones. But the effect clearly isnâ€™t huge, or weâ€™d be able to see it and talk about what it does. Youâ€™d see that a player with leadership gets better performances out of his teammates. We donâ€™t see that. Youâ€™d see players joining a team with good chemistry improving from where they were, and we donâ€™t see that. Managers who excel at running the clubhouse would take those effects with them as they changed teams. And on, and on, and on. We donâ€™t see these things: every hypothesis Iâ€™ve seen for how we might measure the effects of chemistry on player or team performance have come up with â€œthereâ€™s no evidenceâ€.
The very best thing we can say is that chemistry, if it exists in the form weâ€™re arguing about — the teamâ€™s fortunes are affected by the composition of its parts â€“ has such a small effect that itâ€™s lost in other, larger, more measurable events.
Iâ€™ve had this argument over and over, and it always runs like this:
â€œYouâ€™re discounting chemistry because you canâ€™t see it, but that doesnâ€™t mean itâ€™s not there.â€
â€œYes. But it does mean that it canâ€™t be that large, because then weâ€™d see it.â€
â€œJust because you canâ€™t measure it doesnâ€™t mean it doesnâ€™t exist.â€
â€œYes. But it does mean that it canâ€™t be that large, because then weâ€™d be able to measure it.â€
(and so on, forever)
Iâ€™ll borrow an analogy from Carl Sagan.
I have a dragon in my backyard.
You canâ€™t see it because itâ€™s invisible.
You canâ€™t detect it using infrared sensors or anything else because itâ€™s magic.
Its wings doesnâ€™t cause the grass to flatten because itâ€™s super-small.
You canâ€™t feel the flames of its breath because itâ€™s so tiny the heat dissipates harmlessly.
Itâ€™s biting you right now but you canâ€™t feel the microscopic teeth.
Do I have a dragon in my backyard or not? Or should I worry that my neighbor’s dumping toxic waste over the fence? Team chemistry, as itâ€™s often argued by talking heads on television, is the most important thing for a winning team to have. But you canâ€™t measure it, you donâ€™t know which teams have it, you canâ€™t predict which players create it, or which combination of players will result in good or bad (or good-bad or bad-good) chemistry, and at no point can you use what knowledge you have of a teamâ€™s makeup to make useful predictions.
And yet this is exactly the kind of choice that teams make: they don’t evaluate defense well, so they have a vague idea that all those doubles dropping around their left fielder might cost them runs, but they worry about the effect moving him to DH might have on the team’s makeup, so they do nothing.
That’s a choice between a huge, measurable thing and an intangible no one can quantify, which if it has any effect is too small to be measured, predicted, or otherwise dealt with.
Or to put this another way: the things we know are out there and make a huge difference in the game are so much more massively important, and chemistry such a slippery, unpredictable monster with such a small effect that it’s silly to expend energy on it until you’ve done everything you can with the things you know are out there and can be controlled.
If you believe in the effect of chemistry, hereâ€™s the question Iâ€™d put to you: how important do you think it is, and how would you go about proving its existence? If you can prove that team chemistry is significant, youâ€™ll have made one of the most interesting breakthroughs in baseball research weâ€™ve ever seen.
Otherwise, we should be able to all agree that whether or not we think team chemistry exists in the most conventional sense, as an intangible force generated by the personnel put together which acts on a team, pushing their performances one way or another, that while it might make an interesting storyline, it’s not nearly as important to a team’s fortunes as whether or not they can hit, pitch, and field.
Thanks to Dave for feedback on an early draft