A Quick Note On Chemistry

Dave · September 21, 2011 at 11:39 am · Filed Under Mariners 

By nearly any account you read from someone who spent significant time in the Mariners clubhouse last year, the place was a disaster. The Ken Griffey Jr fiasco turned a significant portion of the roster against the manager, and it was apparently quite a toxic environment. The Mariners ended up firing Don Wakamatsu and replaced him with Eric Wedge, and this spring, we heard numerous reports about the significant change in culture in the clubhouse. People were getting along again. The tension had been removed. According to almost anyone you talk to, the atmosphere in 2011 has been drastically improved over last year’s debacle.

So, given that we’re often told how important team chemistry is to creating an atmosphere where players can succeed, we’d expect to see some players taking a step forward now that the clubhouse had been cleaned up from the poisonous waste of 2010, right?

Err, no. Here are the players who have had significant roles on the team the last two years, and their performance in each year, with 2010 WAR first and then 2011 WAR second.

Felix: +6.2, +5.5
Ichiro: +4.5, +0.3
Fister: +2.9, +3.2
Vargas: +2.6, +1.9
Gutierrez: +1.9, +1.2
Figgins: +1.1, -1.2
League: +0.4, +1.3
Pauley: +0.1, +0.6
Bradley: -0.1, -0.6

Total: +19.6, +12.2

The holdovers from last year’s team performed dramatically worse this year than last year. In fact, the only guys you could say performed substantially better is Brandon League – it’s hard to argue that Doug Fister’s slight improvement is related to the great clubhouse in Seattle when he took it to another level upon being traded to Detroit, after all.

Now, there are certainly extenuating factors that have nothing to do with clubhouse atmosphere or team chemistry – Gutierrez got sick and Ichiro got bad, neither of which you can chalk up to having any kind of causation rooted in how well they like their teammates. However, it is worth noting that there’s just no evidence that anyone on the roster last year benefited at all from the team’s improved clubhouse atmosphere or better culture.

The improvements the team have made this year have everything to do with adding more talented players to the roster. If you take away the likes of Pineda, Ackley, and Bedard, this team is even worse than it was a year ago, good chemistry and all.

I’m glad the guys like each other more, and I’m sure it’s great for everyone that there’s not serious conflict between the coaching staff and the players on the team. But, once again, we’ve seen that an improvement in team chemistry just doesn’t seem to have any effect whatsoever on performance on the field. Good clubhouse, bad clubhouse, it doesn’t really seem to matter. Guys play well or poorly for a variety of reasons, but how well everyone gets along off the field just doesn’t seem to be one of those reasons.


30 Responses to “A Quick Note On Chemistry”

  1. wabbles on September 21st, 2011 12:05 pm

    I mention these two things whenever this subject arises: Reggie Jackson’s Yankees but still kicked your ass. The 1995 Mariners always are remembered a tight, inspired group. What people tend to forget is they also were pretty good. So, yeah, dunno how much it matters.

  2. mrb on September 21st, 2011 12:27 pm

    You’ve created a false dichotomy here – a group that all hates each other vs. a group that gets along not showing an appreciable difference in performance is not evidence for or against “chemistry”.

    Ironically, Reggie Jackson defined his performance explicitly in terms of chemistry (‘the straw that stirs the drink’)

  3. JoshJones on September 21st, 2011 12:29 pm

    This post seems very misleading.

    Ichiro hasn’t been THAT bad. Figgins situation shouldn’t factor in. Guti’s injury. Bradley shouldn’t be on there.
    If your going to diagnose how chemistry affects the team then you should be looking at the WAR of each player for the whole 40 man roster comparably.

  4. CCW on September 21st, 2011 12:43 pm

    You can’t prove or disprove the impact of team chemistry on performance. Stop trying.

  5. Rboyle0628 on September 21st, 2011 12:52 pm

    I think the chemistry thing is blown out of proportion. I think it is more of a enjoying your job kind of thing. We’ve all worked in places that were great enviroments and then we’ve worked in places that aren’t exactly places you like spending 40+ hours a week. I think its the same thing in the MLB. If you love where you work and love your coworkers do you want to do a better job, ehh more than likely. Do I think it translates that much on the field not really. You may take a little more pride in it if you like the place, you don’t want to be the guy to not get the job done. But to put that into a baseall statistic could never be proven.

    It’s a nice thought that your team likes eachother, they like being around eachother. But again, I think it’s like any other job. There are people you like going out with to a bar or to dinner and then there are the people you don’t want to even say “hello” to when they pass you in the hallway. I think the media just blows it out of proportion, it seems the “great clubhouse” tag is given whenever an unexpected team outperforms. “Sure there has to be some way to explain such an improvement! Ahh yes, they have great clubhouse chemistry!”

  6. lubin_cuban23 on September 21st, 2011 1:01 pm


  7. eponymous coward on September 21st, 2011 1:37 pm

    You can’t prove or disprove the impact of team chemistry on performance. Stop trying.

    Then, if you can’t prove or disprove it, why is it reified as an actual concept that’s worthy of serious discussion in sports journalism and commentary, as opposed to being on par with discussing the Flying Spaghetti Monster or how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

    I think Dave would be fine if we decided to stop taking the concept of “clubhouse chemistry” seriously because it can neither be proven or disproven. Is that what you’re driving at?

  8. Carson on September 21st, 2011 2:12 pm

    I can’t quantify this, but if I were to guess why the chemisty is “better?”

    The injection of, what, 63 rookies? Having this many kids that are auditioning for a manager that isn’t going anywhere is probably going to influence them not to get on his bad side.

  9. MrZDevotee on September 21st, 2011 2:14 pm

    I was really interested to read this, and see evidence against chemistry, but it just doesn’t seem to be much of good argument either way… The only position players are Ichiro and Guty (I ignore Figgins at all costs), who both have seen drops in their performance for reasons unrelated to “buddy-ness”…

    Position players are really the only one’s with complete control of their own performance… Pitchers are more at the mercy of the skillset of the particular batters they face…

    So I think all we can take from this article is “you’d think the Mariners would be a good source to study this idea– but they’re not.”

    What if we compared the performance of rookie call ups last year (to a team with bad vibes, with a similarly awful record) with rookie call ups this year (a “happy” team, with similarly awful record)– if anything, it would seem rookies would be the most affected by the psychological climate of the big league clubhouse, already dealing with their own fears, insecurities, stress, butterflies, etc… Perhaps the emotional calm or storm of the dugout disrupts or calms the rookies’ “nerves” more forcibly)…?

    [Thinking of it like the ability of a large 500 lb weight — ie, bad chemsitry — to bow either a steel girder — ie, seasoned veteran — or to bow a green still wet 2×4 — ie, rookie]

    [Also thinking if we discount the Fister effect, it should be okay to discount the Peguero effect in the rookie sample… please oh please.]

  10. Doc Baseball on September 21st, 2011 2:32 pm

    @Mr Z: Great idea! I look forward to reading your analysis of last year’s rookies compared to this year’s rookies as soon as you finish it.

  11. Doc Baseball on September 21st, 2011 2:35 pm

    And Josh – you have a great idea too – I can’t wait to read your WAR analysis for the full 40-man roster for both years!

  12. The_Waco_Kid on September 21st, 2011 3:17 pm

    Interesting numbers, but I’d only read into Felix, League, and Vargas there. Dave is right that people exaggerate the effect of chemistry. Other factors are way more important. The Yankees don’t need chemistry and chemistry wouldn’t help the Orioles make the playoffs. Still, it probably has a slight effect. You can’t quantify everything, but it’s fun to try.

    Lastly, I think if a player is seen as bad for the clubhouse, and he’s playing badly, people care more about it.

  13. Milendriel on September 21st, 2011 4:00 pm

    I think it’s incorrect to even use the word “chemistry” at all, because it’s not applied to baseball the way it applies to other sports. In soccer, basketball, football, I definitely believe in chemistry, defined as “the whole being more (or less) than the sum of the parts.” Teammates in those sports interact constantly and need a certain rapport to succeed, plus there’s plenty of room for role players to contribute meaningfully.

    Baseball doesn’t have those teammate interactions. Instead, when people talk about “chemistry” in baseball, it seems to me what they’re really referring to is “morale.” It’s pretty easy to see how winning can raise morale and losing can lower it, but I don’t see much of a case for arguing the inverse.

  14. Mike Snow on September 21st, 2011 4:28 pm

    Actually, there are teammate interactions in baseball, primarily on defense. It could be interesting if somebody tried to analyze chemistry there, or even just familiarity. Do double play partners perform better with more experience together? Just don’t try to reintroduce Catcher ERA.

  15. Milendriel on September 21st, 2011 4:47 pm

    Yeah, but those defensive interactions are largely one-sided, as the batter doesn’t really affect the decisions of the defenders outside of his decision to either keep running or stop. Also, most of the time, defenders only have one or two possible decisions to make.

    For example, with the bases empty, on a groundball to the shortstop, he’s going to collect the ball and throw to first. There’s nothing the batter can do to affect this, nor can the shortstop’s teammates aid him in any way other than someone standing on first to catch the ball. Even the more complex situations involving multiple baserunners or cutoff men aren’t really interactive in the way that the other sports are, with screens, blocking, switching defensive assignments, running decoy routes, and sequences of passing.

  16. Chris_From_Bothell on September 21st, 2011 4:52 pm

    However, it is worth noting that there’s just no evidence that anyone on the roster last year benefited at all from the team’s improved clubhouse atmosphere or better culture.

    Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

    Lining up WARs between last year and this year just shows that a group of players got another year older and had a terrible season. Team chemistry is not the only factor, it’s a factor. Or, if you like, it’s a side effect or storyline that is orthogonal to the data. But the line of reasoning in this blog post is not that much better than people saying that 2010 proved building a team around OBP is a failed strategy.

    CCW is right – you can’t prove team chemistry’s effect on a team one way or the other.

  17. spankystout on September 21st, 2011 4:53 pm

    Jim Leyland said it best: “Chemistry don’t mean anything”

  18. Mike Snow on September 21st, 2011 5:05 pm

    Yeah, but those defensive interactions are largely one-sided, as the batter doesn’t really affect the decisions of the defenders outside of his decision to either keep running or stop. Also, most of the time, defenders only have one or two possible decisions to make.

    The batter isn’t particularly important, but I don’t see why that makes it “one-sided”. And it wouldn’t necessarily a matter of what decisions the make, but stuff like their ability to anticipate what the other player will do. That can help them be mentally ready for unusual things like glove-flip “throws” or whatever.

  19. bookbook on September 21st, 2011 5:23 pm

    Y’all are making this way too complicated. We hear all the time about how this team is doing great this year and it’s about team chemistry, blah blah blah. Almost every time, the only evidence we have about changes of chemistry is the improved team performance (more tautology than proof).

    I believe all Dave is doing here is showing that in this case, where we really know the team chemistry has improved a bunch, we can be pretty confident that team chemistry didn’t cause measurable individual or team improvement in performance.

    I don’t think anyone here believes one example proves anything.

  20. dchappelle on September 21st, 2011 5:33 pm

    This is often an interesting discussion. I remember being very surprised reading Bill James talk about spending a lot of time worrying about chemistry (for the Red Sox).

    It’s pretty easy to postulate that sure, the people you work with every day and the way you feel about them probably has a meaningful impact on your work performance. But I still go back to earlier posts on the subject. How do you measure it? How do you measure how much it influences performance? How do you avoid negative chemistry and foster positive chemistry? Etc, etc.

    In the end I have to think talent trumps all as long as you can keep your players from killing each other and/or getting suspended (or retiring).

  21. heychuck01 on September 21st, 2011 5:45 pm

    I think you “see what you want to see” as far as the chemistry discussion goes. I have nothing to add to this thread (sorry).

    At this point (paying fan of baseball for 25 years) I don’t care anymore. People always point to examples that support their own bias. The discussion is a nice ‘hot button issue’ that creates conversation, but now I just shrug and forget about it.

  22. MKT on September 21st, 2011 6:38 pm

    As far as on the field performance, yeah I haven’t seen anything that makes me think that good chemistry improves performance. And within limits, bad chemistry doesn’t hurt performance. But horribly bad chemistry will hurt performance. Though his behavior was fine with the Mariners, Jose Guillen’s blow-ups and strife with his managers made him a must-trade time-bomb, even a must-suspend one.

    And the off-the-field effects of chemistry can be real, in terms of retaining players and attracting free agents vs. losing them. If the rumors about a teammate criticizing Ichiro and threatening to beat him up were true and weren’t dealt with, there would have been little chance of him re-signing with the M’s. Conversely having Andy Pettite in the clubhouse enabled the Astros to attract Roger Clemens out of retirement. These interpersonal relationships, positive and negative, do matter. Think of it: would you want to stay at a job where your co-workers hated your guts, when you could get a multi-million dollar contract working somewhere else?

  23. henryv on September 21st, 2011 7:19 pm

    Personally, I would rather have a team all hate each other. I want the pitchers to want to throw so hard it breaks the catchers’ hands. I want Brendan Ryan to think about smashing Carps face with the bat as he’s up there to swing (partially because Carp’s face and a baseball share many traits).

    But in reality, the point (IMO) is that chemistry is either A) not measurable B) unpredictable or C) not significant.

    All of them lead to us not being able to use “chemistry” as a reason to predict a team’s success or failures. Trying to build a team around chemistry is going to be as useful as building a house around a really, really nice dining set.

    However, it gives beat-writers something to write about, when they’re not saying garbage like “Lasik”, “best shape of their life”, “yoga”, or “lost 7 pounds”.

    I think the things that teams might be more interested in focusing on is how “sellable” a player is. If you can sell a player, you can make money. If you can make money, you can build a better team. If you can build a better team, you can draw even more fans in. If you can draw more fans in, you can spend more money.

    So, in conclusion, Geoff Baker sucks, and Dave made his point quite well, I think.

  24. JoshJones on September 21st, 2011 7:49 pm

    Im actually a believer that chemistry plays a huge role because it contributes to confidence and confidence plays a huge role in sports. And when i saw this post it actually made me start to wonder. All im saying is if the article showed the total WAR of the entire 2010 team compared to the 2011 team Dave might have a point.

  25. MrZDevotee on September 21st, 2011 9:01 pm

    Doc Baseball-
    Me too! (Look forward to reading the analysis)… Too bad I have a newborn, and work two jobs currently, neither of which include baseball analysis…

    I was kinda hoping the guys who do this for a living might be interested… Or… Maybe with your enthusiasm for the idea YOU could do it?

    We’d all really really appreciate it. Keep us posted.

  26. Jim_H on September 21st, 2011 9:49 pm

    Quantifying the effects of “Chemistry” is impossible, because it’s impossible to define exactly what “Chemistry” is. You can’t see it, you can’t touch it. You can’t measure it in any way. Any two individuals could have completely differing opinions about what “Chemistry” is, and what constitutes the “good” and “bad” of it and they could (and probably would) be right.

    Can we please put this discussion to bed?

  27. LongDistance on September 22nd, 2011 1:15 am

    Good chemistry leads to winning…

    Uh… no.

    More like winning leads to good (or better, or at least a more stable form of) clubhouse chemistry, as a side product.

    Cars run on gas, not Pollyanna Optimism and Good Humor. Prolonged and repetitive losing streaks are the baseball equivalent of running on vapor.

  28. MrZDevotee on September 22nd, 2011 10:02 am

    I think most agree that the idea that winning makes “good chemistry” easier, is more likely than “good chemistry” makes winning easier…

  29. giumri on September 22nd, 2011 10:59 am

    I tend to agree that good chemistry doesn’t necessarily lead to winning but, thinking from a fan’s perspetive, it sure is more fun to watch a team having fun (and even more rewarding watchign a team having fun and winning).

  30. eponymous coward on September 22nd, 2011 12:33 pm

    CCW is right – you can’t prove team chemistry’s effect on a team one way or the other.

    You’re not getting this.

    YOU, and the people who assert that chemistry has an affect on performance, have the burden of proving the assertion true. You are the ones who are talking about Russell’s teapot (in terms of “chemistry”).


    All Dave is doing is pointing out we haven’t found any teapots yet.

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